In 1980 , two years after Ed Wood‘s alcohol related death at 54, film critic Michael Medved and his brother published “The Golden Turkey Awards” and gave Wood the award of being “The Worst Director of All Time” and naming his film Plan 9From Outer Space “The Worst Film of All Time.” The forever constipated Mr. Medved must had the biggest bowel movement of his life when he discovered that he and his brother unintentionally put the wheels in motion for the cult celebrity status of Wood who, to Medved, was little more than an object of derision.
Quite simply, Ed Wood was an outsider artist, whose medium was film. He managed to create two highly personalized “masterpieces” of naive surrealism; Glen or Glenda (1953) and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) with “star” Bela Lugosi, who was clearly at the end of his tether.
In between these two films Wood made Bride of the Monster (1955) , also starring Lugosi (the only one of the three Wood films in which Lugosi actually ‘starred’), but that film was more of a concession to the genre and lacked the pronounced Woodian weirdness found in either Glen or Glenda or Plan 9 From Outer Space.
Fourteen years after Wood’s cult status rocketed out of the pages of Medved’s book, Tim Burton produced his valentine to Eddie. Clearly, Ed Wood was as personal a film for Burton as Glen and Plan 9 had been for Wood. Burton faced immense difficulty in mounting the project and was given what, for him, was a small budget. Artistically, the endeavor paid off and even did so financially, in time, although it took Touchstone years to realize the film’s cult potential for the DVD market.
In 1994 Tim Burton was the perfect artist to bring Ed’s story to the screen. Burton, recognizing a fellow auteur and genuine oddball, treated Wood, not with derision, but with the respect he deserved. Before Ed Wood, Burton, although trained at Disney, was still an outsider with Hollywood backing, which makes him (in that regard) a kindred spirit to Stanley Kubrick. Burton’s first big budget feature effort Continue reading ED WOOD (1994), TIM BURTON’S GLORIOUS SWANSONG.→
PLOT: Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloweentown, discovers Christmas and tries to recreate it, with ghoulish results.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: As a children’s film, The Nightmare Before Christmas has a high hurdle to overcome. Since it’s aimed at kids, the movie is permitted to indulge in imagination and fantasy, so long as it uses a conventional story framework and takes a stab at conveying a useful moral lesson. Nightmare has a great, morbid motivating idea and is a triumph of macabre art design, but at heart it doesn’t stray very far from the childrens’ film format. If it’s eventually to be counted amongst the weird, it will be solely for its incidentals and visuals.
COMMENTS: The opening song introduces us to the ghastly denizens of Halloweentown, including the expected assortment of witches, vampires and ghosts, but also a creature with black and white striped snakes for fingers, the “clown with the tearaway face,” and a two-faced mayor with a spinning top for a head and a freakishly phallic stovepipe hat. This legion of scary weirdos are ruled over by Jack Skellington, an elegant but spindly skeleton in a pinstripe suit. A grim gray pallor hangs over the town, which features an Expressionist pumpkin patch/boneyard with slanted tombstones and a curlicue hill permanently posed before a giant yellow moon. Bored with the repetitive routine of Halloween, Skellington seeks new vistas and finds one when he stumbles onto Christmastown, an eye-popping festival of lights and toys set among blinding white snowbanks ruled over by a jolly fat man; the town provides the perfect visual and spiritual contrast to gloomy Halloweentown. A holiday architect looking for a new challenge, Jack decides to “take over” Christmas (incidentally kidnapping Santa Claus). After futile attempts to ferret out the meaning of Christmas by dissecting teddy bears and placing crushed ornaments in boiling beakers, Skellington hatches a plan to pose as Kris Kringle and deliver toys himself, which leads to the film’s keystone sequence: a horrific Christmas Eve sleigh ride through a doomed village, where the Santa-suited skeleton leaves ghoulishly inappropriate gifts for Christmastown’s tots, including a severed head and a tannenbaum-swallowing snake. It all ends in disaster, as Jack, who began with the best of intentions, realizes that his amateur staging of Christmas was a Nightmare and that he has to set things right and reaffirm his devotion to the Satanic rites of All Hallow’s Eve. The moral seems to be, attempts to understand other cultures are doomed to failure; stick to your own kind.
