By the time Dark Shadows gets to the opening credits, it is already Tim Burton's best film since Ed Wood, but then I've always had a soft spot for the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin." It is background music for the arrival of Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) at the decadent Collins family estate to take on a job as governess, and the scene establishes an almost-poetic, period atmosphere, and sets a bass note of melancholy that is sustained through all the camp and comedy to follow. That period is a mix of the '70s and '80s — the 1970s and 1780s, that is, because the next person to show up at the decrepit homestead is family patriarch Barnabas Collins himself (Johnny Depp), very thirsty after spending nearly 200 years chained in a coffin and eager to get the family back on its feet because, as he has pointed out in voiceover at the very start, blood is thicker than water.
> INTERVIEW: "Seth Grahame-Smith emerges from the Shadows" by Ed Symkus <
That theme of family values will return with gratuitous regularity, but it doesn't drown out Burton's macabre wit, his fizzy mix of camp, nihilism, and unexpected beauty. Depp again provides the perfect instrument for him; his Barnabas is a stranger in 1972 America, but then again, so is everyone in the audience. He serves as our surrogate, and his bewilderment at such uncanny objects as lava lamps, Troll Dolls, and Alice Cooper reflects our own. Also, his colorfully stilted, archaic epithets are a lot funnier than you'd expect. As for the rest of the cast, the women dominate. Michelle Pfeiffer has a brittle grandeur as the matriarch Elizabeth; Chloë Grace Moretz as her jaded 15-year-old daughter Carolyn has flashes of Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice; and Heathcote's Victoria looks like Jane Asher as painted by Raphael. But the strongest women are also the most wicked: Helena Bonham Carter gets queasy laughs as the soused shrink Dr. Hoffman, and Eva Green embodies the ultimate evil of female power and sexuality as Barnabas's nemesis, the witch Angelique. And then there's that "Cooper woman," as Barnabas calls him. He performs "The Ballad of Dwight Fry" in a montage that starts out hilarious but turns into one of the most moving sequences Burton has ever made. (Read Ed Symkus's interview with Dark Shadows screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith.)