There are many wonderful things about the career of Tim Burton that’s depressingly easy to forget when you look at his rather soulless output the back half of his career has yielded. While his hack work for Disney has undoubtedly been very pretty, live action retreads of Alice In Wonderland and Dumbo haven’t galvanised a fraction of the wonder that early films like Edward Scissorhands managed to generate. He’s basically a Hollywood institution now, but if you needed an example on exactly how innovative and fringe Burton once was, all you have to do is search out whatever copy of Beetlejuice you can get your hands on (hard copy or streamed – I don’t discriminate) and mainline possibly the greatest example of Burton’s genius that’s ever existed.
It’s time to revisit the ghost with the most….
Obscenely happy couple Barbara and Adam Maitland are taking a stay-cation at home in their picturesque house, but after a fateful trip to the store sees their car crash off a local bridge into the river below, the two find themselves back at their house with no memory as to how they got there. It takes a while for them to catch up, but eventually the Maitlands realise that didn’t survive their crash and they are, in fact, dead – something further compounded by the appearance of a copy of a book titled the Handbook For The Recently Deceased. Struggling with their new condition, the Maitlands’ new existence is made all the more difficult thanks to their house being sold to the Deetz’s, a rich, city family led by the ghastly, sculpter wannabe Delia and followed up by her real estate shark husband Charles and her sweet goth step daughter Lydia.
Delia, with the help of her bitchy interior designer Otho, intends to gut the Maitland’s dream home into something unrecognisable and despite asking for help from their spectral case worker (if you commit suicide you become a civil servant in the afterlife), try to unsuccessfully try to remove the Deetz’s due to some deeply ineffectual haunting.
It’s at this point we should bring up the wild card of this little tale and it’s a perverted, rotted, bio-exorcist by the name of Betelgeuse who, after being summoned by the desperate Maitlands, simply won’t take no for an answer.
Despite befriending Lydia, both Adam and Barbara find that their adorable hauntings (they possess the members of a dinner party to the music of Harry Belafonte) have Charles and Delia wanting to make money from their antics and they have Otho, armed with the stolen Handbook, ready to force them to if need be. There’s no doubt about it, the Maitlands are in a shitty spot, but what’s even worse is that their last hope may be the bug eating, whore-loving Betelgeuse – but will the help of this known supernatural degenerate come with it’s own problems? Well, what do you think?
In many ways, Beetlejuice could be the ultimate Tim Burton film. Made under the radar before anyone had properly gotten acquainted with the director weakness for black and white striped clothing and lop sided architecture, it was only his second live action feature after the little-seen gem Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (a movie that lost a wee bit of its shine after Paul Reubens’ fateful visit to a porn theatre) and the auteur-in-waiting was free to plough every shred of fantastical Burton-isms he could into a single film.
To describe the visual style of Beetlejuice is virtually impossible, because no film has resembled before or since. The sets, while intricately designed, deliberately look like stages; the special effects, while making perfect sense when exposed to the tone of the piece, look vaguely like paper mache and the music choices flit wildly between Danny Elfman’s fiercely original pomp (for 1988, anyways) and randomly dropped in Calypso classics. Simply put, from purely a logical standpoint, Beetlejuice should have failed harder than a chocolate bicycle.
But that’s the thing about comedies – especially ones about ghosts – logic can go take a flying fuck and it’s easy to forget that Burton is as pretty adept at handling the laughs as he is pointing a camera at things with spirals on then and his version of a madcap comedy (with dead people) is just as fun as you’d hope it would be. The concept that the afterlife is nothing more than a bureaucratical nightmare with the cartoonishly ghoulish dead (shrunken heads and rattlesnake crammed sleeping bags and all) all making time until their client number is called up.
Populating the cast are a a gaggle of actors who are ridiculously up for diving in feet first into Burton’s wackily macabre universe and Geena Davis and a disturbingly chiseled Alec Baldwin are the right side of sickly sweet as the gullible Maitlands, Winona Ryder is the archetypal glum Burton teen and Moira Rose herself Catherine O’Hara is magnificent as the hideously pretentious Delia, but to find the movie’s crown jewel, all you have to do is say his name three times.
Behold the chaotic napalm attack that is the performance of Michael Keaton who, despite being on screen for a mere 17 minutes, headlocks the entire movie into his fetid armpit and refuses to let go. Tearing through his scenes like a hurricane formed of furious ad-libbing and deranged screaming, anyone sharing the screen whenever Betelgeuse is around literally has nothing to do but stand around and stare as he rabidly goes about his business.
Quite possibly the most original comedy of the entire 80’s (no other movie immediately comes to mind that also contains sandworms, rush marriages, cartoonish body horror and some friendly face ripping) and certainly a serious contender for Burton’s best movie, Beetlejuice is an utterly charming and beguiling experience that’s still immensely refreshing over thirty years later.
Go and dig it up and let it possess you all over again.