Viking Night: Edward Scissorhands
By Bruce Hall
April 24, 2012

I'd give you a back rub but...

Tim Burton has been devoted to film since he was a child, which makes it little wonder that a childlike sensibility inhabits the majority of his work, even when it isn't necessarily meant to. We stick to the habits that work. So, when you've been doing something since before you even started liking girls, part of you is bound to remain a child forever. You're also bound to be a little different from everyone else. After all, the only people carrying around film cameras when they were kids are guys like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Also, most of the guys who shoot X-rated films. Either way, you're part of what one might call "the mainstream.”

But if you're good at what you do, eventually you reach the point where you're skilled enough to "tell stories with film,” rather than just "put stories on film.” People like this almost always go self-retrospective at some point - through the eyes of one of their characters, of course. Spielberg is obsessed with divorce, and Lucas is devoted to bad character names and putting at least one racist character in every film. And some guys just get it all out there, like Tim Burton. If it weren't for Paul Reubens, a man whose second biggest claim to fame would be way too easy a shot to take, Burton may never have gotten his big break.

And if it weren't for a famished looking Michael Keaton successfully passing himself off as a billionaire master of kung fu, Burton may never have been given carte blanche on some of the best films ever made. But this isn't an article about Tim Burton. This is an article about Edward Scissorhands, who is only based on Tim Burton. And the suburban neighborhood where Edward finds himself is full of catty housewives with flammable hairdos and ugly pastel houses - presumably not unlike the neighborhood where Burton grew up.

But let's get back to Edward. He's a tall, ghostly pale kid with freaky black hair and spindly hands (real subtle, Burton) that also happen to double as scissors. This is because his creator (Vincent Price), who was kind of a Steampunk Gepetto, dropped dead before finishing him. One wonders whether Steampunk Gepetto might have had time to make a pair of real hands for his boy if only he hadn't wasted all of it making big scary scissor hands instead. But they serve a purpose, and it all makes sense in the end.

Edward (Johnny Depp) spends many years living alone in Steampunk Gepetto's old house until one day when he's visited by an Avon saleswoman who just today saw the Addams Family house on top of yonder hill for the very first time. She finds Edward in the attic - not insane and feral after years of darkness and isolation, but cheerful and gentle. He looks more like The Cure's Robert Smith than he does Tim Burton - all pouty innocence and desperation, despite the cool Hellraiser outfit and Freddy Krueger hands.

The kindly Avon lady takes Edward in with her family, using both her powers of maternal warmth and cosmetic engineering to make the kid feel at home. It goes well, with Edward fitting in both as part of the domestic landscape, not to mention part landscaper. But faster than you can say "antagonist", the Nosy Housewives show up, including the Religious one and The Slutty One. To them, Edward is either a curiosity or an abomination. To the Avon Lady, he's a project.
Nobody seems to want to get to know the real Edward.

…That is, until daughter Kim (Winona Ryder) comes home with her oafish boyfriend Jim (Anthony Michael Hall, who fills up a shirt for the first time on screen). Things get off to a rocky start, but I don't think it's spoiling anything to reveal that the contrast between Jim, who's a prick, and Edward, who's not, reveals a lot about Kim's character before the end of the movie. I also don't think it's a problem to mention that as quickly as the townsfolk run out of ways to use Edward for things is about the same time things start to go badly for Senor Scissors. The sensitive recluse finds himself subject to the white hot glare of suspicion and recrimination, and it will put significant strain on the few friendships he's made.

Edward Scissorhands obviously borrows a lot of things from a lot of places. It's a little Pinocchio, it's a little Frankenstein, it's a little, you know, Robert Smith from The Cure. But it's also a little window into Tim Burton's past. And it's fascinating to see how obviously isolated Edward looks juxtaposed against the ghastly pastel/polyester lowlights of Burton's childhood memories. And it's a little chilling if you consider it from the perspective of a shy, tormented genius with gifted hands (natch) forced to subsist on the tolerance of half competent strangers, each content to sleep at the wheel through life. And each insistent in their own way that Edward, on one level or another, conform and join or be expunged.

Burton's typically inventive visual landscapes give you - as they usually do - the feeling that you're inside a storybook or graphic novel. His witty, disarming story lulls you at first, before becoming as dark and vivid as a child's nightmare. And Danny Elfman's score alternates between dissonant three ring circus bombast and space-angels and twinkle bells - both his trademarks and both sufficient to underscore the plot rather than overshadow it. Or, to use the non word-salad version of the same point, it's a complete story. It's a fractured fable from another time; one where you come away feeling both pleasantly enriched AND a little sad. It's a pretty wonderful thing.

I haven't felt that way about a Tim Burton movie in a while. Maybe it's me, maybe it's him. It doesn't really matter. What's probably more important is the fact that a vanity picture is always a labor of love - but it's only when your audience doesn't have to labor to love it that you can call it a success. The very best thing to come out of Tim Burton's childhood was Tim Burton. And one of the very best things to ever come out of Tim Burton is Edward Scissorhands.