Beetlejuice

Beetlejuice

For me, this Tim Burton flick from 1988 is one of the best films of the era, as well as one of my all time favorite personal films. It's the first time Michael

Keaton, who plays Betelgeuse, teamed with Tim Burton the director. This was only the second feature film Burton directed; Pee-wee's Big Adventure was the first. The plot is scant; a husband and wife, Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alan Baldwin and Geena Davis) are living in a traditional New England house in Connecticut; a house they love so much they're spending their vacation at home working on their house. Unfortunately, there's an accident, and they end up as ghosts, relegated to living in the attic of their own house. The Deetz family moves in from New York; the father is a condo developer on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The step-mother, Delia Deetz, is an artist of the early pomo school, the kind of artists who says "This is my art and it is dangerous." They have a fourteen year old proto-Goth daughter Lydia, played beautifully by Winona Ryder.

The plot, such as it is, is about the efforts of the Maitlands to haunt their former house to the extent that it scares away the Deetzes; Betelgeuse, also dead, describes himself as a "Bio Exorcist." He implies that he can help get rid of the Deetzes, though of course, he has his own agenda. I'm not going to indulge in plot summary. This film has been shown so very frequently on television, and is available in DVD, that it would be pointless. Instead, I want to note that in some ways this film is archetypal. It's too often dismissed, even by Burton, as a collection of sight-gags and one-liners, but it's much more than that.

Notice, for instance, the special effects; for the time and they techniques used (blue screen and stop-motion) they were amazing, affordable (under 1 million out of a 13 mil budget) and not just sight gags; the sand-worms, for instance and references to Mars are sly digs at the 1984 Dune movie. Theater audiences gasped whenever one of the ghosts transformed. Notice too that Lydia really is sort of an ur-Goth, before they were really part of mainstream media. There's a sly commentary on pomo art, and on faux art pretentiousness via the characters of Otho Fenlock and Delia Deetz. The infectious soundtrack, in part a collection of Harry Belafonte songs, resulted in a resurgence in Belafonte's backlist (Danny Elfman is responsible for the score). Michael Keaton's over-the-top performance as Betelgeuse led directly to his role as in Branagh's 1993 Much Ado About Nothing.

The film is funny; genuinely funny, at a deeper level than the copious one-liners and sight-gags, but it's also extraordinarily sweet and human; there's a scene where Lydia decides to write a suicide note, and her emo-edits are both heart-breakingly realistically adolescent, and funny, but the scene is raised to a different level when Barbara Maitland makes it very clear that the afterlife isn't what Lydia thinks it is. If you haven't seen the film a while, or your kids haven't seen Beetlejuice, consider a second look; this film deserves it.