Tim Burton’s Gothic Corpse Bride
by Emily Drouillard
Tim Burton, an eccentric looking American with wayward hair and mismatched wardrobe, is renowned for the gothic influence found in nearly all of his art, especially his movies. His 2005 stop-motion animated film Corpse Bride embodies Gothicism so very well that aspects of it seem to be tongue-in-cheek odes to the style. Through his use of visuals including setting and color scheme, as well as the inclusion of archetypal characters and heavy Romanticism, Burton has turned an old story into an incontrovertibly Gothic film.
Corpse Bride, an animated musical based on Jewish folklore, takes place in an anonymous Victorian village somewhere in Europe. It follows the tale of Victor Van Dort as he prepares to enter into an arranged marriage with Victoria Everglot. The Van Dorts are looking to raise their social class through the marriage to the aristocrats and the Everglots are hoping to leave behind their secret bankruptcy and get their hands on the money they (wrongly) assume Victor’s family has. The two families meet and Victor and Victoria fall in love. Victor is unfortunately inept at the rehearsal ceremony and takes to the woods to practice and ease his nerves. He manages to properly say his vows and puts the wedding ring on a hand-like branch. Of course, in a fantasy, nothing truly goes as planned and the branch-like hand is revealed to be a real hand. It belongs to Emily, the film’s titular bride, whom Victor has accidentally wed in the confusion. Victor is then transported from the dark world of the living to the bright and lively underworld, where he hears the corpse bride’s tale of falling in love, eloping, being robbed by her beloved, and waiting in the forest for a true husband to take her hand in marriage.
Victor convinces Emily to bring him back to the realm of the living, where he promptly runs away in search of Victoria. Emily’s un-beating heart is broken and Victor begins to see a softer side of his monster. Meanwhile, Victor is considered missing above ground and the Everglots, still desperate for money, decide to marry Victoria off to the charming Lord Barkis. Victor learns of this new wedding and is distraught. His marriage to the corpse bride is revealed to be unsanctified as the living and the dead cannot legally wed. Victor offers to drink poison in order to properly wed Emily and the inhabitants of the underworld ascend to the world of the living for the special wedding. Victoria figures out that the mysterious newcomer Barkis is simply after her family’s money. She follows the parade of the dead that is making its way to the Church and is in turn followed by Barkis. Upon seeing Victor’s true love Emily stops the wedding to allow them to be together. Emily sees Barkis and recognizes him as the man who took her money and killed her. Barkis accidentally drinks the poisonous wine intended for Victor during the ceremony and dies immediately. He is left to deal with the livid dead, whom have assembled against him and are ready to avenge Emily. The corpse bride is finally fulfilled and disappears in a beautiful cloud of butterflies.
The amount of Gothic influence found in this short seventy-seven minute film is impressive but expected from Burton. Gothicism can be first spotted in the opening scenes from the bleak color scheme. Everything on screen is washed in grey and remains so for quite some time. The style is nearly black and white and has a definite negative essence to it. Victor is shown alone in his room drawing a butterfly while his parents sing excitedly about the upcoming wedding. This introduces the classic character of the old foolish woman through Victor’s mother and gives the audience a silent look into the character of Victor. He is isolated at the beginning by his own will. Isolated protagonists are used often in Gothic fiction as seen in another Victor, this one Frankenstein, who hides himself away to focus on work.
The opening scene and subsequent song also introduce the town that the families reside within. It is clearly European with strong Victorian influence but, as seen in films such as The Wolfman, it is an anonymous town filled with cobblestones, gothic architecture, and dark buildings. As the camera pans, quick glimpses of death are already easy to spot. The Van Dort family fish business is shown as the heads of fish are chopped off monotonously. Victor’s mother is shown wearing a sad and still-intact mink wrap around her neck. This provides interesting juxtaposition between two ideas of the dead later in the film. Dead things are seen as still and grey and lifeless, much like the world of the living, but later are revealed to be colorful, lively and exuberant.
