Beetlejuice, released in 1988 is Tim Burton’s second feature film following Pee Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985. While his debut allowed Burton to show some of his creative flair for visual style it was Beetlejuice that more effectively showed his distinctive dark humour and influence of European Gothic art, German expressionism & American kitsch.
Beetlejuice is essentially a reversal of a haunted house story. It’s the ghosts who are being haunted by the living & must sought out the means to rid them from their house.
Beetlejuice is an early example of Burton showing the duality & juxtaposition of the mundane & the fantastic. The reality of the living is shown to be very conservative based on American suburban aesthetic while the afterlife is vibrant, colourful & filled with exotic and disfigured characters. Burton revisited similar themes in Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory & more closely in the Corpse Bride.
The film was written by Michael MacDowell who also wrote the script for Burton’s A Nightmare before Christmas in 1993. McDowell’s initial script was much darker in tone. Having Geena Davis & Alec Baldwin’s characters the Maitland’s perish in a more gruesome way. Beetlejuice was to take on different forms & reveal himself to be a demonic winged creature at the end. Warren Skaaren was brought in to inject some humour into the script to suit Burtons original vision for the film. Skaaren went on to co-write Burtons Batman in 1989.
The cast of Beetlejuice are all at their oddball best. Geena Davis & Alec Baldwin as Barbara & Adam Maitland are able to be equally comedic, sweet & sympathetic as we watch them try to make sense of the bureaucracy of the afterlife while dealing with their unwanted house guests. Other than the Handbook for the Recently Deceased, Barbara & Adam’s only guide is their acerbic case worker Juno, played wonderfully by Sylvia Sydney, who chain smokes while exhaling through a slit in her throat.
The film also features many of Burtons regularly used actors like Catherine O’Hara & Jeffrey Jones as Delia & Charles Deetz, the yuppie New Yorkers looking to turn the Maitlands idyllic house into a modern art monstrosity. As their daughter Lydia Deetz, 17 year old Wynona Ryder became a goth icon & poster child of the “strange & unusual” who typified the Burton-esque loner misfit character. Glenn Shadix is also memorable as the detestably pretentious interior designer & wannabe paranormal expert Otho. Who’s comeuppance at the end of the film is brilliant & hilarious in it’s simplicity.
Then of course there’s Michael Keaton in the title role of Beetlejuice. Keaton clearly relishes being the larger than life character making the most of the few scenes he is actually in. He plays the decrepit & mouldy Beetlejuice as a vain, fast talking, devious trickster who sees himself as a performer, changing outfits & voices much like Bugs Bunny. Which brings me to the music.
The films score, very obviously, written by Danny Elfman is as instantly recognisable as Beetlejuice himself. It’s a suitably bizarre mix of jazz motifs, tango, and cartoony carnival music reminiscent of Carl Stallings Looney Toons scores which is perfect because as with Bug Bunny, Beetlejuice is somewhat of a vaudevillian showman. He even becomes a carnival ride in the film! This was the second collaboration between Elfman & Burton. They’d worked together previously on Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. The soundtrack of Harry Belafonte songs is an interesting blend with Elfman’s score. Belafonte’s calypso music was added to keep the tone of the film upbeat & contrast with Elfman’s sometimes sinister themes.
The make up in Beetlejuice is a fantastic collection of inventive & innovative designs & won legendary makeup artist Ve Neill & her team an Oscar for their work. The film uses many different facets of visual effects from makeup, prosthetics, puppetry, animatronics & stop motion animation.
The scenes in the afterlife waiting room are a visual feast for fans of make up & special effects. There’s the game hunter with the shrunken head, the smoker who burnt himself to death, the magicians assistant who’s cut in half & the belligerent turquoise skinned beauty pageant contestant receptionist with the slit wrists. Which proves Otho’s theory that people who commit suicide become civil servants in the afterlife.
Although the film has an abundance of visual effects it isn’t really remembered as a “special effects” movie because the film is very much about the characters and their relationships.
Beetlejuice has become a cult favourite & a Halloween staple in both screenings and costumes for nearly 3 decades. It spawned a cartoon series, live shows at theme parks, merchandise and now even a sequel with Tim Burton, Michael Keaton & Wynona Ryder all confirmed to return!
Now ladies & gentleman…..it’s showtime!