The character designs and intricate, almost hidden gruesome details (like the skeletal Halloween cock that crows the dawn) are the triumph of Nightmare. With a couple of exceptions—the bubbly, Broadwayesque “What’s This?” when bemused Jack first discovers Christmastown (“There’s children throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads/They’re busy building toys and absolutely no one’s dead!”) and a deviant number sung by three mischievous trick or treaters who plan to kidnap “Sandy Claws” (“Kidnap the Sandy Claws, throw him in a box/Bury him for ninety years, then see if he talks”)—Danny Elfman’s songs are flat and unmemorable, advancing the plot but not thrilling the ear. The story is also exceedingly thin, even at its trim running time of under 80 minutes. The original concept came from a Burton parody of Clement Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas;” to pad out the running time, a romantic subplot and an antagonist were added. The love interest is Sally, a stitched-together female Frankenstein forever losing her limbs. She’s constantly scheming to escape her creator, a duck-billed mad scientist with a detachable brainpan who wants to keep her locked in his castle, and she acts as a cautionary voice for Jack, trying to warn him off his insane Yuletide scheme. There’s no spark to their relationship, though, and though their romantic ending is pretty, it’s also pretty meaningless in story terms. The villain, Oogie Boogie the Boogeyman, is another wonderful character in search of a plot function. A burlap sack stuffed with creepy crawlies, gruff Ken Page gives him a 1920s boogie-woogie singer’s voice, and he makes a hell of a hellish impression. But he’s introduced late and has no real motivation: it’s unclear why he thinks that bumping off Santa Claus will help him unseat Skellington as king of Halloweentown. He pads the film, but his main purposes are to set up an unnecessary, anticlimactic action sequence for the finale, and (more importantly) to provide Selick the opportunity to build another magical set. And Oogie’s lair is it’s own freaky, fun world: his hideout is casino themed, with living gunfighter slot machines and worms crawling through the pips of dice, and it’s bathed UV lights to give the puppets an eerie glow. Though the script could have done much more to make him a meaningful antagonist, the awesome visuals this boogeyman inspires are reason enough for him to take up space in Nightmare‘s world. The entire story takes a back seat to the cute, Gothic animation, so why should Sally and Oogie Boogie be any different?
The idea for Nightmare was originally sketched out by Tim Burton at Disney Studios, before they fired him for “wasting company resources” by making Frankenweenie. After the director found success outside the Magic Kingdom, Disney was willing to work with him again, and he served as Nightmare‘s producer and even got his name in the title. In a case of history repeating itself, the studio again found the finished work too morbid and were afraid it would frighten young children, so they released it under their Touchstone subsidiary. Despite rave reviews, Nightmare was not an immediate success, but it has found a cult audience on video. Disney has since fully re-embraced the movie, removing all traces of the old Touchstone logos and prominently slapping the Disney name back on the prints, just as if they had been 100% behind it before it became a hit.
PLOT: A young boy reanimates his recently deceased dog, but the undead pet is not a hit with
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird; in fact, it’s an extremely conventional, if awfully charming, Frankenstein parody.
