“Your cup will never be empty, for I will be your wine. With this candle, I will light your way in darkness. With this ring, I ask you to be mine.” These foreboding vows begin Corpse Bride, a haunting film in which a man accidentally endows a corpse with his engagement ring.
Directed by Tim Burton and Mike Johnson, this animated gothic romance from the aughts takes place in a gloomy Victorian-era village. Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp) and Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson) meet for a wedding rehearsal on the eve of their arranged marriage. Victoria’s parents are high-class yet penniless, while Victor’s parents are nouveau riche fishmongers. The plan is to settle the engagement, provide Victor’s family with status, and keep Victoria’s financially sound.
Upon first blush, the shy bride and groom are surprised that they’re attracted to each other. But Victor forgets his vows, and so, humiliated, he retreats into the foggy woods to practice. Stumbling over a graveyard and slipping the ring onto what seems like a twig, he unknowingly marries the Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carter), a rotting woman named Emily who was murdered on her wedding night long ago and has since awaited her prospective groom. Upon being revived, she whisks him to the Land of the Dead.
Victor struggles to find his way back into the living arms of Victoria—who’s left to wed her next suitor, the repulsive Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant)—without breaking the undead heart of the lovely hero, Emily. Enchanting and villainous, only Burton can craft such a pensive piece of Halloween that breathes life into its skeletons.
Corpse Bride marks the eighth collaboration between Burton and Depp, a welcome reunion as no other pair could bring these odd characters to life on the big screen. Over the past 26 years, Burton and Depp have devoted their careers to making the morbid blithely beautiful, creating neurotic Edward Scissorhands-like outcasts who seek love and acceptance in drab worlds.
In Corpse Bride, this drabness represents the film’s irony—the jarring contrast between the bitter monochromatic Land of the Living and the boisterous, colourful Land of the Dead, showing how elements detached from society can conversely be more civil. In this world where vitality is characteristic of demise, Burton challenges conventional ways of thinking about life and death.
The production team used painstaking stop-motion animation to achieve the film’s staggering aesthetic, manually moving foot-tall puppets half a millimetre per shot. From this, each 12-hour workday produced only a second of usable footage, or merely three minutes of animation per week. Filmmaking spanned 52 weeks, giving this feature its sentimental, albeit laborious timelessness that’s far more immersive than digital animation.
Beneath the surface of a family film, Burton weaves dark eroticism and tragedy throughout its warped storyline. Guided by an anti-Semitic Russian folktale, Corpse Bride is about real eighteenth-century riots in which Russian nationalists murdered thousands of Jewish citizens, burning their homes, stealing their possessions, and raping women. Meanwhile, the folklore is that they hijacked wedding carriages, murdering the bride so she wouldn’t bear Jewish children. These women were then buried in shallow graves, still donningtheir wedding gowns.
In the film, Emily wasn’t laid to rest but crawled into her own shallow purgatory until Victor gave his hand in marriage. While the folklore inspiration is grisly, Corpse Bride forgoes its grotesquerie for romanticized misery. This misery furthers a trademark of Tim Burton fare, as seen in Edward Scissorhands (1990), Beetlejuice (1988), and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).
Sadly, the folklore inspiration isn’t the only tragedy behind this film. Joe Ranft, the executive producer for the film, died in a car crash just weeks before its release date. While most people yearn to forget tragic histories, the superstitious believe the film awakened a curse, a way to expose a buried injustice. Its dark backstory tragically lands Corpse Bride on cinema’s most haunted list, alongside Poltergeist (1982) and The Exorcist (1973).
The music is meticulous and amplifies the film’s tragic beauty. Danny Elfman, Burton’s go-to composer, creates folly and pain through melodic strings suites and haunting jazz-infused numbers. The song “Tear to Shed” depicts a sorrowful Emily wishing away the qualities that make up her decomposing self. Emily’s pain is both physical and emotional as she battles with her own resting heart to save Victor’s meandering one. Burton’s depiction of Emily is devastating, but her humanity, like the film’s love triangle, is blooming.
Corpse Bride is a soul-wrenching story about a woman murdered before reaching the altar and the ethereal beauty of life after death. Only Burton can capture the humanity that flourishes once the flesh decomposes, breaking film conventions unconventionally, and making this film a Halloween essential.