For my generation, Tim Burton films were a big part of the cinematic culture with which we grew up. However, the general consensus among fans in recent years seems to be that Burton’s artistry took a dip at the turn of the century and he became a hack churning out predictable, repetitive gothic dreck. While there’s certainly a change in the kind of films to which Burton seemed drawn in the 21st century, I think this reductive assessment has also led to some very fine later films being prejudged overharshly. This led me to the decision to take another look at Burton’s entire filmography.

All entries contain spoilers. Please note, The Nightmare Before Christmas will not be discussed due to it not being directed by Burton himself.


After the terrible critical reception that greeted it, Dark Shadows became one of the most forgotten films in Tim Burton’s catalogue. On the rare occasions that it is mentioned, it remains the subject of much eye-rolling scorn from Burton’s detractors and fans, who both cite it as proof of a creative downturn. I initially wrote it off as the same, watching it with my mind barely ajar and then hastily consigning it to the Burton rejects pile. But having revisited it, especially in the context of a chronological Burton rewatch, I was surprised at just how much I loved Dark Shadows. Far from a symbol of an artist sinking into an uninspired funk, it feels like Burton’s attempt to pull himself out of a period in which he over-relied on comparatively safe commercial properties like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland, and shoot instead for something with the anarchic cult appeal of Beetlejuice or Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Certainly, this was the most broadly comedic film Burton had made since Mars Attacks!, aiming squarely for his long-neglected outsider crowd by choosing as its source a 60s/70s daytime Soap Opera which became a cult hit when it added a vampire named Barnabas Collins to its cast of characters. This highly unusual inspiration allowed Burton to experiment with tone in a more playful manner than he had in ages. While one of the chief criticisms levelled at Dark Shadows has always been its tonal imbalance between comedy and drama, with the proper context it’s not hard to recognise that this is a deftly crafted parody, aping the histrionic plotting and salacious sexuality of a daytime Soap while also inserting honest-to-goodness jokes into the bargain. It takes a bold film to attempt to get away with the goofball premise of having the real Alice Cooper cameo as a forty-years-younger version of himself but Dark Shadows tries it and, against the odds, pulls it off.

The convoluted plot and the proliferation of seemingly extraneous characters are other elements of Dark Shadows that may seem detrimental if you’re not tuned into the fact that this is a burlesque on daytime TV. I suppose a certain type of director would’ve tried to move away from these shortcomings of the televisual medium in order to craft something exclusively cinematic but Burton does not seek to hide these bargain-basement bands aids so much as accentuate and revel in them. So we get tangents that don’t go anywhere, a handful of easily deletable characters and a cliffhanger that is never intended to be resolved and it’s all part of the plan. It’s no guarantee that you’ll enjoy Burton’s TV-quirk-preserving approach but there’s a better chance of tuning into Dark Shadows’ wavelength if you understand that many of its apparent shortcomings are intentional and loving homages. I suppose one of the main issues, and a recurring complaint levelled at Burton, is that the film lacks heart and the opportunity for real emotional engagement, but that was true of Beetlejuice, the Burton film Dark Shadows most closely resembles, and it didn’t stop that film being a great time either.

Dark Shadows‘ deliberately unnecessarily-winding plot allows Burton’s regular casting director Susie Figgis to assemble a great collection of familiar faces to populate the film. Amongst the big names, only Michelle Pfeiffer feels wasted in her underdeveloped role as the Collins family matriarch. Johnny Lee Miller, Chloë Grace Moretz, Jackie Earle Haley and Christopher Lee all have fun in their supporting roles, while the big-eyed Bella Heathcote looks appropriately haunting as Barnabas’s lost love and her twentieth-century doppelgänger. Helena Bonham Carter is also here again in an intriguing role as a boozy psychiatrist. But Dark Shadows belongs to its two main protagonists. As Barnabas, Johnny Depp gives a performance that both delights in the absurdity of the character while exercising a consistent restraint that accentuates both the comedy and drama at the appropriate moments. But it is Eva Green who steals the show as the ultimate extreme variation on the woman-scorned stereotype, a witch named Angelique who unleashes centuries of curses on Barnabas and his family after he chooses another over her. Green is psychotically obsessive, deliciously lascivious, frighteningly relentless and, against all odds, spine-chillingly sexy. Her sexually-motivated vendetta is of the most toxic variety and yet Green makes Angelique as hilarious as she is grotesquely alluring.

Set in the early 70s, Dark Shadows is a period piece and Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay is keen to remind us of this with numerous references and that go-for-broke Alice Cooper cameo. Burton leans into this gambit, with Bruno Delbonnel’s fetching cinematography and Colleen Atwood’s groovy costumes evoking the era beautifully. Burton also infuses his film with a plethora of needle-drops, often the cheapest ploy for evoking a time period but one which enhances Dark Shadows’ fun nature, even if setting a sex scene to Barry White feels a little too hackneyed even for a deliberate parody. Still, recognisable hooks like this are helpful concessions in the midst of a meandering story which trusts the viewer (a little too readily, as it turned out) to go along with its whims. The whole thing builds to an impressive showdown climax which manages to provide some level of stakes even if it also highlights the fact that the supposed central romance has been completely undersold. It’s another factor you have to chalk up to Dark Shadows’ daytime origins, although admittedly even this film can only play that card a certain amount of times and the finale perhaps feels like one time too often, although the gleefully hackneyed final beat does somewhat redeem it.

I was completely taken off guard by how much I loved Dark Shadows. While not quite up there with the best of Burton, it is one of his most readily and endearingly entertaining films so long as you take it in the context in which it is meant. Without the knowledge of its trashy origins, the faux-trashiness of Burton’s update may seem earnestly misguided but if you can get on board with its deceptively tricky tone then Dark Shadows is a glorious gothic goof.


With the mega-success of Tim Burton’s Batman, a sequel was inevitable but Burton himself had no interest in making another Batman film. He thought that there had been too much studio interference the first time round, resulting in a film he felt was only about 50% his and which he found to be quite boring. In order to secure Burton’s services for Batman Returns, Warner Bros. agreed to his demands for greater creative control, allowing him to replace key crew members from the first film with his own trusted collaborators. A script being developed by original screenwriter Sam Hamm was handed instead to Daniel Waters, whose High School classic, Heathers, Burton had admired, while production designer Bo Welch was given the difficult task of delivering a Gotham that matched the magnificence of the one created by Anton Furst and Peter Young, without simply replicating it. A cast of big name actors was assembled to play no less that three main villains, with Michael Keaton signing on to don the Batsuit once more. The scene was set for a film that fit much more seamlessly into Burton’s growing canon but is Batman Returns better or worse than Batman ‘89? It’s a question with which fans have wrestled since the sequel’s release, and which I too have spent considerable time mulling over. Ultimately, I’ve come to the conclusion that it really doesn’t matter. The important thing is that Batman and Batman Returns are both boldly unusual creations that manage to complement each other while also feeling very different in tone and style. In an era in which the process for creating even the best superhero films seems to be to take a bunch of sometimes interesting ideas and batter them into the same framework time and time again, the Burton Batmans remain exemplary in terms of originality, even if their productions didn’t totally escape the encroaching hand of the studio.

One of the most common criticisms of Batman Returns is that it is overcrowded with villains. Certainly, Burton is so fascinated with them that he pretty much neglects Batman for the first hour of the film. But in providing such a rich rogues gallery, Batman Returns is less repetitive than its predecessor and stronger on story. The skit-like scenes that built up The Joker’s personality could largely be watched as standalone sketches, whereas the origin of Catwoman plays out with strong, focused storytelling and her fate is interwoven with the other two villains, The Penguin and Max Shreck, in a manner that enhances each storyline and builds to a climax that manages to tie them all together. Unfortunately, Warner Bros. still wielded some influence and their insistence that The Penguin be given a more clichéd criminal masterplan does result in Batman Returns starting to creak at the seams in its overstuffed third act. Whether we can blame the ludicrous penguin army on the studio is another question. It feels to me like the sort of wrinkle Burton would’ve relished putting in there anyway. When you’re working with such inherently daft source material as Batman, it’s hard to weigh up just how far is too far. It was probably too late to say anything by the time they were strapping plastic missiles to confused penguins.

