“He wants to be just like Vincent Price”: Influence & Intertext in the Gothic Films of Tim Burton
Stephen Carver Ph.D
In J. Weinstock ed, The Works of Tim Burton: Margins to Mainstream (New York: Palgrave 2013) pages 117 – 133. ISBN 978-1-137-37082-2
Reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher.
Copyright © SJ Carver 2013, 2014
2012 was a good year for Tim Burton. Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie, both directed by Burton (the latter a greatly expanded stop-motion re-make of his 1984 short) were released, as was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, produced by Burton and directed by Timur Bekmambetov from the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith. While Abraham Lincoln reflects current trends in popular horror — a crowded, image consuming, multimedia marketplace, characterized by kinetic violence and genre hybridization — Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie are pure Burton: stylized narratives that are at once traditional and highly idiosyncratic.
Although he clearly revisits earlier material with Frankenweenie, Dark Shadows is arguably just as much a return to source for Burton. In common with much of Burton’s work, the film is a re-working of a popular but weird source from his childhood. Dark Shadows was a Gothic soap opera that aired after school on ABC from 1966 to 1971, running to 1,225 episodes. The show was the brainchild of Dan Curtis, who, like Edward D. Wood Jr., another Burton hero, updated the traditional Gothic on a shoestring budget, albeit much more successfully than the tragic director of Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). Because it was taped and broadcast so quickly, the show had the unintentional feel of a low-budget horror film, complete with booms showing and actors upsetting Styrofoam tombstones. The original plot felt like Ann Radcliffe in a contemporary setting, but the show was enlivened in 1967 by the introduction of Barnabas Collins, a morally ambivalent character somewhere between Maturin’s Gothic immortal Melmoth the Wanderer and Rymer’s Varney the Vampire. Peyton Place met Dracula, and in terms of fantastic television, Barnabas Collins was as iconic in the sixties as Captain Kirk and Batman.
Burton’s version of Dark Shadows follows the original Barnabas story arc quite closely, transplanted to 1972 in a nod to Hammer’s Dracula: AD 1972 (Alan Gibson, 1972). Performances are camp, catching the essence of the show, with Johnny Depp playing Barnabas Collins as straight as Adam West’s interpretation of Batman. There is also the gallows and cartoon humor that characterize the best Burton projects, as well as the director’s usual affinity for the isolated loner in the hostile universe, Depp’s clueless Barnabas recalling his Edward Scissorhands. Period detail, trash culture, and Gothic theatricality are referenced with a cameo from Alice Cooper, now, like Burton, his own cultural code. Visually, Burton returns to the marriage of theatrical melodrama and expressionism that epitomizes Gothic cinema — the death of Barnabas on the sublime Widow’s Hill worthy of Murnau or Whale.
The history of Gothic film can be read in Dark Shadows, as it can in all of Burton’s work, referenced, reproduced, and refined as the codes of the literary and cinematic Gothic are combined with surprising childhood sources, so that Edgar Allan Poe meets Dr. Seuss, and slamming the Rankin/Bass seasonal television special into The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari suddenly makes perfect sense. This esoteric vision is already strongly realized in Burton’s earliest work for Disney, the stop-motion short Vincent (1982). Burton’s signature style is already present, a labyrinthine semiology of intertextual connections and cultural retrieval. There is a rejection of the suburban and an identification with the other throughout — key themes at the heart of Burton’s subsequent work in both modes of production, animation and live action — and the pseudo-autobiographical desire to be “just like Vincent Price,” expressed by a creative and alienated child, can be applied as a model and a metaphor for the contextualization of Burton’s work within the broad genre of Gothic film. As Burton now returns to black and white stop-motion animation with his re-make of Frankenweenie, Vincent remains the key to cracking the Enigma Code of Burton’s unique aesthetic. To understand Burton, we must understand Vincent.
When Graham Fuller interviewed Burton and Price together on the set of Edward Scissorhands (1990), he began by returning to Vincent, a verse-story in which an alienated suburban kid longs to live the life of the man People Magazine described as “the Gable of the Gothic” (qtd. in Price 479):
Vincent Malloy is seven years old
He’s always polite and does what he’s told.
For a boy his age, he’s considerate and nice
But he wants to be just like Vincent Price.
