The Definitive Ranking of Tim Burton Movies For Your Halloween Marathon Consideration
Halloween is right around the corner! What better way to celebrate than watching a marathon of films directed by Tim Burton, the patron saint of all things goth? Burton is the mastermind behind some of Hollywood’s most engaging and bizarre films, including Beetlejuice, Sweeney Todd, and Edward Scissorhands. He is best known for his campy theatrical horror fantasies with bright color palettes and haunting remakes of superhero films with a macabre touch, like Batman.
To round out the spooky season, I’ve watched all 19 films Burton directed and ranked them from worst to best, so you know exactly where to start. Note: this list contains only Burton-directed films. Therefore, The Nightmare Before Christmas – which Burton wrote and produced but did not direct – is not included.
Dark Shadows (2012)
Usually, when Tim Burton and Johnny Depp team up, they produce some of Hollywood’s most memorable and wonderfully weird cinematic touchstones. Unfortunately, Dark Shadows does not follow that streak. In the film, Johnny Depp portrays Barnabas Collins, a wealthy landowner turned vampire who returns to his hometown to exact revenge on the witch who cursed him to eternal torment.
Unfortunately, this movie’s intricate production designs do not compensate for the incoherent plot, which leaves too many loose ends. Our favourite artists will inevitably produce a dud every now and then, but that didn’t make this effort any less disappointing.
Burton’s live-action reimagining of the 1941 Disney classic film of the same name follows a flying elephant who performs in a circus during World War I. I wanted to adore this remake, but it wasn’t very engaging. The unnecessary addition of new characters adds nothing to the story, and the dialogue – which includes Danny DeVito giving a too-on-the-nose speech about why animal cruelty is wrong – often feels forced. Finally, the animal cruelty depicted in the film drags out to a point where I almost stopped watching at the one-hour mark.
Planet of the Apes (2001)
Burton’s remake of Planet of the Apes chronicles the journey of astronaut Captain Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) crash-landing onto a planet where humanoid apes are the dominant species and have implemented a political system and a class structure in which humans are enslaved.
I ranked this film so low because its conclusion does not align with the rest of the story. Why did Burton scrap the original’s twist ending? How did Thade suddenly become president? Viewers are left with several unanswered questions. Ultimately, Burton doesn’t exactly shine in the pure sci-fi realm.
Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985)
In Burton’s debut feature film, the rambunctious and childlike Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) goes on an adventurous hunt for his stolen bicycle, encountering a variety of eccentric characters along the way. While I certainly have an appreciation for the undeniable influence the character of Pee-wee had on popular culture and the comedy genre, this particular form of outlandish humor has never been my cup of tea. Otherwise, I would probably love this film.
Mars Attacks! (1996)
A sci-fi horror fantasy about Martians invading the Earth, Mars Attacks! is undoubtedly engaging. But I must admit I am not the biggest Jack Nicholson fan, and it’s unlikely I will ever warm up to his over-the-top acting style. The only redeeming qualities I found in this film are the bizarro visuals, the wardrobe by Colleen Atwood, and Danny DeVito.
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
In this paranormal slasher film, Johnny Depp portrays a New York-based constable named Ichabod Crane who is dispatched to the village of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a serial murderer who rides around town decapitating people (hence his nickname, the Headless Horseman). As Crane digs into the case, he finds himself at the centre of a paranormal conflict that has plagued the town for hundreds of years.
The plot of Sleepy Hollow is too predictable and falls victim to some of the most overused horror tropes, like the B*tch in Sheep’s Clothing and Faking the Dead, but the film is still captivating nonetheless.
Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children (2016)
Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children tells the story of Jacob Magellan Portman, who visits a haunted orphanage his grandfather lived in during World War II. There, he discovers each child inhabiting the institution has uncanny abilities, including telekinesis, levitation, and superhuman strength.
Burton has, without a doubt, made better films. However, the minute I read the novel by Ransom Riggs that the movie is based on, I immediately knew this was a story tailor-made for Burton to bring to the big screen.
Ed Wood (1994)
This biopic paints an illuminating picture of the life of cult horror filmmaker and pulp novelist Edward Davis Wood Jr., aka Ed Wood. I hate to disappoint you if you expected me to rank it higher, but the writing doesn’t age well. For example, the first snippet of dialogue we hear is two women characters gossiping about trans World War II veteran Christine Jorgensen’s genitals and making cheap transphobic jokes at Jorgensen’s expense. I know the film’s events occur in the ’50s, but I’m forever giving writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski the side-eye for including that, considering it added nothing to the plot.
Batman Returns (1992)
This second film in Burton’s adaptation of the classic DC Comics series sees Batman teaming up with Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) to battle the villainous Penguin (Danny DeVito) and billionaire tycoon Max Shreck as they aim to bring Gotham under their tyrannical reign.