While Jack Nicholson pretty much overwhelmed every other performance in Batman, Batman Returns feels like a more effective ensemble. Keaton’s Batman, when he finally starts to feature in the plot, feels more psychologically interesting this time round, with his vulnerability more exposed and his loneliness all too apparent. The romance, which had been the weakest element of the earlier film, is one of the strongest here, as Batman and Catwoman clash in costume and pash out of it! The inevitably doomed nature of the relationship is in keeping with the general air of despair that hangs over the movie. Of course, another reason for the romance working so well here is that it provides more screentime for Michelle Pfeiffer, who comfortably steals the film completely as Catwoman. In her early scenes as dithering, unconfident secretary Selina Kyle, Pfeiffer plays a deliberately broad sitcom type, underlining the ridiculousness that a pair of unflattering glasses can hide how beautiful she is. This playfully rendered sad sack of a starting point makes Pfeiffer’s transformation into a vengeance-fuelled feminist icon seem even more impressive. The scene in which she returns to her flat as her feline inclinations begin to sprout is one of the film’s highlights, although every moment in which she appears is lifted by her deftly iconic presence.

Catwoman was an instant phenomenon when the film was released, but Danny DeVito’s Penguin was a tad more divisive. Though some found DeVito’s extreme grotesquerie too over the top, he is playing this character absolutely correctly, from his bird-like mannerisms to his all-too-human lasciviousness. If he does become a bit wearing, that’s mainly due to the variable quality of the material he is given. Though Burton was said to have empathised most with The Penguin, he failed to make him stand out as the main villain and, for me, his tragic backstory didn’t quite inspire the sympathy we were allegedly supposed to feel. But the Razzie nomination DeVito received felt like an unfair overreaction by a mean-spirited awards body who didn’t quite understand that the negative reaction they were having was at least partially the point. The trio of villains is rounded out by Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck, an insincere industrialist with a murderous determination. Shreck was an original creation by Waters, designed to show that the worst villains are often hidden in plain sight. Walken has a natural ability to play villains and does so with suavity and wit here. What makes Batman Returns’ villains so interesting is that they are allowed to interact with each other as well as with Batman. So The Penguin and Catwoman make a deliciously grotesque double act, while both characters face off against Shreck too. At any time, you can be rooting for one of the villains as much as, or more than, you are for Batman. This is especially the case with Catwoman’s personal vendetta against Shreck, which is the most gripping plot strand.

Bo Welch’s Gotham designs do a fantastic job of building on the style of the original film without imitating it. There was a nice concept that Batman Returns takes part in another district of Gotham, which allowed Welch to put his own stamp on the world. Also helping in this regard was the ingenious decision to set the film at Christmas time, a notion that originated with Hamm’s initial script. This allows for a decorative layer of snow and ice, which distinguishes the new Gotham but stubbornly refuses to prettify it. Instead, it encases it in a frosty bleakness that plays right into the film’s chilly tone. While many found Batman Returns to be too dark, it never loses its sense of humour either. Like the first Burton Batman, it feels less dark when compared to the 21st century cinematic renderings of the caped crusader, holding tight to its comic exaggerations even when venturing to grim and violent places.

As with Batman ‘89, Batman Returns is a film I admire and enjoy but don’t love. Even with the increased level of creative control, the material feels coldly impersonal in relation to its director, lacking the comparative warmth of Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, the better films that flanked it. But there is still undoubtedly a directorial stamp here, something that feels increasingly lacking in modern superhero franchises that gobble up any promising new directors after their debut film and then stifle their originality by forcing them into a well-worn mould. Burton did well to get out of the Batman franchise after two films that still stand up as original, interesting works. I doubt he could’ve pulled that off a third time.


Tim Burton’s Batman was a huge cultural phenomenon back in a time when superheroes weren’t that big a deal at the cinema (if you can imagine such a utopia). Now that the market is thoroughly flooded with increasingly predictable Marvel and DC films, it’s strange and refreshing to travel back to 1989 to see what passed for a comic book blockbuster back then. With Burton in the midst of a creative hot streak that included Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, Batman feels like a more impersonal film for the director, who admitted the end result largely bored him and was, in his own words, “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie.” Though beloved of a certain generation, Burton’s Batman has tended to divide audiences since its release, and it has been interesting to see how the shift in perceptions of cinema have affected this continued split. The film takes a very episodic approach, building the rivalry between Batman and the Joker through sketch-like vignettes, creating a unique pacing that has baffled many 21st century viewers more used to the quicker and slicker Marvel movies. The Noir-inspired edge of Burton’s film originally saw it labelled as a particularly dark take on the superhero subgenre, but in the wake of the Christopher Nolan Batmans and some of DC’s humourless, lumbering bores, Batman’s prominent humour is ever more apparent and welcome. Ultimately, Batman ‘89 still stands apart from the crowd because no-one would ever attempt to replicate its unfathomable mega-success through such extraordinarily strange material.

I’m aware that in batting around (ho ho!) the history of Tim Burton’s Batman for a whole paragraph, I’ve still not really tipped my hand as to what I think of it. I admit that the first time I saw it way back in the 90s, I was completely baffled (and not just because my bargain-bin Woolworths VHS tape had a defect that made all the voices go squeaky in the final act, making me think I’d missed a detail about a parade balloon leaking helium). But bafflement feels like a fitting reaction to the work of a man who’s big ideas were too radical for Disney but had ultimately thrust him into the director’s seat for one of the highest grossing films of the decade. Across the course of my subsequent viewings of Batman, my pleasure has increased with a mounting knowledge of the character’s various incarnations, a greater familiarity with the inspirations on which Burton was drawing, and a growing appreciation for a performance by Jack Nicholson that still stands as one of the most frighteningly unhinged turns I’ve ever seen. So yeah, I like Batman. Actually, I really like Batman. But do I love Batman? Not quite. For all its admirable unconventional choices, infectious black humour and visual splendour, this is an easier film to be impressed by than to adore, unless you were one of those 80s teens who can still remember clutching a cinema ticket in your sweaty hands and trying to pretend you didn’t covet the toy Batmobiles with which the under 12s had to make do.

Batman’s main shortcomings are in the story and character departments. This sounds like it would be irredeemably detrimental but Burton‘s rejection of conventional narrative seems to be entirely intentional. When the film makes concessions, such as in the romance between Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale, it is at its weakest, with the scene where Wayne tries to reveal his secret to Vale descending immediately into feeble Rom-Com clichés (she actually says “Oh my God, you’re married!”). But when it goes to more unpredictable places, such as any scene involving The Joker, Batman is constantly surprising and riveting. Some critics complained that the focus on The Joker was too strong but that’s a plus as far as I’m concerned. Michael Keaton is a fine Batman and manages to not come across as risible at any point, despite a suit so rubbery it looks like if you punched it in certain places it would squeak (appropriate for a bat, maybe, but not a superhero). But the caped crusader is almost always one of the least interesting characters in his own story and Burton leans heavily into screenwriters Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren’s obvious preference for the villain. Nicholson, given top billing by contractual obligation but earning it through performance, creates the most thrilling combination of psychopath and prop comic imaginable, giving equal weight to the humour and the horror, which manages to enhance both. It’s true that this Joker overwhelms every other performance in the film, but the two-dimensional supporting characters feel aptly like the inhabitants of comic book panels, with costume and make-up often feeling more important than performance.

If Nicholson is the undoubted human star of Batman, Anton Furst and Peter Young’s Oscar-winning Art Direction is perhaps the most striking element overall. Did Gotham ever look so amazing again? The darkened streets, hissing steam, shadowy alleyways and imposing architecture all bring this world to life indelibly. Danny Elfman’s instantly evocative score retains and enhances the atmosphere created by Furst and Young, while Prince’s songs famously disrupt it. The idea of a Prince soundtrack might’ve sounded good on paper but his music is just too pouting not to pull focus. The cut-and-paste garbage hit Batdance aside, the soundtrack album Prince turned in is not actually bad, but the songs don’t fit the tone and Burton recognised that fact by using very few of the purple one’s contributions. Partyman is the only track that really sticks out, soundtracking The Joker’s art-destroying spree with a garish clash that almost works. But ultimately Prince’s songs are best experienced separately as part of the cultural tidal wave surrounding the film. Stick on the soundtrack while you’re playing with your big plastic Batcave.