COMMENTS: Tim Burton’s second effort is a surprisingly fluid and assured bit of storytelling that attracted some remarkable talent for a short film, most notably a post-Shining Shelley Duvall (who had some sort of sixth sense for locating and working for offbeat auteurs) as Mom Frankenstein. Dad Daniel Stern was an established thespian who would go on to greater fame as a voice actor. Actor/director Paul Bartel (Death Race 2000) appears briefly as the science teacher who puts the idea of resurrecting the dog in young Victor Frankenstein’s mind when he demonstrates how to make an ex-frog’s legs jump by applying electrodes. Despite the ability Burton demonstrated here to attract and manage top talent, Disney famously dropped the ball and fired him after seeing Frankenweenie, without letting him try his hand at a feature, complaining that the film was too scary and a waste of resources. In hindsight, it’s difficult to see why shortsighted Disney execs thought that Burton was too weird and dark to work for the Mouse. It’s hard to imagine anyone thought this childhood farce would give any but the most overprotected weenie kid nightmares. (More likely, the studio believed that anyone who would voluntarily shoot a featurette in black and white was not to be trusted). The subject matter is only mildly offbeat—it’s a cute, clockwork parody of Frankenstein, a acknowledged classic. There are laughs that are mildly morbid—when stitched-together Sparky springs a leak the first time he laps from his water bowl, or when Dad Frankenstein muses, “I guess we can’t punish Victor for bringing Sparky back from the dead,” but nothing alienatingly weird. The directorial style is utterly traditional: the musical cues come at the expected moments, and when you see Victor playing fetch with his dog Sparky by rolling a ball out onto the suburban street, you almost groan at the pedestrian foreshadowing. That’s not to say the movie is bad; in fact, it’s charming in its familiarity. Kids enjoy it, but not half as much as boomer grownups nostalgic for their “monster kid” days when they used to stay up late on weekends and watch Zacherley or Ghoulardi host a Frankenstein marathon. It’s a droll adult view of a child’s eye view of a James Whale nightmare.
Burton has been promising to remake the short as a full-length, stop-motion animated feature for years. A release date is tentatively set for 2012 but the project doesn’t appear to have progressed beyond the planning stages. In the meantime the original short is available, together with the short Vincent, on the Nightmare Before Christmas DVD.
PLOT: A seven year old boy wishes he could be just like the Vincent Price he sees in old movies.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s not quite weird; more mildly macabre. But it sure is cool.
COMMENTS: Vincent is a 5 minute poem, narrated by the mellifluous Vincent Price, about a morbid boy (also named Vincent) obsessed with emulating the horror icon’s tormented screen persona. It’s told in a singsong, storybook cadence and given a superlative reading by Price (who was so flattered by the tribute that he proclaimed it a greater honor than a star on Hollywood Boulevard). There are some specific references to Price’s work for the actor’s fans, though the short prefers to evoke their general atmosphere than to cite specific movies. Young Vincent’s daydreams involve dipping his aunt in wax, turning his dog into a zombie, and slowly being driven mad by his guilt over his unspeakable crimes. A representative stanza: “Such horrible news he could not survive/For his beautiful wife had been buried alive!/He dug out her grave to make sure she was dead/Unaware that her grave was his mother’s flower bed.” Vincent is visually impressive, deliberately shot in luminous black and white and drawing on the gloomy Gothic style of the old Universal horror movies with a powerful dose of German Expressionism. (Burton denied being directly influenced by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but he’s the only one who doesn’t notice the similarity to the silent psychological horror classic in the geometrically warped sets). The look and childishly ghastly tone bring to mind a lighter version of the macabre black and white lithographs of Edward Gorey (who once created a primer where each letter illustrates the death of a tot). Burton’s visual sensibility is already fully formed here, and the elements of his classic style—his comic, cathartic synthesis of fresh childhood innocence and the must of the grave—are already in evidence. In fact, there may be no better example in the director’s entire body of work of than this crisp five minute exhibition of his talent for mixing the chuckle with the shudder.
Disney has traditionally made Vincent and Burton’s other pre-fame short Frankenweenie as extras on all their editions of The Nightmare Before Christmas. The film is also included on the anthology Cinema 16: American Short Films (buy) alongside Maya Deren‘s “Meshes of the Afternoon” and works by Andy Warhol, Todd Solondz and Gus Van Sant, among others.
