There's never a shortage of horror movies around Halloween. But the gorefests often made today bear little resemblance to the classics known by adults of all ages from endless showings on late-night TV. Filmmaker Tim Burton built a highly successful career on his love of vintage horror — especially movies from the 1950s to the early '70s. Burton's most memorable films, from Edward Scissorhands to The Nightmare Before Christmas, take their cues from the character-driven monster movies he loved when he was young, even as they diverge into far-flung territories of fantasy, romance and musicals. Based on Burton's 1984 short film of the same name, the full-length Frankenweenie doesn't expand much on the earlier film's story. Instead, it devotes itself to paying direct and loving tribute to Godzilla, The Fly and countless other creature features familiar from horror's glory days.
Burton's original Frankenweenie isn't the kind of film that typically gets remade. It's a humble variation on the original 1931 Frankenstein movie, shifting the story to modern-day suburbia as a boy named Victor Frankenstein reanimates his beloved Sparky after the dog is hit by a car. Burton's full-length Frankenweenie retains the live-action short film's characters and plot but places them in the otherworldly realm of stop-motion animation. It keeps us entertained by piling on the references to other movies — you may find yourself trying to count them all once the credits roll. The all-out homage extends to new characters based on the big-screen personas of Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre, leaving little doubt as to where Burton's heart truly lies.
Frankenweenie even adopts the visual aesthetic of low-budget horror. It was shot in high-contrast black-and-white and rendered into 3-D. The results can be seen as the polar opposite of Burton's previous forays into stop-motion animation. Where movies like Corpse Bride and James and the Giant Peach offer lush visual detail, Frankenweenie comes off willfully stark and austere. Burton's highly stylized puppets remain, but they are framed differently than before with just a touch of his trademark expressionism. It took 33 animators two years to make the movie, and it takes some time to get used to its overall look and feel. The 3-D effects don't add anything significant to the experience, a trend to which regular moviegoers have become accustomed lately.
It's worth remembering that animated films aren't necessarily made for small children. The youngest kids at the promotional screening I attended seemed confused and even disturbed by Frankenweenie — it's a dark movie with a deceptively cute name and a Disney brand. It's also an obvious labor of love for Burton, and his best film in quite some time. But it's more in the dark spirit of Halloween than even longtime fans are likely to expect. — KEN KORMAN