Based on a Russian folktale, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride shares the look and feel of his Nightmare Before Christmas, at once gloomy, macabre, witty, and romantic. Corpse Bride features an arranged betrothal interrupted by the sudden intervention of a forsaken, murdered bride from the other side of the grave. Strung together by musical numbers, the film suffers from lyrical thoughtlessness and occasional failed attempts at grotesque humor. The attractions here are the astonishing look of the film and the surprising seriousness with which it takes marital vows and sacrificial love.
The visuals are stunning. The barren, gloomy, moonlit landscapes, crisply defined shapes, and sharp distinctions between black and white provide nice backdrops to the film’s droll humor. The result is akin to the German Expressionist style. Critics have made apt comparisons to the styles of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Night of the Hunter–channeled through the Addams Family, the wonderfully dour and lightly macabre TV series.
At the wedding rehearsal, the shy Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp) stumbles over this vows and can’t bring himself to say them to his bride-to-be, Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson). The reverend sternly urges him, “Young man learn your vows.” He wanders off into a nearby wooded cemetery and begins reciting his vows. When he places the ring on a finger-shaped branch of a desiccated tree, a Carrie-like arm suddenly emerges from the ground and seizes him. The arm is that of a deceased bride, Emily (Helena Bonham Carter), buried in her wedding gown after being murdered by her groom whose only motive was her dowry.
With contusions and exposed bones, Emily bears some resemblance to the born again characters in Hellraiser. But she’s sweet and maudlin, with big, imploring eyes, one of which is inhabited by a sarcastic maggot who has a voice like Peter Lorrie. Emily drags Victor into the underworld, insists that he is now married to her, and thwarts his attempt to return to the living and his fiancé, Victoria. At first he resists, saying, “We’re just too different… You’re dead.” But he becomes increasingly fond of her.
While the world of living is black and white, set in an eternal night illuminated by a bright moon, the underworld is colorful. Populated with pirates, the underworld is an animated, musical version of Pirates of the Caribbean. These vibrant characters would be much more entertaining had Burton bothered to provide them with lyrics that were anything more than uniformly banal. While initially frustrating, the unintelligibility of many of the lyrics comes eventually as a relief. Moreover, some of the attempts at grotesque humor fall flat, as, for example, when the maggot greets one of the dead: “You don’t know me but I used to live in your dead mother.”
The film is a Gothic romance which plays marriage off death rather than life. There is the theme of marriage itself as a kind of death, a void of affection that cancels out every aspiration for happiness and love. For the elderly parents in this world, marriage is a mere partnership. The parents of each child mistakenly think the other parents will make their own family rich. One set laments in verse, “has it come to this?/ to marry off our daughter/ to the nouveau riche?” Barkis, Victoria’s evil elderly suitor, who seizes the opportunity provided by Victor’s absence, tells her derisively, “you have only to suffer this marriage unto death.” But that bad news is good news–vows bind only till death, as Barkis learns to his eternal chagrin. Beneath the comical treatment of the tangled set of rules governing marriage–which include questions such as, “can the living marry the dead?”–is a straightforward affirmation of the gravity of marital vows. In this context, the Gothic fascination with death helps preserve the solemnity of the marital vow, whose seriousness is inseparable from the mindfulness of death, the medieval theme of memento mori.
–Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.