Edward Scissorhands (1990)

When it’s on: Sunday, 21 December (8.00 pm)
Channel: E4
IMDb Link

Whilst not a Christmas film, Edward Scissorhands seems an entirely appropriate choice for the season, with its snowy visuals, fairy tale influences and a dazzling score from Danny Elfman that sounds like the accompaniment to every child’s sense of wonder on the morning after Santa came…

At the time, many films by Tim Burton had some sort of Christmassy feel; I’m thinking specifically of Batman Returns, which was like the superhero’s Yuletide tale, and if it hadn’t come after this then it would have appeared staggeringly original, those music box Elfman overtures and Gothic overtones. But Edward did come beforehand, and it stands as an early classic. It’s also a deeply personal film, Burton’s feelings of alienation as a youngster represented by the young man who can literally not get close to other people thanks to having razor sharp scissors where his hands ought to be.

The film takes place in an apparently typical midwestern suburbia, though look a little closer and you’ll notice that it’s entirely stylised, a study in pastel houses, dads leaving at the same time for work in their primary coloured cars, leaving bored housewives to gossip and long for excitement. The only thing that’s out of place is the ruined castle atop a dark and overrun hill on the very edge of town, like a wart disturbing an otherwise perfect neighbourhood. Nobody notices it. It hasn’t been visited in years, allowing its sole occupant to eke out a lonely existence. That is until a kindly Avon lady (Dianne Wiest) visits on spec and takes pity on Edward (Johnny Depp), who despite his initially abhorrent appearance turns out to be a gentle and innocent soul. She takes him back to her house and tries to fit him into ‘normality’, only Edward learns his differences to everyone else means that can never fully happen. At first treated like an adorable novelty, particularly as the housewives discover his scissor hands make him an expert in topiary and hair cutting, he ultimately becomes a pariah after a series of unfortunate events. Only Wiest’s daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder), sees beyond the surface to fall in love with the man beneath.

The best bits in Edward Scissorhands are those that tell the tale of his ‘birth’. Edward happens to have been created rather than born. His ‘father’ was an inventor, a creator of robots who resolves to turn a machine for slicing vegetables into a real boy. In a series of flashbacks, Edward thinks back to his development, his time with the kindly inventor who, when not making body parts for him, reads poetry and the rules of etiquette to him and helps form his personality. In a casting decision of true mastery, the inventor is played by Vincent Price in his last major film role, a ten-minute performance of complete sublimity in which the horror Don gets to show off his softer side, then the bathetic tragedy of his fatal heart attack before he can complete Edward and leaving him without hands.

From channelling Frankenstein, Burton’s tale moves into Disney’s Beauty and the Beast territory as Edwards stares longingly at the voluptuous Kim, who of course is hooked up with the ‘Gaston’ boyfriend Jim, as played by Anthony Michael Hall (a nice bit of casting for those who recall Hall’s nerd in Weird Science). As Kim starts to reciprocate Edward’s feelings, jock Jim turns to anger and outright jealousy, setting him up for a fall that will only stir the latent suspicion in this stranger.

But before the romantic storyline kicks in, Edward Scissorhands plays as a broad satire while he attempts to conform into society. Dining with his adoptive family, Edward attempts to eat dinner, finding his scissors aren’t even good for levering a single pea into his mouth, Getting dressed is another exercise in futility; he can only put on a pair of trousers by carefully easing his blades into the belt loops and stepping into the legs. It’s funny, but Depp has the talent to give his character a sense of real pathos, even when he demonstrates why a waterbed is clearly the least appropriate mattress for a man with scissors for hands. While his new family are all well played, with Wiest at her most lovely and Alan Arkin refusing to break with routine for his unusual houseguest, there’s good value from the housewives, especially Kathy Baker’s bawdy Joyce, who openly flirts with Edward before jumping on him, which precipitates the beginning of his fall.

Edward Scissorhands was nominated for one Oscar for make-up, those scissor designs from Stan Winston that Depp uses to great effect by chopping them together gently when he’s nervous. It deserved more recognition for its design work, however. Edward’s haircutting leads to a series of creations straight out of Dr Seuss’s imagination, made all the more poignant when he’s literally run out of town, pursued by people wearing the very same crazy styles he shaped for them earlier in the film, the bushes he cut into dinosaurs and dolphins now sinister silhouettes.

The film has rightly taken on something approaching cult status in the years since its release, though it was a minor box office at the time. A dance production for the stage developed by Matthew Bourne has since become a regular turn, with a series of shows taking place at Sadler’s Wells at this very moment.

Edward Scissorhands: ****