As we approach the culmination of the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made, hard choices need to be made. There are some directors (including , , and ) who, while their overall contribution to the field of weird movies might not rise to the heights of a , a Fellini, or a , nonetheless possess singular enough visions to demand representation in some form or other on the List. The thorniest of these artists is almost certainly (with whom our Alfred Eaker, in particular, has aired his very public love/hate relationship).
After a couple of shockingly original short features that were so odd that Disney Studios canned him as a storyboard artist, Burton’s career began in earnest with the out-there kid’s comedy Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, an askew road movie starring an abrasively endearing man-child in a series of near-surreal adventures. He followed this unexpected hit with a series of comic-Gothic films featuring weirdo square-peg protagonists trying vainly to fit into society’s round holes. As a complete oeuvre, there’s no doubt that Burton has crafted an aesthetic that’s unique and auteurial. Stripes, organic spirals, Victorian costumes, and pallid pancake makeup serve as recurring visual signatures. Thematically, no one else whips the whimsical and the macabre into such a piquant froth. His late work, however, has unquestionably become both repetitive and qualitatively inferior (note that none of our contributors selected a Burton film made after 1999 as his best). At the same time, Burton has set new box office records with some of his lamest work, like his execrable Alice in Wonderland rehaul, reaping financial rewards that reinforce his worst habits and instincts. This has led to a well-deserved critical backlash against his films, and some on-point parodies:
But despite recent disappointments, there’s no doubt that Burton’s early work was among the most original and gruesomely lively Hollywood-backed product to appear throughout the late Eighties and early Nineties. The problem is that no single Burton film rises confidently above the rest, pronouncing itself as simultaneously his best and his weirdest work. This troublesome fact became even clearer when I solicited staff writers to pick the one Burton film that they thought should unquestionably make the List; I got five different responses, not all of them movies I personally would have considered. Our staff’s suggestions are listed below, in order of release.
El Rob Hubbard – Beetlejuice (1988)
Although most of Tim Burton’s work has a weird aspect in some form or other, it’s my opinion that Beetlejuice was where he was allowed to let his freak flag fly freely, and it paid off with box-office success. How weird is it? Well, there’s Geena Davis and a pre-stardom Alec Baldwin as a cute married couple who get killed off within the first 10 minutes—and end up haunting their own home; the Afterlife as a bureaucratic nightmare (the longest wait at a doctor’s office morphed with a day at the DMV); a planetary desert teeming with cartoonish sandworms; andas the title character, a sketchy/scuzzy “bio-exorcist” whom the couple enlist to help get rid of the living hipsters (Catherine O’Hara, , and ) who have bought the house. There’s also funnily gruesome suicide victims, lots of stop-motion on display, and Robert Goulet. It doesn’t quite hang together narratively—another Tim Burton trait—but it was the first full-blown taste of the unfiltered Burton aesthetic, which was thankfully rewarded by audiences. Worried about the weirdness, there was some studio push back prior to release, but after audiences accepted Beetlejuice, it led to Burton being tapped to helm Batman.
Made between Batman and Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands shows Burton at his height, his most imaginative and quixotic. The director has long been fascinated by suburban Americana, infusing many of his earliest artworks and films with parodies of domesticity both playful and monstrous. Here, he places a gentle but outwardly irregular man into the very picture of a 1950s stereotype, a candy-colored community with gossipy housewives, moralistic patriarchs, perfect hedges, pastel wallpaper, and a lot of white people. This clash of sentiments proves perfectly suited to the Burton’s aesthetic, as he can blend whimsical fantasy with cheesy American satire, while allowing plenty of room for surreal nightmare imagery. A visually stunning work, every shot manages to blend sentiment and weirdness effectively, with both humor and romance: the pleasantly windy streets are lined with eerie topiaries; the denizens of the sleepy town sport cartoonish hairstyles; flashbacks reveal a lonely past filled with smiling robots. Danny Elfman’s lilting score moves softly around these painfully optimistic characters, struggling to connect despite personal isolation and physical impediments. It is primarily a comedy, true, but I find myself truly moved by this off-kilter story, and that emotional impact is aided largely by the visual and audio stimuli. That’s not to say Caroline Thompson’s script isn’t strong: blending different genres and moods, biting satire with gushy heart. And of course, the cast is great, from ’s surprisingly quiet but unquestionably silly performance to Dianne Wiest and Alan Arkin’s ridiculous but well-meaning parent couple. With his signature macabre quirk and offbeat humor, plus a refreshingly unique premise, Edward Scissorhands will likely remain his best film, and therefore it seems the best option for the List when choosing from his oeuvre.
