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BEETLEJUICE (1988)


"It has its hits and misses, but I don't mind. When it works, it's fun. When it doesn't, at least I tried something."
Burton's typically low-key review of Beetlejuice

Following the success of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, it wasn't until he was offered the anarchic screenplay for Beetlejuice that Burton finally found another big screen project suited to his unique vision. As Burton later said in Premiere magazine: "It was totally opposite from everything else I'd read. It had no structure, no plot - it just had a weird quality that I loved."

The script, written by Michael McDowell, was like The Exorcist (1973) from the ghost's point of view. It was full of outlandish ideas that the director could interpret in his own way. In fact, under Burton's direction, the film would become more of a comedy than it had been in script form. It's interesting to imagine how different the film would have been if the original director, Wes Craven, had stayed with the project.

The cast would be filled with many future stars, including Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis as the happily deceased couple, Adam and Barbara Maitland, and the 16-year old Winona Ryder as the daughter of the obnoxious family who move into the Maitlands' home. For the title character, Burton originally wanted to cast Sammy Davis, Jr., but the studio nixed the idea. Instead, Michael Keaton was cast in the role.

Keaton, who had success in the early 80's with the comedies Night Shift and Mr. Mom, was in something of a career slump after a string of flops. Beetlejuice would not only catapult him to an even higher level of stardom, it would be the start of a brief, yet fruitful, partnership with Burton.

The shooting in L.A. and Vermont was mostly uneventful, though Burton struggled to achieve the look he wanted with the limited $13 million budget. Some scenes had to be dropped while others used old-fashioned in-camera trickery rather than complicated post-production effects. The cast and crew would develop a great respect for the young filmmaker, many of them working with him again. The major exception was Alec Baldwin, who was unhappy with how bland his character seemed in the finished film.

After the film was completed, the studio voiced problems with the title, and suggested the rather bland "House Ghosts" as alternative, since it was testing better with audiences. Burton then countered with "Scared Sheetless" as a title, and the studio actually took it as a serious suggestion! Luckily, the suits didn't get their way and the film was released with the original title.

Beetlejuice is the first Burton film to have an elaborate opening credits sequence, and it set the template for many that would follow.

As the camera flies over a storybook small town, the scene subtly shifts to a model town (the transition is noticeable if you look for it). Finally the camera pans up to an old house, before revealing the scale as a spider crawls over the roof of the miniature building. Coupled with Elfman's bouncy theme music, it lets the audience know that this film won't be the typical bland comedy.

Although the plot is slightly more in evidence than in Pee-Wee, it still remains secondary to the characters and visuals. The film breaks almost every rule of moviemaking. Starting out as a comedy that depicts the charms of small town life in a gently mocking way, it springs its first surprise by killing the main characters within five minutes.

There's a great moment of cartoon physics as a dog (which the Maitlands swerved to avoid) balances on a plank perfectly with the car. As soon as the dog jumps off the Maitlands car plummets off the covered bridge (presumably they drown but it is never stated exactly how they died). The covered bridge itself might be a reference to the iconic image of the covered bridge in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow".
There follows a slow build-up of insanity in the afterlife. Adam steps outside the house and find himself in desert world (later revealed as Saturn) with giant sandworms and sand that turns you yellow. Meanwhile, Barbara has found "The Handbook for the Recently Deceased", a guide to their new existence that is so incomprehensible it reads like stereo instructions.
At least one thing in their favour is that, unlike ghosts in other films, the Maitlands have no trouble physically interacting with the world of the living. When New York family the Dietzes move in and start wrecking the place, the Maitlands become desperate. There's a fun scene where they try to scare the new arrivals by tearing off Barbara's face and cutting off Adam's head, but of course they can't be seen.
The Maitlands soon pay their first visit to the waiting room that sums up the bureaucracy of the afterlife. The waiting room scenes are full of wonderfully designed background characters, including the burnt man who’s trying to cut down on his smoking, a guy with Tim Burton hair in a sleeping bag with a rattlesnake and, of course, the shrunken head guy with a hilarious expression.

After the Maitlands return home to find months have passed, there's a clever spoof of horror classic The Fly (1958). Betelgeuse entices a fly with a candy bar and then devours it as the poor insect cries, "Help me!"

