I’m writing a number of horror movie reviews this month under the ‘October Horror’ banner, and I wasn’t intending this to be one of them before I saw Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children in the cinema last week, but after doing so it’s got me wondering about Tim Burton as a horror director. I’ve never thought of him as one, even though almost all most famous his movies contain some elements of the genre, and he’s clearly a horror fan. The closest he’s come to actually making a full-on horror movie is 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, (which most certainly counts as one). This new film though, might actually be the runner-up.
For example, one of the first sequences in this film is a pure horror scene, as our young lead rushes through the misty night-time trying to locate his missing grandfather; he finds a corpse with its eyes removed before glimpsing the shape of a huge, terrifying monster looming above him in the shadows. It’s the first of several frights in this movie that I can imagine being very effective on the younger viewers this is primarily aimed at.
As noteworthy as that might be, the prospect of a new Tim Burton movie no longer carries the same distinction it once did. Although his most recent film Big Eyes wasn’t bad, it was his most anonymous film to date, and his real return to form with Frankenweenie seems thoroughly underseen to the extent that I can imagine many fans of his not even being aware of it. For the most part, the last decade has seen Burton put out a series of bad, big-budget movies (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows) that significantly damaged his reputation. At least he didn’t decide to make Alice Through the looking Glass. This is a bit better than some of them, but it also feels like, even though he basically delivers what’s required of him, that Burton is just a director for hire (also added to by the lack of a Danny Elfman score).
Asa Butterfield (Ender’s Game), employing a so-so American accent, is our typically bland teenage protagonist Jake who has, since childhood been told magical tales of an old orphanage inhabited by “peculiar” children – all of whom have some X-Men-like special power – by his grandfather Abe(Terrence Stamp), who claims to have lived there as a youth. After Abe is killed in the aforementioned opening scene, Jake’s therapist (an underused Allison Janney) advises that he travel to the island off the coast of Wales, where the home was supposedly located. He’s soon off there accompanied by his reluctant father (a bafflingly cast Chris O’Dowd, who’s wobbly accent is something I’d love to hear what Americans make of) who conveniently likes bird-watching to keep him distracted.
I’m not really sure how spoilers are going to work with a film like this, the trailers sold it on the titular home and it’s inhabitants, so I went in knowing they’d appear but they don’t until quite some time into the film, and whether they do or not is the main mystery of the first half. While I’m not going to reveal anything major about the ending, I feel that the structure of this film doesn’t really allow me to review it as I’d like to without discussing some aspects that are not revealed until the second act, so consider this a mild spoiler warning if you’re especially sensitive about them.
After wasting a bit of time on the island, which includes a random moment in which two local kids perform an impromptu rap (??), Jake eventually wanders off and finds what remains of the home; it having been mostly destroyed by a bombing in 1943. But he soon encounters some children who lead him into a cave, and when he emerges, he’s in 1943 and the home is up and running.
The small group of kids populating the home all have abilities that range from interesting but underutilised (one boy can project his dreams), to blatant X-Men rip-offs (a girl has the exact same power as Iceman) to totally pointless (bees living inside you). There’s only one decent character to be found, a teenager with jealousy issues called Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), but he’s rarely the focus. Instead the film leans far more toward being a tiresome teen romance between Jake and a floating girl called Emma (Ella Purnell) which the film never comes close to convincingly selling, despite it being serving as Jake’s primary motivation for the rest of the movie.
It mixes the X-Men super-powered outsiders material in with more standard ‘chosen one’ YA narrative as Jake learns more about the world of the “peculiars”, specifically that they are being hunted down by monsters led by a man (Samuel L. Jackson) glimpsed in the opening sequence. This brings me back to my initial point; Burton does use this angle to stage a handful of horror scenes that are quite effective at times. A banquet scene involving the mass consumption of children’s eyeballs is something I’m particularly surprised got PG-13 approved, whereas what I’ll refer to simply as the ‘boy upstairs’ is a wonderfully startling bit of kid-horror. Though these moments are not all too frequent, there are enough of them, mainly involving the gangly monsters stalking children that are successful enough to make me want to see what Burton could do with an all-out horror movie.
Jackson is in over-the-top villain mode throughout, and while he’s a little ridiculous, he does at least inject a bit of energy into the film to contrast all the dull kids. The only other performer to do so is Eva Green as Miss Peregrine, who does the best with what she’s got but isn’t the main character at all. What Miss Peregrine’s own “peculiar” ability is though, is what I found most troubling about this film.
This is not just a time travel movie; Jake hasn’t gone back to the past, they are in a time loop, maintained by Miss Peregrine. The thought of it is quite horrifying, having to live every day the same as the last, never growing older, never experiencing anything new and never being able to leave. It’s basically like Groundhog Day except they’re all experiencing it and all know they are. Admittedly, Burton gets in a few memorable flourishes involving the events that will always occur at the same time that day, but it still sounds tortuous. Here’s the thing though, the goal of the film’s second half is to *maintain* it. They aren’t trying to escape the time loop they’ve been stuck since 1943, they’re trying to keep it going. It’s just completely baffling, why do they want to live in a kind of eternal purgatory? I found this totally confounding and impossible to get past.
Additionally, this puts another massive question mark on the film reminiscent of (…shudder…)Twilight. If these kids have been alive for over 70 years, why do they all still act like children? Why haven’t they mentally matured at all? Why do they still need an adult to take care of them? Is Miss Peregrine selfishly keeping them this way to give herself a sense of purpose? The film fails to address any of these troubling implications.
The film does begin to go in a more action-movie direction for its finale, another X-Men like sequence that seems reverse engineered as to give each “peculiar” a specific role to play. It has a few fun moments but is otherwise packed with too many familiar beats, and the less said about the film’s woeful, nonsensical actual epilogue the better.
It might boast a well-known auteur at the helm, but Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children mainly just feels like the latest forgettable addition to the YA adaptation pile. Its emphasis on the muddled time loops and boring teen romance ultimately overshadow the stronger horror elements. At least you can say it doesn’t appear to be trying to set up a multi-part franchise, but maybe they’ll spin this out more anyway. I just hope it whetted Burton’s appetite enough for him do delve a bit further into horror. Who knows, it could be just what his career needs?