With the release of Frankenweenie, the clown prince of oddball gothic cinema Tim Burton has finally got his groove back. It might feel a little as if his latterday slew of classic remakes have lacked some of the soul of his earlier output, but ever since marking out his territory with 1985’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Burton has been defined as a talent you should never write off for long. And with a repertory company the likes of Winona Ryder, Michelle Pfeiffer, wife Helena Bonham Carter and, of course, Johnny Depp, he’s produced one of the most enchanting catalogues in modern cinema. So as the full-length, stop-motion version of his short-form Frankenstein skit from 1984 garners near-universal acclaim, what better to time to pick over the best and the worst of his creepy and kooky career…
Some might say that Burton’s iconic 1989 reinvention of the Dark Knight from the camp sixties TV days deserves the nod through pure virtue of reinventing Bruce Wayne in the first place. But it’s the sequel that packs the ultimate Kapow for me. Burton’s second go is altogether darker realization of the comic books, and more in their original spirit, that really puts the Goth in Gotham’s crooked kingdom. And in Michelle Pfieffer’s divine and mischevious Catwoman, there is one of the iconic performances in comic book cinema.
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Burton’s longstanding relationship with his muse Johnny Depp was established as one of cinema’s greats with his bleakly beautiful romantic fairytale. It made the careers of both of them, as if their cinematic bromance has amounted to a 20-year attempt to get it this right again. Burton has made a career out of painting the American picket fence as a gothic fantasy, Depp out of bringing eccentric outsiders to life. And none of it could have happened without this, one of the markers that signalled that the 90s, creatively, had started. And this is before we even mention Winona Ryder.
After making his name with Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Burton cemented his ‘suburban goth’ thing with a haunted house story that cinema would not equal until this year’s (wildly different) The Woman In Black. Michael Keaton auditions for the Johnny Depp role in most subsequent Burton movies (ironically getting his next gig as a smouldering Batman) as the mischievous poltergeist out of to protect his patch, and Winona Ryder auditions for the 90s generally. It was here that the cult of Tim Burton was first set down.
Mars Attacks! (1996)
Aka the most psychedelically strange alien invasion flick ever. Burton skewers the sci-fi B-movie in a satire that keeps you in on the joke by never always remaining loving towards his target, never snide, and ironically ends up with a piece with far more heart than, say, the mawkish Independence Day. Pop fact: the iconic green-head alien laugh noise was made by reversing the sound of a duck quacking.
Ed Wood (1994)
The director’s foray into that most treacherous of territories for a director; a film about filmmaking. And Burton’s loving portrait of the unfortunate non-talent behind the likes of Plan 9 From Outer Space was a commercial failure, only really funded out of the director’s increased stock after the success of Batman. But the black-and-white emo-noir emerges as a gorgeous curio in the catalogue, a love letter to the cross-dressing Wood’s blind faith in the medium. Of the Depp collaborations, this may be one of the most understated performances, and yet for that, comes out as one of the most effective.
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And the worst…
You could just as easily substitute this for Alice In Wonderland or Sweeney Todd. Because in recent years, gilded with the status of a legend and given the money to do as he pleases, Burton has gone through a phase of rampantly remaking his favourite stories, always visually scrumptious, always with Johnny Depp and rarely with the heart or soul that makes a Burton classic classic. But we choose this because there’s already a perfectly fine movie version of this book already out there.
Dark Shadows (2012)
See above. You could say the reason that Dark Shadows failed to resonate with the UK audience because we don’t have the affection with the American 1970s horror-soap. But in fact that is its very weakness, it was too slavish, and so didn’t manage to engage on its own terms. The lack connection didn’t stop 21 Jump Street (ironically an early Depp TV vehicle) from being a riot this side of the pond. It was just wasn’t all that – so thank goodness Frankenweenie was on its way.