As the scene and song progress, the family of the Everglots is introduced, as is their empty vault and suffocating Victorian lifestyle. Gothic fiction broke down rigid barriers and taboos and allowed for imaginative freedom. The misery of this family provides another interesting contrast with the world of the dead. While those living were trapped in a world of class and manners, the world of death and thus the gothic becomes and outlet for the crazy, the obscene, the silly.
The vow Victor must say in the rehearsal and, albeit accidentally, uses on Emily shows the Romantic influence of Gothicism.
“With this hand, I will lift your sorrows.
Your cup shall never empty, for I will be your wine.
With this candle I will light your way through darkness.
With this ring, I ask you to be mine.
These vows, indicative of genuine emotion, seem to go against the uptight values of the village. Perhaps this is explains why when attempted in the presence of Victorian ideals Victor can’t quite get the right words out but once in the Gothic forest, he says the vows perfectly. The forest in the film is nearly identical to the Germanic forests seen in Gothic film. Tall dark trees peppered with crows and carpeted by thick eerie fog provide both isolation for Victor and the perfect setting for the introduction of the Gothic queen herself, the corpse bride.
Emily is a complex character that, like the American Gothic monsters often found in film, is eventually revealed to be a victim. She dons a ripped wedding dress that reveals both blue skin and bones. Although living in the dead world of color, her appearance is also Gothic. The overtone of blue found in her hair, dress and skin creates a darker and more melancholy aura around her. She at times plays the part of one of the damsel virgins of the tale, but is truly the protagonist of the underworld. Emily may be self-sacrificing and looking out for others by the end of the film, but her character is unashamed, headstrong and at times boisterous. Emily’s past is mysterious until in song it is revealed that she was not only aristocratic while alive but also betrayed by love. She embodies Gothic elements in a way no other character does. She is shown to be angry and vengeful but also capable of deep emotion and is seen crying and lamenting Victor while playing piano.
Emily’s Romantic connection to nature is expressed through her two companions: a worm living behind her right eye and a deadly black widow spider. They provide both comic relief and emotional support for the depressed bride. Although insignificant when compared to the shock of an entire underworld, the speaking and singing bugs create another supernatural layer to the tale. They also reinforce both the themes of connection with nature inspired by Romanticism and the possible mental health messages hidden in Gothic film. Similarly as the idea of characters being ‘two sides of the same coin’ can be used to imply mental disorder, as can having a literal voice in a character’s head. This provides possibility for further interpretation of the story, as can be said for Frankenstein and The Wolfman, and allows the possibility for a parallel story or extended metaphor about things such as Schizophrenia or political issues.
Victoria, Victor’s betrothed, is the true maiden virgin of the story. She seems as though she has been plucked straight from a Gothic novel; she fulfills the requirements of the archetype without adding too much to it. Victoria is essentially the other side of Emily’s coin. She is fragile, beautiful, optimistic and pure. It is only once she has seen the corpse bride in person that she begins to remove the layers of her static personality by breaking out of her home and warning the Pastor of Victor’s plight. This mirroring technique was used greatly by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein to connect two characters that are both opposite and compatible. Emily appears as a dark and supernatural version of Victoria, the Mr. Hyde to her Dr. Jekyll or, quite fittingly, the Monster to her Victor.
Burton’s homage to the Gothic is continued with the smaller characters as well. His deep knowledge of the genre allows him to perfectly manipulate stereotypical characters in ways that advance the plot but does not take away from their position as clear Gothic landmarks. Gothic literature often utilizes concepts from the Catholic Church but then mocks or criticizes them, as can often be seen in the clergy. Horace Wapole’s The Castle of Otranto, seen as the first Gothic novel, showed a cowardly priest and set the standard for a genre that would inject evil into the Church. In Corpse Bride, the old and decrepit pastor is portrayed as malevolent. He not only ridicules Victor for his mistakes at the rehearsal wedding but also listens to Victoria’s pleas for help and immediately returns her to her home from which she had just escaped.
