In many ways, the original short film version of Frankenweenie is a sharp satire on horror cinema and its tropes: after all, Shelley Duvall plays the Mom, which foreshadows the macabre undertow (isn’t she the archetypal horror film Mom as resilient Wendy Torrance in The Shining?)
Written by Lenny Ripps and directed by a young Tim Burton, it emulates the original monochrome cinema from Hollywood’s Golden Age, and a slight nod too, to German Expressionism, with its angular, shadowy focus.
It’s a homage too to the Frankenstein of 1931, complete with judgemental neighbours who resemble something out of a Diane Arbus exhibition, turning on the outsider before learning the facts (in this case, a poor little dog).
Barret Oliver is Victor, a young boy grieving the loss of his beloved pet dog Sparky. He’s inconsolable, until a science teacher ‘brings a frog back to life’, by harnessing the power of electricity.
Eureka! Problem solved. All the boy has to do is dig up the animal and reanimate him. Simple enough, until said ghostly canine starts wreaking havoc in the neighbourhood.
Oliver’s performance is perfect- wide-eyed but never bratty as Victor, and the Burton preoccupations are already evident: the nuclear family; ghoulish behaviour, the stultifying nature of suburbia, and the mistrust of those who see themselves above those who differ from ‘the norm’ in society.
A full-length version was released in 2012, but it’s interesting to see the original short film again, and ponder how far Burton has come, in terms of both style and scope.
He was but a slip of a thing when he made Frankenweenie and just like the young protagonist was showing a flair for revitalising something long considered dead and gone.