The plot: Brought down from his gothic retreat by well-meaning Avon lady Peg, a young man with scissors for hands causes a rumpus in Peg’s insular, gossipy community. Some of the locals eye Edward with suspicion, others with lust, while others still just make use of his incredible creativity. Edward himself only has eyes for Peg’s beautiful daughter Kim, but she is wary of his soft personality and sharp accessories.
A career as an Avon lady may not be everyone’s dream, but good-hearted Peg Boggs (Dianne Wiest) gives it everything she’s got, even if her friends and neighbours aren’t always delighted to receive her calls. After a particularly frustrating day, she notices the enormous, brooding castle at the end of the close and pays it a visit. Within, she finds Edward (Johnny Depp), a strange, pale young man in appearance but the creation of inventor Vincent Price, who died before he finished the job, leaving Edward with razor-sharp scissors where his hands should be.
Edward is welcomed with equanimity by Peg’s husband Bill (Alan Arkin) and enthusiasm by young son Kevin (Robert Oliveri), but when teenage daughter Kim (Winona Ryder) comes back unexpectedly from an outing with oikish jock boyfriend Jim (Anthony Michael Hall), she’s unsurprisingly terrified to see the freakish-looking Edward in her waterbed. Edward, meanwhile, is smitten by Kim, and despite the keen attentions of the amazed townsfolk, not least Kathy Baker’s voracious Joyce, he only cares about her as he becomes the centre of attention for the town’s topiary, dog grooming and hairdressing needs. Driven by jealousy, Jim frames Edward for a burglary at his house; and as he loses his innocence, his passion for Kim escalates with tragic consequences – and all around Christmastime, too.
It may now seem hard to believe, but once upon a time a Tim Burton gothic fantasy starring Johnny Depp as an unworldly hero, complete with idiosyncratic Danny Elfman score, was a cause for keen anticipation rather than weary eye-rolling; and if you’re not pre-disposed to enjoy fantasy movies, you will find plenty to pick at in the pair’s first collaboration. The plot is a pretty thin affair, the characters moving around in not always convincing ways to advance the tale. It’s particularly dismissive of Jim – bad lad or not, presumably someone loves him – and nice though it is to see Vincent Price (for the last time), Edward’s backstory doesn’t entirely hang together; the evolution of the inventor’s machines, from vaguely humanoid food preparation tools (and for whom exactly is the food being made?) to a speaking, thinking being with the sharp blades still attached, requires the viewer to suspend all their reasoning faculties.
On the other hand…the Princess Bride-like framing device, which sees an aged Kim retelling the tale to her sleepy granddaughter as the reason it snows every Christmas, firmly roots Edward Scissorhands in the realm of fairytale, a modern one in which Pinocchio meets Frankenstein via Nightmare on Elm Street. The idea of a pure ‘love above all’ may seem soppy, but the theme is appropriate and Ryder is perfectly lovely as Kim, even if she’s barely stretched as an actress.
However, the real emotional pull of the film comes from Edward’s infinite sadness at being denied physical contact with his creator, his beloved, or anyone else, conveyed effectively in Burton and Caroline Thompson’s script (consider the exchange during Edward’s appearance on TV: ‘If you had regular hands you wouldn’t be special’ – ‘I know’; or the heartbreaking, immortal lines ‘Hold me’ – ‘I can’t.’) Depp disappears into the role and winkles every ounce of anger, longing and comedy from a nearly mute role in wonderfully Chaplinesque fashion, even if that description also embodies the great man’s occasionally saccharine pathos. To offset its sweetness, the film keeps the viewer on edge, repeatedly reminding them of the sharpness of Edward’s blades and keeping them in constant suspense that he’s going to harm someone or, more probably, himself.
As well as its love story, Edward Scissorhands revels in the idea of the outsider and the mainstream, the majority’s mistrust of non-conformity, religious conservatism’s sanctimonious hatred of difference and the way a crowd’s fascination can turn, through spite and misinformation, into a baying mob. It also represents the artist’s struggle to be different in a world where the masses accept what they’re sold (and thereby, if you subscribe to the theory that Depp is essentially playing Burton, the director’s struggle for acceptance of his quirky vision).
It’s also a story of the corruption of [childhood] innocence, through alcohol, sex, violence, capitalism and what have you. However, the film somehow avoids feeling overloaded, due to the apparent ease with which Burton creates images that are both striking and meaningful. There are too many examples to list here, but Winona dancing in the snowflakes of the ice sculpture and the gothic castle perched at the end of the wonderfully-designed housing estate are amongst the more obvious.
Of course, the questioning viewer has every right to ask why the inventor’s dilapidated pile has been left undisturbed for so long, but the absurd, brilliant juxtaposition of the idealised, pastel-coloured houses and forbidding, monstrous castle is surely all the answer you need. Anyway, there is a psychological answer, namely that Peg, bored out of her mind, is prepared to visit the dark places that the town’s other residents shun in favour of the familiar and quotidian. Wiest is excellent, while Arkin plays Bill with a hilarious disregard of Edward’s uniqueness.
Edward Scissorhands is almost certainly a case of the whole being greater than its already commendable parts, a mixture of mood, setting, subject and theme which comes together to incredibly impressive effect, helping to obscure the fact that the story itself is ultimately a corny mash-up of B-Movie material, I was a Teenage Frankenstein’s Monster’s Lover if you will. It’s lazy to trot out the line that Burton and Depp make the same film over and over again, since Sweeney Todd and Sleepy Hollow are different beasts to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Ed Wood. Nonetheless, they have rarely bettered their first collaboration, so who could blame them for – just now and then – revisiting the old stomping ground for a smidgen of inspiration?