Alice Cooper shows up late in Dark Shadows. He plays himself, summoned to perform at Collinwood Manor by Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp). Perched with a couple of musicians on the foyer’s massive staircase, he launches into “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” The camera pitches a bit, looking up as Cooper steps carefully toward his audience. “No more Mr. Nice Guy,” he essays. “No more Mr. Clean.”
Creaky, teetering, and still a little weird, Alice Cooper is pretty much the perfect choice for this moment. Back in 1972, when Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows is set, his genderfuck moniker and monster-movie makeup were news, as was his full-frontal assault on social proprieties. Here, Alice Cooper is a relic, a means for the movie to remember the particular rebellions he embodied, soon absorbed into a mainstream commercial culture, and to create a bit of a context for Barnabas Collins.
Ah yes, Barnabas. As freaky and gloomy and indignant as ever, he first appears in this Dark Shadows as a child, pale and big-eyed, while his adult self looks back in voiceover. He admired his ambitious parents, he says, who emigrated from Liverpool to Maine in 1760, where his father built something of an empire out of fishing and canning. And he regretted, sort of, his youthful dalliance with Angelique, a servant girl whose crush on him quickly becomes overwhelming.
That Angelique is a witch as well as poor and obsessive makes for some problems when the children become young adults. When Barnabas falls in love with an exceptionally pale young thing, Josette (Bella Heathcote), the now grown-up Angelique (Eva Green) takes offense, devising witchy ways to torment Barnabas, namely, inducing Josette to throw herself off a cliff into a notably turbulent sea and turning Barnabas into a vampire, so that he must endure his undead grief forever. To pile on, Eva leads a band of pitchfork wielders to lock up poor Barnabas in a coffin and bury him.
Cut ahead to 1972, whereupon Barnabas is unearthed by a construction crew who don’t anticipate the mayhem he will wreak on them. Said mayhem is bloody and brutal and takes but a few minutes, and it suggests the movie that Dark Shadows might have been, that is, a movie that grapples with the acute horror of the vampire, not to mention the menace once posed by Alice Cooper. This Barnabas is cruel and focused, his violence is wild and abrupt, the killer sanguine and the victims surprised, as they are summarily reduced to body parts.
The comedy of this scene is premised on this surprise: for all the solemnity of Barnabas’ self-descriptions, his aptly soapy moaning about his losses, he’s here a bit of a clown, licking his chops and not-really-apologizing for his desperate ferocity: he’s been in the ground nearly 200 years, after all. Sadly, the Barnabas who wanders through the rest of Dark Shadows is less of all that. He returns to Collinwood Manor, where he embraces his descendants, including Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), and insists on restoring the actual building and the family name (that is, the business, now in disarray).
The Collins helpfully accept him and act out current customs so as to solicit his Johnny Deppishly deadpan reactions. Barnabas quips and fusses, laments that Alice Cooper is “the ugliest woman I’ve ever seen.” Montages stand in for scenes that might expand on the vampire’s overbearing sense of unease and melodrama, the qualities that made TV’s Barnabas so strange and endearing. Here his pain makes him mean, sort of. And his passion, for Josette-reincarnated-as-Vicky, a governess (also played by Heathcote) who arrives just as he’s resurrected, makes him less mean.
On TV, Barnabas was dreadfully self-serious, inviting a campy reading but not precisely providing it himself. Now all his tragedy is speeded up and dumped into a version of 1972 that’s been refurbished for a 2012 audience. A few details suffice to establish the era — a banana seat bike, a magazine featuring Bobby Sherman, a Shell gas station, some period music (“Superfly”) and Iggy Pop posters in the teenager Carolyn’s (Chloë Grace Moretz) room — but the movie runs out of plot almost as soon as it introduces the stranger in a strange land premise. Just so, Barnabas marvels at advanced technologies, from muscle cars and electric lights to the “tiny songstress” Karen Carpenter, glimpsed on a television. But the gags slip by as if in a stand-up routine, not so much adjusting Barnabas’ perspective as allowing viewers to feel in on a broadish, not so hilarious joke about changing fads.
Amid the period particulars, Barnabas tussles with Angelique some more, seduces a few women with his famous finger-hypnosis technique, and bonds a little with Roger’s young son David (Gulliver McGrath), who sees dead people, primarily, his mom. He has sex with Helena Bonham Carter and slaughters some nameless hippies. When these random-seeming episodes come to an end, you might be thinking about the many uses of vampires, how their undeadness can serve assorted social and political purposes. You might be thinking about Tim Burton, how his fixations can lead to projects both wonderful and dull. And you might be thinking about Alice Cooper, who dons his strait jacket for his last tune, still moving gingerly on those stairs. You can feel his discomfort.