Exploring the gothic horror of Tim Burton

Tim Burton has directed some mammoth box office hits, but he’s at his most interesting when he’s working in horror...

By now it’s well known that Tim Burton got his start as an animator, working as a concept artist for little or no credit. His early stop-motion projects saw him cut his teeth in the film industry, with the Vincent Price-narrated six-minute short Vincent catching the attention of Hollywood producers eager to find fresh young directors.

Even in those early shorts, Burton’s gothic style is clear to see. Take a look at Beetlejuice, Corpse Bride and Dark Shadows, for instance, and you’ll see shades of his horror-tinged formative work spring to life in big budget features.

Rarely has a modern director characterised a period of film history more than Burton, with his late 90s and early 00s films dominating an era and becoming the obsession of many a film buff. While Hollywood is still littered with interesting visions and voices at a time when franchise installments are lauded over star power, Burton was an anomaly at the time, and remains a refreshing voice in 2018.

Burton’s first feature was Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, having won the gig off the back of Vincent. Here also began his professional love affair with composer Danny Elfman, as important as ingredient to the director’s oeuvre as the stalwart of actors he would later accrue. The term ‘Burtonesque’ had yet to be coined, but watching Pee-wee now is a fascinating window into what was to come.

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But Beetlejuice was truly the moment Burton caught the attention of moviegoers, with its strange but effective mix of comedy, horror and fantasy. Even today, as Beetlejuice celebrates its 30th anniversary, Burton’s film still manages to retain its creepy, gothic horror brilliance. Macabre and often ghoulish, his films are also hilarious and playful – Burton wants to disturb and creep out his audience while also making them laugh and sneaking into their soul, and his best films manage to do all of this at once.

The director’s critics often point to Burton as style-over-substance, but in doing so they miss the point of gothic horror as a genre. Focused heavily on atmosphere, symbolism and mystery, films that belong to this subsection of cinema boast a weirdness that is missing from most other corners of Hollywood.

Focusing on loners and those society has shirked serves this idea further, and Burton is nothing if not consistent in his commitment to telling the stories others fail to even consider.

Batman is one of the most striking examples of this, with Burton infusing what could have been a broad, cartoonish take on the Caped Crusader (much like the later Joel Schumacher films) with his unique sensibilities and cementing the character as one of Hollywood’s most reliable box-office draws in the process. We can only guess what he might have done with another hero in the dropped Superman Lives starring Nicholas Cage, but it certainly would have been different.

Batman on screen has never fully detached from what Burton did with the world, picking up on the metaphor and noir aspects of the story, and Gotham City will likely forever have a touch of the director’s trademark style and texture. It ended up winning an Academy Award for Best Art Direction, and Burton followed it with sequel Batman Returns three years later.

Burton’s impact at the time is perfectly encapsulated by the still-common assumption that he directed holiday animation A Nightmare Before Christmas, which has all of the Burtonesque characteristics from its grisly and offbeat visual style to the mix of horror and comedy, but was actually directed by frequent collaborator Henry Selick, with Burton acting as producer.

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Corpse Bride in 2005 was thus seen by many as the director finishing what he had started, and the stop-motion animated musical brought together all of the most popular aspects of his career to that point. Featuring the voices of mainstays Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, and music from Elfman, the film was praised for its imagination and the beauty of its puppetry and animation.

After a brief foray into mainstream or more obviously light-hearted fair with Planet Of The Apes, Big Fish and an adaptation of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride was also viewed as a return to what the director arguably does best, and recent years have seen films such as Frankenweenie, Dark Shadows and Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children scratch the same itch in a much more crowded landscape filled with superheroes and cinematic universes.

If there’s anything that defines Burton’s career, though, it’s his early hit Beetlejuice. Its wicked blend of ghoulish gothic horror, a manic lead character and Elfman’s creepy score turned the director into a bona fide A-lister. Plus, let’s not forget that Beetlejuice also paved the way for Burton to cast Michael Keaton in Batman.

Gothic horror is one of our oldest and most enduring genres, beginning in literature long before it hit screens, and the fact that one director has been able to explore it so deeply and richly for as long as he has is something to be celebrated. Burton is a rare director who can still draw a crowd with his name alone and, as long as he’s making movies, he will surely continue to lend his particular touch to a variety of stories.