Thirty Years Later, “Beetlejuice” Still Jangles with Energy

Regardless of how Beetlejuice 2 turns out—and don’t even get us started on the musical—Tim Burton’s breakthrough is a lively movie about death that stands the test of mold-covered time.

Beetlejuice came out on March 30, 1988, exactly two and a half weeks before I was born, and thus I consider us spiritual cohorts. This spring we both turn thirty, and one of us is aging more gracefully. (Hint: It’s Beetlejuice.)

These were the Tim Burton glory days, back when Alice in Wonderland was but a foolish twinkle in the filmmaker’s eye. As for feature films, the only credits to his name were the wonderful Pee-wee’s Big Adventure from 1985 and a creepy TV adaptation of Hansel and Gretel with an all-Japanese cast (watch it on YouTube if you love nightmares and want to have more of them). Burton began as a Disney animator in the ’80s, but he was fired from the conglomerate when his maudlin sensibilities didn’t gel with theirs.

No director has a more potent aesthetic. There are better filmmakers, to be sure—more profound, ambitious, intellectual—but you can tell a Burton production from a single frame; nay, from glancing at the corner of a single frame in dim lighting. His vision reminds you of no one else’s, because his work is what things remind you of. An auteur. The Wes Anderson of the ’90s, with campy macabre in place of color-coordinated whimsy.

His filmmaking heyday came pre-computer-generated imagery, when production design and art direction meant tangible materials, not virtual ones. Burton and his team were inspired by old horror films and German Expressionism; slanted architecture, geometric silhouettes, lurid color schemes. Due to a small budget, there was very little post-production work on Beetlejuice, and makeup, stunts, and sets were done “in camera,” built with sweat and tears IRL as opposed to in some cloistered editing room. Much of this is thanks to Bo Welch, production designer on this film as well as on Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns. And while we’re naming names, Burton-regular Danny Elfman provides the film’s score; mostly comprised of cartoonish, booming brass. 

Burton and his team were inspired by old horror films and German Expressionism; slanted architecture, geometric silhouettes, lurid color schemes.

As for the film’s success, Beetlejuice more than quadrupled its budget at the box office. Critics were divided; Roger Ebert thought it too gimmicky, while the Chicago Reader called it “an appealing mess.” The ever-passionate Pauline Kael deemed the film a “comedy classic,” though her praise was mixed: “It’s an artwork that has no depth but jangles with energy,” she wrote. “Tim Burton takes stabs into the irrational, the incongruous, the plain nutty… The story is bland—but it’s blandness is edged with near-genius.”

Pauline was right: The film “jangles” with demonic vigour to this day. It defies not only convention, but logic itself; it feels deranged, if not exactly dangerous—it’s not one of those. Beetlejuice is safe to watch, and most millennials played the VHS to death as kids in the ’90s.

Speaking of death, that’s what the movie is about. It begins with a camera gliding Shining-style over a wooded landscape (Connecticut in the film, Vermont in actuality); a twist comes when the landscape morphs into a miniature. An enormous tarantula mounts a house—is this a mutant?—no, it’s the house that’s small. The whole thing is an exact replica of the idyllic countryside we’ve just seen from the air.

Burton grew up in Burbank, Los Angeles—and it’s no surprise that sunny LA would’ve rubbed the young man wrong, traipsing miserably around in all that black, longing for spooky New England. (A haunted house in Los Angeles wouldn’t be the same, likely colored with graffiti and inhabited by squatters).

Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) are a married couple who live in the Connecticut town (and keep a replica of it in their attic), cheerfully in love. Their tranquility lasts all of ten minutes in Burtonland, as soon they’re both plummeting to watery graves when a dog runs in the road and their car veers off a bridge. The couple doesn’t notice they are dead at first, wandering back home in a daze, until they pass mirrors with no reflections and a tome called Handbook for the Recently Deceased appears on their living room table. “I don’t think we survived the crash,” Barbara guesses tearfully and correctly.

This instructive handbook—which “reads like a stereo manual,” Adam complains—makes clear that Heaven and Hell are not part of this bargain. The Afterlife turns out to be quite similar to Life itself, though with more dull regulations, less possibility and room to roam. Post-living, Adam and Barbara are restricted to their cozy house-on-a-hill, which is not a bad deal for two such homebodies. Then a new family moves in.

These newcomers aren’t tenants the Maitlands feel a kinship with—the Deetzes are New Yorkers, and wife Delia (a manic sculptor, played by Catherine O’Hara) hates the rustic decor and intends to redecorate. Her husband Charles (Jeffrey Jones) is easier to please and merely wants to relax into country livin’, though Delia isn’t the relaxing type. She’s determined to bring Culture to Connecticut. Her flamboyant big city designer Otho lurks about the place, too, helping her gouge the home of all its charm.