PLOT: About to be proposed to by a doltish fop, Alice excuses herself to tumble down a rabbit hole where she learns she has been chosen to slay the Jabberwock[y].
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Not weird enough. Burton, perhaps fearful of angering the gravy-train drivers at Disney, dims down the absurdity in this version of Alice, recasting the tale as an epic fantasy war fought by a cast of weirdos.
COMMENTS: Alice in Wonderland (which should have been titled Alice in Underland, if anyone had been paying attention) is a good-looking film with a few positives, but a recycled story that’s far from enchanting. The candy-colored visuals are as top-notch as expected, with plenty of little details to soak in: look for a dragonfly-sized flying rocking horse and a moat with floating stones that appear to be petrified severed heads. Helena Bonham Carter’s macrocephalic visage is almost worth the price of admission, and her performance as the Red Queen is suitably comic and imperious. But the story—ouch! Alice’s previous visit to Wonderland—oops, make that Underland, as it’s denizens insist it’s properly called—nine years ago was real, but she’s forgotten it for some reason, which is fine because her past adventures served no purpose whatsoever. In this sequel, the poem “Jabberwocky” is a prophecy that predicts Alice will find the vorpal blade and snicker-snack it into the neck of the dreaded Jabberwock(y) on Frabjous Day. The Mad Hatter reads the verse word for word to the disbelieving Alice, neither of them noticing that the lines refer to a “beamish boy;” Alice may be beamish, but she’s no boy. But who cares about such details? They can’t even get the monster’s name right after reading it off the page: everyone refers to the Jabberwock as the “Jabberwocky” (which is like calling Odysseus “Odyssey”). We may wonder about such inconsistencies, but such uffish considerations only matter in a tightly constructed nonsense world like Wonderland; we’re in Underland, and here there are quirky companions to collect before galumphing off to slay dragons with magical swords. Burton’s non-nonsense epic fantasy plays like an original concept by Lewis Carroll that’s been script doctored by J.R.R. Tolkien, then sent back by the corporate suits to add more fight scenes to appeal to boys and a feminist moral about self-actualization for the girls. Despite the occasional chase scene by a pack of guards who look as much like Terminator robots as playing cards, curiously, for the most part the early story plays out much as in Carroll’s tale. Alice retraces her steps, eating and drinking shrinking and growing potions and cakes and meets a hookah smoking Caterpillar. The Cheshire Cat directs her to a mad tea party. But things get less and less curiouser and more and more familiarer as the tale continues. It turns out that the tea party really isn’t mad, it’s just a ruse by the Resistance to avoid detection by the authorities. Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter isn’t mad either (and certainly not bonkers); perhaps he’s slightly perturbed, but his faculties are all about him as leads the fight for freedom, even taking up a sword for the final battle. I have no problem with taking liberties with Carroll’s tone and story, but if you’re going to depart from the original you should replace it with something interesting, not just a generic fantasy quest rehash. Nick Willing’s Alice, with it’s human “oysters” being drained of their emotions, tapped into a more cusiously skewed Alice scenario. It’s a shame that that premise couldn’t have been matched to this budget. Tim Burton’s Alice isn’t bad, it’s just forgettable—something that could only happen in Underland, not Wonderland.
To some extent, Burton may be the victim of high expectations. Carroll and Burton seemed the perfect match, and there were high hopes that this material might allow Tim to return to the glory days of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas, when his fantasies managed to tap the popular consciousness while still dripping with edgy originality. Those of us who got our hopes up should have recognized that Alice in Wonderland is a kids’ movie intended as a blockbuster; Disney isn’t about to let Burton take chances with the story. His commission directed him to deliver Tim Burton visuals inside a safe script, and that’s what he did. The movie works fine for the little ones, but offers little to adults besides eye candy and a couple of chuckles. If Burton’s going to bounce back (and I’m starting to doubt he ever will), we’ll have to wait until he feels like he’s finally garnered enough dough and Hollywood validation to start taking chances again.