Rediscovering the magic of Tim Burton’s melancholy fantasy
Tim Burton’s films have often been fascinated by the outsider, the misunderstood, the mocked or the hounded, as well as the delightfully offbeat and weird. Sometimes the character in question is relatively integrated into the more ‘normal’ fabric of society, such as Pee-Wee Herman, but there’s Lydia Deetz’s ‘strange and unusual’ teen in Beetlejuice, who is so alienated from her family that she finds the recently deceased Maitlands a far more palatable proposition. Batman, and more specifically Bruce Wayne, is an outsider, living in his manor with only his butler for company and dependable sidekick Robin nowhere to be seen or even referred to. Even the villainous Penguin from Batman Returns is a tragic outsider who was born disfigured and swiftly abandoned by his parents on the very day he was born; for all his malevolence, you can tell the director partly sympathises with him. There was also Burton’s biopic of Ed Wood, the infamous filmmaker whose movies made him a laughing stock in Hollywood. Burton also wrote a series of vivid poems, compiled in the brilliant The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories, that tell the tales of freakish children who find themselves either ostracised, humiliated or even doomed to die from their physical or societal predicament.
The title character of Burton’s magnificent 1990 fantasy Edward Scissorhands is one of the director’s most tragic creations – unlike his other cinematic outsiders, who experience loneliness in the midst of family, friends or peers, Edward spends his life literally alone, a crushing symbol of the alienation most of us feel to varying degrees. No wonder he ended up being so loved by audiences. One of Burton’s simplest and smallest films, it was released in-between the twin monuments of his mammoth Batman adventures. Yet it’s only a modest film in regards to its own scale and scope, not in regards to its place in the hearts of film fans, for it became another hit for Burton, and for some, it’s his masterpiece. Indeed, it’s Burton’s favourite of his own movies, and it’s easy to see why – it’s probably the most representative of his works, a gorgeous Christmas fairy tale.
We begin on a winter’s night, with an elderly lady telling her granddaughter the tale of an extraordinary young man with scissors for hands, who was created by an old inventor (Vincent Price) who died before he could properly finish his work. We then leap back to the past, where kindly Avon salesperson Peg Boggs (a pitch-perfect Dianne Wiest), on an unsuccessful day of door-to-door pitching, decides to try her luck at the house at the end of the street, a very sinister-looking castle. Finding the door open, Peg walks in and asks if anyone’s home. Indeed there is…in the attic. It’s young Edward (Johnny Depp) – the inventor’s creation, left all alone. At first, his fearsome appendages take Peg aback, but the gentleness in Edward’s demeanour and the shyness in his rabbit-caught-in-headlights eyes make her realise that he’s not to be feared. In fact, she decides right there and then to bring him home, where her easy-going, distracted husband Bill (Alan Arkin on brilliant, deadpan form) and son Kevin (Robert Oliveri, from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids) welcome him with far more acceptance than expected. Edward himself is bemused but mostly delighted with his new surroundings, give or take the occasional bit of awkwardness at the dinner table or his mishaps with a water bed. There’s only one member of the Boggs’ household who hasn’t met him yet – daughter Kim (Winona Ryder) is away with friends, and it will be her eventual arrival that will turn Edward’s world even more topsy-turvy.
Meanwhile, he proves to be quite the hit with the whole street. Well, almost the whole street. Only God-fearing neighbour Esmeralda thinks he’s been sent from Hell itself. Elsewhere, his talent for stunning topiary, thanks to his remarkably nimble skill with trimming, makes him very popular with the locals, who then ask him to do the same to their pet dogs and even their own hairstyles. Kevin brings Edward to show-and-tell at school, which goes down splendidly. Edward also gets to appear on television, although an unfortunate encounter with a microphone leaves more than a little shocked. For a while, everything goes swimmingly, and when Kim returns home, the instant feeling of butterflies that Edward felt upon seeing her framed portrait at the Boggs house turns into a kind of love he’s never felt before. Oddly enough, Esmeralda aside, Kim’s the only one in town who initially reacts to him with outright horror, although to be fair, she first sees him sleeping in her bed and then awaking in a flailing panic. Even after she’s assured that he’s harmless, Kim still treats him with mild suspicion. However, things only get really bad when sex-starved neighbour Joyce (Kathy Baker) lutes Edward to the backroom of a prospective hair salon where she hopes to start a business with him. She tries to seduce him, after which he flees. Humiliated, Joyce spreads a rumour that it was Edward who tried to seduce her, and he then becomes treated with wary hostility.
