Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Beetlejuly: Frankenweenie (1984)

After creating Vincent, Tim Burton decided to change things up a bit and make a live action short film that paid homage to the classic horror films he adored as a child, primarily the 1931 horror masterpiece Frankenstein (based on the novel by Mary Shelley). Thus as a result, he made the whimsical, yet very jarring short that is Frankenweenie, a film about a little boy named Victor (played by Barret Oliver of Neverending Story) who brings his dead dog, Sparky back to live in a similar fashion to Dr. Frankenstein in Mary Shelley's story as well as the classic Boris Karloff film. Like Vincent, this film really showcases Burton's macabre imagination in it's infancy, but I have to admit, I'm not the biggest fan of this one, mainly for one reason. I'm not a big fan of movies where animals (not just dogs) get killed or get put in some sort of danger. The bull terrier Sparky is put in a lot of danger in this film and the scene where the sweet dog gets hit by a car really gets me choked up and disturbed. Having three dogs of my own, it's hard to see creatures of their kind bite the dust on screen, which is a problem in many horror/slasher films like John Carpenter's Halloween or the second Friday the 13th film where the killer (Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees) kills the beloved pooch of one of their victims. If I made a movie, I wouldn't kill off a dog or any time of animal for that matter, in fact, I would make the animal heroic in many ways, perhaps to the point of taking out the enemy of the picture. Wouldn't that be something if the family dog took out the serial killer in a horror movie?! Anyway, getting off track.

Just because I'm not a big fan of Frankenweenie doesn't mean I don't like it. It's a fantastic little movie that has a touch of datedness, but not a lot. What I mean is that some areas have some things that are a bit out of date, but there is not a lot of them. The film, like Vincent is shot in black and white and really brings a classic horror feeling to the table, much like the Frankenstein films of the 1930s and 40s. And the acting from the actors, while not the best is still humorous when it needs to be humorous and serious when it needs to be serious. Shelley Duvall stars as Victor's mother and she would allow Burton to direct an episode of her anthology series, Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre entitled Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp in 1986. Daniel Stern, Marv from the Home Alone films also stars as Victor's father and the daughter of famous director Francis Ford Coppola appears as the character named Anne Chambers. But the star of the show is by far the dog Sparky, who even in his stitched up form comes off as a cute friendly "weenie" and true companion to the main character Victor. I love when Victor's parents find out that Victor brought Sparky back to life and the fact that they don't know how to tell the neighbors that the dog is back from the dead is also quite funny. When the neighbors eventually find out, they break out in a fit of fury and franticness. And it's a bit jarring to see the neighbors sharpen their pit forks and go after the helpless dog, for....well....he's JUST A HELPLESS DOG! He doesn't know any better and he didn't necessarily do anything wrong despite make the neighbors a little suspicious and concerned. The annoying, corpulent, loud mouthed Mrs. Epstein accused Sparky of going after her own dog, but dogs always go after other dogs, you know what I mean?

The final scenes in the film take the main players to a miniature golf coarse where Sparky and Victor hide out in a flagship windmill. This is the ultimate homage to the classic Frankenstein film where the monster took Dr. Frankenstein to the windmill on the hill and threw Frankenstein off the edge. As the relentless townspeople set the windmill aflame, the benevolent Sparky sacrifices himself to save Victor and it's then that the townspeople discover that Sparky's not the monster they originally thought he was. Putting their car batteries together, they use all their power to bring Sparky back to life once more and in a feel good ending, Sparky kisses a female poodle, giving her the classic Elsa Lanchester Bride of Frankenstein hairdo that has been lampooned countless times in other horror spoofs and mockeries.
Frankweenie, for the most part, has an upbeat feeling to it and is overall a comedy, but when it's serious, it's very serious. Some kids might get a little upset over some parts (especially the scene where Sparky is hit by a car) and some of the imagery might be a little intense for young eyes, but in the end, it will give them a good feeling and I doubt they will be saddened or depressed. Even if Sparky dies more than once, he comes back and is just as cheerful and lovable as he was before.

I think what I like most about this short film is the way the camera moves. The way the camera moves would become pivotal in later Burton films, but here, it gives the film that proper balance of hilarity and suspense. The scenes where Sparky is running, you are put in his perspective and you really feel like you are a dog, exploring and observing the exotic world around you. It also serves as a throwback to the horror films of yesteryear where you were put in the place of the killer or monster. I also like the gags involved with the resurrected Sparky. When Victor gives him water to drink, the water comes pouring out of the holes on his neck, kinda like an old magician's act. When Victor's mom finds out he was resurrected, she says that she will make him a "bowl of batteries". And hey, the name Sparky is kind of a pun itself. Frankenstein. Lightning. Bolts. Sparks. Get it? Frankenweenie is a great parody to one of the greatest horror stories ever told and although it has those elements I'm not crazy about, it's still enjoyable, thrilling entertainment. The film is a little over 35 minutes and like Vincent, it's on one of The Nightmare Before Christmas DVDs. It's also on Youtube and other video hosting sites, so if you want to see an interesting take on Frankenstein involving a cute dog and some clever wit, this film is a real winner. The film was recently remade in Burton's signature stop motion style, but we'll talk about the remake when we get to it.

Unfortunately, this film wasn't a winner in Disney's book. After it was made, Burton was fired from the Disney Company and although they planned to show Frankenweenie in front of the 1984 rerelease of Pinocchio, it was ultimately shelved and never shown to the public until many years later. However, both Vincent and Frankenweenie got the attention of a certain guy named Paul, who wanted Burton to direct the film based on his famous comedy alter ego. So tune in next time and we'll talk about Burton's directorial debut as well as his first teaming up with one of his longtime collaborators.

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