Paranormal & Supernatural in Review: Beetlejuice (1988)
Director: Tim Burton
Writers: Michael McDowell (story), Larry Wilson (story)
Stars: Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton, & Winona Ryder, et. al.
Release Date: 30 March 1988 (USA)
Review “Living Through the Black Death and Having a Good time Through It” by: J.G. Clay
Every now and again, a film slithers its way from the screen into the Geek Cloud, that weird consciousness shared by folks of a certain demeanor, character and temperament. From Star Wars to the umpteen Offerings from the Universe of Stan Lee (RIP), the tired and huddled masses absorb a dearth of quotable lines and drunken discussion worthy scenes. With this wealth of filmic foolery to play with, its little wonder that a few noteworthy works fall through the cracks to lay undiscovered for years or even centuries. I should know. Many a time I’ve mentioned the shotgun spinning skeletal bat from ‘House’ or the neon lit ‘one fingered salute rising from the rear of car in ‘My Science Project’ only to be met with stony glances and the occasional ‘shut the fuck up. That never happened. I know it did, I know these films exist and I recommend you check them out.
These aside, there’s one stone cold classic that hardly ever discussed, a film so utterly insane you’d never believe that its director and lead actor crafted the super slick urbane and slightly camp ‘Batman’ as their follow up project; a film cool enough to feature Harry Belafonte on the soundtrack TWICE; a film that even now has one of the funniest end scenes I have had the pleasure of watching.
I’m talking about the lunacy that is: Beetlejuice.
Directed by the ever-hip and always strange Tim Burton, Beetlejuice was conceived as an out and out horror. Roughly following the same trajectory as the version filmed, the original concept had a standard looking demon as the titular ‘Bio Exorcist, albeit with an appetite for violence, rape and appearing as a short Middle Eastern gentleman occasionally. Luckily for us (and the original scriptwriter’s reputation), the script was given a facelift, liposuction and a boost of comedic energy, transforming it from the dull horror fare of the late 80s to a work that’s full of heart, spirit, fun and some strange foreshadowing. (see if you can spot the weird ‘Easter Eggs foretelling Burton’s future works.
Beetlejuice follows the plight of Adam and Barbara Maitland, an earnest and quite endearing young couple who drown as a result of Barbara (Geena Davis) driving them both to their deaths whilst trying to avoid a dog in the road (perhaps an indication of how decent the Maitlands are).
The couple find themselves back home with no recollection of the accident or how they returned, Unnerved, Adam steps out of the house only to find himself on an arid desert world populated by huge worms straight from Dune. He evades them throwing himself back into the safety of the marital home when other more substantial clues reveal their ultimate fate. Adam and Barbara find themselves with no reflection in their mirror and a book entitled Handbook for the Recently Deceased. The penny drops; the Maitlands are dead (it could be argued that remaining a couple in the afterlife is a joyous occasion….unless you hated each other in life).
As if death hasn’t pissed on the poor couple enough, their dream home is sold to the Deetz family, an oddball collection of real estate developer Charles, his ‘artista-wannabe’ wife Delia and the young sad Goth chick Lydia. The parents are the archetypical obnoxious Yuppie types of the era. Charles follows the dollar wanting to redevelop everything in sight to make a buck and Delia has an eye for art and zero talent, mentored by the rotund and greasy Otho. Lydia (Winona Ryder) is the unhappy ‘Outsider’, dressed from head to toe in black and a Joy Division fan (probably. It’s never mentioned but I’m guessing that she would be). The Maitlands are unhappy about the interlopers and resolve to find a solution
A read through of the book leads them to the Afterlife, a stuffy bureaucratic and joyless place relying on a voucher system and harassed overworked case workers. Not a cloud or harp in sight for the lovely couple. Juno, the Maitlands case worker, explains that there is nothing they can do as they are bound to the house for 125 years. If they want to, they can scare the Deetzes out themselves but it’s a case of putting up the obnoxious ‘Noo Yorkers’ or getting eaten by sandworms. Despite some impressive gags (hanging in the closet, decapitated head, some shapeshifting skills, even the classic sheets over the head’ look, the Deetzes remain unfazed, their pretentious perhaps a barrier to their bizarre experiences. Lydia can see the dead couple and a friendship grows between the living and the dead – Outsiders drawn to each other through need and longing.
