The Test of Time: Edward Scissorhands (1990)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.



Avon calling! Have to say, even though Tim Burton’s A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS is probably his most celebrated holiday film (a bit odd considering he didn’t even direct it himself), my favorite such work of his will always be EDWARD SCISSORHANDS. Hell, up until about two months ago, I still had a poster for the flick on my wall. Now, granted, BATMAN RETURNS has a palpably festive Christmastime set decoration as well, but if we’re talking about requisite emotions yielded around the holidays – sharing, caring, empathy, gratitude, good tidings – then there’s no doubt about it, SCISSORHANDS cuts right to the heart. It’s a morbidly moving, fantastic fairytale that not only solidified Burton’s visual brand of cinematic stylings, the movie somehow, magically, tows the line between heartbreaking pathos and riotous mirth. It’s a favorite for a reason. In fact, it’s also Burton’s favorite of his own films!

And frankly, with today marking its 27th anniversary from the day it opened in U.S. theaters, we can’t think of a better time than to see how EDWARD SCISSORAHANDS has fared over that span. My guess? The Test of Time is little match for the lethal SCISSORHANDS!

THE STORY: Borne from a drawing Burton sketched as a teenager in a high school, which even included the name Edward Scissorhands, the story itself came from a 70-page treatment that was written in three weeks by screenwriter Caroline Thompson. According to reports, Thompson based the character of Edward on her own dog, which I suppose is why he has that adorable puppy-like hangdog expression throughout the film. Beyond that, the movie works on multiple levels. It’s a love story, to be sure, but it’s also a fish out of water situational comedy. At its core however, the movie serves a poetic metaphorical fairytale about isolation, loneliness, the ability or inability to connect with another being without physically or emotionally harming them. These are all themes that work in unison, bouncing off one other in way that reinforces each rather than clashing with them. Never mind the hellish hands, it’s a hell of a feat!

You know the particulars. Peg Boggs (the great Dianne Wiest), a suburban Avon lady, makes a calling up to the ominous mansion that towers over her row of pastel-flavored tract-housing. Based on Thompson’s own mother, who would often bring strangers into their own home, Peg meets the wan, demure, facially scarred Edward, who emerges from the shadows of his attic in a great introductory manner, dangling his large bladed-hands in sinister silhouette. It’s pure Gothic horror for Peg at first, and by proxy us the audience, until soon the ice is broken and Edward is whisked away into the diametrically opposed suburban idyll. Edward will soon meet Peg’s family, including her hubby Bill (the hilarious Alan Arkin), daughter Kim (Winona Ryder) and her muscle-bound boyfriend Jim (a great departure for a buffed up Anthony Michael Hall). As Edward and Kim slowly fall for each other, Edward must contend with not only Jim, but a neighborhood of scowling disapprovers. Well, save the ever-lusty Joyce (Kathy Baker), who I swore was Peg (Katey Sagal) from Married With Children up until about a year ago. For real!

WHAT HOLDS-UP: Is there really any surprise that most to all of EDWARD SCISSORHANDS still retains its staying power today? Not really, right. Right! That said, if we had to breakdown what we think has made the movie remain so strong over the years, we’d probably cite three or four major reasons why. The first is Burton’s brilliant blending of Gothic-suburbia. The second is the exquisite performance of Johnny Depp. The third is, however mawkish, the wraparound fairytale framing device. And the fourth, certainly not the least, is the heart-swelling score by the great Danny Elfman, an arrangement that Burton is on record claiming as his favorite among his own work. So that’s four. Now let’s do a deep dive!

The two worlds Burton brings together so elegantly cannot be overstated. On one hand we have the bright, candy-colored pastels of a 1950s style suburb, picture perfect, when conformity was a sort of virtue. Every house looks the same, ever lawn immaculately trimmed, every person living a very similar version of the American dream life. Contrast that with the Edward’s mountaintop dwelling, a large, cold castle-like mansion festooned with shadowy corridors, cobwebs, terrifying topiary hedge-mazes, ornate staircases and the like. These two worlds couldn’t be further apart in look, feel and tone. Yet somehow, Burton manages to tether these two poles and synthesize something altogether new. Something fresh. Something we hadn’t ever seen before. It’s a novelty that hasn’t worn thin even 27 years on, thanks also in large part due to the sheer aesthetic of Edward itself. Such a starkly original character, no question, realized with great help by legendary SFX guru Stan Winston. Funnily enough, Winston left set one day to go shoot the trailer for T-2: JUDGMENT DAY!

