Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, which came out 25 years ago this week, is more than just an updating of Frankenstein. It’s the story of a gentle robot who tries to live among regular people—and when I saw it as a little kid, this movie meant everything to me.
Spoilers for a quarter-century-old film follow.
I was barely in elementary school when I watched Edward Scissorhands for the first time. Frankly, it freaked me the hell out—but also made me laugh, and tore my heart into confetti. As my introduction to Burton, Edward left me simultaneously spooked and awe-struck. And it remains one of my all-time favorite movies.
I distinctly remember living in western Massachusetts as a six-year-old in the early ‘90s and going to some mom-and-pop video rental shop with my dad, when I saw it: A full-body cardboard promotional cutout of Johnny Depp as the monochromatic, scar-covered golem next to the “new releases” shelf. “Who/what is that?” I thought, mouth probably agape.
I thought he looked like a sad killer robot clown. I wasn’t scared, per se. I do remember being discomfited. But this crazy-looking dude entranced me: his blades-for-fingers, his nutso hair, his rock-star leather getup. “He has scissors for hands?” I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anyone who looked like that, in a fictional TV/film universe or otherwise. I distinctly remember standing there and being hypnotized. Burton succeeded in creating a humanoid hero who was definitely different looking—one that you couldn’t help staring at, but if he were a real person, staring definitely would have been rude.
But that’s not what made Edward Scissorhands so unique—this movie’s biggest contribution to monster movies is what doesn’t happen when this weird character goes to live among regular people.
TVTropes.com includes one listing called “The Grotesque”: a stock character who shows up in a lot of fiction. You’ve seen them before: Someone with a physical abnormality, which has caused him or her lifelong social anxiety, ridicule, and resultant self-isolation. The trend stretches back as far as the early 1800s, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and pops up again in classics like The Phantom of the Opera, The Elephant Man, The Penguin in Batman, and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (the non-Disney versions). Aside for a couple Christine-types, everyone roundly rejects and shuns these characters, presenting a very black-and-white, them-versus-the-world environment in which they live.
Edward Scissorhands rejects all that.
It all starts when a mad scientist (played by Vincent Price) who concocts a weird robot-son in his scary mansion that overlooks American suburbia: a Pleasantville filled with cul-de-sacs and candy-colored ranches nestled onto neatly mowed lawns. Eventually, the inventor passes away, leaving his isolated creation—an android named Edward with shears for digits, played by Depp—all alone, in a big empty house, for years on end.
That changes when Peg (Dianne Weist), a delightful Avon saleslady, goes door-to-door selling makeup when she eventually makes her way to the old mansion on the hill. It looks like something straight out of a Gothic, Psycho-inspired nightmare. She explores the house, ends up in the attic, and discovers Edward.
This shot scared the shit out of me as a kid:
Yeah, see that? Him crouching in the shadows; the metallic shimmer of his snipping scissor claws? Help, call 911. Plus, the camera is pulled back far enough so that it gives you Peg’s POV, as though you were the one who had wandered up to the haunted attic, where the killer across the room is ready to strike.
The “monster” reveals himself, and Peg, while initially startled, quickly switches to motherly concern. It’s settled: She’s bringing him home! He’s brought back to Peg’s house and is effectively adopted. The permanently sad-looking, quiet, and gentle Edward now lives in her house, meets the family and the neighbors, and assimilates into mundane American life fairly seamlessly—with only a few, humorous hiccups, like popping a water bed.
When I saw this for the first time back in the early ‘90s, it wasn’t about being freaked out by the scary guy covered in scars and connected to foot-long blades. It was about how normal and accepting virtually all the characters are towards Edward. (Save for one zealously religious neighbor, who claims Edward’s a perversion of nature sent from Satan, and Peg’s daughter’s douchebag boyfriend.) I remember being genuinely gobsmacked by this.
Edward’s brought to family cookouts, introduced to new acquaintances who crack jokes with him, and invited to card night with the boys. And soon, his differences are actively embraced, like when he transforms hedges into Versailles-style topiaries, or gives the pooches and women in town alike avant-garde hairstyles worthy of fashion magazines. His jarring physical appearance is simply treated as an innocuous quirk: “Hey, you have scissors for hands! Wanna open my beer?”
Of course, it’s a fantastical Tim Burton film, so the widespread nonchalance toward Edward’s appearance is farfetched, almost comical. (One foxy housewife goes so far as wanting to jump his bones, at one point cornering him in her beauty parlor and using his scissors to tear open her blouse.)
What really struck me, especially as a kid, was how all these funny, heartwarming scenes are all presented with subtlety and a matter-of-fact quality. There’s never some grand, spotlighted epiphany, featuring a loud fanfare and a close-up of someone exclaiming, “You’re not so different after all!” The movie shows an archetypal “Grotesque” hero forming friendships and relationships—on a wide scale. We see him fit into society, and be greeted with open arms. It’s the exact opposite of similar monster movies and stories that preceded it.
That’s why it makes his eventual rejection so devastating.
Peg’s daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder) falls in love with Edward after her boyfriend Jim (Anthony Michael Hall), who’s been openly hostile toward Edward, swindles him into breaking into a neighbor’s house. When Edward takes the blame, Joyce, that housewife with the hots for him (Kathy Baker), accuses him of raping her. Before you know it, he’s chased out of town, he inadvertently stabs Jim, and Kim tells the townspeople that Edward died in the struggle, when in reality he spends the rest of his days hiding out back in that old mansion on the hill.
When the townspeople learn of Edward’s (apparent) death, they don’t celebrate that this threat to their neighborhood is snuffed out. They’re stunned and crestfallen, and they slowly walk back to their homes in the dead of night. The fact that this scene is preceded by over an hour of them treating him like a neighbor, friend, and son, makes Edward’s ultimate fate so much more disappointing and tragic. This is a monster movie that’s not only about plain discrimination—it’s about betrayal.
Edward Scissorhands was a response to classics before it. It redefined monster movies, and otherwise familiar tales of The Grotesque. It was the first film that had a “monster” who wasn’t defined by being a pariah or a menace—one that’s characterized simply by his outcast status, and has one-dimensional relationships with everyone else in the movie. We’re treated to seeing him engage with the townspeople, in both lighthearted fish-out-of-water moments, but also touching ones that suggest real humanity.
The reason the film is one of the most beloved of the 1990s is because it turns an age-old notion on its head: The monster isn’t feared, he’s welcomed. We get to know Edward so much better because of it, and we root for him so much more.
It’s why Edward Scissorhands is the most human monster movie ever made.
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