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Dark mess; Burton, Depp team once again but fail to hit the mark

A major disappointment here.

Tim Burton's "Dark Shadows" is as surprisingly mediocre as his "Alice in Wonderland" was. In other words, both films were as unexpectedly bad as Burton's adaptation of "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" was unexpectedly superb.

Moral of the story: Don't try to psych out Burton and Johnny Depp in advance. You'll never guess what they're up to until you park yourself in the megaplex seat.

They've made eight films together by now and in every case, my expectations were upended. Who expected "Edward Scissorhands" to be the wild masterpiece that it is? Or that their "Sleepy Hollow" would turn out to be so weirdly memorable?

Or that such much-longed-for concoctions as the Burton/Depp "Dark Shadows" and "Alice in Wonderland" would turn out to be so visually rich and strange and so otherwise unengaging and insignificant?

It helps to understand that "Tim Burton" is, indeed, one remarkable cinematic fantasist in charge of his films, but that there is a stupendous "Team Tim" behind him which means that there is always a level beneath which his films cannot sink. They include composer Danny Elfman and production designer Rick Heinrichs, both of whom are almost always different shades of brilliant in every film. Add his frequent star Depp, and it's no wonder that "Team Tim" is as revered as it is.

New to "Team Tim" here are superb cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel ("Amelie," "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince") and not-so-superb screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (who gave the world the novel -- and upcoming film -- "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter" and MTV's fantasy of large teen hormones "The Hard Times of RJ Berger").

The result is that Burton and Depp's update of the old Dan Curtis camp vampire TV soap opera (1966-71) is neither as funny as it should have been or as wild as it could have been either.

I think I know why the humor -- as evident as it is -- is so restrained. Curtis' original was an odd combination of jokes and horror that didn't nearly have as much grace combining them as that masterful Curtis number "The Night Stalker."

If Burton and Depp had really gone full goose bozo in "Dark Shadows" and been as funny as they can be, they'd have been undermining their own attempts at something in the neighborhood of real Gothic romance at the end of the movie.

The result, then, is off-puttingly middle of the road -- so ordinary at the wrong times that even cameos by Christopher Lee (as the grey eminence of Maine's fishermen) and, yes, Alice Cooper don't register nearly as merrily as they should.

I must admit the latter does have its appeal when Depp as fish-out-of-water Barnabas Collins wakes up to find that the world is now 1972 and that Alice Cooper is a famous performer. "Ugliest woman I've ever seen," he says quite understandably on first getting a look at Cooper after spending the previous 200 years buried in a coffin.

The idea is that Barnabas as the scion of Maine's leading fishing magnates targeted the wrong Collins family housemaid to be his mistress in the 18th century. To his dismay, he discovered that she was a witch. She turned him into an immortal vampire through a spell and then buried him alive to curse his bad luck for 200 years.

When some workmen accidentally dug him up after all that time, they discovered it was their monumental bad luck. Soon, they are thirsty Barnabas' blood-red dinner after a 200-year fast.

Somewhat chastened, Barnabas makes his way back home to the family manse -- now in total decline while the bitter witch has become the seafood queen of Maine -- and makes a deal with the family's matriarch, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, still unafraid of an extreme close-up.

Because it's all happening in 1972, feminism is still new and fresh. So the matriarch asks a prospective governess "Do you think the sexes are equal?" The future employee's answer pleases: "Heavens no. Men would become unmanageable."

Good answer.

If only the movie were replete with such wit. It's not. Nor are the 1970s quite as funny in this film as, believe me, they usually were. (I'm sorry. Easy jokes about lava lamps don't cut it.)

It's pleasant to see "Deliverance" on a theater marquee as a little in-joke for '70s survivors. And it's certainly fun to hear, in the soundtrack, "Season of the Witch," "Nights in White Satin" and the Carpenters' "Top of the World" at the most incongruous times.

The film's one all-out funny scene -- a sex scene in which Depp and Eva Green (as the miffed witch) bounce each other around all four walls of a room -- is accompanied by (who else?) Barry White.

But all too much of "Dark Shadows" is silly and not the higher philosophic silliness either. Nor, at the end, will it move you even though it tries.

It is the worst thing Depp and Burton have ever done together.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

***

DARK SHADOWS    

2 1/2 stars (out of 4)    

STARRING: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Helena Bonham Carter    

DIRECTOR: Tim Burton    

RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes    

RATING: PG-13 for violence, horror, drug use, language, smoking and fantasy sex.    

THE LOWDOWN: Update of Dan Curtis' TV soap opera about vampires and a family reminiscent of "The Addams Family."