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.
It’s tough to say if Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s meta-horror film will be remembered as the genre re-defining parody that Scream was in 1996 or a peculiar cult film separate from the current wave of torture-porn Saw movies. It’s hard to say which films will stay alive in the popular consciousness and shape others. Cabin in the Woods, regardless of its legacy, is certainly its own monster.
This monsters turns against its own genre, revealing a nefarious villain that’s been here since the inception of horror films.
In Cabin in the Woods, every horror film situation ever brought to the screen has actually been created by an organization bent on spilling the blood of innocent teenagers. It’s a high-concept premise, re-framing every slasher movie enjoyed by audiences as part of some grander, carefully structured scheme.
At a pivotal point in the film, a room is revealed that contains every magical, technological, supernatural, and mutant creature trapped and ready to be deployed by said organization. It’s a dream-like sequence, with each creature imprisoned in a see-through box, rotating *around one another like glass elevators from some obscene version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Even when they’re released on the antagonists of the film, however, these are not the true monsters. The organization that detains and sets them on unsuspecting young adults isn’t, either. They’re just a complex studio carefully putting together a well-worn mousetrap of a narrative for movie-going audiences.The true villains are the underworld-dwelling elder gods that need to be fed. By satiating these sleeping gods with sexy, entertaining sacrificial lamb, the organization makes sure they don’t rise up and destroy the world.
In short, the elder gods and true villains are a pretty thinly-veiled portrait of us, the viewers of slasher fair.
We, the audiences who shell out cash repeatedly for a chance to see some poor girl get her bloody comeuppance for sneaking into the wrong isolated haunted house to make out with a guy, are the ones who support these horror movies. The audience members are the gods who demand three-dimensional human beings boiled down to flat, stereotypical characters so that their deaths feel less personal. The sacrifice of nubile women and headstrong men satisfy our ancient, throw-them-to-the-lions desires. Sometimes, if the deaths are corny and the movie is cheesy enough, we laugh.
Take, for instance, the scene in which Jules (Anna Hutchison) is the first among her friends to die. She can’t just be slaughtered by the zombie rednecks randomly; the organization has to catch her having sex with her boyfriend. Otherwise depicted as an interesting, funny person, the technicians have to drug Jules with pheromone spray, her roofie’d “dumb blond” hair dye, and put her in a fully-controlled forest make-out pad with mood lighting so that she’ll be killed in the most conventional way possible. Her death is sobering. In the grand tradition of sexually active characters being punished in horror movies, Jules has been manipulated to become an exaggerated caricature and is killed for it.
And all this means that Cabin in the Woods thinks the gods have pretty poor taste. Or at least taste that could afford to be more discerning.
When Dana (Kristen Connolly) lets loose the collection of other world serial killers on the technicians of the organization that’s killed her camping friends, the blood that flows is so over-the-top, it’s comical. “Let’s get this party started,” she says, pounding the button that releases the nightmares and splatters thick layers of blood over the walls, floor, and ceiling. It’s funny, dark, completely over-the-top, and does nothing to entertain the gods down below.
The mass slaughter of the organization’s members is the take down of the traditional horror mechanisms key to a basic slasher movie. The god-viewers expect a pattern, which this isn’t.
Dana’s remaining friends have to die. That’s what the narrative of “x amount of teenagers get trapped in x and pay the price” has lead us to expect, and that’s what we want. The story turns in on itself, though. Even Dana isn’t a traditional, pure heroine because her beliefs, by the end of the film, fall prey to human flaw, unusual for the fictional women who tend to survive being stalked by creatures of the night.
It’s not a crime for the gods to be satisfied. The people killed on-screen are, of course, fictional. It’s a crime, however, if this fictional reaping is devoid of passion or involvement. The viewers, gods or monsters, aren’t creepy because they want someone dead, they’re creepy because they don’t want any other kind of story that will make them dead. A story where uninteresting, tropic people are isolated, haunted, and killed remains with no chance of deviation. We can dream bigger.
The survivors of the massacre darkly joke that maybe it’s better if humanity is killed by the ruling gods if it means the chance of being replaced by something better. I agree. Maybe it’s all right for horror conventions to die if it means there’s a better, more complex story out there.
Cabin in the Woods is an indictment of audience apathy and a demand for better films in the genre. The gods that rise up against humans at the end of the movie don’t necessarily indicate a dark ending. They’re just viewers who hunger for something more than the film studio organizations that feed them now provides.