The name in laughter from the hereafter!
Some directors who have a successful debut film have a hard time following up that success with their next production. The “sophomore slump,” it’s called. Not so with Tim Burton. His directorial debut, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was a moderate success, raking in $60 million at the box office, quite a bit by 1984 standards. After that quirky first film, he was sent all sort of scripts for stupid comedies (like a talking horse movie named Hot To Trot), but he wanted aboard the movie Warner Brothers was planning based on the “Batman” comic book. He’d get his chance, but first he found an intriguing, stream of consciousness supernatural comedy.
Okay, I admit it — I’m a huge fan of Tim Burton. I love every one of his movies, from the brilliance of Edward Scissorhands to the, hmm, what’s the opposite of brilliance?, of Mars Attacks! Burton may not make the best “films” of my favorite directors — that prize would go to the Coen Brothers — but I love his sensibilities. He has a love for the absurd, the out-of-the-ordinary. His films create their own worlds, where things that would seem odd by our reckoning are entirely commonplace. To flesh out those worlds, his films have rich visual styles thanks to the production designs of Rick Heinrichs and Anton Furst (among others). His protagonists are outsiders, living in these stylized worlds but still not a part of them. I identify with that feeling.
Beetlejuice doesn’t necessarily fit easily into the mold for the typical Tim Burton film, or into the mold for the typical film for any director, for that matter. It’s hard to define just who is the main character, because just about everyone is given equal screen time. There’s no real protagonist or antagonist. Because there’s no clearly defined hero or villain, pretty much everyone becomes a Burton outsider in one way or another. The only real thread to the story is that a recently deceased couple wants to drive away the new family that has moved into their house, and even that’s a moot point by the end of the movie. It would be very easy to call Beetlejuice a complete mess, but then it’s not the sort of movie you watch for any conventional reason other than sheer entertainment.
Beetlejuice begins by establishing the characters who will lead us through the story: Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis) Maitland. They live in rural New England in a grand old house they love very much. It is the beginning of a vacation, and they are going to spend it restoring their house. Quickly, tragedy strikes, as they have a freak accident (while driving one of the safest cars in the world and while wearing their seatbelts!) and are killed…except at first they don’t know they’re dead. They find themselves back at their house and slowly realize their predicament — they can never leave their house.
Soon, the house is sold to a family from New York City. Charles Dietz is a real estate developer (I think at least) who wants to move away from the city for some relaxation. His wife, Delia (Catherine O’Hara) despises everything about the house and the homegrown atmosphere, while their daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder) would make herself feel out of place no matter where she is. The Maitlands cannot stand these new arrivals, and do everything in their limited powers to scare them off. When their efforts are in vain, they turn to the Ghost With The Most, the guy who’s seen The Exorcist 167 times (“and it keeps getting funnier every single time!”), the bio-exorcist Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton). Wacky hijinks ensue. Even my fractured accounting of the plot makes too much sense for Beetlejuice. Like I said, it’s not a movie that’s about plot; it’s about entertainment. Go with the flow. Turn on the juice and see what shakes loose.
Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis were both relative unknowns in 1988. Of the two, Geena Davis had had more exposure, with her roles in Tootsie and The Fly. A year later, she would win an Academy Award for The Accidental Tourist. 1988 was Alec Baldwin’s breakout year, with his turns in Beetlejuice, Working Girl, and Married To The Mob. Adam and Barbara, the real lead characters, are as boring a couple as you’ll ever see on the screen. It’s almost a relief to see their beige Volvo plunge into the river, drowning its occupants. Lydia Dietz is the most like a Tim Burton protagonist of any character in the film, dressing in black and skulking about in perpetual depression. It was one of Winona Ryder’s first roles, and she shines in her darkness. I dare say she’s never matched the charisma she brought to the role. Catherine O’Hara is probably best known as the mother in the first two Home Alone films, but those movies hardly belie her talent. The Canadian comedienne had her start on “SCTV,” like many other Canadian comedians — John Candy, Rick Moranis, Harold Ramis, Eugene Levy (okay, so he’s not as well-known; he played Jason Biggs’ befuddled father in American Pie). Jeffrey Jones is one of the finest character actors you’ll find in Hollywood today. You need look no further than his work in Burton’s films (he was also in Ed Wood) or the bizarre Ravenous to see that his is a gifted actor.
There are two actors who I have not yet mentioned: Michael Keaton and Glenn Shadix. Two interesting pieces of trivia for you. One, Michael Keaton is a stage name; his real name is Michael Douglas but it was already taken by the more-famous son of Kirk Douglas when Keaton got his start in the movies. You’d think he took the last name from comedy legend Buster Keaton, but the story goes that he saw a picture of Diane Keaton and liked the sound of her name. Two, he wasn’t Burton’s first choice for the role. Burton wanted to go the kitschy route and cast Sammy Davis Jr., but that didn’t quite fly with Warner Bros. Burton liked Keaton’s manic, obsessive persona, and the role fit him perfectly. A reviewer for the Washington Post called him “manic as a cornered squirrel and prankish as Satan’s kid brother.” I can’t think of a more fitting description. Prior to Beetlejuice, he had hit comedy paydirt with Mr. Mom, Night Shift, and Gung Ho (the latter two of which were directed by Ron Howard).
