'Edward Scissorhands' subverted all Christmas film tropes - and is therefore the most realistic
Rarely, if ever, do lists of classic Christmas movies include ‘Edward Scissorhands’ (Tim Burton, 1990). But this gothic fairytale about an artificial human with scissors for hands is, t o me, one of the most honest and beautiful of all the festive films.
This was the start of Burton’s fruitful but ultimately repetitive collaboration with Johnny Depp, before the formula became almost self-parodying, with Depp as the eponymous creature. The director calls it his most personal film, and it’s the most conventionally moving, more so than his more obvious Yuletide offering, The Nightmare before Christmas.
The opening shots are both stunning and unnerving: dark cobwebbed grandeur in a mansion where only cold machinery lives, against the backdrop of Danny Elfman’s haunting choral score. Later, you see the same metal brought to life as an automated assembly line, making heart-shaped cookies, which the inventor picks up and places against the mannequin machine’s chest, giving him the idea to make a man.
The film begins with an elderly woman telling her sleepless granddaughter a story from the past. As the snow falls outside, the elderly woman explains that a man used to live in the “haunted” mansion on the mountain: an old inventor who created a human (Edward), but died before he could finish his hands - hence the scissors - leaving Edward “by himself, incomplete and all alone”.
Cut to the past, and we see Pegg Boggs (played with endearing naivety by Dianne Wiest) as a door-knocking cosmetics saleslady. Pegg is a perfect vehicle for Burton to portray shallow, corporate America, faced with the insecurity of her work and the spite of her neighbours. Disheartened by woman who profess to be her friends but refuse to let her in, Pegg decides to try the mansion, where she finds a man crouched in the shadows of the attic. As she backs away in horror, we hear his first words: ‘Don’t go.’
‘What happened to you?’, she asks. He tells her: ‘I’m not finished.’
Overwhelmed by Edward’s palpable loneliness, Pegg decides to take him home, into a world he is totally unprepared for - and which is totally unprepared for him. Frankenstein’s monster is a fish out of water in modern America, among Pegg’s insensitive, gawping neighbours and her kind but ill equipped family. At first, the neighbourhood go crazy for Edward, an alien object of scrutiny (and sexual fascination), while he is spellbound by Pegg’s beautiful daughter Kim (Winona Ryder in her American sweetheart incarnation).
The colour palette transforms from the greyscape of Edward and his mansion, full of shadows and depth, to a flat, candy-coloured moonscape of faceless suburbs. Edward’s talent for hedge-trimming, then dog-grooming and hair-styling, makes him a star, and his scissor hands are seen as special. But, slowly, then picking up speed like a winter wind, fascination turns to exploitation; amusement to derision; and acceptance to rejection.
The film crescendos with the Boggs family Christmas party, which none of the neighbours attend, and where the dramatic turning point between Edward and Kim, and Kim’s boyfriend, Jim (Anthony Michael Hall), takes place.
The film is a dark subversion of the Nativity tale: Edward is an almost Messianic figure, human but alien, the created son of a seemingly omnipotent father, come down to Earth from a mansion which looms, churchlike, over a world full of sin, to be welcomed and adored - and ultimately cast out. One of Pegg’s neighbours, the religious fanatic Esmeralda, refers to him as the Devil; a perversion of nature.
Pegg shows inn-keeper kindness by welcoming Edward into her home, believing that all he needs is a smile and the right astringent to fix his differences - the same way we might at Christmas believe that gifts and cosmetics make us happier in the long-term. But she is punished for her efforts: her kindness ends up hurting Edward all the more. The Boggs family, at first disrupted by their new member, ultimately come together in solidarity just in time for the Christmas party - only to be torn apart by a tragedy left unresolved.
Burton uses Christmas as a metaphor for greed and small-minded materialism: the disconnect with tradition and meaning that a holiday season can become. Edward’s pure artistic talent is seen as something to monetise; Christmas lives or dies on the attendance of neighbours to your party.
Fairytale it might be, but the film is also a more realistic portrayal of Christmas than most. Because the truth, so rarely explored in holiday films, is Christmas can exacerbate loneliness and the feeling of being an outsider. Edward, unable to amalgamate into society, ultimately ends up alone. His innocence is taken advantage of and his desire to do good is thwarted by cruelty and his own disability. When Edward is rejected for a bank loan as he has no social security number, he is told that he “might as well not exist”. Christmas might be a time for the ones you love, but what if that isn’t enough?
The futility of his endeavours is perfectly encapsulated by the flashback scenes with the inventor, where he is tested on obscure dinner party etiquette before his body is even finished. There is no more perfect metaphor for ‘man’s reach exceeds his grasp’ like an artificial human left with scissors for hands.
In Edward Scissorhands, love fails to conquer all; society does not embrace the different and desire goes unfulfilled. Christmas does not always bring families together; indeed, it can tear them apart. But the film also champions acceptance: of others’ differences and of a sometimes cruel and often unfair reality. After all, Kim and Edward may not end up together, but they do end up at peace. And for me, Christmas will always look like a girl dancing under the falling snow, created by the man she loves.