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EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990)

Rather than jump into making another blockbuster after Batman, Tim Burton used his new clout to get an extremely personal project off the ground.

It would be based on a sketch of a man with scissors for hands that Burton had drawn years earlier. The project was greenlit by 20th Century Fox (Warner Bros. had passed on the idea, before the success of Batman). The film marked the first time Burton had full creative control over a project, having written the story and also produced the movie. Apparently, Burton wanted to do it as a musical at first, but later decided the story could stand on its own without songs. Burton formed Tim Burton Productions in 1989 with producer Denise Di Novi to oversee Scissorhands and his future films.

Writer Caroline Thompson was hired to flesh out Burton’s ideas into a full screenplay. The deal made with the studio was that they could either accept the script or not - no changes were to be made to the film. Once the project was a go, Burton began recruiting his cast and crew and scouting locations in Florida for the perfect suburban neighborhood.

As Burton was the hottest new director in town, many actors were reportedly interested in the lead role, including Robert Downey, Jr., Tom Hanks and, most bizarrely, Michael Jackson. One actor the studio wanted for the role was Tom Cruise. Burton actually met with him, but the deal fell apart when the Cruiser reportedly wanted Edward to be made more masculine and given plastic surgery at the end.

Eventually Johnny Depp was chosen for the role. He was best known at the time as the kid who gets eaten by a bed in the first A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and as the star of popular teen cop show 21 Jump Street. Though he had already tried to spoof his teen heartthrob image by taking the lead role in John Water's Cry-Baby (1990) no one really took him seriously as an actor. Once again Burton would choose an unlikely actor that no one else imagined in the role and turn it into one of the film's main strengths.

The eclectic supporting cast included Dianne Wiest (who was one of the first people to lend their support to the script) and Alan Arkin. Returning to work with Burton were Winona Ryder (in a very different role from Lydia in Beetlejuice) and Vincent Price.

The production took place mostly in Tinsmith Circle, Florida. The real neighborhood houses were given a makeover with pastel color schemes and smaller windows. The redesign of the suburban neighborhood gave it a generic small town feel, making it seem even more real than the reality and also shows how Edward views the bland suburbia as some kind of wonderland. One house in the film is getting fumigated and appropriately looks like a circus tent.

The heat and bugs proved a problem throughout the production, especially for Depp who was sweltering inside his leather suit. Despite this it was a much easier shoot than Batman, with Burton clearly more at home. The film was completed in time for a Christmas release. Some people were predicting the film to be Burton's E.T. but the studio decided not to oversell it, giving the film a modest release.

Starting with the snow falling on the Fox logo the film lets us know we're in for a magical experience. The main titles are slightly more abstract than in Burton's previous films. The title opens like a pair of scissors as the camera travels inside a gothic castle. We then see a series of images - cookies, scissors, hands, and even Vincent Price's face - that will take on more relevance later.
Finally the main titles end as we pull back from the mansion through a window and into a little girl's room. It's telling that the first line of the film is, "Snuggle in sweetie, it's cold out there". The line doesn't just refer to the weather. The storybook opening sets the tone for the film as the little girl asks her Grandma where snow comes from.
As she begins the tale we see Edward, like Batman, watching over the town from a lonely point high above. So begins the story of Edward in flashback. Following an amusing sequence where Peg Boggs tries to sell Avon products to people she knows never buy from her, she decides to visit the gothic castle which just happens to bet at the end of the road.
There she meets Edward, the unfortunate boy with scissors for hands who lives alone in the fireplace of the attic. She takes pity on him and decides to bring him to a colourful and romanticised suburban neighbourhood. There's a lovely scene where Edward is touring his new home for the first time and falls in love with Peg's daughter, Kim, after only seeing her photo.

Edward is given new clothes (a way of "normalising" his outlandish appearance) while the housewives all come out onto the street to gossip about him until their husbands return home.

The first half of the film is full of subtle physical comedy and gentle satire on suburban life. Edward has trouble with nearly everything, from getting dressed to trying to eat dinner. As for waterbeds . . .