If Batman feels like one of Burton’s more impersonal films, it also emerges as one of his boldest. It’s like an arthouse film accidentally given the budget of a blockbuster and its success is testament to the foolishness of underestimating the intelligence of the mainstream audience. There is very little crash-bang-wallop in Batman and while it hits several crowdpleasing notes, most notably the unveiling of an 80s upgraded Batmobile that is still somehow not as cool as Adam West’s (I miss the red piping), it spends even more of its two-hour runtime successfully juggling a very tricky tone that swings from the grimmest horror (the disfiguring of Jerry Hall’s character) to the silliest visual gags (The Joker’s extra-long gun, Bruce Wayne’s even longer dining table). If only it could’ve cohered these ingredients into a more focused story I might’ve loved it, but then I think I might actually enjoy the state of bewildered admiration it inspires in me even more.


At the time of writing, Tim Burton is working on a sequel to Beetlejuice. It sounds like a really bad idea to me. I hope I’m proved wrong and will be the first to admit it if I am, but having lived through joyless updates of Bill and Ted, Indiana Jones and Ghostbusters I’m understandably skeptical. Still, I’m not going to weep over a destroyed childhood if Beetlejuice 2 is bad. After all, I can still go back and watch the original, just as Dial of Destiny didn’t make Raiders of the Lost Ark any worse and Ghostbusters: Afterlife is easily disassociated from the original film if that’s the way you want it. And, in all honesty, both of those franchises survived below-par sequels that came out only a couple of years after the first films. My fears about Beetlejuice 2 don’t stem from a romanticised childhood viewpoint then, so much as from a belief that the Beetlejuice story is fully told in the first film. There are a lot of things going for this film but character and storyline aren’t really on that list. Sure, Betelgeuse himself is a fun creation but he’s very much a character of his era and his sparing use in the film is perfectly judged in order to prevent him from growing annoying. The story itself is thin, a mere hook for the numerous ideas and (sometimes literally) eye-popping effects. Although many people are in a rush to call the visual effects dated here, that somewhat misses the point. Burton wanted a level of artifice that was inherent in the fantasy films he grew up loving. He’s not trying to hide the trick, he wants the audience to appreciate the artistry at the same time as they’re enjoying it. Perhaps I’m being cynical but I’m highly doubtful that Burton could get such an approach past the studio executives these days, especially now Beetlejuice is a financial opportunity rather than that weird little low-budget picture that no-one really wanted to see made.

I don’t want to sound like one of those whinging conservative viewers who believe everything was better in the old days. That’s not the case at all. In fact, a Beetlejuice sequel has long been an intention of Burton’s, with a screenplay with the dreadful title Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian having done the rounds in the 90s. Apparently, in the time honoured tradition of lacklustre big-screen sitcom adaptations, it would’ve shipped the cast off to a holiday destination where Betelgeuse would’ve resurfaced, caused mayhem and eventually won a surfing contest. All sounds terrible, doesn’t it?! But the hackneyed premise doesn’t sound like so much of a problem as the apparent softening of the Betelgeuse character. By this time, he’d already been retrofitted as a largely harmless, lovable conman in a children’s cartoon series and the subsequent merchandising and recasting of the character in the minds of the next generation surely made him a far easier creation to imagine garlanding with a lei and sticking on a surfboard than the malevolent sexual predator we see in the original film. Part of what makes Beetlejuice so fascinating is how unlovable, obnoxious and genuinely revolting its titular character is. His comedic groping of Geena Davis’s Barbara Maitland is something you couldn’t really get away with nowadays but it’s hard to imagine Betelgeuse surviving any kind of watering down that would take him too far from the character a generation of film fans fell in loathe with.

I hate to start off my review of Beetlejuice from such a negative angle but the diluted nature of so many sequels and reboots does help to highlight what makes Burton’s 1988 Black Comedy so special. It’s a high concept pitch (the ghosts of two newly-deads hire a “bio-exorcist” to rid their home of its new living owners) that uses its jumping off point as an excuse to throw all sorts of visual treats into the pot, from stop-motion sandworms and human-faced snakes to an afterlife waiting room full of freshly mutilated newcomers or a dinner party filled with possessed guests singing Harry Belafonte. Every new addition knocks the film’s focus a little more off-centre but also makes the whole thing more enjoyable to watch. There’s a small subplot about the Maitlands having lost a child to a miscarriage which should set up their eventual connection with Winona Ryder’s Lydia but it is grazed over so lightly that when Barbara eventually pleads “I want to be with Lydia”, it seems to come out of nowhere. I’m glad this essentially comedic film wasn’t too heavily weighed down by tragic tangents but a little more care in the writing might’ve provided a better dramatic foundation to balance the comedy. Still, by the frantic finale, the fact that the emotional heart of the film hasn’t really been properly set up seems to matter little in the face of the joyous race to the finish through a minefield of cartoon gags come to life.

Burton’s direction, his obvious enthusiasm for the material, the Oscar-winning makeup and the gloriously squishy visual effects (courtesy of Ve Neill, Steve LaPorte and Robert Short, and Peter Kuran, Alan Munro, Robert Short and Ted Rae respectively) are all ample compensation for a screenplay that feels a little underworked. The thinly-written characters also benefit from a game cast who are clearly having fun. Ryder impresses in only her third big-screen outing, Catherine O’Hara and Glenn Shadix make a fine double act as a pretentious sculptor and her interior decorator, and old Hollywood legend Sylvia Sidney is splendid as the Maitlands’ jaded afterlife caseworker Juno. But in the acting stakes, the virtually unrecognisable Michael Keaton easily walks away with the film as Betelgeuse. As noted above, the comedic sexual predator is a hard-sell in this era but in a Black Comedy of this kind you need to be able to push the unpleasantness to a certain level and Keaton’s extraordinary turn ensures that the laughs come from his utter hideousness rather than the reprehensible things he is doing. There are also some wonderful little character moments in which he mumbles things under his breath or suddenly turns affable for a second, as if he’s let the mask slip momentarily. I don’t know how much of this stuff was scripted and how much was Keaton ad-libbing but he manages to make the whole thing appear improvised, which is a sign that he’s doing excellent work.

Beetlejuice never once makes the mistake of making its title character likeable in any way. Occasionally his sleaziness is oversold, such as a moment involving a brothel, but it is also kept in check to some extent in relation to his treatment of Lydia. While some commentators have been troubled by his desire to marry the teenager at the film’s climax, it is made clear that this is entirely about his ticket out of the afterlife and into a mortal world where he can cause chaos. Apparently the original version of the script, which was far less comedic and more horrific, saw Betelgeuse (then a winged demon) demanding sex from Lydia in return for his help. I’m not saying you can’t go that dark with the right emphasis, I’m just saying it’s hard to imagine this version of the character having been spun off into a Saturday morning cartoon series quite so easily. Fortunately, Burton and Keaton just about get the balance right between whirlwind cartoonish humour and genuine unpleasantness. The whole thing is far removed enough from reality to still work, even if the desired cringes the character inspires might be slightly amplified through a 21st century lens.

If it’s slightly flimsier than I remembered, I still really love Beetlejuice. It has an unhinged cult personality that makes its box office success seem surprising but Burton was on a roll and heading for the big leagues with the mega-success of Batman. The darker edges of Beetlejuice may have subsequently contributed to Burton’s bewildering pigeon-holing as a purveyor of depressive material but one need only look at its lively sense of humour and its infectiously joyous inventiveness to glimpse the other less-frequently celebrated attributes associated with its director. Not to mention that wonderful soundtrack of calypso music. There are few greater pleasures in 80s cinema than watching Winona Ryder levitate as she dances to Jump in the Line.