Peg Boggs: Why are you hiding back there? You don’t have to hide from me – I’m Peg Boggs, your local Avon representative and I’m as harmless as cherry pie…
Peg Boggs: Oh – I can see that I’ve disturbed you. I’ll just be going now…
Edward: Don’t go.
Peg Boggs: [sees his scissor hands] Oh, my. What happened to you?
Edward: I’m not finished.
Shortly afterwards, Kim’s boyfriend Jim (Anthony Michael Hall), jealous of Edward’s love for her and intrigued by his talent as a lock-picker, leaves him in the lurch after coercing him into breaking into Jim’s parents’ house as part of an insurance scam, only for the security system to activate, leaving poor Edward trapped and arrested for burglary. And from there, things get worse. Soon enough, Edward becomes hounded; considered a threat when he isn’t one, and even becoming, in true Frankenstein-style, the focus of mob hatred, which leads Edward to feel frustration, anger and confusion. For all of Edward’s innocence, his hands are nevertheless dangerous tools which unwittingly cause damage and even spill blood. By the end, we’re back where we started, with Edward alone and isolated once more. However, the town is now a darker place than it once was, with death having left a bloodied stain on the community. The sad tale ends and it’s revealed that the grandmother telling the story is actually Kim as an old woman.
In a wonderful cast, the standout is of course Johnny Depp as Edward. After a memorable debut as poor Glen in A Nightmare on Elm Street, he became a teen heartthrob thanks to his breakout turn on TV’s 21 Jump Street, but 1990 turned out to be his key year, with both his rebellious-yet-sensitive role in John Waters’ sexy, loving tribute to 50s teen movies, Cry-Baby, and Edward Scissorhands confirming him as a leftfield, chameleonic talent lurking just slightly outside of the mainstream. Edward is his most endearing, beautiful role, and Depp gives one of the quintessential Burton characters a truly adorable and sweet innocence that broke many a viewer’s heart. He based his character on Charlie Chaplin’s emotive physical gestures, watching the actor’s films to emulate the kind the kind of acting that expressed emotions without words, and he’s incredibly well abetted by the amazing work of the film’s make-up department.
Winona Ryder, returning to the Burton fold after her great turn as Lydia in Beetlejuice, is wonderfully sweet as Kim, who starts off unimpressed with Edward’s gauche clumsiness but then finds herself drawn to his innocence and selflessness, as well as sympathising with his pain, falling for him deeply soon after. Ryder has rarely been so beautifully luminescent, and the scene where she dances underneath the falling snow of Edward’s ice sculpture is one of Burton’s loveliest moments. Then there’s the scene when a runaway Edward returns to the Boggs house and finds Kim there, who by now has totally fallen in love with him. She asks Edward to hold him. He says he can’t. This is usually the point in the film where I’m broken. And then Kim moves herself to be embraced safely in his arms, and it’s absolutely beautiful.
Anthony Michael Hall, so memorable for his brilliant, geeky turns in Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Weird Science, spent the latter half of the 80s avoiding his famous persona, even rejecting the role of dorky Ducky in Pretty in Pink. Yet it was with the character of Jim that Hall made his most striking post-John Hughes gesture. Considerably bulked-out yet still retaining that teenage, wide-eyed look of yore that makes his death at the end shocking, Jimi starts off innocuous enough, but devolves into a most loathsome bully, and his nastiness is all the more unnerving when you remember that Hall usually played the kind of kid the bullies beat up. Vincent Price was a wonderful casting choice as the inventor. Indeed, the role was written with him in mind, and to have such a legend of gothic and horror cinema in the film’s most grandfatherly role was a truly inspired touch. Although not Price’s last performance (he would appear in the 1992 TV movie The Heart of Justice), it’s probably the more morbidly appropriate swansong for the actor, and the fact that his character dies is given a haunting emphasis given that he was seriously ill during shooting. His role would have bee bigger but had to be cut down because of this.
As to be expected by the striking imagery of Burton’s previous films, Edward Scissorhands is astoundingly visualised, thanks to Stefan Czapsky’s rich cinematography, Bo Welch’s production design, Tom Duffield’s art direction, Cheryl Carasik’s set direction and Colleen Atwood’s costume design. Right from the off, where the 20th Century Fox logo fades in as a beautiful, moonlit and snow-covered dreamscape, Burton immediately conjures a fairy tale world, enhanced by one of Danny Elfman’s most enchanting, atmospheric and ravishing scores. The credit sequence, as it traverses the gloomy interiors of the inventor’s machinery, recalls the sweeping grandeur of Batman‘s own titles, but compared to the darkness of Gotham City, the world of Edward Scissorhands is a far warmer affair overall, except for the gothic melancholy of Edward’s home itself. We have the lovely comfort of the bedroom where Kim’s granddaughter is a tiny figure in an exaggeratedly huge bed, the fireplace nearby the perfect illumination for the start of our magical, sad tale.
The street where the bulk of the story takes place, which was inspired by Burton’s own hometown of Burbank in California, is a bright, pastel-shaded delight, where each house and each car has its own pretty colour, and were it not for the hilariously incongruous castle at the end of the road, would be almost too perfect to be true. Playing out like a picket-fence, barbecue-loving parody of 1950s Americana (although hi-tech security systems and references to VCRs plant it firmly in the modern-day), it’s the kind of street where all the lawns are immaculately mown, where all the men to go their 9-5 jobs and almost all the women gossip and stay home (the gender characterisation does appear to kitschily retrograde), and when the former do leave their houses for the day, their cars depart their driveways in perfect, clockwork efficiency.
Burton’s original concept was turned into a script by co-story creator Caroline Thompson, and she would add her own personal touches to the plot, such as basing the supporting characters on people she knew in her neighbourhood when she was growing up: Peg is based on her own mother, who would indeed bring home strangers to their house! Both Thompson and Burton proved to be a dream team, and what they do exceptionally well is play the fantastical elements with such conviction that it doesn’t matter that we don’t know exactly how the inventor created Edward. Similarly, the question of why he was given scissors for hands even as a temporary measure is besides the point. They are symbolic of an outsider’s status. This isn’t science-fiction. It’s fantasy, and the townsfolk’s initial reactions and behaviour toward Edward are delightfully unrealistic. By concentrating purely on the how the townsfolk deal with the otherness and difference of Edward and what he can offer to their lives, the film never loses its dreamy, magic spell over us, and by fully embracing the wonder of the fairy tale form and not adopting a self-conscious or parodic approach that would archly set it apart from the very thing it loves, we ended up with a modern classic of the form, one that deserves to be considered as a genuine, contemporary extension of the medium.
Kim: She never saw him again. Not after that night.
Granddaughter: How do you know?
Kim: [removes her glasses] Because I was there.
Granddaughter: You could have gone up there. You could still go.
Kim: No, sweetheart. I’m an old woman now. I would rather he remember me the way I was.
Granddaughter: How do you know he’s still alive?
Kim: I don’t know, not for sure. But I believe he is. You see, before he came down here, it never snowed. And afterwards, it did. If he weren’t up there now… I don’t think it would be snowing. Sometimes, you can still catch me dancing in it.