Price had narrated, telling Fuller that the project was “better than a star on Hollywood Boulevard.” “Are you the little boy in that cartoon?” Fuller asks Burton. “To some degree, he is,” replies Price, without hesitation. “Without being too literal,” Burton warily adds, “there are aspects of me. Vincent actually helped me to understand it better” (qtd. in Woods 14). Disney did not understand, and Vincent had a two-week L.A. run supporting the terrible coming-of-age drama Tex, before it was consigned to the “Disney Vault,” where it would soon be joined by Burton’s next project for the studio, Hansel and Gretel (1982), and the next, Frankenweenie, until it was appended to the 2003 “Special Edition” Nightmare Before Christmas DVD, by which time Burton was a global brand, courted by Disney and, like Vincent Price, a Gothic icon.
Burton’s Gothic style is instantly recognizable, oft-imitated, and yet difficult to define. Aurélien Ferenczi, for example, can find no correlative in his Cahiers du Cinéma profile: “From this most singular mind have sprung films whose only similarities are with their owner: scary and funny, dark and colourful” (Ferenczi 5). This auteurist reading is refuted, however, by Helena Bassil-Morozow: “Tim Burton is no Eisenstein. An anti-intellectual filmmaker, he does not make an effort to create ‘signs.’ He remains in the realm of the symbolic, operating with the images that are personally dear to him, which also happen to be so ‘loose’ that their own interpretative range is endless” (Bassil-Morozow 24). Alison McMahan, meanwhile, starts from scratch, using Burton as a “case study” to advance her theory of the “pataphysical” film as a new Hollywood genre. Pataphysical films, she argues, “follow an alternate narrative logic” (she allies Burton with the narrative conventions of animation), and rely “more on intertextual, nondiegetic references” (McMahan 3). McMahon is seeking a new critical vocabulary to move beyond mainstream, neo-modernist lamentations against image consumerism (1), but, alongside fan-based psycho-biographical critiques, for example Edwin Page’s Gothic Fantasy: The Films of Tim Burton (2007), that tend to cast Burton as one of his own protagonists, such readings ultimately fail to contain or contextualize Burton and his unique visual and narratological Gothic bricolage. Imagery is not so personal that it denies interpretation, and can be located within the wider context of Gothic film and illustration, while McMahan’s comparisons with other directors she deems “pataphysical” (Barry Sonnenfield, Stephen Sommers, and Roland Emmerich) feel notional. The motto of the Parisian Collège de ’pataphysique can, however, be usefully applied to Burton’s relationship with the Gothic: Eadem mutata resurgo — “I arise again the same though changed.”
In A Child’s Garden of Nightmares, Paul Woods spends most of his introduction seeking a suitable definition. Burton’s films, says Woods, have an “gothic-infantile aesthetic,” a “cartoon-gothic aesthetic,” a “macabre cartoonishness and arrested emotional development,” a “gothic fairytale sensibility,” a “Salvador Dali-on-Sesame Street aesthetic,” and a “pop-gothic aesthetic,” while the poems are “surrealistic” and the drawings “expressionistic” (Woods 5-11). Jenny He takes a similarly conjunctive, though less frenetic approach in the New York Museum of Modern Art catalogue that accompanied Burton’s 2009 exhibition. Burton is “a director of fables, fairy tales, and fantasies, with an aesthetic that incorporates the Gothic, the Grand Guignol, and German Expressionism” (Magliozzi and He 17). While Wood makes Burton sound like the Vegas of the Gothic, postmodern in the context of Venturi and Jameson, he places all Burton’s disparate influences and styles within the unifying field of the Gothic discourse. Jenny He suggests a similarly stable interplay of forms, in which children’s narratives are redefined through a visual aesthetic in which the Gothic is equated with theatricality and expressionism, the central tenets of Gothic film as it evolved in early cinema, most notably blended at Carl Laemmle’s Universal Studios.
While silent cinema was creating the genre in Hollywood, its narrative and visual influences were originally literary, theatrical, and essentially Victorian — the films compressed versions of Gothic melodramas, shot by a static camera with high-key lighting. With the migration of key modernists from German cinema, such as Conrad Veidt and Paul Leni, to Universal, Gothic melodrama was fused with the interiority of Expressionism, which exaggerated the symbolic and emotional, distorting physical reality to convey individual perception. James Whale, for example, who had learned his trade at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, had Robert Weine’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920) screened repeatedly during the pre-production of Frankenstein at Universal in 1931 (Curtis 149).