Tim Burton’s stop-motion animation Corpse Bride tends to live in the shadow of The Nightmare Before Christmas, another stop-motion film that Burton conceived and produced but did not direct, instead passing the reins to Henry Selick (and those later trailers for Selick’s Monkeybone and Coraline that said “From the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas” without mentioning Selick by name knew exactly what they were doing). While it can’t quite match the quality of that iconic classic, I think the unnecessary comparisons have resulted in Corpse Bride becoming an extremely undervalued work in the Burton canon. This time round Burton did occupy the director’s chair, although he shared it with animator Mike Johnson whose invaluable animation experience was used to help shape Burton’s vision. Based on an old Jewish folktale, Corpse Bride tells the story of Victor, a nervous young man betrothed to a woman he barely knows who, while practicing his wedding vows in a darkened forest, places the wedding ring on what he takes for an upturned tree root but which turns out to be the skeletal finger of a murdered would-be bride who has been awaiting a new beloved. She spirits him away to the Land of the Dead but the very-much alive Victor pines for his fiancé and schemes to find a way back to the surface and away from the clutches of his inadvertent wife.

From a mere synopsis, Corpse Bride sounds unpleasant, perhaps even misogynistic, but this is not the tone at all. Though it is filled with rotten corpses, dancing skeletons, disembodied heads and burrowing maggots, the film is shot through with a warmth that offsets its chilly grey aesthetic. The scrungy images of detached limbs and clattering bones are used as the basis of a wealth of terrific visual gags and goofy puns and the film’s beating heart is constantly visible through its prominently displayed rib cage. Despite the unfortunate misunderstandings and romantic entanglements they find themselves in, Victor, his living fiancé Victoria and his dead wife Emily are all sympathetic characters, resulting in one of the most affable love triangles ever to appear on screen. As with The Nightmare Before Christmas, the supernatural characters are largely harmless without forfeiting their ghoulish appeal, while the living characters are mostly cruel, avaricious and irredeemable. It’s an old satirical flip but it remains fun and Burton certainly relishes a chilling eleventh hour turnaround that recalls Tod Browning’s Freaks as it leaves the villain at the mercy of those whose kind he has wronged.

One of the chief criticisms of Corpse Bride tends to be that the musical numbers are lacklustre but the film is not really a musical in the same way as The Nightmare Before Christmas. There are only four songs here and they mainly serve the purpose of exposition, although the rollicking barroom singalong Remains of the Day is a brilliant song matched with the film’s most celebrated sequence, in which Danny Elfman’s singing skeleton Bonejangles relates the backstory of the Bride with infectious exuberance. Elfman, who also wrote the score, co-wrote the songs with John August and they have judged the tone well. Despite its barrage of delightful gags, Corpse Bride is at heart a relatively meditative film that wouldn’t benefit from regular interruptions from boisterous bangers so a song like Tears to Shed feels perfectly pitched, adding a layer of mournful sweetness during a moment of melancholia. August, also co-wrote the screenplay with Pamela Pettler (writer of another animated Halloween treat, Monster House) and Caroline Thompson. Thompson’s contribution feels especially key, reinstating the magic she had brought to her screenplays for Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas, a crucial ingredient that had been missing from many recent Burton projects.

Corpse Bride boasts a wonderful voice cast. By this stage, many Burton fans were rolling their eyes to see Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter (at this time Burton’s partner) cast yet again but they do a lovely job of voicing Victor and Emily, while the largely comedic supporting roles are filled by star names including Albert Finney, Joanna Lumley, Tracey Ullman, Paul Whitehouse, Richard E. Grant and Christopher Lee. Standouts are Jane Horrocks as the dead chef Mrs. Plum and voice actor Enn Reitel as a maggot who lives behind the bride’s eyeball and is visually and aurally a tribute to Peter Lorre. Last but emphatically not least, much praise must go to the animation department who, under Johnson’s guidance, have brought these beautiful dead bastards fully to life. Corpse Bride revels in its medium, with the handsome stop-motion creations moving fluidly and realistically without ever trying to hide the beauty of the animated illusion. Watch for the scene just before Tears to Shed in which we get a high angle of Emily storming dejectedly into her home. The acting the animators have coaxed from the puppet is astounding.

Corpse Bride seems to be an underrated work in the Burton canon, with both the Nightmare Before Christmas comparison and the erroneous conviction that Burton hasn’t made any decent 21st century films influencing its legacy, but I still think it is one of Burton’s best films and deserving of reappraisal. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste but those of a certain inclination will surely love the story of our Corpse Bride as much as I do.


I was long under the impression that I didn’t like Tim Burton’s celebrated adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s stage Musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and it was due to the stupidest reason someone can give for not liking a Musical. Actually, it was due to the second stupidest reason. The stupidest reason you can give for not liking Musicals is that they are “unrealistic.” “Seriously, who just bursts into song like that”, sneer people who have practically made a religion out of the gritty social realism of Star Wars and the MCU. But my vitriol here is clearly an evasion to prolong the embarrassment of admitting to the time I came out of a Musical complaining “All that singing got on my nerves”, and then clung to that incisive critical assessment for a decade and a half.

In that interim, I became a fan of film Musicals. I went back for the classics and I hunted out the obscurities, I even fell for Sondheim by way of West Side Story. Why, then, I wondered, was I never really tempted to return to Sweeney Todd? A friend of mine, a much greater authority on Musical Theatre, pointed out to me that Sondheim was only the lyricist on West Side Story, which offers a set of songs that are much more easily carved up into a playlist of individual moments. As composer and lyricist on Sweeney Todd, Sondheim favours a much more complex approach that is common in stage productions but less frequently found in screen adaptations. The music in Sweeney Todd is like a finely woven tapestry, with recurring themes and lyrical callbacks. It maintains a mood across the runtime in a way that doesn’t allow for one stitch to be unpicked without something of the whole being lost. The sheer insistence of the musical accompaniment can feel overwhelming at first and if it causes you to tune out early, as the younger me obviously did, then it’s very difficult to find a way back in. But if you embrace the style, the spell grows more powerful throughout until you forget you’re listening to sung dialogue in the same way you forget you’re reading subtitles after a while. At the same time, the exceptionally clever use of music and wordplay does not cease to impress mightily just because the susceptible viewer ends up so completely in step with it.

For all my talk of Sweeney Todd’s delicate structural integrity, Burton and screenwriter John Logan had to take their razors to the three hour stage production in order to make it into something more cinematic. In doing so, some songs had to be cut and others shortened, with Burton aiming for (and achieving) the pacey atmosphere of old Melodramas. Logan’s screenplay greatly reduces the focus on the blossoming romance between the boyish Anthony and Todd’s daughter Johanna, another strong choice that wisely keeps the focus on the much more interesting triangle involving different forms of love between Todd, Mrs. Lovett and Toby. While crafting something gloriously cinematic, Burton also manages to retain a sense of theatrical magic in the way he effectively evokes a bustling London setting using a minimal number of sets and a small cast. His pans across the artificial but evocative rooftops set the scale and that sense of largeness never abandons us even as we spend most of our time on the insalubrious barbershop and pie shop sets. Burton also refuses to undersell the horror of the scenario, resulting in a rare 18 certificate. The film is awash with blood, with throats remorselessly slashed with both comedic indifference and dramatic brutality. Rather that build slowly and increase the bloodletting, Burton cleverly holds back for a good forty minutes before piercing his first artery, at which point the floodgates open like the lift doors in The Shining and the viewer is implicated in the casualness of Todd’s repetitious kills. This ensures that the shock of the gore does not become the whole show, so that when we reach the slaughter of the two villains we’ve most been waiting to see, Burton is able to not even show us one of their deaths and then enter into the other one with increased dramatic verve. The final grim twist is that the film’s most horrific death, the live burning of Mrs. Lovett, is completely gore-free.