Acting on the advice of their caseworker, the Maitlands try and scare the family away by donning the classic ghost sheets (which fails, of course).

They finally say Betelgeuse's name three times (it takes them nearly half the movie to work out the correct way to pronounce it) and are whisked into their own model cemetery.

The encounter with the disgusting Betelgeuse has lots of classic dialogue and is the highpoint of the film. Indeed, many thought the wait for the character was too long, but it helps build up the mystery.


One of the best effects owes its success to the fact that it is shot from behind with
just a glimpse of tentacles, leaving the audiences to imagine just how horrific a face
Betelgeuse is making.
 

Nice fuckin' model!
Betelgeuse reads his list of qualifications to the Maitlands, ending with, "I've seen The Exorcist about 167 times and it keeps getting funnier, every single time I see it! Not to mention the fact that you're talking to a dead guy! Now what do you think? You think I'm qualified?" The line Betelgeuse utters after his head randomly spins around ("Don't you hate it when that happens?") is a perfectly deadpan reaction.

After this display, the Maitlands are convinced that they have to deal with their problems themselves. The Dietzes have dinner guests over, and In a sly nod to The Wizard of Oz, Otho says not to mind a neurotic lady guest because "she's still upset because somebody dropped a house on her sister".

Otho also jokes that people who commit suicide become civil servants in the afterlife, which is exactly what we see in the waiting room in the netherworld where the receptionist has slit her wrists.

The next part of the scene, where the Dietzes and their guests are forced to dance to the "Banana Boat Song", justifiably became a classic.

When the Maitands fail again to scare off their unwelcome guests, Betelgeuse decides to try his own methods and attacks the Dietzes in the form of a snake. It's an impressive special effect and the only time the character seems genuinely threatening.

Luckily, he is sent back to the model and distracted by the bizarre addition of a whorehouse.

After another meeting with their caseworker (an audience of the dead can be seen outside Juno's window that includes a red skeleton and a green one - images that would later show up in Burton’s Mars Attacks!) the Maitlands pull some scary faces. They reluctantly return to scare the Dietzes, only to find Lydia (who all of a sudden wants to be dead so she can join the Maitlands) about to release Betelgeuse again.

Through a convoluted series of events, Lydia eventually does release Betelgeuse, promising to marry him if he helps the Maitlands from dying (even though they're already dead).

The most visually dynamic section of the film follows, with Betelgeuse turning himself into a live action cartoon to get rid of the unwanted guests.


It's showtime!

The carnival hat Betelgeuse wears in this scene has batwings on it (probably an unintentional reference to Burton's next film) and a Jack Skellington-like skull on top.

The later reference might have been deliberate, since Burton drew character art for The Nightmare Before Christmas years before he made Beetlejuice.


Betelgeuse makes Delia's own sculptures come alive to trap her and Charles so they can be witnesses to the wedding (trapped by her own art – how ironic).

Betelgeuse has the ring ready, though it is on a severed finger. However, before he can marry Lydia, the Maitlands ruin his plans and send him back to the netherworld.


Thanks to the the Maitland's powers, Lydia gets to dance in mid-air to "Jump in the
Line" as reward for doing well on an exam.

 

Meanwhile, we see Betelgeuse in the waiting room falling afoul of a witch doctor when he tries to "jump in the line" ahead of him and gets his head shrunk.

This last scene was added late after test screening audiences wanted to see more of Betelgeuse. Crosscutting this with Lydia's dance is the perfect way to end the film on a high note.

Burton's direction is even better in his second film, brilliantly balancing comedy and the more morbid aspects of the film. The use of colors (especially blue) would become a Burton trademark. He also gets uniformly good performances from the cast. Much of the dialogue and characterisation in Beetlejuice was created by improvisation. Of course, this wouldn't work without a good cast, and the people assembled here are perfect.

Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are extremely likeable as the troubled, if slightly bland, ghosts, while Jeffrey Jones and SCTV cast member Catherine O'Hara make a suitably annoying New York couple.

Sylvia Sidney is also impressive as caseworker Juno. In a nice touch, the smoke from her cigarette puffs out of her slit throat. Glenn Shadix is also very entertaining as fashion-obsessed Otho.

