Tim Burton is one talented, eccentric filmmaker. Following the success of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure in 1985, Burton was looking for a script for his next film. He struggled to find the right vehicle, ultimately settling on 1988's Beetlejuice. Though I grew up watching the Beetlejuice cartoon on Saturday mornings, I never saw the movie....until now!!!
With a two-week vacation ahead of them, husband, Adam (Alec Baldwin), and wife, Barbara (Geena Davis), have decided to sit around on the house and relax doing odds and ends. Well, that's their plan at least. Picking up some odds and ends, the couple is killed in a car crash, and now they're trapped in some sort of after-life purgatory....in their own home. Is it heaven? Is it hell? Is it neither? Adam and Barbara find a "Guide to the Recently Undead" book in their attic but don't know what to make of it. They're trapped in their house and don't know how to get out. It's a minor problem until a new family moves in, an uppity family from New York City, wanting to make lots of changes that the recently dead couple is really in trouble. Maybe their only option? A live-wire, bio-exorcist ghost named Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), who may have some ulterior motives.
Look at the films a director makes -- the good directors at least -- and you can get a good glimpse into their beliefs, their backgrounds, their childhoods. What about Burton? He is a nut. A talented, crazy, chaotic nut with a beautifully insane outlook on life. From Pee-Wee to Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands to writing Nightmare Before Christmas, Burton isn't afraid to make movies that he likes. They're weird (sometimes gloriously weird), and he's okay with that. Watching these movies is a trip so you've gotta know that going in. Watching a Burton flick is like being transported into an alternate world with crazy visuals, crazier characters, and a dark, cynical sense of humor. Sound good? I'm not a huge, diehard fan of Burton, but I can definitely appreciate a talented director like he is.
So what's an unlikely source for some laughs? Dying, death and whatever twisted vision of the afterlife that Tim Burton has. It's wickedly colorful, always slightly ajar and off-center, and though it produces laughs, it's always played straight. At no point does it feel forced. The laughs are bizarre, but they work because Burton and the cast simply lay things out for you. Here's the joke. Laugh if you want. If you don't, no skin off my back. Case in point? When Adam and Barbara visit the afterlife offices, we meet Juno (Sylvia Sidney), their afterlife case worker who fills them in on their new situation. While smoking and explaining, smoke filters out through her throat. Was her throat slit? Did she have cancer? Just go with it. There's a whole office of stuff like that, a desk clerk who hung himself and now moves around the office by noose. The football team that died in a bus wreck. The shrunken-head victim of a witch doctor...and the dead voodoo doctor. The magician's assistant sitting next to her severed lower half. Incredibly dark but oh so funny.
Enough with all that mumbo-jumbo. Let's talk Beetlejuice! Having worked for most of the 1980s in a variety of films, this was the movie that made Michael Keaton a star, albeit a star that shined brightly but quickly. Wearing heavy makeup and some kooky outfits, Keaton throws himself completely into the part as our big-exorcist ghost looking to have some fun...a lot of fun actually. He's actually not in the movie a ton but makes the most of every minute he's on-screen. He falls for the Deetzes' daughter, Lydia (Winona Ryder), who embraces all sorts of weird, producing some great moments as he tries to escape the afterlife (sort of). It's goofy, often dumb, mostly smart, and Keaton is a scene-stealer. His character theme song is a gem too, kicking in HERE about 30 seconds in.
There isn't a weak spot in the entire cast. Baldwin and Davis get laughs because they play it straight, especially when they realize that as dead people they can do all sorts of horrifying, manipulative things to their bodies. As well, they're dead, but they're not quite Beetlejuice dead, establishing a sort of afterlife hierarchy. Catherine O'Hara and Jeffrey Jones are perfect together as Delia and Charles Deetz, the wife looking to gut the house while the husband wants to relax and live a country life...until there's money on the line. Ryder too is especially good as the quirky Lydia who can see the ghosts/dead. Glenn Shadix has some great moments too as Otho, Delia's interior decorator with a wicked sense of everything.
Just a funny movie from beginning to end. Too many good moments to mention, and what's the fun in me giving them all away? Check it out, an excellent Halloween-themed flick for October!
Beetlejuice (1988): ***/****