Burton equates films like Frankenstein with fairytales, historically undifferentiated through the homogeneity of Saturday afternoon television re-runs:
Because I never read, my fairy tales were probably those monster movies. To me they’re fairly similar. I mean, fairy tales are extremely violent and extremely symbolic and disturbing, probably even more so than Frankenstein and stuff like that, which are kind of mythic and perceived as fairy tale-like. But fairy tales, like the Grimms’ fairy tales, are probably closer to movies like The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, much rougher, harsher, full of bizarre symbolism. (qtd. in Salisbury 3) (2)
The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (1962) is an American International Picture directed by Joseph Green, in which a scientist revives the decapitated head of his fiancée, and is representative of the post-war horror film, in which the codes of period Gothic, in this case Frankenstein, are updated to Cold War America and pitched at a teenaged drive-in demographic. AIP led this new market 93). The style is hybrid and kitsch with a gallows humor, the best of it inspired by the short-lived but hugely influential EC horror comics, Tales From The Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear, which had been killed off by a moral panic in 1954 (4). Following 1940s radio shows like Inner Sanctum Mysteries and The Witch’s Tale (which Burton references in Ed Wood), EC comics were introduced by ghoulish hosts, and this trend continued on television with Ghoulardi on Cleveland’s WJW Channel 8, Portland’s KPTV’s Tarantula Ghoul, and Vampira on Los Angeles’s KABC. Burton caught this paradigm perfectly in Ed Wood (1994), and Mars Attacks! (1996), while Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice has elements of the original EC Crypt Keeper, who was often portrayed as a psychotic sideshow barker, rather than the hooded death’s head of the later HBO Tales from the Crypt TV show.
Hammer Film Productions in the U.K. resuscitated the traditional Gothic, retelling the Universal stories while dropping the Expressionist mise-en-scène in favor of melodrama and Technicolor Grand Guignol in The Curse of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher, 1957) and The Horror of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958). These films had a set-bound, dreamlike style that Burton later captured in Sleepy Hollow (1999), his love letter to Hammer, Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961), and Mario Bava’s neo-baroque La maschera del demonio (The Mask of Satan, 1960). The success of Hammer inspired AIP to produce a full-color version of Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher in 1960, directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price. The subsequent AIP “Poe Cycle” ran to eight titles, concluding with The Tomb of Ligeia (Roger Corman) in 1964, which has thematic similarities with Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005). Burton loved these films, later telling Price’s daughter Victoria that, “There was a connection, an emotional link for me, growing up and watching the Poe films. Vincent’s characters had a sensitivity. There was an energy he had; it was evident in everything. I liked believing Vincent; I believed him” (Price 433). Vincent, then, is Burton’s first serious homage to Gothic film, consumed via television as a kid, alchemically blended, and personified by Vincent Price as a cultural code.
In six minutes, Vincent takes us places that high concept genre blockbusters dare not go. The black and white film is a series of chiaroscuro scenic juxtapositions, alternating between the bright exterior reality of Vincent’s family home and the dark, visually Expressionist interior world of his imagination. The narrative is a network of allusions to Gothic film and fiction, in particular Corman’s Fall of the House of Usher, The Raven (1963), and The Tomb of Ligeia. Vincent also references Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), “He likes to experiment on his dog Abercrombie/In the hopes of creating a horrible zombie,” and House of Wax (André de Toth, 1953), the Warner’s film that re-branded Price as a Gothic villain: “Vincent is nice when his aunt comes to see him/But imagines dipping her in wax for his wax museum.” Without citing a specific film, Vincent imagines London as a Gothic space, a hyper-real Victorian version built on penny dreadful and silent film foundations that Burton will fully realize a quarter-of-a-century later in Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007): “So he and his horrible zombie dog/Could go searching for victims in the London fog.” The alternative scenes are unified by Ken Hilton’s score, a simple version of “The Streets of Cairo” (AKA “The Snake Charmer”) that Vincent plays on the recorder, an instantly recognizable piece of Vaudeville exotica lifted from a traditional Algerian folk song (“Kradoutja”), that connects Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque with “The Hootchy Kootchy Dance” and the animated fairy tales Ali Baba Bound (Porky Pig, 1941), and Aladdin’s Lamp (Mighty Mouse, 1947), both of which used this musical theme to signal orientalism.
