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Non-Review Review: Edward Scissorhands

Perhaps no film better exemplifies the key themes of Tim Burton as well as Edward Scissorhands. It recalls the broad strokes of the Frankenstein story – in particular the iconic Boris Karloff Frankenstein movie from the thirties – telling the story a hideous scientific experiment which seeks acceptance in the outside world (and is turned upon by the villagers after a tragic misunderstanding). While Frankenstein’s monster responded with anger and murderous rage, Edward seems unable to full fathom what is occurring. The movie offered the first collaboration between Burton and Depp, a delightful pairing which we’d see on the big screen many times in the years that followed – there’s a reason the two have continued to work together for so long: they just work really well together.

Blades of glory...

For many people, I think Edward Scissorhands was the first time that they really noticed Burton. Obviously the director had helmed Batman and Batman Returns, as well as a cult hit with Beatlejuice, but it was really with Edward Scissorhand that the director consciously established his neo-gothic style to a generation of movie-goers. Although Beatlejuice offered some of the more fantastical elements that would join his stable and Batman showcased a dark and twisted urban landscape, it’s the combination of bright primary colours and dark black that we see here which have come to define Burton’s later works.

As with a great deal of Burton’s protagonists, the eponymous character is a freak. Built by a mad (but seemingly quite pleasant) genius in a magical castle overlooking suburbia (played by Vincent Price – who also narrated Burton’s early stop-motion short film “Vincent” ), Edward is constructed from spare parts. However, the death of his caretaker leaves Edward without hands (instead, as the name implies, with scissors for hands), but also completely unprepared for the outside world. There’s no doubt of Edward’s innocence and his good intentions, but – as Burton suggests – that isn’t nearly enough to get by in the outside world.

As Edward finds himself brought down to the suburban estate at the bottom of the hill, we get to see the disdain that Burton clearly has for conventional society. Despite the brightly painted households, neatly-maintained lawns and smiling exterior, the suburbs are populated with snide and fickle individuals, ready to turn on anything they see as different in an instant. Sure, they may welcome you with open arms as long as you have something to offer – but they’ll secretly loathe and fear you; perhaps even just tire of you.

This is a world where mindsets are so small and self-contained that the globes are kept locked away at the back of the classroom and there are always those who are cynical enough to take advantage of the innocent people that they stumble across. In many ways, Burton is crafting a cautionary fairytale, just from the opposite side. While stories like Hansel & Gretel warned children about the dangers of strangers and Little Red Riding Hood warned us against monsters masking themselves in familiar clothes, Edward Scissorhands is concerned with the damage that society can do to the individual – the way that groups can demonise and drive away those they see as unique in any sort of way, and those who can’t (or won’t) conform.

American Gothic...

This idea of the relationship between the outsider and organised society is at the core of most of Burton’s work, but he’s afforded a chance here to fully develop his thesis. He gets a chance to display not only his skill with the camera, but also with his actors. This role pretty much made Johnny Depp an instant movie star (and deservedly so), but the supporting cast is equally well put together. Alan Arkin here proves himself a strong supporting player as the absent-minded father full of anecdotes and advice which aren’t alway relevant. Winona Rider is solid as the daughter who becomes the subject of Edward’s affection. Anthony Michael Hall makes a wonderfully jerky boyfriend.

The movie does wander off into saccharin territory at some points, but most of the film is genuinely emotional – it’s hard not to empathise with the misunderstood creation. Edward’s face is covered in tiny cuts from failed attempts to touch even himself. burton draws his canvas in broad and two dimensional terms – there’s relatively little depth here and there’s no doubt about how this story is going to play out – but its elegant simplicity is part of the appeal.

In a way, Edward Scissorhands set a template for the kind of films that Burton would make – in recent years his style has deviated so rarely that it’s almost generic, and most of it can be traced back to here (and quite a bit goes back even further). However, this original film does have a power that many of his later films lack, perhaps stemming from how directly Burton engages with the themes that underpin his film-making career. There’s a legitimate and serious argument to be made that Edward Scissorhands represents the director at his very best.

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