One of the very first posts I made on this blog was the news that Warner Brothers was looking at making a sequel to the 1988 Tim Burton film Beetlejuice. At the time I noted that although I had seen Beetlejuice, I was relatively young at the time, and probably not paying great attention, and so it had mostly faded from my memory. I resolved to correct this, and while it took me a year to do so, I can finally cross Beetlejuice back off of my “need to see” list.
As regular readers are probably aware, I’m not a huge fan of Tim Burton’s work as a whole, though a lot of that has to do with his tendency to put the same gothic styling on absolutely everything, regardless of whether it fits. In the case of Beetlejuice however, I knew going in that it was a film where the topic fit Burton’s style; it being one of his early works might have helped my decision as well, though the main thing was simply the knowledge that this is a well-loved 80s comedy.
Going strictly by my reviews, Geena Davis may be the queen of pulp science fiction comedy.
Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin play Barbara and Adam Maitland, a young couple living in a large house in a small town. They’ve just started their stay-at-home vacation, and have only a few cares in the world. They want a child but have not yet been successful, and a shirttail relation (Annie McEnroe) keeps trying to sell their house, despite them not being interested in moving. Jane insists that it’s too big for a childless couple.
Entire movies have been built around characters like this. Often they, too, have elements of horror.
The Maitlands’ lives abruptly take a turn for the worse, however, when they end. Dying in a car accident, they find themselves back at their home, unable to leave the premises. They gradually come to terms with the realization that they’re ghosts. Davis and Baldwin work great together, coming across as a loving couple both before and after death, and their bewilderment and frustration at their situation is readily apparent. The cause of their frustration is the new residents of the house — the Deetz family. There’s father Charles (Jeffrey Jones), a yuppie who initially seems like he likes the house the way it is, but eventually shows he’s willing to remodel the whole town to suit himself. There’s depressed Goth daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder), who unlike most mortals is able to see the ghosts. And then there’s step-mother Delia (Catherine O’Hara). Delia’s the Deetz who’s a ditz, a self-proclaimed “artist” who wants to remodel the entire house; together with her interior decorator Otho (Glenn Shadix) she sets about destroying the tasteful decor the Maitlands put in. The Maitlands realize that if they’re to stay in their house, the Deetzes have to go. Against the advice of their case worker (Sylvia Sydney in a small but amusing role), they call in the services of a “bio-exorcist” — a ghost named Betelgeuse, played by Michael Keaton.
Just how do you hire someone as a ghost? What do they get paid with?
As the title character, Keaton is the most over-the-top in his comedy. In fact, as most of the humor in the rest of the movie is a bit subdued, he almost seems a little out of place with his lecherous remarks and hamming it up. But he’s a fun character to watch. It’s also fun to watch the elder Deetzes as they establish themselves as people who deserve a little shaking up, and the Maitlands doing their best to do that shaking. The “Day-O” sequence almost seems to have a fan base of its own, I’ve heard it referenced so often, and it warrants it; it’s one of the funnier bits in the film. On a less comedic note, I liked the way the film built the relationship between Lydia and the Maitlands; it’s easy to see that they come to consider her a surrogate daughter.
Burton’s directing is top notch here. Every shot is planned well, showing exactly what the audience needs to see, and some of the scenes have some great lighting to set the mood. The special effects often don’t hold up to today’s standards, however; even so, they may be hokey in places, but they get the job done and aren’t particularly distracting. This being a comedy, it’s easier to forgive on that score.
Beetlejuice tells a good story, and has a few big laughs and a lot of smaller ones. It’s deserving of its status as a well-remembered 80s comedy. I’m not a big Tim Burton fan, so take this with a grain of salt, but of the Burton films I’ve seen, this is the best so far.