The narrative pendulum stops in the imaginary realm after Vincent is scolded by his exasperated mother. There is a Gothic epiphany, “To escape the madness, he reached for the door/But fell limp and lifeless down on the floor,” and Burton fades to black as Vincent whispers the closing lines of “The Raven,” “And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor/Shall be lifted—nevermore!” “The people at Disney thought he died,” Burton later explained, “but he’s just lying there … in his own little dream world” (qtd. in Salisbury 17).
Character design, storyboards, and backdrops place Burton in the tradition of post-war illustration, with stark lines, heavy shadow, and grotesque, black and white caricatures. This visual style is already present in Burton’s CalArts animated short Stalk of the Celery Monster (1979), the film that got him head-hunted by Disney. Burton’s “expressionism” appears, however, to originate with Dr. Seuss rather than Dr Caligari:
I certainly saw pictures of it [The Cabinet of Dr Caligari], in any monster book there were pictures of it. But I didn’t see it until fairly recently. I think it probably has more to do with being inspired by Dr Seuss. It just happened to be shot in black and white, and there’s this Vincent Price/Gothic kind of thing that makes it feel that way. I grew up loving Dr Seuss. The rhythm of his stuff spoke to me very clearly. (qtd. in Salisbury 19)
As Burton’s engagement with German Expressionist cinema became more developed, for example in the Gothic-Noir Batman Returns (1992), which explicitly cites F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) and dresses the Penguin like Werner Krauss’ Dr. Caligari, the red and white candy cane stripes of Dr. Seuss remain.
Burton originally conceived Vincent as a children’s book (Woods 14). Darker than Dr. Seuss, this would have not been out of place shelved with Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963), an illustrated abecedary in which each letter of the alphabet stands for the name of a dead child, their demise told in dactylic couplets: “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears, C is for Clara who wasted away…” (Gorey 128-29; see contribution by Lackner in this volume). Burton’s illustrated collection of poems The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories (1997) is clearly in this tradition, which includes Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children (1907), and the work of Roald Dahl, some of which Burton later filmed, co-producing (with Denise De Novi) Henry Selick’s James and the Giant Peach in 1996, and directing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2005, a faithful adaptation to which Burton added only his own motif of the abandoning parent.
Although a Disney project, Vincent feels anti-Disney in both ethos and practice. Like the reflection of the House of Usher in the “black and lurid tarn” (Poe 76), Vincent is the Gothic other of the sentimental populism of the “Silly Symphony” tradition of Technicolor full-cel animation, still prevalent at Disney in the early-1980s. Walt Disney had loathed black and white animation, which he once described as, “as drab … as a gray day alongside a rainbow” (qtd. in Gabler, Walt Disney 178). Shot off-lot, with its adult themes and stop motion animation, Vincent more closely reflects the influence of Disney’s competitors (Max) Fleischer Studios, who created the first animated sex symbol, Betty Boop, and Rankin/Bass Productions, known for stop-motion “Animagic” animation and seasonal television musicals, including the highly successful Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) and Mad Monster Party (1967). The latter was voiced by Boris Karloff and written and designed by EC horror comic stalwarts Harvey Kurtzman and Jack Davis, and the merging of both films is a probable synergetic foundation for Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).
Another likely influence is the animated short Gerald McBoing-Boing (Robert Cannon, 1950), an Academy Award winning Columbia “Jolly Frolics” cartoon written by Dr. Seuss in which a toddler begins “talking” in sound effects. The story begins in a very similar way to Vincent, “This is the story of Gerald McLoy/And the Strange thing that happened to that little boy,” while the limited animation style was a direct challenge the graphic realism of Disney Studios through caricature and abstract backgrounds. Initially alienated at home and at school, Gerald finally achieves acceptance when discovered by a talent scout from the “XYZ Radio Network.” Vincent Molloy, in comparison, does not reconcile with his mother or the outside world. Ordered to “get outside and have some real fun,” his only recourse is to lie on the floor quoting “The Raven,” in a final image interpreted by Disney executives as suicidal, and by Burton as liberating.
