My parents weren’t big movie people. There were a handful of movies that were staples of my childhood, that we owned on VHS or taped from HBO. Ghostbusters, The Terminator, the motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday, a bunch of the animated Disney films. And then there was Beetlejuice, which would have been released around the time I started to be able to make permanent memories.
I’ve seen Beetlejuice so many times as a kid without the vaguest understanding of what it was, that when watching it as a grownup I have to consciously notice certain details. And if I pay close enough attention I can sort of step back from my own familiarity with the movie and imagine what fresh eyes would see in it. And I now realize all these years later that what I was taking for granted as a cultural staple is a weird, weird movie that absolutely should not have been greenlit as a major release on any known studio model.
This was only Tim Burton’s second feature, after Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and a number of shorts prior to that. Which means this is actually the first “Tim Burton movie”. This is where a lot of his signature elements were first seen by a wide audience: black and white stripes, askew architecture, a lively and colorful afterlife, an oompa oompa Danny Elfman score… And the plot! Two country bumpkins in a big rural house in Connecticut die in a car accident, and have to learn how to be proper ghosts. But when a family of New York hipsters move in they turn to an unpredictable “bio-exorcist” named Beetlejuice for help. It’s totally bonkers (and totally awesome), but how does a relatively unproven director land the resources for this kind of movie and retain his particular vision?
I think my favorite part about Beetlejuice is the world of the afterlife they’ve built. It’s a universe distinct but parallel to our own, with its own systems and rules and even bureaucracy, some of which is stated explicitly, others hinted at. Every new ghost is given a copy of The Handbook for the Recently Deceased (by The Handbook for the Recently Deceased Press), an overworked case worker, and 125 years to haunt whatever location they call home.
I love the design of the afterlife service center. Like a hospital waiting room that’s been Burtonized with colorful light and crowded with ghosts showing the visible signs of their own means of death (“it’s all very personal”). There’s a great ironic juxtaposition when early in the film Alec Baldwin’s Adam Maitland says “Honey, we’re dead. I don’t think we have very much to worry about anymore.” And later in the film their own case worker, Juno, screams about having too much paperwork to do. Even in death, there’s no escaping menial labor.
Of course, the elephant in the room here is Beetlejuice himself. Michael Keaton’s performance nearly singlehandedly outshines the introduction of the entire Tim Burton aesthetic with its energy. It’s a performance so manic, unpredictable and physical that it has that “can’t take your eyes off it” effect so coveted by actors. That Keaton would play the stoic Bruce Wayne two years later is proof enough of his versatility.
Each and every member of the ensemble knocks it out of the park though. Winona Ryder at her gothic best. Geena Davis’ matronly, reluctant spook. Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones as the hilariously mismatched Deetzes and their pretentious tagalong Otho… I’d love to rave about all of them, but I won’t.
Honestly, the real star is Burton himself. He was simply firing on all cylinders here. Edward Scissorhands is a beautiful film, and possibly the most classically Burton-esque, but I think Beetlejuice is still his best work overall. It is by turn hilarious, gross, romantic, tragic, sweet, and just plain weird (where the hell did the Harry Belafonte stuff come from?) Currently it’s only available in a fairly bare bones “20th Anniversary Edition” DVD or Blu-ray, and it’s absolutely begging for a re-release packed with extras. They’ve got my money whenever it happens. Perhaps for the 30th Anniversary in a couple years?
Of course, being a popular original property from the past, rumors of a Beetlejuice 2 have been persistent for the past decade or so. Like Ghostbusters before it, the director and cast members are constantly being interrogated about it, prompting all kinds of responses pertaining to the alleged progress towards getting the sequel made. As of this writing, it looks to be dead again, and I hope it stays that way. It would be impossible to recreate the magic of Beetlejuice a second time.