The Deetzes have a daughter named Lydia. Sorry, Johnny Depp isn’t in this one—but his first love, the porcelain-skinned Winona Ryder, for whom he stills bears scars of a now infamous tattoo—is, aged fourteen. Habitually cloaked in all-black and a lacy funeral veil, Lydia is the quintessential goth girl heroine. And while she nurses deep undereye circles and combs her bangs in spiky points, Lydia is more dramatic than depressed. She’s interested in the “strange and unusual,” but she hates Delia’s pretentions and likes the house the way it is.

The Maitlands want these people gone, so they visit the bureaucratic headquarters of the Afterlife to see what can be done: Here’s where Burton’s film morphs into something both hallucinatory and inspired. This Afterlife has a lot of red tape, and the Maitlands are made to take a number and wait in a room filled with the fellow-deceased: a man with a chicken bone lodged in his throat; one in scrubs who clearly died during surgery; a guy burnt to a blackened crisp, who offers Adam a cigarette; and a green-skinned receptionist, unsympathetic to the Maitland’s plight, who holds up her own slit wrists and jokes, “If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have had my little accident!” The waiting room attendees chortle appreciatively. A neon sign over the door reads “NO EXIT.”

When the Maitland’s number is called, they step through an office overflowing with paperwork and basked in an unholy green light, past a crew of skeletons typing furiously on typewriters. They are introduced to their “caseworker” Juno, who puffs on a cigarette and informs them that the only way to defeat the Deetzes is by frightening them. The dead must drive the living away with some good old-fashioned haunting.

Problem is, New Yorkers are cynical and unafraid of specters. They are delighted when paranormal occurrences begin, urging the spirits to reveal themselves so that they may invite more interested parties to the house and turn a profit. That’s where the titular Betelgeuse comes in (named after a star in the Orion belt, but spelled phonetically for the sake of ease): When the Maitlands’ attempts at ghosting fall short, despite a singularly bizarre Harry Belafonte forced-lip-syncing session, they call in a renegade freelance bio-exorcist to do the job right. Betelegeuse’s Afterlife services are advertised with zippity-pow: “Unhappy with eternity? Having difficulty adjusting? Well, come on down!” He’s supposed to be the best haunter around. He’s also a pervert.

In his heart, Burton is a macabre Spielberg, no less fond of fanciful heartstring-pulling, and as prone to swooning romance as his monster-loving contemporary Guillermo del Toro.

Beetlejuice won a Best Makeup Oscar, presumably not just for the mold (or is it moss?) sprouting from the edges of Michael Keaton’s face, but also for the distorted, monstrous faces he and the Maitlands pull in their attempts to terrify the Deetzes. Keaton’s Betelgeuse also sports purple raccoon-eyes, rotting teeth, and a proud gut. When he first meets Barbara, he kisses her full on the mouth, then tries to peek under her dress. He later visits a whorehouse (in miniature, built into the Maitland’s town replica, where a shrunken Betelgeuse often spends his time) called “Dante’s Inferno Room” to blow off some steam. There wouldn’t be a character like this today—Betelgeuse is so politically incorrect, he makes Trump look like Shirley Temple. Many of these sexual hijinks aren’t as funny in the #MeToo era. But Keaton shines in the role; lewd, dastardly, oozing devil-may-care chaos. Every costume in the film is pretty fantastic (costumer Aggie Guerard Rodgers also did Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Return of the Jedi), but the most iconic outfit of them all—a black-and-white striped suit—is worn with panache by BJ himself.  

When Betelgeuse meets Lydia—quite a young girl, I’ll remind you—he’s inappropriately keen on her, too. The film zags in its final twenty minutes, as previously the villains were the Deetzes, but the climax presents the antagonist as Betelgeuse instead. He makes a deal to help the Deetzes that involves marrying (and consummating the marriage with) Lydia. All of a sudden, the two sides unite against him, desperate to preserve the innocence of the kid. The childless Maitlands have come to regard Lydia as a surrogate daughter, and understandably, the only people an odd teenage girl can relate to are dead. “I want to be dead, too,” she tells them, though they convince her that living is preferable. The film concludes with peace: The Deetzes learn to coexist with the Maitlands, who tutor Lydia in school. The run-ins with Betelgeuse inspire Delia artistically, and she’s in a better mood. Betelgeuse is banished back from whence he came. Everyone wins. In his heart, Burton is a macabre Spielberg, no less fond of fanciful heartstring-pulling, and as prone to swooning romance as his monster-loving contemporary Guillermo del Toro. (But without the Oscars.)

Most Burton joints feature the undead and the dying—outcasts and misfits who don’t fit properly into the society of the living. One wonders whether Burton, apparently obsessed with death, somehow dreads it more than the rest of us: Does he hope to render the inevitable less oppressive, less unbearable, by continually molding it into something absurd? Perhaps it’s his way of whistling in the dark. I certainly hope death in actuality doesn’t resemble Burton’s universe. Then again, I kind of hope it does. FL

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