Casting is crucial to Sweeney Todd’s success and if anyone was rolling their eyes at seeing top billing go to Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter once again, their exquisite performances made for ample retort. Depp, at this stage of his career so frequently found devouring scenery in the wake of his Pirates success, rises to the challenge of something a bit more nuanced. Never claiming to be a singer, he took lessons to improve his performance and the fact that he does so well but is clearly not a professional neatly removes that show-off element for something more appropriately grounded. Whether singing or not, Depp tunes into the emotional agony behind Todd’s eyes, never allowing him anything close to happiness even in the moments of vengeance that now drive him. Depp earned his Oscar nomination here but Bonham Carter is arguably even better, simultaneously carrying the weight of the comic relief and the emotional heart while also being as despicable as anyone else in the actions she chooses. Sweeney Todd’s morality is so layered that it comes as something of a shock realisation when Todd finally has his nemesis, Alan Rickman’s Judge Turpin, in the chair for the second time to find that we’ve come to hate our protagonist as much or more than the original villain. Rickman is wonderfully oily as Turpin, while Timothy Spall leans fully into theatrical exaggeration as the odious bailiff who does his bidding. Bridging the gap between these acting styles is Sasha Baron Cohen in an early dramatic role. At first presenting as a cartoonish stereotype, Baron Cohen nails one of the film’s most surprising about-faces with a performance that turns unpleasantly real in his excellent final scene.

The sumptuously gloomy cinematography of Dariusz Wolski and the Oscar-winning art direction and set design of Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo help immeasurably in conjuring up a world that feels like the missing link between stage and screen Musicals. The musical element, explored far more thoroughly than in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Corpse Bride, feels restorative for Burton’s originality, imbuing his film with a whole new focus rather than just allowing him to lean heavily into a gothic aesthetic as he had on Sleepy Hollow. The result is one of the director’s finest works and a strong rejoinder to those who had written Burton off as a spent force. What a turnaround this viewing experience was for me. This time, I can safely say that all that singing did not get on my nerves.


Big Eyes is a small, atypical film in the Tim Burton canon. You can see telltale signs of his directorial style if you’re watching closely enough but you probably wouldn’t guess that this was a Burton film if you didn’t go in with that knowledge. This dissimilarity is not the reason that Big Eyes is one of my favourite Burton films per se, but at this stage in his filmography it feels like a deeply refreshing tangent, exploring the director’s range after a long run of very Burton-y projects. Focusing on the life and work of Margaret Keane, the artist whose famous paintings of large eyed children were claimed as the work of her plagiarist husband, Big Eyes laces its grounded but unsettling story with an undercurrent of Burton’s trademark disturbing edge by way of the inherent creepiness of the dark-eyed waifs on the canvas. Only one scene pushes into familiar territory, as Margaret begins hallucinating the big eyes on the customers and staff of a supermarket, but this sparing use of a Horror trope is effective as a counterpoint to the real life horrors of usurpation and abusive manipulation that Margaret endured. Subject matter that could’ve made for a very grim film indeed is instead given a witty treatment by screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, whose previous collaboration with Burton resulted in one of his finest films, Ed Wood. Alexander and Karaszewski have identified wider feminist implications in the subject matter and have written Walter Keane (hilariously oily in the hands of Christoph Waltz) as a symbol of how men have always taken from women with such casual entitlement. They don’t pull their punches in the depiction of an abusive relationship (they sought Margaret Keane’s approval of their screenplay before moving forward) but neither do they revel in the details in that salacious TV movie way. The result is both much easier to watch and arguably more troubling to ponder afterwards.

Burton’s direction is as subtle as it’s ever been here. His candy-coloured snare-trap of a suburban dream makes an appearance and he imbues the film with the lightest suggestion of the otherworldly but most of the time he is deliberately holding back so that we might share in Margaret’s nightmare. With the fame that her plagiarised paintings brought to her husband, he was able to hang out with huge celebrities, attend swanky parties and make big media appearances but Burton keeps us at arms length from that world, hearing about it through anecdote or isolated on a small TV screen while Margaret remains shackled to her easel in her claustrophobic secret studio. In one of the film’s best juxtapositions, Margaret sadly tells a friend of how Walter has been socialising with the Beach Boys while the mournful tones of In My Room play on the soundtrack. Tonally, the film is quite bold as it moves from light romance to downbeat domestic drama punctuated by quirky beats. The final act takes the bravest leap, with an extended courtroom climax that becomes a broadly hilarious cartoon. Walter goes from a threatening presence to a desperate, flailing showman who is losing his audience. It’s a bold gambit that may lose some viewers but Burton, Alexander and Karaszewski seem astutely aware that this is the satisfying climax the audience has been awaiting and rather than build tension they instead allow us to relish the prolonged crumbling of one man’s network of lies. Waltz is hilarious in these scenes and you feel his panicked little boy energy without once feeling any sympathy for him.

If Waltz is gifted most of the comedic flourishes, it is Amy Adams’ Golden Globe winning performance as Margaret that most ensures Big Eyes works so well. Unlike Waltz’s larger than life performance, Adams essays something much closer to the real life character she is playing. With her short blonde wig and lost demeanour, Adams aptly uses her own big eyes to put across the combination of sadness, betrayal and fear in which Margaret lives. Her whole body language changes in the final act of the film and it is as if she has removed a mask and unleashed her real self, to which her exposure of Walter approximately equates. There are lots of famous faces in the supporting cast, with Terence Stamp’s exasperated art critic and James Saito’s wearied judge standing out, but at heart Big Eyes is a tightly-focused two-hander and the chemistry, both positive and negative, between Adams and Waltz keeps the film sparking all the way through. It’s easy to see why Big Eyes drifted by under the radar, with most reviews finding it decent but not especially noteworthy. But it seems to me that there’s more going on here than those lukewarm reviews acknowledged and fans of smaller scale delights will no doubt find this as compelling and entertaining as I did. It quietly provides evidence that Burton is still a fine director in other ways than his much ballyhooed visual stylisation.


Here in the UK, we didn’t really have Pee-Wee Herman. Those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s probably unwittingly encountered Pee-Wee’s creator Paul Reubens as the voice of Max in Flight of the Navigator or Lock in The Nightmare Before Christmas, or perhaps in his cameos as a waiter in The Blues Brothers or the Penguin’s father in Batman Returns. I first encountered him tangentially through Jeffrey Wiseman’s impersonations in Overboard. Pee-Wee himself though was not a familiar creation to us Brits. We didn’t get the ingenious children’s show Pee-Wee’s Playhouse over here so the character’s big screen debut was very rarely screened either. I remember it getting one airing during a thematic evening of programming on BBC2 called Weird Night, which also included an episode of The X-Files, a documentary about a freak show and films by George A. Romero, David Lynch and Roger Corman. The whole thing concluded at 6am the following morning with a rare screening of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. I set the video to record it (or, being only twelve years old at the time, asked my parents to) and watched it the following day with a sense of complete bafflement. Perhaps with access to the weekly doses of inspired madness that Pee-Wee’s Playhouse delivered I’d have viewed the film with more enthusiasm that first time round. Never mind, I got there in the end.

Interestingly, a good chunk of the audience who saw Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure on release were probably not familiar with the character either. Pee-Wee Herman took an odd route to the big screen. He first appeared on-screen in character on an episode of The Dating Game, where his childlike rantings bemused the bachelorette and probably the majority of the audience too. He then went on to a brief cameo in Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie before developing a stage show with legendary comedy troupe The Groundlings. The Pee-Wee Herman Show, as it was called, was a spoof of children’s shows but with a handful of adult gags thrown in, and it gained traction when one performance was aired as an HBO special. Pee-Wee spent the next few years making the rounds on talk shows, TV movies and music videos, eventually hosting Saturday Night Live, the show he unsuccessfully auditioned for several years previously. With his career as an adult act having come full circle, Rebeuns switched gears to lean into his character’s obvious appeal to children. Eventually that would lead to his ironic version of a children’s show giving birth to a genuine children’s classic but first Rebeuns struck a deal with Warner Bros. to write and star in a Pee-Wee vehicle that was mindful of younger audiences as well as his established adult following.