In his first ever collaboration with Burton, let’s be honest, Johnny Depp gives a knockout turn as the titular pariah. With only 169 words uttered as a lead actor, Depp was far more dependent on a silent movie style of acting, subtly expressing with his eyes and scarred-up face to convey the proper emotions. In fact, so determined to nail the role was a young eager Depp that he refused the cooling agent in between takes to relieve him from the unbearable heat the leather suit caused. He reportedly even passed out from heat exhaustion one day on set. It’s funny, because there is a scene early on in the film where Edward cuts the hair of all the suburban neighbors, right? Well, if you listen closely, music from Sweeney Todd is playing during the scene. I mention that because, obviously Burton and Depp would make Sweeney Todd into a movie 17 years later, and Depp would rightly play the character with an operatic grandeur that the story called for. But if the stage is for bigger, the screen is for smaller, and the micro-expressions and mesmerizing minutiae Depp performs Edward with is nothing short of masterful!

Speaking of mastery, I think it’s fair to say SCISSORHANDS is Burton’s most emotionally moving film he’s ever made. This is largely due to the wraparound fairytale, narrated sublimely by Winona Ryder, who couldn’t look or sound any more different than she did as Lydia in Burton’s BEETLEJUICE just two years prior. While Depp is the main conduit through which the audience sees the story, let’s not front, Winona is the emotional nexus of the entire story. Without her giving that gravel-voiced testimony to her granddaughter, not to mention giving such a tender turn in the body of the text as well (that living room embrace between Ed and Kim is f*cking heartbreaking), the movie would likely have far less of an emotional impact.

Now, where are my Oingo Boingo fans at? Remember, they did the song Weird Science right, the title song for the movie which starred whom? Yup, Anthony Michael Hall! It also featured Robert Downey Jr. (who was considered to play Edward Scissorhands), who in turn starred in BACK TO SCHOOL, which also had a cameo from the Danny Elfman led new-wave 80s band. All this to say, damn, Elfman’s score to SCISSORHANDS is one of the best I’ve ever heard. In any movie. It not only perfectly echoes the subject matter – somehow both cold and warm at the same time – it has a nostalgic holiday quality to it as well that puts right in the proper mood to ingest this particular story. It’s sets the tone, keeps the tone, and in the end, comes full circle to reinforce the three other aforementioned aspects – the tonal marriage, the performance, the fairytale ending – as one harmonious whole. Elfman, as ONLY A LAD can do!

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Splitting hairs a bit, but did Jim really have to be killed? Murdered? Not so sure. In a movie that has more heart than hate, it does take a pretty dark turn into the trappings of a studio genre picture by the third reel. Honestly, it would seem more in line with the overall tone of the piece to have Jim learn a harsh lesson, and grow from it, rather than fatally suffer at the scissor-hand of Edward. Still, this is a minor gripe, one I wouldn’t even say blows now. It’s just a key plot point in the film I always thought was a bit unwarranted if not out of place.

THE VERDICT: On its 27th birthday, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS has never been more charmingly handsome. It’s easily Burton’s most moving picture to date, and due to a number of quantifiable facets, holds up extremely well by today’s standards. It starts with the wholly original premise of its character, continues with Burton’s multi-toned amplification, a wondrous performance by Johnny Depp, an emotionally arresting fairytale framing device, fantastic VFX work and a pitch perfect musical score. It’s ironic he can’t lay a finger on himself, because EWARD SCISSORHANDS touches pretty much everyone else in his path!




Source: AITH

About the Author

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Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie. In addition to video scripts, Jake has written news articles, movie reviews, book reviews, script reviews, set visits, Top 10 Lists (The Horror Ten Spot), Feature Articles The Test of Time and The Black Sheep, and more.