Dark Shadows and Edward Scissorhands: Sympathy for the Devil

By Gillian Daniels, ACP Editorial Assistant

A man, played by Johnny Depp, is viewed by the world at large as a monster. His story, however, is really that of a misfit condemned to walk an unusual path.

This summary is an apt description of many of Tim Burton’s films, including the excellent biopic Ed Wood (1994) and the less excellent but still intriguing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). There always seems to be an individual, often an artist, against a world that has difficulty understanding exactly who he is and what he’s trying to accomplish. Even Pee-Wee’s Big Adventures (1985) follows this trajectory to an extent, swapping Johnny Depp for Paul Ruebens.

The sympathy for a much more literal monster is portrayed in the films Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Dark Shadows (2012). One features a Frankenstein’s creature of a man constructed by Vincent Price while the latter involves a rich gentleman, Barnabas Collins, cursed into a vampire by a witch.

Burton’s most recent cinematic offering is his attempt to stamp his style onto a supernatural soap opera from the 1970s. In many ways, Dark Shadows‘ story of an outcast is identical to Edward Scissorhands. Dark Shadows fails, however, when it comes to the sympathy Burton tries to create for his main character.

Both films, for example, have Johnny Depp disoriented by the contemporary world. But where Edward has been locked in a creepy house on the hill for all his unnatural life, Barnabas Collins has been trapped inside a coffin for centuries by an evil witch, Angelique (Eva Green) that he wronged romantically. Depp plays Edward as a nervous waif, a victim of circumstance. Collins, meanwhile, is a stubborn gentleman with an active part in ensnaring himself in misfortune, romancing Angelique and then spurning her for another.

When made mobile, Edward and Barnabas stumble through the artificiality of contemporary life. The polished sensibilities of Barnabas Collins rankle at the libertine 1970s. He’s a snob awash in one of the most superfluous periods of pop culture. He’s an amusing snob, at least. Edward, in comparison, is a lonely goth kid in a black cat suit adrift in the pastel of the suburbs. Each clash of artist vs. the outside world provides some of the most amusing scenes of their respective movies.

They both find their place in this world, at least. Edward finds solace in making his monstrous shear hands useful in shrubbery and hair cuts while Barnabas Collins rebuilds the family fishing business his heirs have been unable to maintain.

Despite their efforts, in the third act, both Edward and Barnabas come to be terrorized by the foolish town folk. Their movies are clever reversals: instead of the monster terrifying the innocent mortals, the monstrous mortals terrify the innocent monster. The deviant artist has proved unfit for the rest of society. Edward has found himself at the wrong place at the wrong time, accidentally fulfilling the vision of the villain held by the folk in the suburban sprawl.
The idea of innocence in Dark Shadows, however, is much more problematic. Barnabas Collins, a vampire, really has killed more than a few people to sate his thirst. The townsfolk are perfectly justified. It’s not really his fault, the narrative claims, he was cursed by Angelique. Barnabas is far less innocent than Edward Scissorhands, though, and certainly made the choice to lead the evil witch on romantically in the past. He didn’t make the choice to turn into a vampire, of course, but in the movie’s present, we watch him snack on one human after another with little hesitance.

Tim Burton, in 2012, has given us a hero devoid of heroism. Barnabas Collins isn’t just a monster, he’s the villain. I’m unsure if the movie or its marketers know this. Maybe Tim Burton does, though.

Edward Scissorhands is not only superior in its protagonist but in the personal quality of its story. Burton’s gentle-hearted monster is a reflection of all artists and, thus, a direct reflection of the director. It’s autobiographical in a spiritual, “me against the world” perspective, if anything else.

If Edward Scissorhands is Tim Burton, then, I believe, so is Barnabas Collins.

Tim Burton, when he came into the mainstream in the 1990s, was just the right amount of stylish and strange. Now the director has turned his brand of gothic storytelling and design into, well, a brand. It’s hard to blame him, though. With his name on any feature, it’s pretty much guaranteed to make money. This concept isn’t new. Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas wasn’t actually directed by the ambitious gentleman, after all, just produced by him. His name is associated with a certain look and feel.

Barnabas Collins is a reflection of the present day Tim Burton. While Edward Scissorhands created art by hand, Collins turns his skills to reclaiming the honor of his name and maintaining the family business. Both are honorable professions, but the latter is a direct reflection of Tim Burton’s attempts to maintain his commercial empire. Once he saw himself as a gentle outcast, quietly making his art in solitude. Now, I wonder if Burton sees himself as a lord and profiteer, put upon by those around him and now more interested in having his fun where he can.

Or maybe he just wanted to remake a soap opera from the 1970’s because it sounded like a cool idea. He’s using the common plot thread of man vs. society, sure, yet this isn’t the sort of plot Burton needs to confine to a single film. I hesitate to call him a sell-out, because that’s not a fair description of an artist’s development especially when priorities change over the course of a career. Burton is looking to impress with image and visuals, these days. Like Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory before it, Dark Shadows is a movie of style.

I think Edward Scissorhands is the film with more substance. It feels like a more personal effort. Dark Shadows is personal mainly in the fact that it’s from the director’s own childhood. It’s a lumpy movie compared to others in Burton’s filmography, a story that could have done well to celebrate the heart beneath the monster rather than celebrate the monster itself.

One thought on “Dark Shadows and Edward Scissorhands: Sympathy for the Devil

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s