Edward Scissorhands is one elusive dude. No, I’m not talking about Johnny Depp’s on-screen character in Tim Burton’s now-classic, near-twisted tale of ostracism and innocence lost. I’m talking about the physical DVD itself. In 1990, of course, it was more like a VHS, and my clunky old VCR obliterated it, leaving me with a mile of tangled film tape and no chance for my 12 year-old mind to be polluted by the unified weirdness of Depp and Burton. Fast forward a handful of years, when I rented the movie from my local video store only to get home and realize the geek behind the counter forgot to take the anti-theft device off the plastic case. In a classic bout of adolescent apathy, I kept the unwatchable film for nearly a month, racking up massive fines for a movie I can’t even get to.
When the Spectrum Culture establishment first introduced the idea of Film Dunce, then, my motivation to finally pin down the shifty, bladed Mr. Scissorhands was rekindled. Not so fast, though. A user error resulted in my DVR not recording it several months ago, Blockbuster and Red Box proved futile and I ended up going a couple different routes for this feature. So it was a small triumph, albeit one 20 years in the making, when I recently stumbled upon a bargain bin Scissorhands DVD that wasn’t perilous to my electronic hardware or otherwise inaccessible.
It was well worth the wait.
As far as fucked-up premises in mainstream cinema go, Edward Scissorhands ranks among the most peculiar. Somewhere in American suburbia, a grandma tells her granddaughter a bedtime story: Peg Boss (Dianne Wiest), a door-to-door Avon lady, all smiles and facial creams, having an off-day peddling beauty products, approaches a rather uninviting and incongruous mansion overlooking the ‘burbs. Helping herself inside, hopeful of a sale, she climbs the stairs in search of the owner, her cheerful demeanor and bright clothing clashing with the mansion’s dim and macabre interior. Hiding in the corner of a dark and dusty room she finds Edward (Johnny Depp), a scarred and pale young man with scissors (more like hedge clippers, really, but I suppose Edward Clipperhands just doesn’t have the same ring) dangling from his wrists. Peg, taking pity on the soft-spoken young oddball whose mad scientist creator croaked before he could give him proper hands and takes Edward home, where the static hum of normalcy butts heads with the downright bizarre in director Burton’s quasi-comic romantic tragedy.
Twenty years later, it’s still obvious why Edward Scissorhands is regarded as perhaps Burton’s finest moment. Firstly, there are those visually stunning polar opposites that define the movie, as the cheery pastels and bright primary colors of the “ordinary” folk stand in sharp contrast to Edward’s bleak, gothic apparel. Burton has insisted his goal was to reflect a suburban lifestyle that wasn’t sinister but strange, and in this regard the director who’s made a career out of weirdness succeeds, presenting a gossipy, individuality-starved and often pitiful take on middle class white America. In fact, some of the eccentric bourgeois personalities that grace the film – Kathy Baker as the aging seductress Joyce, O-Lan Jones as the prophetic, Bible-thumping Esmeralda, Alan Arkin as the mind-numbingly matter-of-fact Bill Boggs and especially Wiest in the role of the admirably amicable Peg – provoke as many sideways grins as Edward himself.
Not surprisingly, though, it’s Depp who makes this film so memorable. Tragically innocent yet horribly harmful to himself and others on account of his bladed phalanges, Depp’s oddly charismatic freak of nature persona certainly casts a sympathetic shadow. Viewers may not know whether to laugh at him (his failed attempts to eat a pea) or with him (his show-and-tell karate demonstration at Joyce’s son Kevin’s (Robert Oliveri) school, but they have to possess cold scissors for hearts to not want to reach through the screen and hug him. “I am not complete,” he nearly apologizes to Joyce, but he needn’t even speak to radiate compassion and empathy; one glance at his lost and lonely face reveals not an ounce of malevolence behind his razor-sharp exterior.
Like later Burton-Depp collaborations, Scissorhands reflects a quirky weirdness (a la Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), a measure of ghoulishness (Sweeney Todd) and even a touch of EC Comics-recalling horror (Corpse Bride), alongside obvious themes of isolation and individuality, but behind Burton’s curious characters and vivid visuals lies a moving and inimitable tragedy. Edward’s inventor (Vincent Price), who tutored him in reading, writing and even social etiquette, suffers a heart attack while presenting Edward with his body’s final puzzle piece (hands) in a heartbreaking scene that foreshadows Edward’s dark and lonely fate.
Edward’s misfortunes don’t stop there, though. Originally embraced by the townspeople for his eccentricity and hedge trimming and hair cutting abilities, he eventually becomes the neighborhood pariah. After resisting the sexual advances of the promiscuous Joyce, she turns the gossip circle against him, claiming he tried to assault her. Jim (Anthony Michael Hall), jealous of Edward’s apparent infatuation for Peg and Bill’s daughter/Jim’s girlfriend Kim (Winona Ryder), tricks him into a robbery, leading to Edward’s arrest and the escalation of his descent in the public eye. During a snowstorm, he accidentally cuts Kim while crafting an ice sculpture, an accident Jim uses as an opportunity to further denigrate his nemesis. An angry mob gathers to chase him back to his creator’s mansion, where Jim, in a jealous fury, attacks Edward, who doesn’t defend himself until Jim hurts Kim as well, at which point the scissored one stabs Jim through the stomach and pushes him out a window to his death.
If the tone of the film changes abruptly from quirky to grisly at this point, it also emerges as the tear-jerking sort of love tale that reportedly caused Depp to weep upon first reading the script. Kim tells Edward she loves him before convincing the angry mob outside both Edward and Jim were killed in the melee. The two would never meet again. The elderly narrator reveals herself as Kim and then explains she knows Edward is still alive and alone in his isolated domicile because snow never fell before Edward showed up. Looking outside at the white-covered winter wonderland, she reveals she can still sometimes be found dancing in the snow, just like she was that fateful night when Edward’s blades accidentally pierced her. In a movie based on such an unlikely premise, it’s the type of oddly realistic conclusion that, like Edward himself, draws as many heartwarming grins as sympathetic tears, and the perfect ending to one of the most spectacular films this dunce has seen.
by Marcus David