by Paul Deeter
In 1990, Tim Burton was more than comfortable with Warner Bros. delivering them cult classics like Beetlejuice and establishing the dark knight in his first serious onscreen interpretation with Batman (1989). Tim Burton's depraved humor matched with the talent of Michael Keaton as the wisecracker Beetlejuice being followed with his brooding brilliance as Batman made him a director to watch from the late 80s. But it wasn't truly until 1993 with The Nightmare Before Christmas, one of the most iconic alternative animated films of all time that he would become a household name. His movies were weird but had heart. Beetlejuice was about a couple who connect despite death, and Nightmare was nearly a fairy tale told from a protagonist named Jack Skellington and his discovery of the magic of Christmas. The mixture of darkness and childlike discovery is so unique to the influence of Burton, as he would follow up with new classics in the same style including Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (2005), a title which prefaced his name like a stamp of authenticity. Tim Burton is the weirdo cousin at the Hollywood holiday dinner party who could carry out his own kinds of conversation, present his own ideas and really draw a crowd. I think the influence of Nightmare is still as active as ever, but I don't truly think that the culture that can be attributed to Burton was birthed by that film. Instead I'd argue, that Edward Scissorhands was the first film to set the stage for Burton-mania. Its a brilliant picture that would put Johnny Depp in the same playing field as Burton. Its a dangerous movie, and a violent one that pushes the PG-13 rating ambiguously. Crowds were young and old, and the younger Gen Y audience found Edward Scissorhands on the shelves of their Dad's VHS tower and probably put it on too young. Every emo or scene kid who couldn't quite find his way to fit in at his school or among his peers watched this movie. Every "Jack Skellington" our a spooky kid who's darkness alternated with a love of children's film, was deep down an Edward. And now its 31 years old, and our age.
It should be noted that like Nightmare, Edward Scissorhands is a Christmas movie. It is entirely set during the season in a sunnier climate with a rarer chance for snow, so its know Christmas-land. Edward Scissorhands would establish not just Depp's relationship with Burton but also Danny Elfmann (former lead of punk band Oingo Boingo) as our man behind the music. Surprisingly, Depp was a late decision for the role of Edward, as Keaton and Tom Hanks were both considered and Gary Oldman turned the role down (it confused him.) Most infamously Tom Cruise was almost scouted until Screenwriter Caroline Thompson interviewed him and in ... his interview with Tim, he asked how Edward went to the bathroom. Thompson went on to say: If you start asking those questions, the whole thing falls apart. You can't ask questions like that. If you ask questions like that, you're fucked. You've missed the metaphor, you've missed the point." Additionally, Burton didn't see Cruise as a fit and rightfully so, the Top Gun superstar did not necessarily inspire any sort of alternative vibe. It would be kind of like if Taylor Swift started making independent folk music, which would never happen. (I'm kidding.) It should be noted that Thompson herself was hired after Burton read her novella First Born which would cover the topic of an 'abortion that came to life' which spoke to Burton psychologically. Burton was working from the heart of his own childhood here; Edward Scissorhands is based on a drawing he made in elementary school.
With the combination of the right screenwriter and actor to match the park, the film was destined to be historically lauded as Burton's finest, but despite that it has not seen any recent releases or remasters and doesn't feel in the same conversation as Nightmare or some of his other cult classics. But cult classic would be a good term used for this feature, as the audience (despite an 80+ million box office release) didn't really stick until later. That being said, Edward Scissorhands did a lot for the scene culture it would be followed by. Reasons for this are not just the style and look of Edward, but also his stark juxtaposition to his life when it begins as he is adopted into a sunny conservative neighborhood, by Peg Boggs (Diane Wiest.) Peg sympathizes with Edward despite his gothic appearance and the clear danger of his "condition', the fact that his hands have been created with scissors. He's not a regular boy, but he's doing his best to live in his own skin, and I think unlike the wildly famed A Nightmare Before Christmas, teenagers felt more drawn to Edward. Nightmare lives on for its imagery and art style, drawing a love for the spookiest of seasons even far past the final day of October. Edward is a different case, as its connection to Christmas is not as obvious; only later in the film do we get snow fall and outside of a Christmas cooking scene we mostly see Edward in his sunny neighborhood setting. I had to rewatch the film to remind myself of some of the scenes that stand out. Outside of some comedy bits with his discovery for topiary work and fitting into clothing, there's not a whole lot of humor here. In fact the film gets really, really dark.
Its that danger I should note that really establishes it perhaps even uncomfortably as a film that speaks to the emo generation. The idea of accidentally harming yourself or losing control is an underlying message of this movie. An innocent person who becomes wrapped up in accidental harm because of something he can't control. Kind of like X-Men's Wolverine, who despite his adamantium skeleton and claws is really a hurt man who can never but down his weapons. Edward isn't weaponized, and is as gentle as possible (made clear from imagery of him holding a butterfly in a particularly beautiful scene), but he can't always keep in control. He is useful for household work but can't touch his face without nicking it, or put on clothes or get into bed. The film says so much to its viewers that Thompson mentions getting spoken to frequently about its impact on those with disabilities.
"Recently, I was interviewed as apart of a disability film festival. And this is the 30th anniversary of the ADA [American Disability Act]. I did not realize what an icon Edward is for the disabled community and how much confidence and comfort and clarity about themselves he gave many people."
But boys and girls outside of the disabled community still were drawn to the idea of the kid who couldn't fit in, especially with Edward's love for the popular girl at school, Kim played famously by Winona Ryder. Every emo kid had their crush on someone more popular than them, and couldn't quite express that. The literal style change this film made could also be accounted to the popularity of the dark retail outlet: Hot Topic. Hot Topic's establishment in 1989 made the timing for Gen-Y's love for counterculture easy to dress into. So many pieces of clothing or apparel of any sort would see Burton's images. Edward found his way on to multiple pieces of merch that wouldn't be seen until Hot Topic became popular. It's the cult status of this movie that allowed it later appreciation into merchandises sold at stores like Spencer's as well. But even un-literally the darker colors and deeper layers of leather clothing might not have shown images from the film but can still be quietly attested to the clothing Edward wears.
Its not always easy to express our insecurities and our desires and its easier to mask them up in silence or layers. To hide our skin and our own nicks. Edward's desire for love despite his condition is admirable and relatable, and even his anger is as well. Its ok to feel angry, and its okay to feel weird. Despite Edward's tragic story and downfall he weaves a yarn for the culture that needed him most. And future generations might need their own Edward, but I do hope they find access to this movie despite its difficult to find status.
Edward Scissorhands is currently streaming on Hulu.