Edward Scissorhands: How Tim Burton's cult classic led to an enduring collaboration with Johnny Depp

By Prahlad Srihari

Before he became Captain Jack Sparrow with dreadlocks, kohl-black eyes, gold teeth and a rum-addled swagger; before he turned into the purple-gloved, top-hat wearing Willy Wonka; before he had to swat off the bats of Raoul Duke's drug-induced delusions; before he became the serial killing hairdresser Sweeney Todd; before he was mad as a hatter, and before his eventual descent into self-parody with whatever the hell Mortdecai was; Johnny Depp put on white makeup, an ugly wig and a leather costume, made up mostly of straps and buckles, to play another ageless weirdo — a gentle robot with scissorblades for fingers in Tim Burton's 1990 gothic fantasy Edward Scissorhands.

Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder in Edward Scissorhands. Facebook/EdwardScissorhandsMovie

The film — which released exactly 27 years ago — put a modern, whimsical twist to the fairy tale genre by blending it with the dark, macabre imagery of Gothic fiction. On the surface, Edward Scissorhands seems like a contemporary archetype of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but it is more a metaphor for Burton's own awkward teenage years. It established all of the familiar Burton trademarks and tropes: his distinctly expressionistic visual style, a carnivalesque atmosphere, an introspective narrative, an eccentric misunderstood outcast (typically played by Depp), fantastical themes and a Danny Elfman score.

Framed as a fairy tale, the film begins with a young girl asking her grandmother where snow comes from. As the grandmother recounts the tale of snow’s origins, a POV shot pans from a suburban hamlet of snow-covered ranch houses and neatly manicured lawns to an old Gothic mansion that looms among the withered vines and trees at the edge of the town — a mansion rather fittingly inhabited by an aging but certifiable scientist played by the iconic Vincent Price. Feeling lonely in his mansion, the scientist creates a synthetic son with spare parts from his cookie-cutting machines. But sadly, the scientist dies before he can complete assembling Edward leaving him with a grotesque appearance and cold razorblade hands but a warm heart.

When a compassionate, Avon-selling suburban mom Peg Boggs (Dianne Wiest) discovers Edward, she takes him home to her loving family. Soon, he becomes the talk of the town as neighbours become intrigued by his childlike persona. When he discovers his newfound talent for topiary and haircutting, he is slowly and gradually accepted by society. After several discouraging attempts — including one ending with a punctured waterbed — to connect with Peg’s teenage daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder), he falls for her. In one of the film's most beautiful scenes, Edward sculpts an ice statue for her during a Christmas party. The ice shavings from the sculpture create an effect of falling snow — a rarity in a hot Californian suburb — as Kim begins to dance under it.

Having scissors for hands makes eating more than a little difficult for poor Ed.

However, Edward Scissorhands is sadly not the sharpest knife in the drawer as the neighbours begin to take advantage of his kindness and naivete. He finds himself seduced by a desperate housewife and caught in the jealousy-stemmed antics of Kim's boyfriend. Despite his innocence, his scissorhands always make him an outcast and the suburban neighbourhood soon turn on him forcing him to escape the town. The grandmother, absurdly but endearingly, implies that the reason snow continues to fall in their town is because Edward and his scissorhands continue chopping and shaving away ice sculptures atop his lonely mansion.

In what is possibly his most personal film, Edward Scissorhands reflects Burton's feelings of isolation and self-discovery. Edward is introduced to the audience with a wide shot before shifting to a close-up of his freakish appearance with his scissorhands in full view. It is here that Burton does something interesting. He compels us to challenge our stereotypes of the traditional freak or monster by focusing on his doleful eyes and the soft dulcet tone of his voice in an effort to emphasise his innocence. By making the outcast the hero, he makes us rethink our prejudices.

In a partnership nearing three decades, Johnny Depp and Tim Burton have enthralled audiences with their offbeat films

His scissorhands-enabled topiary and haircutting skills not only highlight his inner beauty and ingenuity but they also allow him to be accepted by the neighbourhood. Yet, the same contraption make him an outsider as Burton drives home the point that creative individuals will always be misunderstood by a narrow-minded society. Edward’s emotions as he tries to assimilate into suburbia is fittingly underscored by Danny Elfman's evocative music. Burton's condmenation of suburban life is evident in his visual treatment as he juxtaposes an old Gothic mansion against the pastel-coloured surreality of suburbia. He seeks to not only draw our attention to its sterility but also its superficiality.

In the late 80s, Depp had garnered a sex symbol status after playing a teen heartthrob on 21 Jump Street but Burton — impressed with the actor's "ability to act with his eyes" — completely changed his career trajectory. It cemented Depp's reputation as a risk taker who was ready to eschew his matinee idol looks to portray more interesting characters. Even Winona Ryder’s role as the blonde cheerleader and girl-next-door in the film is a far cry from her more nuanced, angsty teen roles in 80s cult classics like Heathers and Burton’s Beetlejuice.

In 27 years since the release of Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton's obsession with putting Johnny Depp in the most bizarre makeup and costumes has not always had the most favourable results. But the 1990 film did pave the way for Sleepy Hollow, Ed Wood, Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland and yes, sadly, Dark Shadows. Edward Scissorhands marked the beginning of one of modern cinema's most creative and prolific collaborative partnerships as Burton and Depp made the morbid look oddly beautiful and the oddball tragically comic.

So, with Christmas just a few weeks away, there’s no better way to get yourself in the mood for the holiday season than Tim Burton’s bittersweet suburban tale of a lost soul and a gifted hairdresser named Edward Scissorhands.