Vincent Molloy’s rejection of parental (adult/societal/Disney) values and withdrawal from the world in favor of a self-created reality can similarly be seen in the majority of Burton’s central characters. In Frankenweenie, little Victor Frankenstein denies death, and is a more self-actualized, metonymic version of the catatonic Vincent (he really does create a zombie dog); Pee-wee Herman is a textbook puer aeternus; in Beetlejuice, Lydia Deetz is a goth teenager in the manner, again, of Vincent, while Beetlejuice “does not work well with others.” In Batman and Batman Returns, heroes, anti-heroes and villains all retreat into their masked personas, worlds full of “wonderful toys.” Edward Scissorhands, like Willy Wonka, begins and ends in a high castle, while Ed Wood and Ed Bloom retreat into fantastic fictions. Sweeney Todd and Burton’s Alice both reject Victorian notions of social class, gender and identity, substituting their own extreme realities. Burton’s films frequently open by leading the viewer into these alternative diegeses, through doors, gates, windows, factory chimneys and magic trees.
Like Burton, Vincent Molloy believes in Vincent Price, inaugurating a pattern in which the Gothic discourse itself is subverted by embracing rather than resisting otherness:
I’ve always loved monsters and monster movies. I was never terrified of them, I just loved them from as early as I can remember. My parents said I was never scared, I’d just watch anything … there was something about that identification. Every kid responds to some image, some fairy tale image, and I felt most monsters were basically misperceived, they usually had much more heartfelt souls than the human characters around them. (qtd. in Salisbury 2-3)
As Ed Bloom observes in Big Fish, upon discovering that Amos Calloway (a character not in the original novel by Daniel Wallace) is a werewolf, “It was that night I discovered that most things you’d consider evil or wicked were just lonely or lacking in social niceties.” This is a La Belle et la Bête fairytale device, but without the need for a return to normality, like the one requested by Disney executives of Vincent, a final scene resisted by Burton in which Dad arrives to take Vincent to a ball game (Salisbury 17).
There is a correlative here in the work of Irish director Neil Jordan, who collaborated with Angela Carter on The Company of Wolves (1984), a dark, magic realist re-telling of fairytales adapted from Carter’s collection of short stories The Bloody Chamber (1979), and whose comic ghost romance High Spirits was released the same year as Beetlejuice. Unlike Burton, Jordan’s academic background and influences are literary, and the visual style of The Company of Wolves and High Spirits owes much to the production designer Anton Furst. Burton loved the look of The Company of Wolves and wanted Furst to work on Beetlejuice — they finally collaborated on Batman (Fraga 22). It is interesting to note that Burton’s affinity was with Furst rather than Carter or Jordan, and in discussing the connection with Alan Jones for Cinefantastique the reason was implicit: “my background is in illustration and design” (qtd. in Fraga 23).
There is, nonetheless, a literary Gothic foundation underpinning Burton’s work. The Burtonesque protagonist, like the nineteenth-century Gothic narrative, is structured around dualism, the internal origin of the other — so prominent in Frankenstein and Poe’s monologues of madness, both key sources for Burton — a cultural process described by Rosemary Jackson as “the progressive internalisation of the demonic” (Jackson 56). Jackson, following Todorov, identified two key myths in the modern fantastic narrative, those dealing with the self, “I,” and the other, “not-I,” which she relates to the Frankenstein and Dracula archetypes. The Dracula myth centers on the problem of power — the self suffers an attack which makes it part of the other. In the Frankenstein myth, a variation of the Faustian, “Danger is seen to originate from the subject, through excessive knowledge, or rationality, or the mis-application of the human will … self becomes other through a self-generated metamorphosis, through the subject’s alienation from himself and constant splitting or multiplying of identities” (Jackson 58-59). Burton has recently engaged with vampirism in Dark Shadows (2012), but he is predominantly concerned with the Frankenstein myth, which is already present in Vincent, then fully realized in Frankenweenie, the Batman films, and Edward Scissorhands, then more allegorically in Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd, and then back to Frankenweenie (2012), now a twice-told tale by Burton in both his modes of production. In Dark Shadows, Burton also casts Barnabas as an orphan (the narrative is full of references to absent or dead parents), who is cursed to be a vampire by the witch Angélique and then abandoned, placing his character within the Frankenstein rather than the Dracula paradigm.
