“I’m the ghost with the most, babe.” – Betelgeuse
After the box office success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Tim Burton was hailed as the new ‘it’ director, a bankable and successful prospect. Armed with this newfound power, Burton began working on the script for what would become one of the biggest movies of the 1980’s, Batman, but with Warner Bros. unwilling to greenlight the project past the script development stage, Burton had time to direct a comedic gem which takes a look at the afterlife.
Barbara and Adam Maitland (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) are a happily married couple who spend their spare time decorating their New England country getaway. Life couldn’t get any better for them until one rainy night they swerve to miss a dog on a bridge and end up in the river and a watery death.
Unaware of their new situation the pair return home and slowly realise they are, in fact, dead, a fact which is confirmed when they come across the Handbook For The Recently Deceased which has been left for them. Still reeling with shock from the news of their demise, Adam attempts to leave the house to retrace their steps, only to enter a strange dimension which is covered with sand and populated with scary human-eating sand worms.
Things go from bad to worse when their home is sold to yuppies Charles and Delia Deetz (Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O’Hara) who turn their cosy house into a piece of modern art. Accompanying them is Charles’ daughter from his first marriage, Lydia (Winona Ryder), a teenage goth who hates everything and everyone, until she befriends the Maitlands.
After unsuccessfully trying to scare the Deetzes out of the house, the couple, against the advice of their afterlife social worker Juno, summon up bio-exorcist Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton) to do the job for them, unaware that his real motive is to marry Lydia and re-enter the world of the living.
Following a terrifying dinner party, Betelgeuse uses the Maitland’s as leverage to force Lydia to marry him, but just as the marriage ceremony is about to end, the third utterance of his name sends him back into the afterlife.
After their close encounter with Betelgeuse, the Maitland’s and Deetzes agree to live together in harmony while Betelgeuse is left in the afterlife reception waiting room, meeting his match with a witch doctor who has a skill for shrinking heads.
Showing what would be the start of his signature style, Burton delivers on so many levels with this wonderful movie.
First off is the unique and funny story presenting the afterlife as not so much walking into the light but more as life as you knew it, without you in it. I also especially like the portrayal of the afterlife as being run in a bureaucratic way; even in death there is no way to escape it and the fact they have a social worker attached to their case is just so perfect it really does make you feel like you are in that world and you are understanding things as the Maitland’s are.
Although there is a ghostly haunted house element to this movie, it is slightly twisted on its head. Whereas normally you are on the side of the people being haunted, this time you are on the side of the ghosts, who you actually want to get their house back and force out the yuppies who bulldozed over their life dreams.
The effects in the movie itself are fantastic and hold up well as the years pass. The use of stop-motion, replacement animation, prosthetics and puppetry enhance the movie in a way that CGI today just still, in my opinion, hasn’t been able to capture. The whole thing feels very organic and flows in such a way that you can easily get caught up in it.
If I had to pick a favourite scene, I would have to opt for the dinner party when Betelgeuse really starts to cause havoc and mayhem, although the very final scene between him and the witch doctor always gets a hearty chuckle out of me.
Davis and Baldwin work well together as the likeable dead couple as do Jones and O’Hara as the hideous yuppies who invade their home. Ryder is just depressing enough as goth Lydia and shows all of the promise of a star in the making. Of course, it is the title character of the piece that really steals the show.
Although not in the movie as much as you would believe, Michael Keaton is amazing as the out of this world Betelgeuse. Each time he is on screen it’s like a slap in the face. You are completely drawn to him and he embodies the character so well you are, in fact, hard pressed to realise that Keaton is actually in there. He is manic, explosive, scary and funny all rolled into one, a stretch for any actor to play, but Keaton makes it work and you look forward to every second he is on the screen.
Burton’s style seeps though this movie making it candy for the eyes. Again, the use of an array of technical practices gives the movie flesh and bones and the actual look of Betelgeuse himself could only really come from Burton and his team: the black and white stripy suit, the green unruly hair. It is as if you have been dragged into this amazing fairytale world which just keeps on expanding in so many different and surreal ways.
Loved by audiences and critics, Beetlejuice was another hit under Burton’s belt and was the hit Warner Bros. needed to hand him the keys to one of their biggest brands. Next time I’ll be re-visiting the movie that really kickstarted the return of the superhero to the big screen, Batman.
Beetlejuice Key Info:Released: 30th March 1988 (US) / 19th August 1988 (UK)Distributed By: The Geffen Company/Warner BrosBudget: $13,000,000Box Office Gross: $73,707,461Best DVD Edition: Beetlejuice 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition