And another Midnight Screening, because I had it prepared this week anyway, and because it celebrates the 25th anniversary of a personal favorite.
Once upon a time, Tim Burton loved cinema. He loved everything that cinema had been and everything it could be, thus his penchant for reworking cinema’s history into warmly inviting, devilishly cunning new wholes. It is also why he fell for characters who, in one way or another, resembled himself. In his masterpiece, Ed Wood, it was the titular character – a warped conjurer of perverse kitsch and American lore – who Burton no doubt saw in himself. In Edward Scissorhands, though, Burton’s proxy isn’t the titular character, but the gentle old inventor, played with loss in his eyes by Vincent Price, finding an avuncular warmth struggling to survive the cryptic winter of the life of an outcast inventor known only to his creations. His life is an attempt to meld a friend for himself, a gentle, sweet variation on the mad genius myth of so many horror films long past, and a tacit reflection of Burton’s undying sympathy for his material.
All the horror films Burton loves, he adores not because of their demented fancy (although that certainly helps) but their reflection of humanity’s greatest losses and desires. To him, all those Dr. Frankensteins and Atomic Age mad scientists of history past didn’t so much want to rule the world as they were let down by it, left with only themselves and the need for companionship to create life and fulfill the human need for friendship. For Burton, those characters didn’t seek power, but love. Fittingly, Burton too was a man who thrived on the loneliness he breathed in a society that had abandoned his own personal fixations and dreams: the cinema of long ago. It is thus that the scientist, who combines a cookie heart and a metal automaton, constructs a friend for himself out of disparate parts, both alive and dead, whole and hollow.
Burton, in a sense, was making his films as friends for himself. They were the films he would like to spend time with. This is something he has long forgotten, but the failure of his modern films only accentuates the necessity of his earlier efforts. For him, horror cinema was not a snarl or a bump in the night, but a lost love, and the possibility that the bump, or whatever caused it, might just need a little care. What Price’s character does create is a man, an incomplete man, but a human nonetheless, in an adult’s body but lost to a child’s mind after having been left to his lonesome when his creator died before finishing his creation’s hands. Edward (Johnny Depp), as he calls himself, wears scissors (designed with affection for classic horror by practical effects maestro Stan Winston) as hands, but he wields them like calls for attention, and skeptical wands of destruction he learns to fear for their difference, before he learns to love them for their possibility.
When Peg Boggs (Dianne West) wanders into the castle he lies lost in, she shows tenderness and brings him home to cardboard cut-out suburbia (less the 1950s than the ’80s memory of the ’50s, and a cheerfully fake concoction all the same). There, he meets her family, Bill (Alan Arkin), Kevin (Robert Oliveri), and most importantly Kim (Winona Ryder). Not to mention the entirety of the neighborhood, who rejoice to Edward’s arrival with a peculiar mixture of condescending otherization, utilitarian abuse, and genuine affection. For the majority of its run-time, Scissorhands is a slice-of-life comic odyssey of sorts, mixed with an everyday fable of learning to be human, both for Edward (who has to learn the life, so to speak) and for Kim (who has to learn to accept Edward).
It is also, more importantly, Burton’s ode to all the oblong inventors of the world, especially Edward himself (who is a master sculptor of plant growth as well as dog and human hair, taking delight in weirding out the structured, programmatic suburbia until it feels a little more like home). It is also Burton’s ode to himself, filtered through a gilded present of joy and delightfully cattywampus Americana. It is Burton giving himself the gift of play, giving himself the gift of his own friend, exactly as he might want it, with Universal Horror hugging with cotton-candy day-glo suburbia (with pastel primaries all around and careful symmetry to sell the everyday order of suburban life before Edward, the film and the character, restores a little life, a little chaos to the place). The film is an arts and crafts project for Burton’s pleasure.
Specifically, Burton slowly warps the place by moving away from a pastiche of caricatured ’50s American (the fakery of the place is Burton’s careful thesis on how constructed everyday life is, and how planned and modulated and artificial all our lives and fictions are, and not simply the supposed outcasts like Universal Horror pictures). Burton stirs a sense of modernization and pop-punk ’80s gusto to the material, delightfully jumbling and disturbing the landscape in conjunction with the referrals to German Expressionist cinema. It is all a veritable collage of cinematic influences all bent out of shape in exciting new ways in a sort of grand fable of the cinema.
Stefan Czapsky, responsible for Burton’s three most beautiful, and three best, films, all produced consecutively in the early 1990s, isn’t operating at the unstoppably evocative and multi-textual heights of his later Ed Wood, but his work is sublime nonetheless. His roving camera explores the playground spaces and diorama constructions of sitcom American life, tilted just so as to render it so genial as to be both sympathetic and uncomfortable. He also constructs the moral architecture of the film in the color and negative space of the world. Here, the night sky is as wonderfully empty and crystalline in its smothering blackness as any film I’ve yet seen, and it only serves to make the Christmas lights all the more wonderfully off-putting and Edward’s grass sculpture’s all the more menacing – helped in no small part by Bo Welch’s lustrous production design.
And the highs read right down the list. Danny Elfman’s score is a response to the bombastic opera of his Batman score, using Christmas carols as clay and sculpting them into a beauty of dark innocence and fable-like generosity. Depp is a true find here as well, having evolved well beyond the questionable early performances in works like A Nightmare on Elm Street to imbue Edward with suspicion, gravity, kindness, curiosity, desire, and loss, all in one seemingly empty shell of a man, and all delivered without ever a single showy burst into needless physical ticks or loquacious speeches. It is tremendous physical acting, not unlike Boris Karloff in the original Frankenstein films, especially the venerable, magisterial sequel Bride of Frankenstein. In both characters, we eel the weight of death and the thirst for life.
Like that work, preceding Scissorhands by more than a half-century, Burton’s film is an experiment in what horror cinema actually means by redirecting the tone and spirit of the genre into romantic, Gothic tragedy (the climax here is not unlike Batman’s bell tower beat-down in a logistical sense, but it is imbued with an air of gravid melancholy entirely absent that superhero picture). Scissorhands, after all, is the Frankenstein story, and like Bride, it has the generosity of heart to place its soul in the macabre monster and to explore that, yes, the collective mob was the real demon after all. Like James Whale’s masterpiece, it is a work of perplexing empathy and outsider youthfulness, a declaration of war delivered with a kind, ever-curious heart, an ode to the uncanny, the unorthodox, and the unnatural, and a plea to find a humanity in everything.
Scissorhands is genre film, but like Whale’s work, it is a call to understand that most genre cinema wears a heart on its sleeve, and society in its dreams and nightmares. Edward isn’t really Tim Burton; Edward is the Tim Burton film, a conglomerate of sentimental sweetness, pop-fableism, and abnormal gesticulations of pictorial horror. Like Burton’s film, Edward doesn’t have much of a screenplay or sense of nuance to live his life by, but he shines brightly by eschewing the needs of nuance altogether for an adolescent burst of honesty and conviction. For that reason, with Burton as the mad scientist father, Edward Scissorhands is very likely the most honest creation he will ever make.