Beetlejuice (1988)

After the seed was unintentionally (?) planted last week by Barron—one of the editors over at Music’s Okay (I Guess)—to do a week focusing on the filmography of Michael Keaton, I was struggling to figure out which movie to write about first. Since we decided to save Jackie Brown for the week of Tarantino posts we have scheduled to celebrate the release of Django Unchained in December, and John is covering the Batman films in his lead up to the release of The Dark Knight Rises, the two films that immediately sprang to mind had to be tabled for the greater good. As I lay in bed pondering my dilemma, I was distracted by a new app I had downloaded to my phone several weeks earlier, Google Sky Maps. For those who don’t fancy themselves stargazers or aren’t overly familiar with this bit of technology, the app allows you to locate constellations, stars, and planets simply by pointing your phone in any direction. In this instance, I had pointed my phone out my bedroom window, and low and behold, the star that greeted me was none other than Betelgeuse, the eighth brightest star in the night sky and the second brightest in the Orion constellation. It would seem that my decision had been made for me, I thought to myself. And I couldn’t argue with their advice. I freakin’ LOVE Beetlejuice, and at the risk of bombarding our small readership with yet another film directed by Tim Burton, I feel that this film is always worth discussion—after all, it was an important film in my childhood and at least one other editor of this website as well.

Beetlejuice is the second full-length motion picture from the director and it established him as a force to be reckoned with; a major and endlessly inventive voice was on display for the second time in a row—the first film being Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure—only this time he would bring a more dour and goth sensibility to the proceedings, all the while launching the career of Wynona Rider, providing Michael Keaton one of his signature characters, successfully spinning the film into a popular Saturday morning cartoon show, and going a long way toward establishing a unique acting troupe that he would remain loyal to throughout his 27 years in cinema. The script—penned by Michael McDowell and Warren Skaaren—follows Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) a young New England couple who are proud owners of an old-fashioned home (one that wouldn’t look out of place in a Norman Rockwell painting) located in the sticks, far away from big city life. After perishing in an auto accident on a red wooden bridge, the husband and wife have a hard time transitioning and coping with their life after death scenario—even with a dusty old book titled The Guidebook for the Dead (it reads like stereo instructions) and a case worker named Juno who has little patience for the shell-shocked duo. Exasperating their situation are the Deetzes, (Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara, and Ryder) a family from the Big Apple who move into their home, and promptly modernize their once quaint abode into a trashy piece of avant-garde art with the help of Otho (the dearly departed Glenn Shadix), an interior designer with a penchant for dabbling in the black arts. Desperate to reclaim their home, the Maitlands enlist Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton) a freelance “bio-exorcist” and all-around pervert and knave to scare away the Deetzes. The only problem is Betelgeuse is only interested in wooing (in his own deviant fashion) and marrying Lydia so he can once again take his place among the living. In an effort to stop the out-of-control ghost, the Maitlands and the Deetzes have to put away their issues and stop feuding; but can they live in harmony long enough to do so?

While Beetlejuice is chock-full of eccentric and hilarious characters (Jeffery Jones and Catherine O’Hara in particular are standouts), the true star of the show is only present for about a third of the movie’s run time. As Beetlejuice, Michael Keaton goes way over-the-top, which shows perfect judgment on the performer’s behalf; after all, how else is this “ghost with the most” supposed to act? He eats bugs, spits out raunchy jokes at an alarming rate, and can make his head spin at dizzying speeds—even when it’s still attached to his shoulders. He’s the used-car salesman of the afterlife and Keaton brings him to life in the most vivid of ways. In the film’s penultimate scene, the actor goes for broke after Otho resurrects the Maitlands in a creepy weeding-style ceremony allowing Beetlejuice to terrorize the Deetzes and their dinner guests (look kids, its Robert Goulet!) in his demented carnival of horrors and also by taking the form of a giant demonic snake (stop-motion animator Ted Rae, hard at work). Keaton straddles the line of all out baddy and likeable specter with ease and shares a wonderful chemistry with Wynona Rider’s Lydia (personifying Tim Burton’s vision of the perfect, introverted girlfriend). Beetlejuice even exhibits a small amount of humanistic, relatable qualities—he’s afraid of Sandworms (Sandworms. You hate ‘em right? I hate ‘em myself!) and dammit, he’s just worn down by all this afterlife business and a permanent vacation to the side of existence that still requires a pulse would scratch that particular itch just fine.

Burton worked hard to create a unique style and visual sense with Beetlejuice, and it pays off handsomely with sequences featuring lovingly created practical effects, puppetry, prosthetic makeup, and miniatures. The director drew on inspiration from the cheap Ed Wood-style B movies of his youth, films that would serve as inspiration to the auteur throughout his career. Burton’s sophomore effort was only made for $13 million, which is staggering when you consider the scope of the film along with the amount of effects that went into creating the afterlife sequences and climax. Highlights of Burton and company’s technical wizardry includes the creature design of the preacher from hell—summoned to marry Beetlejuice and Lydia, Adam and Barbara’s early, failed attempts to scare off the Deetzes, and the practical effects that went into, for my money, the film’s standout scene, a dinner party that turns into a boisterous musical number all the while using a Harry Belafonte tune to considerable effect.

Having first viewed this film early on in my childhood, I can’t help but wonder if it helped to inform my sense of humor—I know it had a dramatic impact on my imagination, helping to plant the seeds of creativity and originality that would inform some of my earliest writing efforts. In addition, I also remember being confused by the television show. How could Lydia and Beetlejuice now be compadres, I wondered? It seemed to me that by torturing her family and forcing her into marriage for purely selfish reasons would result in large hurdles when trying to form a long-lasting, meaningful friendship. I watched the show faithfully, nonetheless, despite the fact that it would never reach the creative heights of the film*. No matter. In creating Beetlejuice, Michael Keaton and Tim Burton played a large part in the development of the left side of my brain, for better or for worse (it was for the better).

-David

* A fact that I now know as an adult, a cartoon show on Saturday morning could never exhibit the traits of the film. Tears would have been shed by children expecting Shirt Tales’ style adventures and, in turn, parents would have burnt down the studio defending their kids’ honor. Or something like that.

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One thought on “Beetlejuice (1988)

  1. Pingback: Top 100 Favorite Films of the 1980s | FILM'S OKAY (I GUESS)

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