Director Tim Burton’s richly entertaining update of the Frankenstein story is the year’s most comic, romantic and haunting film fantasy. The title character, played with touching gravity by Johnny Depp, is the handiwork of an aging inventor — Vincent Price, in a lovely cameo — who lives in a dark, musty mansion overlooking a small town of pastel-colored tract houses (exteriors were shot in Florida). Engaged in fanciful cooking experiments, the lonely inventor turns one of his cookie-cutting machines into a boy, a companion to chat with and instruct in the wonders of art, poetry and etiquette. But just before he can provide Edward with hands instead of shears, the inventor dies, leaving his synthetic son alone in a world he knows only from the old magazine clippings he keeps near his bed of straw.
Enter Avon lady Peg Boggs (Dianne Wiest, using her sunny squint to fine advantage), who has wandered off her usual route. Peg is alarmed at first by the flash of Edward’s lethal blades. But her maternal instincts are soon aroused. Edward is a hazard, slicing gashes in his chalky face every time he wipes away a stray hair. This benign Freddy Krueger (ironically, Depp appeared as a victim in Nightmare on Elm Street) presents a make-over challenge even for Avon. Peg does more than suggest a good astringent; she takes him home to her husband, Bill (a marvelously wry Alan Arkin), and their children, Kevin (Robert Oliveri) and Kim (Winona Ryder). Edward is struck by the family photographs, especially of blond cheerleader Kim. With scant dialogue, Depp artfully expresses the fierce longing in gentle Edward; it’s a terrific performance.
r a while Burton and screenwriter Caroline Thompson have fun showing Edward’s struggles to get dressed, use silverware and sleep in a water bed without wreaking havoc. Production designer Bo Welch has fashioned sets that look like a garish John Waters nightmare of Fifties suburbia with a Nineties twist. It’s Edward who eradicates the blandness by sculpting the town’s hedges into exotic topiaries of animals and people. He gives elaborate haircuts to the neighborhood dogs and then moves on to their owners. Edward is a sensation.
As in Burton’s other films (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and Batman), the outsider soon becomes the outcast, and the laughs are soon tinged with melancholy. Burton, a misfit kid from California who took solace in drawing cartoons and watching Vincent Price horror movies, clearly relates personally to Edward’s situation. Burton shows how the townspeople’s curiosity about Edward turns to suspicion and hostility (not unlike Hollywood’s reaction to an innovative mind). Edward is denounced as a freak, a fake, a demon. An oversexed housewife (a ripely funny Kathy Baker) tries to seduce him. A hissable teen bully (Anthony Michael Hall) forces him into crime and violence. And when Edward tries to comfort those he loves, his touch draws blood.
Burton’s flamboyant style courts disaster and sometimes achieves it. A few scenes are clumsily staged; a few others are fussy beyond endurance. But Burton is a true movie visionary with uncommon insights into hearts in torment. Kim is initially disgusted at the notion of holding Edward’s hand. “Picture the damage he could do other places,” says one of her friends. But Kim comes to cherish Edward for his imagination and devotion. He creates ice sculptures while she dances in the flakes to Danny Elfman’s engulfing score. It’s a cathartic moment — the artist sharing his feelings through his art. Depp and Ryder, a gifted actress, give the potentially sappy scene a potent intimacy. Later, when Kim reaches out to Edward, he pulls back his sharp, cold hands in despair until she tenderly wraps her arms around his chest. The memory of that moment suffuses the film even at the somber climax, which recalls Batman’s poignant solitude atop that Gotham City tower. Edward Scissorhands isn’t perfect. It’s something better: pure magic.