Edward soon brings his artistic skills to the town and the people almost ignore his bizarre appearance. Indeed there is something fairly patronising about his treatment, with an old war veteran telling Edward not to let anyone tell him he has a handicap and the audience on a TV show offering Edward all kinds of assistance with nothing ever coming from it (a touch of Hollywood allegory there).

There are some wonderfully composed shots that have an almost animated feel, including the one where Kevin takes Edward to show and tell and he points his blades at the students.

The celebrity adoration of Edward soon turns to him being exploited by and then violently rejected by the townspeople.

Jim gets Edward to rob his own house and the alarm goes off, trapping Edward inside (one wonders if Jim knew this would happen and wanted to get rid of the competition). One of the most subtly amusing scenes occurs when a psychologist runs off a long list of mental problems Edward has. When a concerned police officer asks if he'll be okay out there, the disinterested psychologist just says, "Oh yeah, he'll be fine."

No one seems to want to have anything to do with Edward after that, and even Kim's brother Kevin grows tired of always winning when he plays rock, paper, scissors.

Edward continues to long for Kim, and eventually wins her love through his devotion, culminating in the beautiful ice dance scene. As Kim dances in the snow the scene becomes the ultimate representation of the artist communicating his feelings through his work.

Unfortunately it is cut short by Jim and things don't improve for Edward after that.


The scene where Kim asks Edward to hold her and he replies, "I can't" is wonderfully touching. Once again their intimate moment is interrupted, this time by Jim almost running over Kevin.

A sympathetic cop chases Edward off rather than arrest him. However, Kim and Jim don't think he's dead and both follow.

Some would later say that the violent ending was unnecessary, but without it the film would literally have no point. Edward is the most normal person in the movie and it is the twisted townsfolk who are the true monsters, resulting in his loss of innocence. Kim and Edward share a final kiss and then she leaves, telling the townsfolk he died along with Jim.

While some may have preferred a happily ever after ending, Burton ends the film the only way it could have, with Edward alone but still sharing his artistic gift with the snow he creates from his ice sculptures.

Some viewers may ask why Kim didn't go up and join him earlier, but that would have taken away from the bittersweet fairytale quality of the story.


Every performance in the film hits just the right note. Johnny Depp, in what may still be his finest role, brings a feeling of tortured emotion to his almost silent character that lingers long in the memory. No one can stare longingly better than him. It's easy forgot who's playing the part, even now. Depp reportedly based his performance partly on a dog.

He is also adept at the rapid switches from pathos to humour, such as when he stares wistfully out of the TV screen (knowing Kim is watching) and then accidentally cuts the microphone wires and gets a shock.

The makeup on Depp subtly transforms him into the character. The scratches on his face add sympathy and the removal of his eyebrows opens up his already expressive face.

His wild hair has of course been compared to Burton's own, adding to the autobiographical feel. The Scissorhands designed by Stan Winston look and act like real blades. It took Depp quite some time to get used to his scissorhands. He even accidentally stabbed Anthony Michael Hall in the arm at one point. Though he operated them himself in many shots, closeups were performed by puppeteers.

Dianne Wiest and Alan Arkin are, respectively, touchingly real and hilariously blank as the parents who adopt him. Peg is one of the few sympathetic suburbanites who finds her good intentions hurt more than they help. Her sunny disposition (in a town where no one buys her Avon products) is infectuous. Burton apparently saw a lot of his own dad in Arkin's performance.
The talk Bill Boggs gives Edward about teenage girls (before getting him drunk for the first time) is particularly amusing, as is his total lack of reaction when Edward announces that Joyce took him in the back room of his new barber shop and took her clothes off. His nonchalant attitude and meaningless sayings are always amusing ("You can't buy the necessities of life with cookies").

Winona Ryder brings warmth and beauty (in a blonde wig) to her supporting role as the object of Edward's affectations, who comes to love him for his artistic vision. The fact that she and Depp were dating in real life during the filming only added to the chemistry between the characters.