If the young audience who came on board with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure may not have been as familiar with Pee-Wee Herman as the adults accompanying them were, it’s likely that very few attendees of any age were familiar with the young director who Reubens chose for the film. In just four years time Tim Burton’s name would be on one of the biggest blockbusters of the 80s but at this point he was a virtual unknown, freshly fired from Disney over the same short film, Frankenweenie, that inspired Reubens to hire him. Disney saw Burton’s short film, an homage to Frankenstein by way of a resurrected pet dog, as part of a worrying tendency to favour darker material than the studio felt comfortable with. Further evidence was inherent in Burton’s other Disney productions, the gothic stop-motion short Vincent and the completely bizarre Disney Channel Halloween version of Hansel and Gretel which was aired once and then nervously shelved for decades, leading the handful of people who saw it to quite reasonably believe it had been a figment of their fevered imaginations. But in Burton, Reubens saw not a morbid threat but a keen visual stylist and a kindred spirit (had he seen Burton’s utterly bizarre, super-low-budget beach party short Luau it would only have underlined this point). Reubens had risked everything by turning down the director that Warner Bros. had tried to foist upon him, while Burton had reportedly come off the back of his Disney firing as hot property but he repeatedly turned down scripts that were handed to him by studios. Reubens was warned that Burton would likely do the same with his Pee-Wee screenplay but it proved to be just the sort of outsider art to which Burton was attracted.

As an outsider who refused to be a victim, Burton felt like the perfect choice to direct Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. When trying to describe Pee-Wee Herman to someone who has never encountered him, it’s hard not to be reductive. Terms like man-child, nerdy and cartoonish inevitably get tossed around but Pee-Wee is a far denser and more interesting character than that suggests. He exists at extremes, exploding with joie de vivre one minute and lashing out with furious indignation the next. He can be sweet and giving or narcissistic and selfish, his reactions very much relying on the situations in which he finds himself and the characters that he meets. With his red bow-tie and goofball laugh he is like a cartoon and yet he is completely believable as a person, which is crucial in preventing him from becoming one dimensional and annoying. Interestingly, Pee-Wee has a lot in common with actual cartoon characters in terms of his malleability. If asked to describe Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck, there are certain attributes most people would go to immediately, but if you watch their films you’ll find Chuck Jones’s take on the characters is different from Friz Freleng’s or Robert McKimson’s. In the hands of different writers and directors, these characters are bold enough to be wildly different while also remaining recognisable as the same entity. This is true of Pee-Wee too. Just try watching The Pee-Wee Herman Show, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Big Top Pee-Wee and some episodes of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse back to back. You’ll find very different versions of the character in each one, and yet people’s love of that character is what kept them coming back. Reubens performance was the anchor that allowed the multitudes contained in Pee-Wee to fan out across his projects. In Burton, he found a director who understood how to help him take Pee-Wee in a more family-friendly direction without losing that spontaneous edge or sense of otherworldly danger that hangs over even his Saturday morning kid’s show.

Fans of Burton’s later work who come to Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure further down the line often express surprise at the film’s bright, colourful style given the dark gothic aesthetic with which Burton became associated but this is a reductive attitude to Burton’s oeuvre. While his name understandably conjures images of shadowy alleyways and cobwebby castles, Burton was always far from a miserabilist when it came to his work. A sense of fun, black comedy and often goofball humour run throughout his filmography and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure fits neatly into that groove. Besides which, Burton would often play with primary colours and fairy tale hues as effectively as he did ominous monochrome, and without breaking from his recognisable signature visual style. Of course, the atmosphere of a Tim Burton film is about more than just the visuals and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure marked the first collaboration between Burton and his longtime composer of choice, Danny Elfman. Elfman’s work here is exemplary and critical to the off-kilter atmosphere that gives the film its unique identity. It’s like an upbeat funhouse theme but with regular notes of desperation and disquiet, perfectly mirroring the central character of Pee-Wee and his oddball odyssey. With its opening sequence in which Pee-Wee goes about his morning routine alone, the film immediately highlights Elfman’s score as a crucial factor. It is somehow as prominent as a cartoon theme tune without ever being intrusive. Given the number of different genres on which Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure fleetingly touches, it is also amazing how subtly Elfman changes tack while still remaining true to his composition’s vibrant undertow.

As Pee-Wee, Reubens is exceptional here. This is probably my favourite variation on the character and perhaps the most extreme. Reubens gives his all, belting out his self-consciously juvenile catchphrases and punctuating them with that signature laugh, ad-libbing asides, switching between endearingly sympathetic, narcissistically deluded and impetuously single-minded. In the next Pee-Wee film, the dreadful Big Top Pee-Wee, Reubens would experiment disastrously with making Pee-Wee a more sexually aggressive character involved in a love triangle but here he displays an asexuality that is not insultingly connected to his childlike demeanour so much as depicted as a preference, in keeping with the laudable dedication to diversity that Reubens actively pushed for in all his projects. Pee-Wee is both an unlikely hero and an exceptionally effective one, able to charm his way out of trouble with an impromptu drag act or by performing a spontaneous dance routine to Tequila. But while he is the centre around which the film revolves, Pee-Wee is far from the whole show and the film’s world is populated with an excellent supporting cast. Elizabeth Daily (soon to be known to the world as the voice of Rugrats’ Tommy Pickles) is the perfect match for Pee-Wee as his non-starter romantic interest, Dottie. You might think the way to mine comedy out of this situation would be to have an overtly sexual woman throw herself at an oblivious Pee-Wee but Dottie’s interest in him is sweetly chaste and all she seeks to further the relationship is a trip to the drive-in. It’s a much less obvious way to take the story and it gives the film extra heart rather than squandering the concept on cheap, incongruous titillation. When Pee-Wee and Dottie ride off together on their bikes at the film’s end, there’s no suggestion of an imminent romance but there is an implicit confirmation of an unspoken connection that has broken through Pee-Wee’s self-proclaimed loner status just as the new friends he made along the way who assemble for the finale have clearly enriched a life of contented but undeniable solitude.

Other standout members of the cast include Judd Omen as Mickey the escaped convict and Diane Salinger as Simone the romantically-inclined waitress. Omen is blessed with some of the funniest material and makes lines like “You said a mouthful” hilarious by playing them intensely straight even as his demeanour is exaggeratedly hard. But Salinger is something else. Her performance is like something out of a David Lynch film, a waitress from another era who has arrived by way of either Burton or Reubens’ obsession with retro kitsch. An early scene in which she leans over the counter in a manner that is somehow both sultry and sluggish is a phenomenal example of a performer acting with their whole body. The manic scenes with Omen and the melancholy ache of Salinger’s scenes show how smoothly Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is able to move between moods as Pee-Wee drops into a variety of different lives. Not absolutely everything works. I’ve never been fond of the scenes of Pee-Wee being pursued by Simone’s bruiser of a boyfriend and a couple of moments are so perfunctory that they barely justify their inclusion. In particular, a fleeting moment at a rodeo feels surplus to requirements and Burton seems uncomfortable with it on the commentary track he recorded with Reubens, especially when he shares the fact that the clearly distressed bull gored a stuntman on set. Then again, the inclusion of so many ideas is what helped the film establish its stuffed-to-the-gills appeal and how iconic moments like Large Marge and her claymation jump-scare ended up in the mix.

As Burton’s feature debut, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure may have seemed like an odd choice given that it is based around a character already well established by another artist. But much as he wouldn’t let the iconic figure of Batman overshadow his own vision, so Burton is able to contribute considerably to the creation of this version of Pee-Wee’s world. People often cite the most obviously Burton-esque moments like Large Marge, the terrifying clown doctors or the striking scene in which an embittered Pee-Wee emerges shadow-first into an alleyway and scares off some thugs with a cat-like hiss. But Burton’s fingerprints are all over this, from the slightly askew reality of Pee-Wee’s home to the climactic chase through the Warner Bros. lot, in which the modern day studio is envisaged as making black and white Godzilla movies and 60s beach pictures. Reubens performance is influenced by his director’s choices and, even though many of them are the same kind of choices that Reubens himself would’ve made, the importance of a strong guiding hand is clear. Compare the vibrancy of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure to the flat, meandering follow-up Big Top Pee-Wee for further evidence.

