First off, I know that The Corpse Bride isn’t technically a horror film. Even by my loose definition, it lacks some of the defining attributes to be considered one. However the 2oo5 stop-motion film directed by Tim Burton does borrow heavily from the genre. Which is no real surprise given the directive force.
The Corpse Bride starts on the day of an arranged marriage wedding rehearsal. Between Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp) and Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson), through which the Dort’s are to gain status and the Everglot’s an infusion of wealth that will save them from the poor house. But due to being very nervous Victor fumbles his vows repeatedly and is told to go learn his vows. So out in the woods, he wanders as he practices, eventually getting them right. But he places the ring on what he thinks to be a branch and turns out to be a bony finger of a corpse still in its bridal gown. This awakens the spirit of Emily (Helena Bonham Carter), who accepts and whisks the terrified Victor away to… hell? Or at the very least purgatory. Victor tries to escape the underworld which is full of fun characters that seemingly wish him no ill will. He returns shortly to the world of the living by tricking Emily and sneaks off to see Victoria to tell her what happened. He’s found by Emily, who once again bring him to the underworld. He learns that due to his disappearance Victoria is to wed Lord Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant) in his place. Victor during his time in the afterlife also learns the circumstances of Emily’s death. That she was murdered by her fiance for her family jewels. After learning of Victoria’s upcoming marriage and that his marriage to Emily isn’t valid as the vow’s only bind them till death. But Victor agrees to marry Emily in a ceremony that will bind them in the afterlife and has the hosts of the underworld go topside to have the wedding proper. Once topside, Victoria sneaks off to see the wedding and Lord Barkis infuriated that she has no dowry follows her. Leading to lively wedding…
So what this film borrows most from the horror genre is flavor and style. like most of Burton’s work in my opinion. This one in particular reminds me of old 1930s horror films like Svengali and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from the 1920s. The film has a heavy use of shadows to create an offsetting atmosphere, so it has plenty of Dread throughout. A few moments I would like to highlight are when Victor is being chased through the woods by Emily, when he flees through the underworld, when Emily’s history is revealed and just about all of Lord Barkis’s scenes. A strong sense of dread permeates these scenes.
But as far as being a horror film that’s where it stops as it never reaches the state of revulsion. Unless you count Emily’s murder, which is done through implied violence over that of a graphic nature due to this being a film aimed at children and the final fate of Lord Barkis. The tone is purposefully never allowed to reach this stage with a joke, a musical number or just romantic moments pushing it out of the story.
Lastly the film doesn’t wish to evoke negative feelings. Emily gets her vengeance for lack of a better word and everyone (except Barkis) gets a happy ending.
Final thoughts, I’m a fan of this film. That said, I would love to see this same story aimed at an adult audience. With the sum of more whimsical moments cut out and letting the film have more a tragic ending. If it wasn’t being purposefully downplayed the whole time this film could have had a few legitimately scary moments. But that’s not what this film was aiming to do so I digress. Even if no one else agrees with me, I see strong horror influences, over two-thirds of the cast are dead. Be they ghosts, zombies, or walking skeletons, they just happen to sing and dance. Since The Corpse Bride never tried to be a horror film I feel it unfair to judge it as one, so I’m going to skip the rating this time.