While some found Kim a little one-dimensional, there are hints that she has more depth than first appears, such as the fact that she (like Edward) cuts out pictures from newspapers and magazines and puts them over her bedside mirror, a subtle connection between the characters.

The makeup used to transform Ryder into an old granny is also quite impressive.

Anthony Michael Hall is suitably menacing as the jealous jock who eventually gets his come-uppance. Burton apparently considered Crispin Glover for the role of the bully played by Hall, but he had too much in common with the Back to the Future actor. Jim's character is a direct comment on the jocks Burton saw in high school. Burton was horrified that these guys, no matter how unpleasant they were, always had girlfriends. The choice of both Hall and Ryder shows how Burton likes to cast against type (Ryder being famous for playing dark roles previously and Hall best known for playing nerds in John Hughes films).

Kathy Baker is very funny as Joyce, the sex-starved, Tom Jones-listening housewife with creepy fingernails. When Edward cuts her hair, it is clearly an orgasmic experience.

The scene where she attempts to seduce Edward is amusing and disturbing (especially as she seems to be wearing some kind of dominatrix underwear).

Esmeralda is creepily portrayed by O-Lan Jones (who also did her own keyboard music) and her character seems to be a commentary on religious fundamentalism. Finally, Vincent Price, in his last feature film role, brings extra resonance as Edward's inventor.

He has many charming moments, such as when he moves Edward's new hands in tandem with his scissorhands before he dies. The three flashbacks to the Inventor are spaced throughout the film and each one reveals new information about Edward. He starts out as a salad cutter with a cookie heart, learns about etiquette and poetry and then witnesses the death of his Inventor who he can't touch without drawing blood.

In this final flashback Edward's new hands are destroyed (one of the hands points to a severed finger accusingly).

During the production and following the release of the Edward Scissorhands, Burton filmed interviews with his Price, for a film titled Conversations With Vincent. Tragically, the film was incomplete at the time of Price’s death in 1993, and is unlikely to ever see release.

Price's daughter, Victoria, plays the reporter who tries to get a comment from Edward after his arrest.

The film featured Burton's finest directing to that date. Taking the comic sensibilities of his first two features and his experience of directing a big budget epic, Burton was able to create a film with the perfect balance between comedy and drama. He also got uniformly great performances from his cast, showing that Kim Basinger was an anomaly in Batman.

The cinematography by Stefan Czapsky has a beautiful storybook feel. The scenes of Edward making his ice sculptures are wonderfully shot in particular. Some of the outdoor scenes do have a rather muddy look, but this was probably due to the large amount of bugs plaguing the production in Florida.

The sets for Edward's castle are very impressive, especially the long staircase. The topiaries, which include a squirrel, the Loch Ness Monster, dinosaurs, a teddy bear and, symbolically, a giant hand, are beautiful. They were created with chicken wire frames.

The film also makes good use of real 1960's style locations such as the Southgate Shopping Center in Lakeland, Florida.

Edward's costume is a work of art, though at first glance it does somewhat resemble bondage gear. The costumes for the townsfolk are wonderfully tacky. Joyce in particular displays some outlandish fashions, including a mermaid body apron.

The editing is competent throughout, though one wishes the final shot had been allowed to linger longer before the end credits start. The film fell victim to censorship in the U.K. where several shots of Jim beating up Edward at the end were removed to retain a PG rating. Ironically, the softening of the attack on Edward has the effect of making his retaliation against Jim seem more extreme than it did in the uncut version.

The haunting score by Danny Elfman adds to this film's status as an all-time classic. While the suburban suites recall his earlier work (adding element of muzak and even gypsy music), the music used for the more emotional scenes, especially the ice dance and grand finale, are some of the most beautiful compositions ever heard in a film. Without the score, the film wouldn't have been even half as moving as it turned out to be. It also emphasises Edward's gentle side even when he is cutting people by mistake. The fact that it wasn't even nominated for an Oscar beggars belief.