Despite Burton’s rise to fame in the 90s, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is generally seen as a cult film rather than a garlanded classic but for many it remains one of Burton’s best works. On a belated rewatch, I absolutely agree with this assessment. The transition of comedy characters to the big screen can sometimes be a bumpy one, with ideas that worked well in sketches ending up being stretched far too thin. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure did the opposite by giving a character of oft-overlooked complexity a canvas large enough and a director inventive enough to help him really realise his potential.


At a late stage in Edward Scissorhands, the sharp-fisted protagonist finds himself in serious trouble. Surrounded by a growing mob and with police cars starting to arrive, Winona Ryder’s sympathetic Kim turns to Edward and says “Run.” It’s the worst advice she could’ve given him. You NEVER run with scissors!

I open with a joke to demonstrate just how easy to is to make fun of a film like Edward Scissorhands. God knows, it happened when the film was first advertised and for years afterwards, with scissor puns flying like shorn shrubbery throughout the early 90s. You might think that this was a bad thing that would hurt the film’s credibility but the film is not unaware of the ludicrousness of its own premise. Despite the tragic angle that ultimately comes to define it more, there’s plenty of humour throughout Edward Scissorhands that shows Tim Burton was in on the joke, nay, ahead of it. The more important point, however, is that something can’t inspire such high levels of gentle mockery unless it has embedded itself pretty hard in the culture, which Edward Scissorhands did very quickly. When gags and parodies were still happening half a decade later, we’d gone beyond the point of “Hey, have you heard about that ridiculous film that just came out.” By then, Edward was a reliable comedy reference point because comedians both amateur and professional were comfortable in the knowledge that everyone knew the creation to whom their punchlines referred. Slowly, cheap gags about having to be careful at the toilet faded away but Edward’s place in iconography did not. Burton’s film had pushed through that initial audience incredulity in the same way that the figurehead of his previous film had done years before. When Batman was released in 1989, the groundwork was prelaid for people to take a crime-fighting man in a bat suit seriously (sometimes too seriously). With Edward Scissorhands, Burton proved he had the heft to lay such enduring groundwork himself.

Certain films have their impact increased by the time of life at which they hit you. I was eight when Edward Scissorhands came out but in an age before streaming and in a household where we couldn’t yet afford a video, I didn’t see it for the first time until my early teens. This delay actually paid dividends. If I’d seen Edward Scissorhands early I would merely have been depressed, perhaps even a little scared, by a sad story about a mistreated creation. But the teen years, when the childhood you’re awkwardly vacating still allows you to secretly appreciate a fairy tale and Year Nine English classes allow you to tenuously understand a metaphor, is the perfect time to grasp Edward Scissorhands’ subtextual ode to outsiders everywhere. In the wake of Batman’s blockbuster success, the word on Tim Burton was that he was an incredible visual stylist whose films lacked heart. This was a little unfair as there’s a ton of heart in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure but I can see how a certain archness could be perceived throughout Burton’s work up to this point. Certainly Beetlejuice could’ve been improved with a little more focus on bringing out the emotional centre at which it merely hints, while Burton himself admitted that Batman felt like a very impersonal project. The studios, of course, wanted Batman 2 immediately or, failing that, Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian, but Burton was a big name now and he used that leverage to get his most personal work yet into production.

Edward Scissorhands was inspired by a drawing the teenage Burton had made depicting his isolation as a teenage weirdo in suburban Burbank. He hired Caroline Thompson to write the screenplay and together they worked out a story which drew on the twin influences of fairy tales and Universal Horror. Burton had already done a pseudo-remake of Frankenstein with his short film Frankenweenie and Edward Scissorhands draws heavily on that story again, from its sympathetic “monster” to its angry mob conclusion. There are elements, such as the fatal stabbing of a bullying jock, that Burton admitted were high school revenge fantasies, but ultimately Edward Scissorhands is true to its themes as its sad ending depicts a misfit who is forced back into isolation when his brief acceptance is cut short (scissor joke!) by the fickle nature of an easily bored society. But this ending also allowed the outcasts in the audience to feel special, confirming their hopes that the rejection they had experienced was due to a drab and uniform world not being ready for them. There’s a fine line to walk here between providing hope and creating smug superiority but Burton’s film largely walks it quite well. While some of the characters are deliberately drawn with very broad strokes, Edward is not depicted as perfect either. Though he is gentle and lovable, he is also suffused with a teenage temperament that sees him make bad decisions based on his crush on Kim and unleashes a destructive side when he is pushed too far that could (and does) all too easily turn deadly in a split second. He’s a multi-layered character portrayed with quiet subtlety by Johnny Depp in one of his best performances.

As a teenager watching Edward Scissorhands it’s all about Edward and projecting your experience onto his so I was concerned revisiting the film as a man in my 40s that I might feel a disconnect now I’m settled and happier. Instead, Edward Scissorhands remains an invigorating experience, immediately and vividly evoking long dormant feelings that now exist in the more comforting context of memory. If anything, the film feels more powerful for being a building block in the man I became rather than a raw scissor-slash on vulnerable, pockmarked teenage skin. The feeling that Burton’s heart is completely in this film is also palpable in the same way, which makes it instantly more involving that his previous films. Burton was already admired as a visual stylist but here his mind seems to have found its purest expression yet through the extraordinary production design of Bo Welch and Oscar-nominated prosthetics and makeup of Stan Winston and Ve Neill. The twisty staircases in the gothic castle, the sterile pastel uniformity of the suburban neighbourhood, Edward’s undulating blades and BDSM get-up. This is a ravishing package, perfectly wrapped in Danny Elfman’s finest score yet. Mirroring Burton’s sentiments about his film, Elfman also cited the score for Edward Scissorhands as his most personal work. Its immediately spellbinding power has become synonymous with cinematic magic, a point underlined by its subsequent excerpted use in trailers for films by other directors. Why not try and jump start your Lemony Snicket with a blast of Elfman’s fairy dust?

Watching Edward Scissorhands as an adult also allows for a greater appreciation of the older characters. While teenage eyes might stay adoringly fixed on Edward and Kim, this time round it was Peg who emerged as easily my favourite character. As the Avon lady who brings Edward out of confinement, Dianne Wiest is hugely sympathetic and gently hilarious. While the story eventually shifts to focus on Edward and Kim’s growing romantic connection, I actually found his surrogate mother/child bond with Peg more fascinating this time round. For me, the most moving shot in the whole film is the moment when, having cut the hair of every woman in the neighbourhood with an naïve obliviousness to their orgasmic reactions, Edward gently takes Peg’s hand and guides her into the chair to provide a haircut in which a much sweeter pleasure is all his. Wiest is fantastic and as the first cast member to sign on she was instrumental in getting others to take this bewilderingly strange project seriously. I was actually a little disappointed when Peg gets sidelined in the latter half but Thompson gives her a brief moment that ranks among the film’s most interesting in which she wonders at her wisdom in bringing Edward down from the castle in the first place. Is she right to question her actions or is this a sign that even the ever-reliable Peg can be pushed towards a disturbingly segregationist mindset by the force of changing popular opinion?