Desperate, the Maitlands go to the one ghost Juno expressly warned them against dealing with. 25 minutes into the film and the titular character finally makes his entrance. The Einstein- haired lunatic spends much of their meeting trying to feel up Barbara, listing his qualifications, his similarities to Adam and being as obnoxious as possible, putting the Maitlands off and unleashing a crotch grab and F-. Bomb response from ‘Signor’ Juice.
Juicey Boy is not to be denied. In another attempt to impress the Maitlands he turns into a snake to terrorize the Deetze family but is still rebuffed. A ‘near exorcism’ for the Maitlands, courtesy of the loathsome Otho, spurs Lydia to summon the Duke of Spooks to which he agrees on the proviso that he marries the youngster in order to wreak his brand of mischief of the land of living. ‘Juice saves the couple only to have his nuptials cut short by Barbara and a tamed sandworm.
After the chaos, an accord is reached between the living and dead coexist to the sweet sounds of Harry Belafonte. For the Juice, things goes South when he messes with a witch doctor and winds up with a shrunken head and extremely squeaky voice.
‘Beetlejuice’ is as odd as it reads here. It’s a film that should be unwatchable and, by today’s standards, as clunky as a 1980s British car. Yet a rewatch confirmed to me that time has not dulled its charms whatsoever. The comedy set pieces are played straight making them far less strained and more mirth inducing. My feeling is had they been filmed as comedic scenes, they would have fallen flat. One stand out piece for me is the dinner party held by the Deetzes to impress Otho (performed with cynical perfection by Glenn Shaddix). Delia’s bewilderment as her body dances along to Day-O, a confusion shared by the rest of the cast as they too succumb to the ‘dancing madness is perfect. The straight reaction of the characters as they dance unwillingly works better for the scene, the humour added to by the fact that all the characters featured in this sequence are arseholes and its good to laugh at arseholes.
The man (or the ghost) himself is a different proposition altogether. Michael Keaton appears for a glorious 17.5 minutes but every second is filled with a manic glee tinged with an edge. Keaton appears to be having the time of his life playing the ‘Bio Exorcist’, filling the screen with a malicious yet funny presence. With lines like ‘I’ve seen the Exorcist 167 times and it still gets funnier every single time I see it” and the final head shrinking gag, its easy to see why the serious and earnest Keaton cites Beetlejuice as his favourite of his own films.
A mere review doesn’t do justice to the film however. With so many sight gags, stellar performances and seamless direction from Tim Burton, Beetlejuice is an experience rather than a movie. The vivid cinematography is too eye pleasing to be merely described. Watch it, commit it to memory then spread the word to the Geek-o-verse as this is a work that needs a bit more love. A word of caution though. Don’t do what a good (and anonymous) friend of mine did in his late teens and watch this on mind altering chemicals. It’ll become a little…..too real.
Oh, one last bit of advice. Don’t say his name three times. Nothing happens and you feel like an idiot. The same thing happened when I said Candyman three times in front of a mirror. I’ve never tried the ‘Bloody Mary’ one though.
Until next time, Sayonara.
Born in the leafy peaceful surroundings of Leamington Spa, J.G Clay is the Midlands Master of The Macabre. Now in his early forties and residing in the leafier English county of Northamptonshire, Clay’s boyhood dream of bringing his unique combination of cosmic horror, dark fiction and science fiction to the masses is being realised. With the first volume of ‘The Tales of Blood And Sulphur’ under his belt, he is poised to unleash Gods, Monsters and weird events upon the world. Under Clay’s guidance, the Dark will become a little darker and Horror will go One Step Beyond. When he is not destroying worlds, J.G likes to spend time with his family and friends, exploring the world of bass guitar, adding to his eclectic collection of music and watching as much geek TV and film as his eyes and brain will allow. He is an avid reader and a long suffering but ultimately optimistic fan of Birmingham City FC. He hates cucumber, extremists of all stripes and colours and reality TV shows.
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