Why is Batman Returns ranked lower than the original, you ask? Well, Pfeiffer carried the entire film on her back for me. And while I will always appreciate Danny Elfman’s masterful compositions, he will never hold a candle to Prince, who composed the first movie’s music (but more on that later).
Big Eyes (2014)
This biopic is based on the life of American artist Margaret Keane, whose distinct painting aesthetic of wide-eyed children and animals earned her commercial recognition and critical acclaim. The film illuminates how Keane (Amy Adams) fought for artistic independence after her ex-husband, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), took false credit for her paintings for years.
While I wouldn’t consider it one of Burton’s best works, the way the film addresses institutional sexism in artistic spaces is super engaging and managed to pique my interest.
Big Fish (2003)
Big Fish tells the story of an investigative journalist named William Bloom and his father, Edward Bloom. Edward has a penchant for telling exaggerated stories about his life, which drives a wedge between him and William. When Edward falls ill, a grown-up William journeys to piece together his father’s stories and see if there’s any truth to them. He grows to understand Edward and his fantastical imagination in the process. Helena Bonham Carter, Ewan McGregor, and Albert Finney all deliver stellar performances in this film. My only criticism is there isn’t enough Jessica Lange!
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
In this fantastical, doom-and-gloom twist on the Lewis Carroll novel of the same name, a grown-up Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is summoned back to Wonderland to end the Red Queen’s reign of terror. The unending torment of Alice illuminates just how non-child-friendly the story really is, and that’s what I really appreciate about this film. Where the film lost me was the action-packed climax where Alice battles the Jabberwocky to the death. Remind me why that was necessary?
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
This haunting adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl novel of the same name traverses heavy subject matters, from tragedy to a family’s reconciliation, all against the candy-coated backdrop of Willy Wonka’s (Johnny Depp) chocolate factory. The film chronicles Wonka’s attempts to find a worthy heir to run his factory as he approaches retirement. A wonderfully weird and eccentric child favourite, the cinematography and costume design are top-notch. Also, if you didn’t dress as an Oompa Loompa at least once on Oct. 31 as a child, have you really experienced Halloween?
Burton’s animated reimagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein centers on Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) successfully resurrecting his dead dog, Sparky, using electricity. When the rest of his classmates catch wind of his ability to revive the dead, they decide to conduct the same experiments on their dead pets to catastrophic results. While I am not exactly the target audience for this children’s movie, I still found it heartwarming and hilariously offbeat.
Corpse Bride (2005)
This animated musical centres on the arranged marriage between Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson), the daughter of fallen aristocrats, and Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp), the son of new-money fish merchants. The wedding is disrupted when Victor is captured by a zombie bride named Emily (Helena Bonham Carter), who was betrayed by her former fiancé and murdered on her wedding night.
The visuals are the number one aspect of a Burton film I look forward to, and this film delivers in spades. The animation is splendidly charming, slightly off-putting, and quintessentially Burton. What more could I ask for?
What makes Burton’s big-budget adaptation of the DC comics superhero so great is, like most of the greats in classic cinema, the fight to make Batman what it became was not an easy road. I’ve never been one for DC superhero movies (least of all The Dark Knight himself), but I’m always willing to make an exception for Burton’s immersive universe. And the soundtrack by Prince is just immaculate.
Sweeney Todd (2007)
There’s no doubt Burton’s campy adaptation of Sweeney Todd, the Stephen Sondheim musical about a serial murderer posing as a barber, is one of his best works to date. Helena Bonham Carter, Johnny Depp, and Alan Rickman all get to showcase their deliciously twisted individual quirks, and it’s just a delight to observe!
But perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the musical is you can’t help but root for the vengeful protagonist who spent years in prison over false charges and lost his wife and child while behind bars. He views the world around him as nothing but a giant black void, comparing the British ruling class to “vermin and spit.” Plus, I could watch Bonham Carter murder pests while dancing for days on end.
This dark comedy/horror film about a deceased couple haunting their former home with the help of a rambunctious poltergeist named Beetlejuice has all of the Burton staples – eccentric surrealist visuals, supernatural catastrophes, and pounds of clown-white makeup. The best aspect of the film is the character development of Winona Ryder’s Lydia Deetz. Through the rebellious, gothic teenager’s encounters with the supernatural, viewers learn exactly who Lydia is and what she likes right away, which isn’t always the case with women characters in Burton movies.
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
This romantic fantasy film about a sensitive man with scissor blades for hands is Burton’s opus. While the presence of Winona Ryder and Vincent Price alone should be enough to win you over, Johnny Depp also delivers a dynamic performance relying mainly on body language (he has very few actual lines).
Danny Elfman’s immersive scoring, with its lush orchestral swells and jagged string ensembles, does an excellent job of building tension in the film. I also love the heavy use of primary colours. Every visual and auditory detail is iconic, from the clicking of Kathy Baker’s nails and Dianne Wiest’s cat-eye glasses to O-Lan Jones’s manic religious zealotry. This classic film’s place at No. 1 on this list was a no-brainer.