The original Frankenweenie is the live action counterpoint of Vincent, bridged by the Hansel and Gretel TV movie made for the Disney Channel in 1982 (5). It is Burton’s most literal interpretation of James Whale’s Frankenstein, and the transposition of this film to the world of a child is inspired. In common with Vincent, Frankenweenie is packed with visual detail and intertextual references. Following a mise-en-scènic line taken by Mel Brooks in Young Frankenstein (1974), producer Julie Hickson linked Frankenweenie to the Universal classic through the use of the original electrical props designed by Kenneth Strickfaden (qtd. in Woods 20), but what’s most interesting about little Victor’s attic laboratory are the toys and domestic appliances that Burton makes into machines of reanimation, for example a toaster, a dustbin lid, a Goofy bicycle, and retro table lamps resembling giant electrodes. Most memorably, the gantry used by Colin Clive to elevate the platform bearing Boris Karloff to the heavens is recreated by a horsey swing, with one horse still attached. Burton’s device is to make the ordinary Gothic. The black and white film concludes, like the original, with a burning windmill, though Burton’s is on a derelict miniature golf course. Like Whale, Burton uses low-key lighting and deep space to create depth and contrasts between light and shadow, an Expressionist effect developed by Murnau in Nosferatu.
Test marketing fed back parental concerns about the general “intensity” of the film, which was given a PG rating. Its planned paring with a reissue of Pinocchio was therefore shelved (Woods 20). Burton parted company with Disney soon after, but Stephen King’s enthusiasm for Frankenweenie led to Warner’s offer to direct Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (Fraga 156). The remake of Frankenweenie represents Burton returning to his roots, combining the extended narrative of the original — Burton has often noted that he felt the original could’ve easily been a full-length feature (Salisbury 32) — with the black and white stop-motion animation and visual style of Vincent and Corpse Bride.
As both films share a common source, Frankenweenie contains many future echoes of Edward Scissorhands, for example identification with a physically fragmented and misunderstood monster, the suburban setting, the failed attempt to integrate an outsider into a provincial community, and angry mobs. “The fiend,” argues Bassil-Morozow, is also “a metaphor for the introverted, creative outcast” (Bassil-Morozow 51). The fragmented subject notionally suggests a postmodern protagonist. Sparky the dog, as well as belonging to a long line of Burton’s canine characters, often dead, is sewn together from an assemblage of parts in the manner of Shelley’s original creation and its interpretation by Jack Pierce and Boris Karloff at Universal. This is a constant and visually metonymic motif in Burton’s work. In Nightmare Before Christmas, Sally, like Sparky, Voodoo Girl (from the Oyster Boy collection), and Catwoman, is literally stitched together. Edward is a mechanical boy who is “not finished,” the Joker is a plastic surgery disaster, and Emily, the Corpse Bride, is, like Sally, forever falling apart and reassembling herself. There is a constant threat of decapitation in Sleepy Hollow, and even Ed Wood, “Glen” and “Glenda,” is coming apart, his front teeth knocked out by a Japanese soldier during the invasion of Tarawa Island (Grey 20), while the schism between Benjamin Barker and his double Sweeney Todd is represented physically by a lightening streak of white hair, recalling Gregory Peck’s portrayal of the obsessive Captain Ahab in John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956) and “the marks of some inner crucifixion and woe deep in his face.” As Burton has said of the Nightmare Before Christmas character designs: “I was into stitching from the Catwoman thing, I was into that whole psychological thing of being pieced together … The feeling of not being together and of being loosely stitched … is just a strong feeling for me” (qtd. in Salisbury 122-23).
Internal fragmentation is implicit within Batman and Batman Returns, as it is in all dual identity superhero narratives. Burton’s version is, however, unique in the Batman mythos in that it is more concerned with Bruce Wayne than his alter ego, hence the controversial casting of the less-than-macho Michael Keaton and an almost complete abandonment of the action/adventure aspect of the comic tradition. Burton’s approach to adaptation — with the notable exception of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — recalls the Danish auteur Carl Dreyer who, in “adapting” the Gothic novelist Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu to the screen in the expressionist masterpiece Vampyr (1932) wryly credits the film as “based” on Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly (1872), a collection of supernatural stories, rather than on one particular story, creating something new out of the essence of the text in a different medium. As Dreyer wrote: “It is the director who, by his selection and linking of motifs, determines the film’s rhythm. The preparation of the scenario is therefore in the strictest sense the director’s legitimate business … Allowing others to prepare a scenario for a director is like giving a finished drawing to a painter and asking him to put in the colours” (qtd. in Prawer 138).