Looking back at Edward Scissorhands a few decades down the line, it’s not entirely surprising to find that there are a couple of questionable elements. Esmeralda, O-Lan Jones’s fanatical Christian, feels a bit stereotypical, which wouldn’t be too much of a problem if she didn’t also seem entirely superfluous. The religious stronghold in small conservative towns was surely something at the hands of which numerous “different” kids suffered and the fact that Esmeralda herself is an outcast too could’ve been a theme worth exploring but given that she does nothing except call Edward a tool of the devil when he arrives and then say “told you so” at the end makes the character feel more like empty score settling on Burton’s part at the same problematic level as stabbing the jock. More troubling is the character of Joyce. Kathy Baker plays her brilliantly but making the one overtly sexual woman in the film into a predatory narcissistic who cries rape as soon as she’s rejected makes her feel like a character created as revenge on women by a perpetually rejected teenage boy. On the flipside of all this, we have Dick Anthony Williams as Officer Allen, a cop who seems to understand Edward’s plight and attempts to save his life by faking his shooting. Burton has recently run into criticism for his clumsy response to accusations of less-than-diverse casting in his films but as the one black character in Edward Scissorhands, Officer Allen is also notable for being one of the few really sympathetic characters as well. Though race isn’t mentioned, the casting of Williams seems like a deliberate move in a film that attempts to redress the balance for mistreated outcasts and Allen’s implicit understanding of the dangers of mob mentality seems loaded with subtext. Unlike Esmeralda’s virtually pointless presence, Officer Allen’s plot thread benefits from its brevity, lest the film overreach by trying too strongly to align victims of racism with confused white teenagers, particularly when the poster boy for this particular film is about as white as it’s possible to be.

Despite the tantalising threads that could’ve benefited from elaboration, Edward Scissorhands is a film that relies on its classical simplicity for its effect. It is fantastical and allegorical but never pretentious and, despite its side-order of bitterness, is driven by a real sense of love, whether that be love for the millions of overlooked kindred spirits Burton so obviously had in mind while making it or the love of the film’s spiritual forebears, as encapsulated by the presence of the legendary Vincent Price in his final appearance in a theatrical feature. There’s a moment in which Price, as Edward’s creator, holds up a heart shaped cookie against a cold, faceless automaton and envisages something beautiful. It would be unfair to say that this was roughly analogous to Burton’s creative process on this film but there’s certainly a sense that he greatly increased his emotional reach with Edward Scissorhands. It shows Burton working at something very close to his full potential.


With Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton proved to his naysayers that he wasn’t a filmmaker who lacked heart but after he followed that up with another Batman film, a franchise Burton himself had acknowledged as being a more impersonal project, could he prove that pouring his whole heart into Edward Scissorhands hadn’t left him with nothing more of his deeper self to share with audiences? With Ed Wood, a biopic of the notorious “worst filmmaker of all time”, Burton had his first commercial flop but this lovingly crafted, warm and sincere love letter won him new levels of acclaim from the handful of people who did see the film. Not only was Burton able to draw once again on the twin influences of his love for cult movies and his affinity with outsiders, he also saw a reflection of his own relationship with the recently deceased Vincent Price in the screenplay’s tender examination of the friendship between Ed Wood and the elderly Bela Lugosi. The result was Burton’s most moving depiction of love, without any underlying archness or allegorical distance.

Biopics don’t generally tend to be among my favourite films. This is partly because the majority of them seem to use the same repetitive tropes (which is not the case with Ed Wood) while also playing fast and loose with the facts in an ethically problematic way (which unfortunately is the case with Ed Wood). If they’re not going to disappear into predictable TV movie level fare, it’s important that a director make a decision about the kind of film they want to make and Burton has very clearly done that. Though he doesn’t undersell the tragedy of the story, Burton and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have chosen to accentuate the optimism of Wood, his love for the filmmaking process and the misfits with whom he surrounded himself. It makes for a lovely tone that blends humour with melancholy, simultaneously and consistently rather than with jarring gear-shifts. But in order to maintain this atmosphere, certain elements of Wood’s real life have been all but erased, notably his alcoholism. From a narrative point of view, I’m fine with that. It’s hard to bring anything knew to the alcoholism storyline we’ve seen so many times and it would pull focus from the heart of the story in a way that would clash dramatically. But in removing it altogether, the film does a disservice those who had to deal with the reality of Wood’s drinking, notably his girlfriend Dolores Fuller who is portrayed as leaving Ed based solely on his penchant for wearing women’s clothes and befriending oddballs. Fuller, though she charitably praised the film overall, was hurt by her depiction. Fuller and Bela Lugosi’s son Bela G. Lugosi were also among those who criticised the inaccuracy of Lugosi’s portrayal, in particular his repeated use of profanity. Lugosi reportedly prided himself on being a classy gentleman and it seems unfair to turn him into a foul-mouthed character for the sake of a cheap laugh. Martin Landau’s performance as Lugosi was perhaps helped on its way to the Oscar by the fact that the Academy loves a potty-mouthed old man (see John Gielgud in Arthur, Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine and Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets).

Though I imagine it’s a lot harder to forgive a biopic’s fudging of the facts if you’re the person, or a descendant of the person, whose facts are getting all fudgy, from a filmmaking point of view I understand the need for a certain amount of artistic license, an element that ought to be implicitly understood by filmgoers, especially in an age when performing your own fact check is so much easier. Burton explained “it’s not like a completely hardcore realistic biopic. In doing a biopic you can’t help but get inside the person’s spirit a little bit, so for me, some of the film is trying to be through Ed a little bit. So it’s got an overly optimistic quality to it.” This is part of what makes Ed Wood such a vibrantly enjoyable example of a biopic. It doesn’t just tell the story of a life, it appropriates some of the stylistic techniques associated with its subject in order to infuse the film with a sense of his character. Burton’s insistence on shooting in black and white is crucial in that respect and Stefan Czapsky’s cinematography captures a perfect level of graininess that neither tumbles into cheap pastiche nor veers into inappropriate beautification. Chris Lebenzon’s editing is also instrumental in capturing a fleet, rough-around-the-edges B-movie style. Alexander and Karaszewski’s exemplary screenplay, partly conceived in order to break their association with the critically lambasted Problem Child franchise, is delightfully progressive in its accepting attitude towards characters whose lifestyles were almost invariably the butt of jokes in the era the film was released. Bill Murray’s Bunny Breckinridge, for instance, is an openly gay character who is hoping to undergo gender transition surgery. This is repeatedly discussed but never made into a punchline, in the same way that Wood’s transvestism is treated seriously and with great empathy.

If Edward Scissorhands was an ode to the solitude of being a teenage outsider, Ed Wood is a celebration of finding your people, the glorious moment when the scissorhanded ones come together. For those who are yet to make those connections it is a note of hope, for those who once had them it’s an exercise in loving melancholic nostalgia, and for those lucky ones who are currently in the midst of their own mass misfit mind-melds it is a joyous reflection. The film is beautifully cast, with Johnny Depp giving one of his finest performances as the endearing and unswervingly enthusiastic Ed and Patricia Arquette, Bill Murray, Lise Marie, George “The Animal” Steele and Jeffrey Jones all contributing to one of the most colourful ensembles to ever appear in black and white. Sarah Jessica Parker was frequently made to carry the can for the inaccuracy of her portrayal of Fuller but purely considering what was asked of her by the director, I think she does an excellent job. But few disagree that Ed Wood belongs to Martin Landau whose Bela Lugosi, despite the inaccuracies of how the character is written, feels like the man himself come back to life. Rick Baker, Ve Neill and Yolanda Toussieng’s Oscar winning makeup completes the illusion but Landau manages to pull off a pitch-perfect impersonation of Lugosi’s Hungarian accent without over-relying on that one impressive element. Instead, the meat of the performance is in Landau’s perfect blend of the comedic and the deeply tragic. Despite the abundance of inaccurate swearing he’s asked to do, Landau captures that essence of the respectable gentleman that Lugosi reportedly was. The film’s main source of sadness is Lugosi’s inability to escape the jaws of addiction and bankruptcy in order to convincingly regain that poise on which he once prided himself.

Reckoning with the problematic pitfalls of the biopic and emerging victorious, Ed Wood is a film that feels all the more special for the plethora of unremarkable examples of the genre that arrived across subsequent decades. While this was a new genre for Burton, he created something that doesn’t disturb the continuity of his oeuvre, swathed as it is in the otherworldly iconography that epitomises both Wood’s and Burton’s filmographies, albeit with significantly different budgets. It may have ended a run of hits with its disappointing box office take but Ed Wood increased Burton’s reputation as a director who could touch hearts as effectively as he could excite eyeballs.

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