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Frankenweenie – Tim Burton’s Original Love Letter to Universal Horror

It would have seemed that with the release of Frankenweenie in 2012, the feature-length expansion of an earlier short film, Tim Burton had finally come full circle. After a decade of remakes and adaptations of previously filmed works Burton had done the inevitable and remade himself. A love letter to Mary Shelley’s gothic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, or more specifically James Whale’s classic 1931 adaptation, Frankenweenie would introduce themes and visuals that Burton would return to throughout his career, particularly with Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Frankenweenie told of Victor and his pet dog Sparky. They are the best of friends and do everything together, even shooting homemade B-movies like the Monsters from Long Ago. But when his beloved canine is accidentally run over outside their home Victor is left grief-stricken, that is until a demonstration by his science teacher convinces the young boy that he can resurrect Sparky through a series of electrical experiments. On a stormy night Victor collects the dog’s body from the nearby pet cemetery and succeeds in bringing him back to life. But soon afterwards Sparky manages to escape from the house, causing mass panic and forcing the neighbours to lead a witch-hunt to track the beast down.

‘The inspiration for all this was when I was a kid and I had a dog that had this disease called distemper, which meant he wasn’t supposed to live very long,’ explained Burton in an interview with IndieWire on the inspiration behind the story that would become his first live-action piece. ‘But this was a very strong, pure relationship I had with this pet and there was always a spectre of death hanging over it. I always thought this was a really safe way to explore those things for kids without being really hardcore about it because at some point when you’re young, either a pet or a grandparent dies and it’s a bit abstract.’

In 1984, long before he gained acclaim with the cult classic Beetlejuice or the summer blockbuster Batman, Tim Burton was just another animator working at Disney. While he loved to draw and experiment with stop-motion he had little interest in filmmaking, yet after being drafted by the studio from the California Institute of the Arts, Burton had found himself working on mediocre cartoons like The Fox and the Hound, leaving the young artist feeling disillusioned and frustrated. Following an inventive two-minute animation entitled Vincent, in which he was able to work with his idol Vincent Price, Burton made an adaptation of Hansel and Gretel, which was screened only once before slipping into obscurity.

Despite the negative experience this had allowed him to work with a cast of actors for the first time and regardless of its numerous failures it had given him the confidence to make a live-action film. The result would be Frankenweenie, an ambitious thirty-minute short shot in black-and-white and boasting elaborate sets, special effects and a relatively large supporting cast. ‘Frankenweenie came out of some drawings and some feelings and the thinking that maybe this could be good, maybe we could do it as a featurette,’ he explained in Burton on Burton. ‘In anything I have ever done, people have always said, ‘That’s like this sequence in that movie’ and it may well be true. But something that’s always been very important to me is not to make a direct linkage.’

Despite his claims that there was no intended connection between his movie and Frankenstein, at the time of its release Burton confessed that the initial idea for Frankenweenie had originated after watching Whale’s movie. Wishing to avoid the more macabre aspects of Shelley’s story Burton instead decided to focus on the relationship between a young boy and his dog, using his own childhood pet as inspiration. With nothing but a basic premise Burton took his idea to Richard Berger, then the production chief at Disney, who saw the potential and commissioned one of his writers Lenny Ripps to develop a screenplay. For Ripps, whose prior work had included 1978’s Star Wars Holiday Special, Frankenweenie was his first foray into horror.

Relocating the action from a nineteenth century gothic location to a contemporary suburban setting, Ripp and Burton used Whale’s two movies – Frankenstein and 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein – as templates, referencing many of their key scenes, including the monster terrorising a young girl and the scared villagers chasing it into a windmill, which is then set on fire as the hero and monster struggle to escape. This finale, lifted wholesale from the first Frankenstein picture, was later reworked by Burton for the tragic ending of Edward Scissorhands, in which its misunderstood hero is hunted down by the local residents after an accidental death who now seek retribution for the crime.

To assist with the production Burton turned to one of his few allies in the studio, Julie Hickson, who had served as an executive in the story department and had written the script for his little-seen Hansel and Gretel project. ‘I had been an executive in the story department about two years when I met Tim on the Trick or Treat project and I was just amazed and intrigued by his work and talent,’ Hickson revealed in the press release at the time. Having first assisted Burton during the making of Vincent, Hickson would later develop a thirty-page treatment for Burton’s adaptation of the comic legend Batman but the concept would later be reworked by screenwriter Sam Hamm at the insistence of Warner Bros. Pictures.

‘When you go to the movies today I think you’re lucky if you see more than two real ideas on the screen and I think that if you look at Tim’s drawings, aside from the artistry involved, there’s a lot of ideas there,’ continued Hickson when discussing why the young artist’s dark imagination appealed to her. ‘They’re really jam-packed and it’s exciting to work for someone like that. I tried to help get Trick or Treat off the ground. That didn’t work out but we started working together and after Tim got to do Vincent and started working on Frankenweenie I left the story department and Richard Berger asked me to produce the film for Tim.’

For a short film by an unknown director Frankenweenie boasted an impressive cast. In the role of Victor’s mother was Shelley Duvall, best known to horror fans as Jack Nicholson’s terrified wife in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 classic The Shining. An earlier supporter of Burton, Duvall invited the young filmmaker to participate in her cable TV show Faerie Tale Theatre, a concept she had once tried to sell to Disney. Cast as her husband was Daniel Stern, a gifted comic actor whose résumé included the minor hits Breaking Away and Diner, along with the cult horror C.H.U.D. Following the release of Frankenweenie Stern appeared in numerous blockbusters such as City Slickers and Home Alone, the latter as Joe Pesci’s hapless partner-in-crime.