Although Burton’s Batman films are structured entirely around divided selves, they offer the possibility of a re-unification that is neither Gothic nor postmodern. Though Bruce battles with his shadows in the first film, he achieves a resolution denied his graphic counterpart: he kills the Joker and gets the girl, thereby overcoming his “Batman” persona (6), both plot-lines that are unthinkable in the continuing narrative of DC Batman comics, hence the well-documented criticism of Burton from Batman fans (7). In Batman Returns the romantic resolution from the previous story arc is dismissed because of Bruce’s “difficulty with duality,” yet in the film’s climax Bruce and Batman become visually and symbolically whole when Batman removes his mask and invites Catwoman to do the same, although she cannot because, “I just couldn’t live with myself.” Bruce, apparently, can, although alone. A more positive solution to this state is offered at the conclusion of Ed Wood, in which the transvestite director drives off camera to marry a woman who understands and accepts him, Burton ending the biopic before Wood’s descent into chronic alcoholism, poverty, and an early grave, much like the tragedy of Bela Lugosi. Frankenweenie has a similar conclusion, in which Sparky is accepted by the local community and finds love with a poodle with a Bride of Frankenstein hairdo, while scriptwriter Michael MacDowell described Burton first full-length Gothic feature, Beetlejuice (1988), as “an optimistic film about death” (qtd. in Ferenczi 20).
Only in more recent films by Burton has a darker version of the Frankenstein/Doppelgänger myth emerged. In the critically underrated and misunderstood Planet of the Apes (2001), the Miltonic motif of God as abandoning parent central to Shelley’s original story, in which creature confronts creator as Adam does God in Book X of Paradise Lost, lacks even the ambivalent resolution of the original novel. In the Manichean frame of Planet of the Apes, the protagonist Leo denies his responsibility to the society his actions have created, turning his back on both humans and apes in pursuit of an idealized version of “home” that turns out to be hell. Given the lack of a sequel, it must be assumed that there was no escape. General Thade, who, as the direct descendant of Semos, the first ape to rebel, appears to represent Satan in a Miltonic model, is utterly triumphant.
Similarly, while fathers and sons are reconciled in Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the Corpse Bride apparently goes to heaven (and everybody else to a cheery Gothic version of the Spiritualist Summerland), the nihilistic Sweeney Todd is “complete again” only with a blade in his hand. This goes beyond the cute associations often made with Edward Scissorhands (8), and his “epiphany” (from the song of the same name) is “They all deserve to die.” Sweeney’s anagnorisis is the accidental murder of his long-lost wife, and he passively surrenders his throat to the razor of his surrogate son, Toby, embracing Lucy Barker’s corpse as Mrs. Lovett burns like a fairytale witch in an oven, and his blood flows down the bake house drain into the Fleet Ditch, a notorious Victorian sewer.
Narratologically, Sweeney Todd represents Burton’s return to the nineteenth-century literary Gothic. While Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is an adaptation of the “Black Operetta” (qtd. in Ferenczi 86) by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, the source is pure Victorian melodrama: Thomas Peckett Prest’s serial The String of Pearls: A Romance (1846/7), published by Edward Lloyd, the king of the “penny bloods,” and adapted for the stage as The Fiend of Fleet Street by the master of melodrama, George Dibdin Pitt in 1847. The “blood and thunder” melodramas of the Victorian stage were very successfully revived by Tod Slaughter’s theater company at the Elephant and Castle Theatre in the mid-1920s, with Slaughter playing the over-the-top villains in Maria Marten, Sweeney Todd, and Jack Sheppard. Many of these plays were cheaply produced as films by George King in the 1930s, with Slaughter reprising his stage role in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in 1936. These films run parallel to the Expressionist Gothics of Universal, and are a vital link back to the Victorian stage and forward to Hammer and AIP. As Burton told Time Out: “Most musicals are camp by their very nature but the difference here was the melodrama of it, that sense of really extreme obsessive behaviour which made it feel to me much more like a silent movie with music” (Burton 2007).