Winona Ryder, in one of her earliest screen roles, is also very good as the gothic daughter Lydia. From her first scene, where she decides she can live in the new house after seeing a spider in a web, her character is very clearly defined as “strange and unusual”. It's no surprise that she's the only one who can see the ghosts at first. Lydia's line, "My whole life is a dark room. One big, dark room", is a classic Burton character line.

In retrospect, many saw Lydia as Burton's alter ego here (though Burton has admitted he'd rather be a extroverted character like Betelgeuse). Whether the ending (where Lydia suddenly has friends and does well in school, though she still has her Goth dress on under her uniform) means Burton wishes he could have become a bland, popular teenager is open to debate. The fact that Adam and Barbara were never able to conceive children while they were alive adds some poignancy to Lydia being like a daughter to them.

Michael Keaton outshines all the cast as the title character. Manic, disgusting, hilarious and scary all at once, it is a classic comic performance, almost unrecognisable behind the pale makeup with dark eyes that would become common in Burton's later films. As good as the previous afterlife scenes are, the film truly comes alive when Keaton is on screen.

The impact of his role is all the more surprising considering he filmed his role in two weeks and has less than twenty minutes of screen time in the film. Betelgeuse is also cleverly kept off camera in his early scenes, effectively building up a mystery about his exact appearance. Betelgeuse's costume has the classic black and white stripes Burton loves. Keaton's makeup is very effective, helping to transform the actor into a grotesque ghoul with mossy skin.

The production design by Bo Welch is very inventive, especially in the contrast between the tacky aesthetic of the Dietzes and the ghoulish world of the afterlife.

Several scenes had to be abandoned during filming because of budget constrains.

Originally, the Maitlands visited a different limbo world every time they left their house, but these were cut and Saturn substituted used for all those scenes. The use of the Dune-like planet and its sandworms probably worked for the best in terms of plot logic.

The visual effects work wonders with the small budget. As in Pee-Wee, many of the effects are deliberately cheesy, but it doesn't hurt the reality of the world Burton creates.

Some of the simplest effects work remarkably well, such as the Maitlands being unable to see their reflection in the mirror and Barbara floating above the floor when she sleeps.

Elfman's music is the perfect complement to the fun visuals, and good use is made of Harry Belafonte's music. To accompany the surreal visuals, the film features some cartoon sound effects, such as when Betelgeuse throws away his hat and later when he sends Maxie and Sarah Dean (Robert Goulet and Marie Cheatham) flying through the ceiling.

Burton's second film improved on his memorable debut by creating an extremely original ghost comedy classic. Since it was a more original project than Pee-wee, the film defined Burton’s style, and it still holds up very well compared to his later works.

The film has its moments of clumsiness, but overall it's hard not to forgive any flaws in a movie that was so fresh and inventive. Playing like a sick live-action version of a Warner Bros. cartoon, the film is full of weirdness and visual invention. Its main strength is surprise, but the script is also hilarious. Beetlejuice is truly unlike any film that came before it, which can’t often be said about Hollywood films.

The film was an even bigger hit than Pee-Wee, earning over $70 million in the U.S. alone. The reviews were also slightly better, though Burton was amused that some critics who trashed Pee-Wee at the time now claimed it was far superior to his latest effort.

It even won praise from such esteemed critics as Pauline Kael, who wrote in The New Yorker: "With crazy comedy, you settle for the spurts of inspiration, and Beetlejuice has them . . . enough . . . to make this spotty, dissonant movie a comedy classic". Roger Ebert was one of many critics who didn't care for the film, preferring the early folksy scenes to the ones that came later, rather missing the point. The next year, Beetlejuice won the Academy Award for best makeup; the first of many technical Oscars Burton's films would receive.

For Burton, it was a very important film. It showed that audiences could respond to his quirky vision in a big way. As Burton said after the release in an interview with Frank Rose: "I felt great that people could get into seeing something that random. Anything that fucks up the system and doesn't prove itself part of their plan, I think is positive".

Beetlejuice had an afterlife as a short-lived animated TV show and a live show at Universal Studios theme parks. However, a sequel (possible subtitles: Beetlejuice Falls in Love and Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian) was promised for years after but never materialised.

Despite this, the success of the film would lead to Warner Bros. offering Burton directing duties on an eagerly awaited comic book adaptation that had been years in the planning.

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