A Trip Back To: Edward Scissorhands (1990)

By Christian DiMartino

Remember when Hollywood gave more of a damn? Enough of a damn to fund a movie like Edward Scissorhands? Mind you, when Tim Burton broke onto the scene with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, there probably wasn’t an immediate clamoring for more of what he had to offer, seeing as the movie didn’t get great reviews. Or was there? Because Beetlejuice got greenlit, and it’s a pretty unusual movie. After the one-two punch of Beetlejuice and (maybe an even riskier gamble at the time) Batman, Burton, it seemed couldn’t be stopped. Neither of those films were written by him, but they certainly have his touch. Edward Scissorhands, released a year after Batman, was a concept that he did have a hand in writing, and boy, did this come out of his brain.

I ask the question about Hollywood because revisiting Edward Scissorhands, I was fascinated by the fact that this film was made. Because today, unless you’re A24 or Netflix, this might have been a large pass from most major studios. Batman though was a revelation in 1989, and clearly 20th Century Fox wanted in on him. I don’t believe this movie was quite a sensation, but it’s since found it’s audience. Again, a fact that I find fascinating.

Burton’s Edward Scissorhands is among the most Burtonian of his creations. I’d say that if there was a filmmaker who could warrant his own amusement park, Burton and Steven Spielberg would have to be atop the list. Because Burton’s films always have a unique, picturesque, distinct look. Not that they all look the same, far from it. Whether it be Batman or Sweeney Todd or lesser works like Alice in Wonderland, Burton’s vision, compliments of his imagination and his master craftsmen and technicians, always transport us to awesome worlds that dazzle the eye. Even if they’re not for you, there’s always something to look at.

I have been tiptoeing around my original subject, and it’s my fascination with the approval of this movie. Because although the movie is a visual marvel, and it’s often pretty funny, and you’ll surely never forget it, it’s not a Burton movie that I often revisit, as good as it is. Revisiting it, it became clear: it’s a pretty upsetting movie. Upsetting in the way that something like The Hunchback of Notre Dame is. We witness a character that is completely harmless be subjected to the atrocities of quote-on-quote “normal folk” because he looks weird. Obviously this is the point, and Edward Scissorhands is a fable and Burton’s weirdo version of a fairy tale. Burton has often had an affection for the outcasts, and this is his finest subject. One can just picture Burton himself being an outcast during his upbringing; the quote-on-quote “weirdo” who didn’t dress, behave, act like the others and just sat in the back of class drawing weird doodles. Which, apparently, was how this character was conceived.

Dianne Wiest (an angel) is her usual delightful self as Peg, who lives in the middle of suburbia with her family- her clueless but charming husband Bill (Alan Arkin), teenage daughter Kim (Winona Ryder) and son Kevin. She goes door to door selling cosmetics, and most of the neighbors find her kind of annoying for doing so. Desperate to make a sale, she decides to hit up the creepy old mansion that is sat atop a hill. It’s there where she discovers Edward (Johnny Depp), who happens to have scissors for hands. Edward, as we learn through flashbacks, was once a machine who was brought to life by an inventor (Vincent Price, obviously an object of fascination for Burton), and was on the cusp of being a fully fleshed human before the inventor died. He was unable to put proper hands on him before his untimely death, and thus, Edward has scissors for hands.

Peg is at first afraid of him, but then feels for him. So she decides to take him home with her. Kim is out of town with her boyfriend Jim (Anthony Michael Hall, much buffer than he was five years prior), so Edward stays in her room. There is a lot of good fish-out-of-water stuff in the early portion, and honestly one thing that worked so well for me here was the realization that Burton and screenwriter Caroline Thompson don’t really stop short in terms of the creativity; this is a premise that seems to keep giving. Once the neighbors catch onto Edward, they’re quite taken with him. Some are amazed by his abilities (he does some dope sculptures); others are attracted to him.

He’s soon the talk of the town, in general. When Kim arrives, he obviously scares the s**t out of her, particularly when she finds him in her bed. It takes a bit of warming up to him, but eventually she finds a lonely, kindred spirit in him and she grows to care for him. Alas, “normal folk” are afraid of what they don’t understand, and the first signs of Edward making a mistake cause the town to go into a tizzy and turn on him.

This film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Make-Up. I’d argue it could’ve and should’ve gotten more. Nominating Depp for Best Actor might’ve been a stretch, but his performance in this is better than I remember. I found myself more impressed with him this time, in the way that he’s a man of few words but it’s with his restraint that we can still have a firm understanding of him. All of the acting is pretty great here, with Hall being the real shocker. Because I grew up with this and The Breakfast Club, and it’s frankly hard to believe they’re the same person. Not just because Jim is an absolute monster, but because somewhere in-between Johnny Be Good (a horrible movie, but he’s really hot in it) and this movie, his face just weirdly changed. I don’t know, something I noticed. But no, this movie should’ve been nominated for Production Design and at least Score. This is some of Danny Elfman’s finest work, near the top of the list.

I’d be lying if Edward Scissorhands didn’t get under my skin this time, and maybe it’s the outcast within me that couldn’t help but find it effective. It also could be to the film’s fault though because it doesn’t exactly end happily, either, like most fairly tales should. But alas, how could someone like Edward live in peace, besides being in his own solitude? It’s sad, but the sad truth. But it’s also a weirdly good story with its morals and heart in the right place. This is a weird movie from a weirdo’s vision, but that vision is so unforgettable and the movie in the middle of it being among Burton’s more fascinating creations. It’s not quite my favorite of his, but it’s certainly worthy of the discussion. A discussion that I guess multiple people have had, because the movie is a classic. A weird classic, but with Burton’s flourishes, a deserved one.


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