Jewish Horror Films: The Corpse Bride (2005)

The animated film "The Corpse Bride" is a sort of mirror universe film to "The Possessed," in that the latter borrowed from a fake Jewish story and managed not to be very Jewish at all, while this film tried to strip away all Jewish content from an actual Jewish story and somehow failed.

The publicity around "The Corpse Bride" has always been maddeningly vague about the source of the story, and perhaps did not know. We are alternately told that it is Russian folk tale and a 19th century Jewish folk tale, and all of this is sort of wrong. There are a couple of versions of the original story, which tells of a groom who slips a ring onto what he believes to be old branches and discovers her has accidentally married a corpse. Perhaps the oldest is found in a 17th century Yiddish book telling stories of the city of Worms (so: German, not Russian, and 200 years older than is credited).

In this story, titled "The Demon in the Tree," the bride is, as you might guess, a demon rather than a corpse, so it is not quite the same story, but there is a similar tale from about the same time, originating in Palestine. That story is found in a collection of tales about the founder of Jewish mysticism, Rabbi Issac Luria, and is called "The Finger." In it, the bride is a corpse. (And, again, not a Russian story; the filmmakers seem to have fallen into the same trap many American Jews are also guilty of, of just assuming all European Jewish history takes place on a 19th century Russian shtetl.)

In the Issac Luria version of the story, the man flees, and, as he is to wed the next day, goes on with his wedding. The corpse arrives to disrupt things, insisting he already married her, and Issac Luria convenes a court to decide the matter. The rabbis decide that the man had already committed to his living bride, and so she gets first dibs, and the corpse screams and dies again, this time permanently. This is interesting, because the fact that Luria had to find a loophole for the living bridegroom suggests that is is not actually against Jewish law to marry a ghost, which I would not have expected.

Tim Burton's film hews pretty closely to this story, minus, of course, the rabbinic tribunal. He sets the film in what some viewers claim is Victorian England, but it isn't. It's some generalized Victorian European city. Sure, the entire cast speaks with British accents (including star Johnny Depp), but I have seen films in which Nazis address each other in English with perfect Received Pronunciation accents, so the English accent sometimes is just a placeholder for any country in Europe, which I think would surprise the English, who just made heroic and extremely short-sighted efforts to separate themselves from Europe.

The design of "The Corpse Bride's" little hamlet feels instead like one of those Bavarian villas that show up at the start of a werewolf movie, and this might as well be one of those old black and white monster movies for the amount of color in the village. It's a gray place, and apparently its only residents are the local lord and his family, who are titled but broke, and the local fishmonger and his family, who are untitled but rich. As a result, an arranged marriage has been struck between the daughter of the former (voiced by Emily Watson) and the son of the latter (Depp). Nobody is especially happy about this and it all goes rather poorly, and then Depp puts his ring on a corpse and it gets worse.

The corpse is voiced by Helena Bonham-Carter, making her transition from the delicate, pretty, posh characters she played in her early years to the moody and somewhat deranged characters she specializes in now, and I thoroughly prefer. She drags Depp down to the Land of the Dead, which is, it must be said, both more fun and better lit than Depp's gray hamlet, and they mostly hang out in a bar while a cabaret band of skeletons play.

There's more to the plot, but I won't detail it, although it involves a villainous murderer who is underwritten but manages to be entertaining anyway thanks to being voiced by Richard E. Grant, who can make any line, no matter how tepid, sound like a droll, very naughty in-joke. Instead, I want to discuss how the film ends up feeling Jewish despite the fact that it was made by filmmakers, especially Burton, who made no efforts to include anything Jewish, and probably would have done it poorly had they tried.

For one thing, there is the overarching theme of the interloper, the person who should have no privileges but is claiming them anyway. Depp's family are working-class strivers who have amassed money, and so are useful to the established gentry, despite the fact that they are despised by them. And then there is the corpse herself, who insists on her right to marry someone who should be off limits to her.

In a story set in Europe, this combination of alieness mixed with economic interdependency feels somehow essentially Jewish. European gentry did arrange relationships with Jews to prop up their faltering economies, and the average European would have found a marriage to a Jew to be just as unthinkable as a marriage to a corpse. In fact, on her mother's side, Bonham-Carter is descended from Viennese Jews and from a half-Jewish Spanish diplomat, while on her father's she is descended from a Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and so her own family history reflects the complexities of these sort of relationships.

Bonham-Carter's corpse also has a sort of Jiminy Cricket character, except, rather than being a grasshopper that rides on one's shoulder, this is a maggot that lives behind the corpse's eye, which he will push out of her head occasionally to make a sardonic comment in the voice of Peter Lorre. I could reach for a metaphor here, as the Nazis loved to compare Jews to maggots, but I won't, because the metaphor was certainly not intended by the filmmakers. Instead I will just note that Peter Lorre was a Jewish actor, and so the presence of his voice, even in imitation, makes everything a little Jewish for me.

But I think the thing that gives this film an unexpectedly Jewish quality is the soundtrack by Danny Elfman. Elfman is a great recycler of antique sounds, and, for this film, he borrows from both hot swing music and the collaborations of Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill. Especially in the barroom scenes in the Land of the Dead, there ends up being a Brecht feeling to the whole undertaking, or, at least, the feel of the movie "Cabaret," which always felt like Brecht by way of Broadway to me. The house band is presided over by a one-eyed skeleton singer in a raked bowler derby, apparently inspired by Sammy Davis Jr., and you sort of expect him to start singing "Mac the Knife," or, failing that, "Mein Herr." And, since he sings a Danny Elfman song, he basically sings something that sounds like both.

And there is one final Jewish influence I want to mention, and it's one I will explore in more detail in my review of another Elfman film, "The Forbidden Zone." This is the influence of the Fleischer Brothers, who were early and, by contemporary standards, primitive filmmakers whose films teemed with garish, sometimes nightmarish images, and whose work influenced Elfman. I know that Burton, who was a product of Disney, intentionally referenced a Disney short called "Skeleton Dance" with this film's skeleton band, but when you throw the Elfman soundtrack on it, instead the scene seems borrowed from a different cartoon, a Fleischer cartoon, in which the character Betty Boop is menaced by skeletons as Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher" plays.

Come to think of it, I will do that film as a separate entry, even though it is only seven minutes long, because it has so many moving pieces, all of them, including Calloway, Jewish-infected, that the moment something comes up that seems to reference it, it suddenly turns everything Jewish. 

Especially when, as in this case, everything started out Jewish anyway.