Lord Barkis expertly assumes the role of villain by attempting two nefarious plots throughout the entirety of the tale. His obsession with class leads him to act in an evil way – he robbed and nearly killed one girl, and was quickly back for more. His type of villain is also another metaphor through which to see the genre as a whole. Gothic fiction deals often with socioeconomic structure, even when attempting to avoid it or change it. The aristocracy of the past, seen as the particularly dreadful Everglot family, is broke and desperate, clinging onto social order and their inherent ‘class.’ The ‘new money’ Van Dorts represent a departure from the strict social class. Through their more enjoyable demeanor, they represent those that earn money rather than inherit it, a popular concept in the Industrial Revolution that occurred at the same time as the rise of the Gothic novel.
Barkis’ attempts at appearing cultured work but his pretension and hunger for money and class are eventually his downfall. As aristocratic supremacy fell, so does the film’s villain. Barkis appears perfect to both Emily and the Everglot family but as the film progresses, him image is shattered and gives way to his true self.
The use of servant as a way to advance plot and serve as comic relief, such as Bianca in Otranto, is present in The Corpse Bride as well. Mayhew, the man first seen chopping fish in the opening scene, is also the Van Dort’s carriage driver. He dies in an ironically humorous scene and descends into the other world, allowing him to pass on to Victor the news of Victoria and Barkis’ upcoming wedding.
Mayhew’s death is also important in that it provides subtle insight into the dramatic color palettes seen in the film. Before dying, the driver looked like any other person from the village. Upon his death, however, he sheds his grey skin, clothing and demeanor. His skins turns bright blue and his clothes become orange, a change that occurs again when Barkis drinks poison. The world of the dead is ironically the world that is full of happiness and color. The colors of the film change from a palette based in greys, blacks, and browns to one comprised of blues, oranges, and greens. Green is used often in the setting of the underworld as a contrast to the lack of green in the world of the living. Bright green under-lighting is used in the jazz number that happens shortly after the underworld is revealed. The green lighting from below creates the same eerie, Gothic effect as the forest lit from below in The Wolfman. The jazz song, entitled “Remains of the Day,” is a reaction to the opening song “According to Plan.” The first song is structured in form as well as topic, as seen by the drab title that is also the leading line of the chorus. The second song, narrated by a mustachioed skeleton, embraces the freedom of jazz and, like the underworld itself, offers a wild and free approach to song.
The song “Remains of the Day” not only tells the tale of the tragic corpse bride but the post-mortem jazz bar it is set in provides a look at the other inhabitants of the underworld. Those dead seem to be genuinely joyous and each character seems to have a unique story while the unnamed people seen in the world of the living are almost entirely unmemorable. This makes clear that, like Emily and Victoria, life and death are two sides of the same coin. Death is greatly romanticized in Gothic work and Burton’s film furthers this fixation by allowing death to actually better a person. The supernatural runs rampant in the world of the dead with some characters that are missing limbs, some characters that are just skeletons and one that appears to be part bug. One man is short and dressed in a coat and hat that are clearly inspired by the military dress at the time of the French Revolution. Burton is making a lighthearted nod to the revolution, which heavily influenced the creation of the English Gothic. In order to keep the character gothic, he naturally accessorized the man with a skeletal chest that is pierced by a large sword.
Burton’s Corpse Bride is very clearly Gothic in style through use of popular elements. It seems unnecessary to look deeper into the film to explore this but upon doing so, the true Gothic genius of Burton shines through. He manages to tell a genuinely Gothic tale while still being able to sit back and chuckle at the tropes of Gothic fiction. He then takes the tropes, expands upon them and puts them in his tale, and sprinkles in little clues and homages to the classics in between. Through his visual interpretation, a Victorian-Gothic world is created, as is a bright supernatural world to rebel against it while still remaining Gothic itself. Color is used significantly to contrast in the film and display the common theme of darkness. Burton also draws greatly from Gothic archetypal characters to bring his story together.
Cohenour, Gretchen. “Eighteenth Century Gothic Novels and Gendered Spaces: What’s Left to Say?” Diss: University of Rhode Island, 2008. ProQuest LLC, 2008.
The Corpse Bride. Dir. Tim Burton, Mike Johnson. Warner Bros, 2005. Film
Paulson, Ronald. “Gothic Fiction and the French Revolution”, ELH, Vol. 48, No. 3 (1981)
 The Corpse Bride