Glenn Shadix has a small part in Beetlejuice, but he is so integral to the movie’s humor that I must give him special mention. He plays Otho, an interior decorator who also happens to be a paranormal investigator…think Martha Stewart as a member of the Ghostbusters. His dry, macabre wit punches up every scene that he is in, and it’s almost a let-down when he is gone. I can only think of one other movie that I’ve seen Shadix in. He played an emasculated personal assistant in Demolition Man, and again is one of the highlights of the movie. According to Shadix’s official website, he will be playing an ape in Burton’s “reimagining” of the sci-fi classic Planet Of The Apes, currently filming and scheduled for release July 27, 2000.
Part of the appeal of Beetlejuice is its low-rent aura. Only $1 million of its $13 million budget went to effects. That worked in Burton’s favor, because he wanted the effects to be reminiscent of the campy movies of the 1950s and ’60s he had watched as a child. According to Burton, they have a human, handmade quality to them. Many of the effects were accomplished with stop-motion animation, a favorite of Burton’s that he had used with his first short, Vincent, and in two sequences in his first feature, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. The jerky effects give the movie charm that the polished computer graphics of today’s blockbusters can never match.
As I’m writing this, I am listening to Danny Elfman’s score for Beetlejuice. Elfman has scored all of Burton’s full-length films (with the exception of Ed Wood). The two are on a very similar creative wavelength. Burton’s images and Elfman’s music are married together in a way that I do not think has ever been equaled. The only director/composer duo I can think of that even compares is Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann composed the music for seven of Hitchcock’s films, including the indelible music to Psycho. For Beetlejuice, Elfman composed a theme filled with manic energy. Simultaneously it conjures up visions of an insane circus and the menace of the afterlife. Right away it establishes the tone for the film. No sooner has Elfman given us a taste of what is in store, he abruptly switches gears for the Maitlands’ theme. It is peppy, but not too peppy, giving us a sense of their controlled lifestyle and tediousness — this is the couple who is spending their vacation refinished furniture and wallpapering the guest room. Boooor-ring. That progresses into the next leitmotif, the suave violin tango that serves as Beetlejuice‘s theme. It is easily my favorite of Elfman’s scores. In “Burton on Burton,” a collection of interviews with Burton (natch), he remarks that the studio did several test screening of the film, some with and some without the score. Audiences who saw the film with the score gave it significantly better marks than those who saw it sans music.
So, how does Beetlejuice fare on DVD? It was a very early Warner Bros. release, way back in 1997. The only regard in which it does not pass the test of time is the lack of extras. The film is presented in full-frame and 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, on opposite sides of the disc. The movie comes alive on DVD. The rich image is nearly defect-free, with deep blacks and accurate, energetic colors. Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, remixed from its theatrical stereo presentation. The soundstage still retains much of that stereo quality, with most effects relegated to the front of the listening area and only the score penetrating to the rear channels. The disc only contains a pair of extras. The first — try to contain your excitement — is the theatrical trailer. The second is much more stimulating: an isolated track of Elfman’s amazing score. It’s an extra that I wish every DVD manufacturer would include, especially when Danny Elfman composes the music.
Normally, I’m rather reluctant to recommend a disc that’s this old. Unfortunately, it’s rather unlikely that Warner Bros. will re-release it. They’ve all but refused to produce new versions of Burton’s Batman films, and if they’re not going to revisit movies that grossed $251 million (Batman) and $163 million (Batman Returns), what makes you think they’re going to revisit Beetlejuice which made a “paltry” $73 million? The video and audio holds up nicely, but the movie begs a wealth of supplements and a Tim Burton commentary track.
No self-respecting Tim Burton fan cannot do without Beetlejuice in their library. It’s also a must-have for anyone who values screwball antics and dark humor.
I usually like to use the Closing Statement to include trivia and anecdotes that don’t fit elsewhere. This review is no exception.
I can’t confirm this anywhere, but Beetlejuice is one of two films that I know of that have the family-friendly PG rating and also include a use of the “f-word.” The other is Tom Hanks’ Big, which was also released in 1988. I also can’t confirm this, but I have heard that some of the VHS copies of Beetlejuice edit out the “offending” line, “Nice f***ing model!” I can assure you that the DVD is uncensored.
In their Hollywood-studio wisdom, Warner Bros. wanted to change the title to House Ghosts. Burton counter-offered the title Scared Sheetless. Fortunately, they stuck with the best moniker.
I’m not sure where Beetlejuice falls on my list of Favorite Tim Burton Movies. It’s probably in the middle of the list, behind Mars Attacks!, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Batman Returns, but a spectral nose ahead of Edward Scissorhands.
I’ve included a link at right to The Tim Burton Collective. It’s not just any Tim Burton fan site…it’s my Tim Burton fan site! I have a few reviews of Beetlejuice from various newspapers posted there, along with over thirty screen grabs from the DVD. It’s worth checking out, if I don’t say so myself.