Tim Burton holds a special appeal for the social misfits and outcasts of mainstream society. Such a statement has proven self-evident time and time again over the course of the director’s thirty-year career, as his distinctive vision and authorial voice has given rise to many an offbeat studio film and inspired independent feature. His more personal works, like 1988’s Beetlejuice, have seen the rise of a certain gothic aesthetic that has since become appropriated into the mainstream, with his brooding atmospherics and visual color palates of highly stylized shades of black and grey almost acceptable by those not otherwise affiliated with pop-cultural movements as emotionally vulnerable and melodramatically effusive as The Cure or The Smiths.
As for studio films with a wider appeal, Burton’s 1989 Batman and its sequel three years later, as well as his 2007 adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, have all enjoyed moderate successes with general audiences, though the director’s decided flair for macabre and brutally antagonistic thematic elements have proven alienating for many filmgoers otherwise personally staid, socially complacent, and behaviorally conservative. Likewise, his 1994 Hollywood bio-picture Ed Wood continues to be held in high critical regard even though it was an initial box office bomb, with Burton’s muse and frequent on-screen collaborator Johnny Depp decidedly too out there, weird, and vaguely non-conformist to prove more than distasteful to those in line with the status quo.
This distance between Burton and his audience – even when he has experimented in developing projects with a built-in wide appeal, such as his 2001 Planet of the Apes remake or in his personal takes on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland in 2005 and 2010 respectively – has consistently resulted in most people either taking to the director’s outpourings immediately as speaking to their own deeply held feelings of alienation, or else be rubbed the wrong way by a provocateur apparently content to make films for a small, if relatively vocal, contingent of the cultural underclass.
Given this history of Burton as an eminent Hollywood filmmaker, it becomes even more unique and special to examine what is perhaps his most clearly articulated aesthetic and narrative vision, Edward Scissorhands, on what is the film’s twenty-fifth anniversary. Originally released on December 7, 1990, Burton’s romantic, dark fantasy remains one of his most affecting and well-liked works. Starring Johnny Depp in the lead role, the director’s fourth directorial effort is perhaps his best, as it speaks to deeply felt layers of individual expression and a decidedly gothic melancholia that still feels alive and relevant in way that many of his works from the past decade do not.
The character of Edward Scissorhands plays like the kind of touched genius whose brilliance can be frightening on first glance, as his innocence and naïveté appears like a mental defect and monstrous inability to emote. But upon closer examination, his is a personage less like that of the Hollywood monsters in whose shadow he stands, but instead is more akin to the tender souls that make up the film’s core audience.
It’s easy to denigrate the film for being little more than emotional whimsy and broadly applied dramatics, its themes, tones, and distinguished nuances telling a story that has become well worn in the two and a half decades since it first appeared. For many, Edward is something of a childish mystery, a movie monster who shares screen time with the late, great Vincent Price no less, but who refrains from any slasher film excesses, preferring to trim the hedges of his kindly, misunderstanding neighbors, before returning to his very own House of Usher to the live out the rest of his days in quiet isolation and misanthropic precocity.
But such a misreading is precisely why a film such as Edward Scissorhands is so invaluable from decade-to-decade, and generation-to-generation, as the identity and ideas behind the many characters who populate Burton’s world remain intact today, and are probably still living right next door to you right now. For those who found Burton’s satirical tragedy at the right time in their lives, and who might continue to look back into the past at its drama as one that has surreptitiously narrated and defined much of their adult life, Edward Scissorhands is an old friend likewise afflicted with a certain lack of social graces, and forced to toil hard at seeming normal. For those who have ever been scolded for not smiling, or appearing uninterested water cooler conversation, or lost entirely in a world of their own making, Burton’s film reminds them that they are not alone.
At the very heart of what makes Edward Scissorhands so indispensable – and by extension Burton as its chief auteur – is the compassion it holds for the lonely, isolated, fragile, and uncommonly gentle people that populated its cinematic canvas. At the close of the film, Winona Ryder attempts to be embraced by her desired Romeo, before Depp responds with the climactic response, “I can’t,” with all of the heartbreak and affection that anyone who has ever felt unable to fully express themselves have felt and been forced to contend with in one form and another as highly unusual people living in a world too clearly defined by the social strictures of conservative cultures.
The fragility that Edward Scissorhands continues to put across to viewers today is largely consistent with how it first appeared twenty-five years ago, and remains the one film that most clearly summarizes its director’s entire life’s work. Burton is a social misfit just as much as Depp, and both men find themselves at times as outwardly isolated due to their inward leaning personalities and character quirks, even if their jarring public personas aren’t always as obtrusive as a pair of scissor-wielding hands, with pallid white and scarred skin to match. There is a certain ridiculousness to the figure that Edward Scissorhands continues to cast against mainstream, popular culture, though it still continues too loom as largely as the lone, gothic mansion set against the bright, sunny, suburban landscape of the picture itself, serving as a reminder of the unassuming presence of certain counter-cultural thinkers and iconoclastic surveyors within an otherwise homogenous social strata, and thankfully so.