And yet the film isn’t old-fashioned or rooted in the past – it truly felt like a modern movie, thanks in part to the astute casting of the fresh-faced Depp and Ryder, Burton’s well-earned reputation as one of the most individual and striking of Hollywood visionaries, and the vivid set design and FX – in regards to the latter, Edward’s stunningly rustic, complex hands were created by one of the field’s major talents, Stan Winston. Maybe there was even a conscious or unconscious decision to model those hands and as a kindred, albeit far-kinder, spirit to the sharp digits of another iconic figure of cinematic pop-culture from that time: Freddy Kreuger. Maybe with that image of Freddy’s bladed figures still lurking in the back of our minds, it gave Edward an instantly cool, even rebellious image that, together with his sensitive, sad-eyed nature (and Depp’s emerging popularity), made him a leftfield pin-up for goths, horror fans, steampunks and fantastical lonelyhearts everywhere. A more obvious visual reference was the deliberate tribute to Robert Smith of The Cure’s unforgettable hairstyle, another classic symbol of romantic, pop-gothic cultdom. Interestingly, Smith was even approached to write the film’s soundtrack, but he was too busy working on his band’s amazing album Disintegration at the time.
Of course, this being a Burton film, darkness is a lingering presence. Like the castle at the end of the street, it’s always there, difficult to ignore, and soon the irresistible, winning charm of the film’s first half dissipates into something more tragic, with smiles giving way to sadness. Edward’s cruel treatment at the hands of those who willingly manipulate him, and his shunning by those who fall for the gossip or misunderstand his actions is often difficult to watch. Edward is constantly exploited; sometimes harmlessly (like his topiary services), but also in ways more harmful. There’s a rather disturbing, predatory element to Joyce’s attempted seduction of Edward, given that his total innocence and naïve demeanour marks him out as decidedly childlike. After all, before Peg brought him to his new home, the only person Edward had ever known was the inventor. He certainly hadn’t met any women or girls. While his hairdressing skills inspire near-sexually ecstatic reactions in Joyce, he seems to have no concept or understanding that he’s responsible for such things, which makes the later seduction scene as icky as it is funny. Then there’s Jim’s use of Edward to break the law, which calls to mind the treatment of the similarly artificial, kind and unselfish Johnny Five in Short Circuit 2, which, unlike the first film, really delved into how a kind and giving soul could be broken (literally in this poor robot’s case) by humanity’s more brutal tendencies.
The very nature of Edward’s creation also calls to mind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Blade Runner‘s replicants, and the grey morality of what it means to create life. In Edward’s, the Creature’s and the replicants’ cases, they have been made to resemble humankind, but without all their facets. They may be stronger or superior in some ways, but their differences will always mark them out as not human, and as such it brings pain and alienation. In the case of the replicants, they are cursed with a very small lifespan, but with Edward it’s the exact opposite, as it seems he will never die, and the inventor’s own sudden death dooms his creation to a life of not being one thing or another. Edward’s journey at the start of the film begins with hope but ends in sorrow and violence. The final confrontation between Edward, Jim and Kim is a brutal affair, with Jim savagely beating Edward with a poker and striking Kim with his hand. When Edward kills Jim by stabbing him in the stomach and pushing him backwards through a window, you realise that, for all his nastiness, this is still a kid who’s been murdered here. In the end, Edward has no choice to remain in loneliness, with he and Kim sharing their first and last kiss. She then seizes a prototype of Edward’s hand from the laboratory and declares it as evidence that he and Jim ‘killed each other’.
The tragedy of Edward Scissorhands‘ ending is only mildly alleviated by having it set so long ago, with Kim quietly resigned to their estrangement. She doesn’t want Edward to see her as she is now, preferring him to remember her the way she was. She is reassured by his continued existence by the perennial presence of snow, which never appeared before he met her, but now does with annual regularity. Rather beautifully, it doesn’t seem to be a supernatural occurrence that causes the snow, but the windswept ice fragments of Edward’s continuing sculpturing of ice statues. It’s still a deeply sad ending though. A lovely romance has been cruelly cut short, its aftermath doomed to continue forever. After all, considering that Edward doesn’t seem to age, his fate will long outlast Kim’s. Maybe sometime in the future, Edward will find acceptance, friendship and love once more, in a society that’s more understanding. Until then, he lives alone. And we the audience leave him too, out of the comforting darkness of the cinema screens and back into our own worlds. It’s a sad state of affairs, and likely to leave you in tears every time, but we revisit it over and over, because sometimes the pain’s worth it, just to experience some of that beauty.
And Edward Scissorhands is very beautiful indeed.