The central character of the film, however, was Victor and for this role Burton required a young actor capable of carrying the story. Despite only being eleven-years-old Barret Oliver had already begun to carve out an impressive acting career with TV shows like Knight Rider, before landing a major role in the hit fantasy The NeverEnding Story. This would lead to popular titles such as D.A.R.Y.L. and Cocoon, but by the end of the decade he would decide to retire from acting. ‘They were all great,’ recalled Burton. ‘All of these people, they knew I had never done anything before but they liked the idea. They felt that I cared – it’s just a little thing but it’s important to me because there are lots of great actors and you have to connect with them and they need to connect with you.’

In keeping with the playful homage to Frankenstein Burton was able to obtain some of the props that were used in Whale’s movie, despite being over fifty years old at the time of filming. These included the electrical equipment that Victor had used to bring his creature to life, which were designed and created by Kenneth Strickfaden. Burton was determined to obtain the props and, despite Disney feeling that the sets could easily be replicated by a production designer, they agreed to search for Strickfaden’s lab equipment. Incidentally, Strickfaden would pass away the same year that Frankenweenie was released at the age of eighty-seven, having returned to Shelley’s creation once last time a decade earlier with 1971’s Dracula vs. Frankenstein.

Due to Burton’s ambitious approach to the material the final budget of Frankenweenie came to approximately $1 million, a considerable amount for a film that ran at less than half an hour, yet it was the studio’s intention to use the short on a double bill with their upcoming re-release of the animated classic Pinocchio and so this convinced them to take a chance on the young filmmaker. Principal photography on Frankenweenie lasted a little over two weeks, with Burton given complete freedom over the production. ‘A lot of the rush is because Disney was trying to keep the production costs down,’ explained Hickson regarding the relatively fast shoot, when considering the ambitious scope of the short film.

‘There’s an enormous overhead at the studio so we couldn’t become official because then all these numbers start to be attached and we couldn’t afford that,’ continued Hickson. ‘The actual production was a fifteen day shoot with a couple of months post-production. We’re really happy about being with Pinocchio because they’ll be terrific together. They’re both very primal stories. Ours is like a fairy tale, really.’ Despite Frankenweenie proving to be a success, at least from an artistic perspective, the studio was disappointed when the film received a PG rating from the MPAA. This caused issues with their original intention of releasing it alongside a G-rated main feature, thus affecting the audience who were expected to see Pinocchio.

‘I was a little shocked because I don’t see what’s PG about the film; there’s no bad language, there’s only one bit of violence and the violence happens off-camera,’ the director confessed in Burton on Burton. ‘There was a test screening where they showed Pinocchio and then Frankenweenie. If you asked any child, there are some very intense, scary things in Pinocchio. Our perception after not seeing it for a long period of time is that it’s a children’s classic. It’s the same way people feel about fairy tales. When you hear the words ‘fairy tale’ the first thing that comes to mind is a cute children’s story, which is not the way it is. It’s the same with Pinocchio.’

While Frankenweenie would miss out on the chance to open for an children’s favourite the film received a brief theatrical release in Los Angeles. According to the May 1985 issue of Cinefantastique it was hoped that this would qualify it for ‘Academy Award consideration’ but Frankenweenie soon disappeared without a trace. In the United Kingdom the short was included as the opening film for Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend, a movie about modern-day dinosaurs in Africa that was distributed by Touchstone Films, a production label owned by Disney. The frustrating experience of Frankenweenie finally convinced Burton to sever his ties with the studio and focus on exploring his own unique imagination.

After attending a viewing of the film Warner Bros. executive Lisa Henson, the daughter of Muppets creator Jim Henson, suggested Burton as a possible director for their upcoming feature Pee-wee Herman’s Big Adventure. This would prove to be the first of many critically acclaimed and successful projects for Burton and would help to establish him as a unique-yet-commercial filmmaker. ‘Frankenweenie means a lot to me,’ Burton would admit almost thirty years later in an interview with the Guardian. ‘The thing about it was, first time around in the early 1980s, it came at a strange moment in Disney’s history. They didn’t know what they were doing really at the time. There was a whole group of really talented people not being allowed to do very much.’

Over the years Burton has often returned to the ideas that he first explored with Frankenweenie. His 1990 masterpiece Edward Scissorhands would also tell of a kind-hearted scientist who creates life in his laboratory, only for it to be chased by an angry mob that see it as a monster and something to be feared. The Nightmare Before Christmas, the stop-motion musical he co-wrote and produced for Henry Selick, featured a professor who pieces together a creation, like the stitched remains of Frankenstein’s monster. In his 1999 adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Burton included a climax that took place in a windmill, a sequence that echoed both his own earlier short film and Frankenstein. Three decades after completing work on Frankenweenie Burton returned to the story with a 3D stop-motion feature, once again shot in black-and-white and telling of a young boy who resurrects his beloved dog after an accident. ‘Thirty years after he first visualized Frankenweenie as a student at CalArts, Tim Burton has finally made the movie he dreamed of making way back then,’ legendary actor Martin Landau told Business Wire while promoting the 2012 remake. ‘It’s wonderful that Tim has managed to keep Victor and his friends young, energetic and alive for thirty-plus years.’

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