Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: Michael McDowell and Warren Skaaren
Cast: Michael Keaton (as Betelgeuse); Alec Baldwin (as Adam Maitland); Geena Davis (as Barbara Maitland); Catherine O'Hara (as Delia Deetz); Jeffrey Jones (as Charles Deetz); Winona Ryder (as Lydia Deetz); Glenn Shadix (as Otho)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #52
My interest in obscurer films means I ignore most mainstream cinema out of priority and disinterest. Of course there are directors like the Coen Brothers that I love but many that I don't put forward in concern next to films unfairly neglected and more interesting in premise to me. This can be to a detriment sometimes and there are a few cases now where, when I take interest in certain directors and films, I find myself surprised by how good the films are. There are other cases, as with Tim Burton, where I grew up with his films and am only now returning to them with greater admiration. I won't comment on Tim Burton the current filmmaker of the 2010s, a debate that has exasperated many as they ask what films are good or not, because baring his throwbacks to his old style in Corpse Bride (2005) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) I've only seen films within adulthood from before the Millennium. Naturally his gothic aesthetic style wins me over but what has made films like Beetlejuice or Batman Returns (1992) far more rewarding to now as an adult is that, even when making blockbusters, his obsession with a macabre or heightened aesthetic isn't mere window dressing, as is a huge problem with "stylish" Hollywood films, but filtered entirely through to the performances and themes he has obsessed over in his career as well adding a greater texture to them and adding more to love within the films. (And it's not merely in horror and fantasy either, as with Ed Wood (1994) Burton managed to take one of the least effective and rewarding genres in cinema, the biopic, and make a movie that was actually good from it).
With this in mind, Beetlejuice is a film that feels from a completely different time in Hollywood alien to the present day from how gleefully morbid and anarchic it is as a mainstream horror comedy. The premise is simple - a couple Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) die and attempt to haunt the Deetz family that move into their home, Jeffrey Jones as the father Charles, Catherine O'Hara as the mother Delia who sculpts modern art, Winona Ryder as their daughter and Burton stand-in Lydia who can see the ghosts - a prop to lead to utter chaos and an incredibly twisted sense of humour when Adam and Barbara consider hiring Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton) to help them get rid of the family, a vindictive and perverted entity who can escape the prison imposed upon him from the offices of the afterlife if someone says his name three times. The result is an excuse for countless moments stop motions, jokes and various ghoulish incidents, the cinematic equivalent to a carnival ghost ride, but why it succeeds is how idiosyncratic Burton's style is and how much character as a result the film has.
He is an openly fantastical director in his early work who gladly has exaggerated, aesthetically distinct worlds onscreen. This is something already said many times before by others, yet it's worth mentioning again as he's able to contrast various tonal references into his films through this style of his which greatly influences the type of stories he made and their tone. He was able to get away with the out-right German Expressionist influences in Batman Returns through his ability to take material which would allow him already to do so but also bring a carefully considered production and tonal aesthetic as well, something visible here in Beetlejuice as well with its juggling of its overtly macabre content with various tones such as Americana, slapstick and modern art parodies. An entire film, for example, could be made of the Afterlife as depicting in the film, an administration office with extremely long queues where, as Adam and Barbara were lucky just to drown, others remain as they died, including an explorer caught by a head shrinker and, amongst the more bleak moments of humour, office staff including a female suicide victim and a man flattened like a pancake from a vehicle who travels along rooms on a pulley system. That this style is as much part of the personality of the film, neither able to be separated as it influences how the plot goes along and the sense of humour, there's a greater sense of imagination onscreen because its more than gloss. Considering as well how dark and adult the film is in humour, when very adult jokes could be snuck into what is not really a film that would qualify for an American R rating, does allow for the story to be more playful in its content, bordering between the disturbing and the fun in moments such as the Betelgeuse snake attack the Deetz family.
The use of practical effects, as much for their visible seems as with the accomplishment behind them, adds to the gleeful tone, a distorted reality to when the actors are involved with them or transformed themselves by the effects onscreen, such as seeing Geena Davis hung on a noose in closet rip her own face off, or the Skullmonkeys -like desert landscape where the iconic sandworms live, processors for the stripy sock snakes of The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) only significantly bigger. Whilst the film in all these scenes is meant to have a humorous streak to it, it's still significantly macabre and it's the kind of cinema which would gladly feed the imagination of any teenager for the better, amazing me as an adult viewer now with what Burton could both get away with and how inspired it feels at the same time.
Musically as well its inspiring what was done for the film. Danny Elfman's exquisite music, including his obsession with the horn section, does evokes as a more knowledgeable person his days as part of Oingo Boingo but the decision to use two calypso songs by Harry Belafonte also evokes the importance of using classic tunes in the Oingo Boingo film Forbidden Zone (1980). Even when I hadn't seen Beetlejuice for decades since I was a child Belafonte's take on the Jamaican folk song Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) had been in my thoughts permanently since then, and revisiting this film, the use of this type of music as a contrast to the gothic influences is one of the best aspects to it, suiting the humour to have actors mime to the songs and also showing the little brushstrokes that make Beetlejuice more entertaining.
Another great aspect of the film, and something which is a key virtue to Burton as director and why he's able to balance his exaggerated aesthetic style with depth, is how the cast are clearly taking the material seriously whilst clearly relishing it. Geena Davis is charismatic and lovely in her role. Alec Baldwin, before he got strange with his politics and calling his real life daughter a little pig, is also charming as Davis' nerdy husband obsessed with his giant model of the town the film is set in. O'Hara's modern art sculptress is more than a one-note joke because of how the actress is able to make her irritated inflections and parody of an urban middle class personality humourous. Ryder, in a very early role, is a great stand-in for the outsider who is fascinated with the macabre that would appear in many of Burton's films. The late Glenn Shadix, as he does in the fun Sylvester Stallone film Demolition Man (1993), steals scenes as Otho, a gracefully voiced but obnoxious specialist of feng shui and exorcism. And then there's Michael Keaton who stands out the most in the film as Betelgeuse - you would think he was a completely different actor from the man who would an incredibly suave Bruce Wayne in Batman (1989) a mere year later, here perfectly playing a hyperactive and charismatic scuzz ball who dominates the film, both hilarious and utterly detestable as the titular figure.
Because of all these factors, what is mean to be a fun popcorn film is actually a great movie too, tapping into a corpse humour with elaborate spectacle which is utterly irresistible and ultimately something I have found in almost all the Burton films I've revisited.