In many ways Batman Returns marks the beginning of the end of Tim Burton as a self-governing artist. Following Returns, which did not do as well as expected, Burton helmed the box office failures Ed Wood (1994) and Mars Attacks (1996). Since then, Burton understandably has compromised and appeased financiers, and lost his mojo in doing so. Returns stands apart from all other films in the “superhero genre,” in part because it’s not a superhero film. Rather, it’s probably Burton’s most personal film and, I would argue, his greatest flawed masterpiece. It is similar to ‘s experience with Bride of Frankenstein: a director demands carte blanche to make a sequel to a hit original that was as much a product of the producer as director, creates a highly personal film, then falls into a career decline. This sequel, which is more stand-alone cult film than blockbuster, is undeniably perverse—Burton’s genuine Nightmare Before Christmas. It has Biblical underpinnings, an army of kamikaze penguins equipped with weapons of mass destruction, the ethereal milieu of a (personified in Michelle Pfeifer’s -like Cat Woman), the child killer from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a gang of freaks birthed from ’s Theater of Blood, and silent horror film references (from the Caligari-esque Penguin to Christopher Walken’s Nosferatu nod to ’s unmasking a la Phantom of the Opera). It so provoked sponsor McDonalds and the bat-fanbase, who found it too grotesque, too dour, and—unlike its predecessor—too Tim Burton, that the director was immediately yanked from directing a third film. Returns is quintessential Burton; a smorgasbord of aesthetic ideologies and themes, theater of the absurd and idiosyncratic horror. As critic Tim Brayton argues, it’s not a great Batman film, but it is a great Burton film. For further consideration, I recommend Nathan Rabin’s pro-Returns editorial for “Rotten Tomatoes”.
Many an animated musical classic has begun with the central character singing of their wish for a different life: Snow White peering into a wishing well, Ariel perched on a rock and gazing in wonder at land, Belle running through a field toward the great wide somewhere. It is so very Tim Burton that The Nightmare Before Christmas would not only have such a moment, but that when cake-pop-headed hero Jack Skellington arrives at his “I want” number, he walks up a hill, which accommodatingly unspools beneath him like an enormous licorice rope, looks out over a patch of wailing jack-o-lanterns, and (in the voice of the lead singer of Oingo Boingo) laments that his life is a tedious annual doldrum of shocks and frights. That strange blend of earnest and gruesome is classic Burton, and it is either ironic or axiomatic that the film that best captures his aesthetic and worldview would be one that he didn’t direct (he wrote the original story, produced, and put his name above the title, but animation-specialistdirected). No Burton-helmed film has managed to so thoroughly capture his special blend of Gothic design, macabre humor, and childlike innocence. Nightmare consistently turns expectations on their ear, lending the bizarre to the saccharine (the Halloweentown residents’ attempts to replicate Christmas through their own demented filter) while softening repulsiveness with sweetness (a Frankenstein’s-monster with a yearning heart). Nightmare is utterly unique, giving the world of cinema the grotesque children’s Christmas entertainment it never knew it wanted. That its cult continues to grow may be due in part to the need for holiday entertainment that doesn’t feel like rehashed pablum, but it also speaks to the film’s stance as a manifesto for weirdness. Jack Skellington and his fellow oddballs aren’t just weird; they demand tolerance for weirdness. The Nightmare Before Christmas knows this isn’t always a popular message, but it also speaks directly to those best-positioned to hear it. After all, when a little boy unwraps his Skellington-delivered gift box to reveal a severed head, his parents may be screaming. But he’s not.
Giles Edwards – Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Assembling his finest cast to date, Burton impresses and entertains with what is perhaps his greatest film in Sleepy Hollow. Purists may dismiss the story as “too adapted” or argue that Frankenweenie. Where else does Burton seem all things to all people? Stripped of the heavy-handed emotional trappings of earlier work, Sleepy Hollow features Depp’s spasmodics, cinematographer Lubezki’s sinister-whimsical palette, and a playful cameo from all coming together for a weird excursion into the cadmium red heart of faux-horror that marks Burton at the height of his powers, in perhaps his last praiseworthy movie.hit the nail closer to its head in his animated version from the late ’40s, but they’re missing the point. Watching with assorted British greats (Michael Gambon, Michael Gough, Ian McDiarmid), along with Burton regulars like and Jeffrey Jones, comes close to viewing a live action cartoon that hops among genres like a long-winded schoolmaster. In Sleepy Hollow we find not only the visuals honed to their apex—this time with an entire, actual town built up to Burtonian specifications—along with an Elfmanic score of cartoon-Gothic perfection; but it’s also a whodunnit, a romance, a comedy, a monster movie, and it contains plenty of scary moments. Tripping back and forth between tones, the weird slowly rises in the gullet as Sleepy Hollow turns the screw on the viewer, reaching a mock-fever pitch at a windmill finale that hearkens back to the movie that put Burton on the map:
Reader responses are critical to helping us untie this Burtonian knot. Which of his films deserve to make the List? One? More than one? None at all? Let us know your thoughts. The Burton Conundrum is too important for you to remain silent. Please make your case, though I reserve the right to disregard your input and substitute my own judgment if everyone starts plugging Planet of the Apes.