Burton’s Sweeney Todd is a digital Caligari, shot on the stages at Pinewood against a CGI metropolis that merges the Victorian cityscapes of Gustav Doré’s London: A Pilgrimage (1872) with the hyper-real urban labyrinths of old school videogames like id Software’s Doom and Quake, referenced in an accelerated first-person walk through the rookeries of London to Fleet Street. The Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical is based on a stage revival by Christopher Bond written in 1973, and has a feel of Brecht and Weill. Bond incorporated plot elements of Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606), in which the protagonist seeks to avenge the death of his lover, brought about by a villainous older man, resulting in a bloodbath that kills hero and villain. Todd therefore becomes a tragic hero while “Judge Turpin” is the melodramatic villain. Depp has cited Lon Chaney, Sr. and Peter Lorre in Karl Freund’s Mad Love (1835) as inspirations for his performance (Daly).
In returning to the marriage of melodrama and expressionism that epitomizes the form in both Sweeney Todd and Dark Shadows, Gothic film turns full circle in Burton at his best. This is a coherent and progressive project on the part of the director and his devoted repertory company, a kind of romantic modernism that began in earnest with Vincent, the film that charted the territory that Burton has explored ever since. All Burton’s films to date are part of the same narratological and semiotic structure, turning and turning again as Vincent and Abercrombie rise again as Victor and Sparky are (re)animated this year, and Johnny Depp inevitably becomes Barnabas Collins.
In her biography of her father, Victoria Price recalls that on the last night they spent together, “we watched a rough cut of the documentary Tim Burton had made about my father … I sat on his bed and held his hand” (Price 478). Vincent Price died the next day. Although Burton chose to let Conversations with Vincent die with him, that Price would watch the first print so near to his passing indicates the rapport between the two men, a friendship that tentatively began when Price narrated Vincent, Burton’s first professional film, and was fully realized in Price’s cinematic swansong Edward Scissorhands (1990), Burton’s fairytale Frankenstein. As Victoria wrote, “he was always grateful to Tim Burton for providing him with such a satisfying last piece of work” (Price 434).
For Gracie and Vincent
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- McMahan’s starting point is Neal Gabler’s New York Times article on “the illusion of entertainment.” See Gabler, “The Nation.”
- In the same interview, Burton also cites as childhood favorites: Scream Blacula Scream (AIP, Bob Kelljan, 1973); Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (Hammer, Roy Ward Baker, 1971); Destroy All Monsters (Toho, Ishirō Honda, 1968); Jason and the Argonauts (Columbia, Don Chaffey,1963); King Kong (RKO, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933); Godzilla (Toho, Ishirō Honda, 1954); Creature from the Black Lagoon (Universal, Jack Arnold, 1954); The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (Columbia, Nathan Juran, 1958); Dracula (Universal, Tod Browning, 1931); and Welcome to My Nightmare (1975), the Alice Cooper album that featured the Vincent Price monologue “The Black Widow.”
- AIP seem to have particularly influenced Burton’s juvenilia. Stalk of the Celery Monster (1979) nods towards the “cucumber monster” of Roger Corman’s It Conquered the World (1956) and the dentist scene in Little Shop of Horrors (1960), while Doctor of Doom (1979) casts Burton as a mad scientist and splices in an AIP closing credit. Luau (1982, co-directed by Jerry Rees) is a pastiche of the AIP Beach Party series (1963-66), in which Burton appears as a disembodied head.
- For an overview of EC comics, see Mike Benton’s Illustrated History of Horror Comics (1991). The short-lived Topps Chewing Gum Company Mars Attacks trading cards of 1962 had an EC aesthetic and suffered a similar fate.
- It is worth noting that Burton was already drawn to the rewriting of fairy tales, as well as combining narrative forms. Hansel and Gretel references Japanese monster movies, Kabuki theater, and anime, all framed by an introduction by Vincent Price. Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1986), directed by Burton for Shelly Duvall’s “Faerie Tale Theatre,” plays it straighter, although the cavern of the lamp is a masterpiece of neo-expressionist design, employing forced perspective, a tunnel of skulls, and magic lantern shadows—obviously Burton’s illustrations—painted on set walls.
- For Jungian readings of Batman, see Bassil-Morozow and the graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Dave McKean (1989).
- For some colorful responses from fans, see Will Brooker’s Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon (2001).
- See Ferenczi, page 86.