The Tom Jones songs are also used well, acting almost as the soundtrack for suburbia. At other points the radio acts as a commentary on the action. When Edward cuts the hedge in the Boggs's yard into a dinosaur, a sportscaster on the radio can be heard saying, "It's gone, it's out of here, it's history," commenting not only on what Edward is doing to the hedge but the character's eventual fate.

There is so much to be got out of this film that it's hard to describe it in one review. More than any of Burton's other films it improves with each viewing, as the viewer discovers more and more details. Burton wanted to contemporise some of his favourite fairytale themes and make the link with real life closer, and he succeeded admirably. Like the best fairytales, the story can be read many ways, from a comment on the patronising of handicapped people, to an exploration of the tortured artist at work.

Semi-autobiographical themes are worked in by Burton and screenwriter Caroline Thompson, but not overdone. Many people saw Burton in the main character (Vincent Price even said that Edward is Tim) but Burton later tried to downplay the connection, saying the character was based as much on Depp as himself. Edward represents, among other things: the unconditional love of an animal; a childlike sense of wonder; an adolescent's clumsiness and someone who longs to touch others without hurting them.

Many critics commented on the timeless nature of the film. Though the neighborhood feels like a 1960's community, there are references to modern technology throughout. As in Batman, this blurring of time periods, while confusing to more literal viewers (some have even claimed the wrap around story is set in the 21st century, based on Kim's age) helps the fairytale theme of the film.

Burton's view of the suburbia he grew up in, where there is no sense of history and no real reason for things being the way they are other than conformity comes through strongly in the film.

The film shares similarities with many classic tales, most obviously Frankenstein, Beauty and the Beast, Phantom of the Opera and Pinocchio. Some also saw influences in the 19th Century German book Struwwelpeter, which features a shock-headed boy with very long fingernails (though Burton has said he didn’t see this until after the film was made).

Edward Scissorhands is Burton's masterpiece and arguably his most personal film. It's a moving portrait of an artistic outsider who cannot touch what he desires without destroying it. While he may have made more technically adept films since, none of his other work comes close to the emotion of this deceptively simple story. Burton mixes classic fairytale themes to create an original and touching character in Edward.

Despite some occasional clumsiness the film is almost perfect in its own way. Unlike most Christmas fairytales, though, this is refreshingly free of schmaltz. It manages to take themes from existing stories and yet still feels completely fresh. It's hard to imagine Burton will ever make anything approaching the depth and emotion of this wonderful film again, since it was fuelled by an adolescent angst he clearly no longer has. It's funny, sad and visually striking. What more could anyone want from a movie?

Upon its release, the film received mostly positive reviews. Many critics couldn’t resist using puns in their review, such as “a cut above the rest” (Peter Travers in "Rolling Stone") and “shear heaven” (Richard Corliss in "Time" magazine).

Roger Ebert was one of the critics at the time that completely missed the point of the film, though. He rather bafflingly states that Edward is “is intended, I think, as an everyman, a universal figure like one of the silent movie clowns”, then complains “that the other people are as weird, in their ways, as he is”, not seeming to realise that the purpose of the film is to show how the "monster" is the normal one and it's the townsfolk who are scary.

Some criticisms of the film also pointed out the supposed plot holes - such as why does he have scissors for hands and where did he get the ice? They missed the point, as this fairytale bears no relation to the real world, except in its themes. You have to suspend your disbelief.

As Caroline Thompson said in an interview for the making of the film, "It's a fable. A fable is a story that people don't necessarily believe but they understand." Burton was more direct in his response, saying that people who had a problem with the logic of the film should just go and see films like Pretty Woman.

Despite some people not being able to accept the timeless fantasy of the film (during one preview, some audience members actually sided with Jim for wanting to beaut up that "fag" trying to steal his girl), it was a fairly big hit with moviegoers, earning over $55 million. It marked the beginning of Burton being taken seriously as an artist. Though he was free to make pretty much any film he wanted, the spectre of the Bat still loomed . . .

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