Dir: Tim Burton, 1990, US, 105 Mins
Cast: Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, Dianne Wiest, Anthony Michael Hall, Alan Arkin, Vincent Price, Kathy Baker.
Snow flurries past the studio emblem, Danny Elfman’s evocative music rises, and a door is opened. Welcome to Burton world, a land populated by gothic architecture, creepy hilltop mansions and Legoland suburbia. A place where the Breakfast Club geek is the bullying jock, the usually death obsessed loner Winona Ryder is the blonde cheerleader, and pretty boy Depp is the leatherclad, pale faced freak with scissors for hands.
If you hadn’t guessed already you are in the realm of a contemporary fairy tale, touchingly remembered by a wizened Ryder under layers of latex as she reminisces about a teenage romance.
Atop of a hill stands a menacing mansion, in which a forlorn inventor (Price) experiments with outlandish and over the top cookie making machines. During one such culinary escapade he holds a heart shaped cookie up to one of the robots that help shape the dough. Edward (Depp) is created, a leatherclad mannequin with blades instead of fingers. Unlike Freddy Krueger and akin to the Tin Man of The Wizard of Oz, Edward is an innocent who searches for love; the cookie that inspired his creation. Wretchedly, the Inventor dies just before fitting Edward with a pair of working hands, leaving him alone and despondent in the empty, cold and cobwebbed abode.
This is the fate of the outsider, fearful of a society that would not accept him. Edward skulks around the gloomy corridors sculpting animal companions from bushes in a perfectly tended garden.
That is until the Avon worshipping Peg (Wiest) braves the journey through the imposing and dilapidated gates in search of a sale, with the same desperation as a salesman from Glengarry Glen Ross. On finding Edward her kind heart feels pity and insists on bringing him down to suburbia where he can attempt to “fit in”.
This is classic Burton, dealing with the well-trodden themes of the outcast, the definition of normal, the desire and inability to communicate, and the many masks we wear. At first Edward is a hit with the neighbourhood, bringing much needed excitement to their mundane clockwork lives, in which housewives scurry home to prepare dinner when their worker husbands return, reminiscent of an ant hive.
Edward now wears a mask of clothing and a layer of makeup to hide the facial scars symbolic of the fractured personality within. He sculpts bushes, grooms dogs, barbeques kebabs and attends a class room show, all the while being the centre of attention as housewives cackle around him. He also cuts hair, in many ways making the neighbourhood ladies look as strange and outlandish as him; but now being the freak is “in”, and everyone wants to join the parade.
Of course this fairy tale cannot last and it is not long before freakishness is no longer accepted, and the ant hive turns into a hornets nest intent on driving Edward away, akin to the villagers in a hammer horror.
This is a heart-breaking tale, brought to life by the visionary direction of Tim Burton who is at his best when dealing with grim, magical, fantastical tales of this kind. The visual representation of suburban life is skilfully and imaginatively portrayed through the eyes of the outsider, of Edward and no doubt the eyes of self proclaimed odd-ball Burton himself.
The cast is superb, in particular Depp whose anguished portrayal of a freak who harms everything he touches, and indeed loves, will soften the hearts of even the most jaded of viewers. This story of a love that cannot be incorporates both Romeo and Juliet and Beauty and the Beast and it would be entirely fitting for this film to begin with the words “Once upon a time”.
This is a fairy tale, a fable, one that many may not believe, but all will understand. Edward lives in the dark forest of our mind in which we battled to grow up, to learn how to communicate with the opposite sex, to gain acceptance into an often cruel society. By the end of this bizarre heartrending film you will sit, hands clasped, with tears in your eyes with two words on your lips, “Thank you”.
Thank you Mr Burton, this film is Magical.