Think weird, kooky, monstrous, and you think Tim Burton, the man who made oddball mainstream. But has Burton made weirdness passé?
There was the time when monsters were feared, the time of Dracula, Jekyll & Hyde et al. That time passed. Then we moved through the various interpretations of monsters. Far from being demonic and belligerent, they were warped by Hammer Horror’s rendering of them as kitsch. Then suddenly, they got cool again – vampires were rockstars, literally. Audiences went crazy for the dark side, and not in the Vader sense. Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands showed up and gave us a different kind of monster. Something not monster, nor human.
Depp’s portrayal of a sensitive loner who is an outsider because of his differences was sweet. Sympathetic monsters were nothing new – Rice’s Interview showed us that vampires have feelings too. But Burton’s creation was not alluring in the typical monstrous manner. Instead, the film focused on the weirdness, the reaction to the weirdness, and the curious social dynamics that separated normal from weird. Although in some respects, Scissorhands can’t be classed as a monster, it was a huge step towards that direction. However, instead of relying on the sexual or charismatic allure of the monster to make up for his transgressions, Burton/Depp played on the classic feelings of exclusion. Every outsider, or viewer with a soft spot for creepy, softly spoken weirdos got to root for the protagonist for a change. This outsider wasn’t cool, and didn’t have any of the classic redeeming features. Instead, he was just nice.
Burton has continued his trend for weirdness in his cinematic career, and consistently courting Depp for any role that involves heavy make up. Anything with a remotely gothic spin, and Burton’s in there like a shot. Showing us all what monsters are like underneath all the angry rage, blood and murder. Or just showing us how monstrous humanity is in comparison. Because that’s what it’s really all about here. The so-called monstrosity of these characters pale in comparison to the viciousness of the humans that taunt, tease and exclude the quirky protagonists. And for a while, it worked. Monsters, and stories with a dark and/or morbid edge were mainstream.
But then Burton made Dark Shadows. I suppose it couldn’t have been long until he got to grips with a vampire, but he managed to.
And once again, he brought Depp along for the ride. Don’t get me wrong, I do love Burton. I think he’s done good things for the world of film. I’m just not so much of a fan of his take on Dark Shadows. It’s the same formula as many a Burton film. Hadley Freeman wrote something about this issue which you can find here. Arguably, it’s a refreshing take considering the cloying taste of the overemotional vampire who believes he’s destined to be with a human (Twilight, Vampire Diaries, True Blood) but it just felt like the humour was forced, and that Barnabas Collins was the epitome of the comedy vampire. But, really, honestly – the vampire as a figure can be seen as mildly ridiculous. Even so, it’s useful metaphorically. Parody seems a little heavy handed.
I thought that was bad, but Burton’s obsession with putting his own goth-lite spin on everything monstrous became hideously apparent when I saw the trailer for another of his upcoming films (whilst watching Dark Shadows) Frankenweenie:
Guess what? It’s Frankenstein, but with a kid and a dog. Oh, and it’s in black and white, so therefore it’s still creepy. Or something. Yes, it may be teaching kids about death and how to mourn the passing of a dog without trying to hitch him up to electricity and bring him back to life, and the name of the film is cutesy enough to make it memorable.
But are we oversaturated with Burton-esque monsters? He’s got a sizeable share of the market, let’s be honest. He’s also succeeded in making ‘weirdness’ mainstream (and there will be those of you who disagree with this. I’m overemphasising, but for good reason). Aren’t monsters supposed to be a little out of the ordinary? Or are we so numbed to their presence that they’ve just become another way of pointing out our own weirdness?