Tim Burton Film Characteristics

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Perhaps a slightly less readily recognizable theme in Burton's work than some of his visual styles and story patterns, the 1950s horror films is nevertheless a prime source of material for all of his work. The monster movie is especially relevant in discussing Burton's themes and recurring preoccupations. That which is perceived as monstrous is never associated with evil in Burton's films; his "monsters" are always misunderstood creatures looking for forms of love and acceptance. Even the repulsive Penguin in Batman Returns is characterized as a doomed tragic figure that somehow retains the sympathy as well as the horror of the audience, like the monster in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). The real bad guy is the manipulative, conniving businessman Max Shreck, who does have the respect of the community. This is of course not a theme that is unique to horror films of the Fifties --Universal's gothic horror from the early 1930s offers similar characters and situations--, but the combination of outrageousness and pathos that surrounds the crazy scientists and grotesque monsters in horror and science fiction of the Fifties offers the best comparison.

Vincent was the first sign of Burton's admiration for Vincent Price, an homage to the man as well as his films. He played one of his final roles, naturally as a mad scientist, in Edward Scissorhands. This film was constructed out of many different film myths from 1950s America: apart from the horror theme of the mad scientist building a well-intentioned but misunderstood creature, the idealization of family life plays a major part. The suburban household Edward finds himself thrust into plays powerfully on the idea of family life and the way it was presented in the 1950s. This specific historical period is evoked in the clothing and the colors, and is contrasted not only with the gothicism of Edward's castle, but also with the contemporary appearance of Kim's boyfriend Jim and his friends. Frankenweenie offers a similar blend of bourgeois suburbanites and gothic crazy scientist movies.

Burton's most recent film Ed Wood is most directly situated in 1950s America, and refers most directly to the horror movies of that age as well as those of the 1930s by focusing on former horror star Bela Lugosi. Burton's love for the gothicism of the classic Universal horror pictures is expressed in the conversations between Wood and Lugosi about the way horror films used to be. But his fondness for the hokiness of the Fifties is equally apparent in his recreation of Wood's own work.

One of the most characteristic elements of Tim Burton films is their visual style. The strange worlds in his movies are designed with a recognizable style that is heavily indebted to German Expressionist films of the twenties. Distorted perspectives, sharp contrasts between light and dark and stylized lighting, typical ingredients not only of German Expressionist cinema but also of Universal's 1930s horror films, are all used to some degree in each of his films. Burton's love for all things dark, shadowy and bizarre has contributed to this visual style in determining the look of his films.

Burton's very first production Vincent is the clearest and most extreme example of this style. Shot in black-and-white using stop-motion animation, it charts the imagination of a kid obsessed by horror movies. Perspective is skewered, angles are jagged and many shots are direct hommages to Das Kabinet des Dr. Caligari. Burton's other films are a combination of this gothic expressionism on the one hand, and cartoonish, bright colors on the other. Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is mostly made up of these primary colors, sometimes resembling a toy shop that has exploded onto the screen. But there is also a dark side to Pee-Wee: his nightmares about various creatures attacking his beloved bicycle are pitch black and very scary, as is the sequence with Large Marge, the ghostly truck driver.

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