Retro Review: Beetlejuice
We look at some of Tim Burton’s best creepy movies, staring with the classic Beetlejuice.
Tim Burton has been having trouble lately. His films are increasingly formulaic and have become insular, featuring a very small repeating cast. Quick, name his last film that didn’t have either Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter in the cast? Struggling a bit? We’ve been pretty harsh to Mr. Burton lately, but only because his latest outings have failed to catch the spark of his amazing early career. Much like his leading man, Johnny Depp, it’s scary to think their best work is behind them. Here’s keeping a finger crossed for Beetlejuice 2!
The reason that project receives such hyperventilating online is how warmly we all remember the original. Does it stand up to review nearly 30 years later? Yes, but for reasons you may not suspect.
Adam and Barbara Maitland are the quintessential happy couple. They collaborate artistically, even running an art supply store in their sleepy Connecticut town. They’re deeply in love, and have their whole life in front of them…until a freak accident sends them into the local river. They arrive back at home, but find everything old and dusty, with a for sale sign out front and an odd book on the end table: The Handbook for the Recently Deceased. Adam and Barbara are dead, and they’re forced to haunt their old home for 125 years.
This seems like an idyllic situation, minus all the dust, until their house is sold to the Deetz, a neurotic couple from NYC with a death-obsessed young daughter. Unable to make the Deetz turn tail and run, they turn to a “bio-exorcist”, Beetlejuice, who plays for keeps when it comes to evicting the living.
Weirder Than Life
The charm of many Tim Burton films is that they are supremely weird. I would say this only works when they are weird in an internally consistent way and in ways that are just off of center. Edward Scissor Hands is weird…but all of the characters feel real. They’re people you would meet in real life, just in Tim Burton’s world they have blades for fingers. The social lives of these people are real. If you’re being treated like crap because you’re different, it doesn’t essentially matter if it’s because you like polka or because you have scissor digits. Sure, the mechanics are going to be dissimilar, but if the level of heat you get is the same, it doesn’t matter to you psychologically.
The sleepy Connecticut town of Beetlejuice is slightly weird the way Pee-Wee Herman‘s home town is weird. They’re OK on the surface, but they have some messed up mental processes. The people all accept some really wonky stuff. They still are normal, but they are fine with strangeness. This is especially true of the Maitlands, Adam and Barbara.
The first time you watched Beetlejuice you probably only remembered two characters: Beetlejuice and Lydia. Not just because of the weird-ass cartoon that featured those two (despite the movie having their relationship be decidedly not cool for Lydia.) They’re the weird ones. Just like Edward Scissor Hands, just in inverse. The weirdo (BJ, ESH) are after the slightly strange girl (Winona Ryder in both cases) but she reacts differently in each situation. That’s the high-school psychology experiment at the heart of Tim Burton’s early work. But that’s not the heart of the story.
The heart of the story is Adam and Barbara, charmingly portrayed by Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis. This is their (after)life. They fumble through the netherworld, do normal stuff while trying to get by, and eventually learn to cope with being dead. That’s the un-sexy tag line: two normal people die and learn to deal. And they do deal. Halfway through, they can do pretty cool poltergeist stuff. By the end, they are completely competent spirits that can do whatever you could imagine. Along the way they screw up and let a pervert demon almost ruin everything, but that’s (un)life. They are very relatable and normal…they just accept some weird crap the best they can.
Early Tim Burton did some crazy stuff with very limited resources. He was a genius with wires, make-up, costumes and practical effects, especially stop-motion. Go re-watch Edward Scissor Hands, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure or Beetlejuice, and you can find an amazing variety of practical effects. Burton sneaks in model work all the time, but he’s so good at it you hardly notice. He makes practical effects seem novel but unobtrusive. It’s one of the things I miss from his later work which adopts many digital effects.
Beetlejuice certainly has a visual style. His color palette leans heavily on green, purple and black. It’s the day of the dead parade everyday in the afterlife. As the film progresses, everything becomes more impressionistic. The quaint home of the Maitlands becomes gets a surrealist architectural makeover from the Deetzes, and when Beetlejuice gets in control, he intensifies all of the grotesque angles and perspectives.
The Ghost with the Most
Some early critics of the film complained that Micheal Keaton‘s character is hardly in the film. Re-watching it, I was surprised that his screen time is much less than I would have suspected. That is a credit to how much style Keaton put into Beetlejuice: just a little goes a long way. In retrospect, I’m glad Burton was judicious in his use of Keaton. Things could quickly have gotten out of hand with just one character chewing all of the scenery. Think of Drop Dead Fred as a cautionary tale. Heck, think of all the Burton movies where Johnny Depp is allowed to ham it up and steal the entire plot (Alice in Wonderland comes easily to mind.)
All of the spooks in this film have definite personality, often physically embodying their fatal flaws into the afterlife. Even the chain smoker who is burnt to a crisp but still puffing away, who only appears for ten seconds, is memorable. Sylvia Sidney won a Saturn for best supporting actress as the undead case worker for the Maitlands, a great cameo by an accomplished actress who acts as a sensible counterpoint to Beetlejuice’s manic energy.
Beetlejuice is still a great movie, thirty years later. It has great visuals and effects, a delightfully morbid world-view, memorable characters and strong performances up and down the board. It has a riot of energy and bawdy jokes from the title character, but takes the time to set up a story based on two common people trying to make sense of a suddenly very strange world. Maybe as a kid you love the exuberance and devil-may-care style of Keaton’s Beetlejuice, or see yourself as the unloved and misunderstood Lydia, but in time it’s poor Barbara and Adam, who go from putzes to poltergeists, make the film endearing into its 30’s.