Tuesday, October 10, 2017


Directed by Tim Burton.
1988. Rated PG, 92 minutes.
Michael Keaton
Winona Ryder
Geena Davis
Alec Baldwin
Catherine O'Hara
Jeffrey Jones
Glenn Shadix
Sylvia Sidney
Robert Goulet
Dick Cavett

As the old saying goes, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.  It's loaded with all sorts of socio-political baggage, especially in 2017. However, it also applies to much more benign fare such as Beetlejuice, an oddball of a film generally considered among the very best director Tim Burton has ever made. It's a movie that plays with our notions of who the good and bad guys are in a given situation. However, in the end, it's not about that at all. It's about the same thing as most Burton films - recognizing the beauty in being delightfully odd and being accepted by the supposedly normal without compromising yourself. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Let's start at the beginning. We kick things off with the death of our main characters, Barbara (Davis) and Adam (Baldwin) Maitland due to a car accident. Generally, when movies begin this way the next scene takes us back to a time before the fatal moment so we can watch the events that lead up to it unfold. That doesn't happen here. Instead, we join our heroes immediately after they die. Yup, after. They return home and shortly realize that they indeed kicked the bucket. When the home they once lived in, but now merely inhabit, is sold, they are none too pleased and go about the business of scaring off the new owners, the Deetz family. They are particularly trying to get rid of matriarch Delia (O'Hara), whom they ironically find frightful. Her hubby Charles (Jones) is a bit of a dolt while daughter Lydia (Ryder) is herself an outcast. Unfortunately for the Maitlands, they're new to this ghost-thing and have no luck terrifying the Deetzes. This leads to the Maitlands hiring another ghost, the much-maligned and obnoxious Betelgeuse (pronounced "Beetlejuice" and played by Michael Keaton) to get rid of them. His madness is unleashed whenever someone says his name three times. Not surprisingly, people do, then hijinks and shenanigans ensue.

As I said in the opening paragraph, the film toys with our ideas of heroes and villains. In this case, the ghosts doing the haunting are the good guys. The living are the threat. They're encroaching on the territory rightfully belonging to Barbara and Adam. Or, at least they rightfully own it when viewed through the prism of this film. However, this is merely the start of Burton's inversions of our expectations. As ghosts still roaming the Earth, the Maitlands, and all those like them whom they encounter, are inherently gothic. So, too, is young Lydia. For Burton, that seems to mean presenting yourself to the world in a certain way while viewing the "normal" people who occupy it as shallow pool of assimilated beings who simply don't get it. The journey all the characters take is one that starts as strictly territorial, but becomes not about carving out your own space, but finding common ground. This brings up two questions. The first is whether the "others" can do so without losing what makes them unique. Second, can the "normal" folk appreciate and accept this? To help us answer these questions, the film uses Lydia, the one person who appears to have a foot in both worlds. As mentioned, she's considered an oddball, complete with the look and attitude of someone who is into Timothy Burton. She is also the only person who can see Barbara and Adam. Her story is a microcosm of the movie as a whole.

Without wasting much effort, a then 16 or 17 year old Winona Ryder (depending on when filming took place) is perfectly comfortable as a girl who doesn't hate her parents, but recognizes the limits of their reality and unwillingness to stretch them. In that way, she is clearly Burton's avatar and, by extension, ours. And she is perfect in the role. In later years and films, one-time wife Helena Bonham Carter was a perfect fit for every Burton movie as she seems to embody his ideal woman, at least in a cinematic sense. In these early films, Ryder represents that woman during her formative years.

Of course, Ryder doesn't carry this film on her own. Just about everyone in the cast is wonderful. Catherine O'Hara's domineering ice-queen routine gives us an antagonist we can hate. Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin have an easy chemistry that makes their scenes together enjoyable. However, any mention of the performances in this film would be incomplete without discussing the turn by Michael Keaton in the titular role. I haven't mentioned him much to this point because, truth told, he's a secondary character. The film also goes off the rails whenever he appears. He often halts the progression of the plot by going off on tangents. Thankfully, these are wild, imaginative jaunts fueled by Keaton at his most manic. He simply dominates the screen whenever he shows up. Often, it almost seems like he's the only person on it. So iconic is Keaton, he walks off toting the entire movie underneath his arm, leaving people misremembering his character as the focal point. He's not, yet the movie is his.

Aiding Keaton are some fun and comically ghastly visuals. To describe some of the things that appear on the screen would be to describe things you might never want to see. On the other hand, the physical manifestations of these things are fun sights the movie couldn't do without. Some of those sights have aged poorly due to the passage of time and advancement of technology. However, even this is salvageable as the dated visuals combine with all the silliness to add to its already considerable charm. All of this is further enhanced by the morbid, but ultimately harmless, sense of humor running through the entire production. It adds up to the most unique, and fun, haunted house movie I've ever come across. My own personal shame is that I'm only just coming across it. Given my age, and fondness for Burton as an auteur, I should have seen this movie a dozen times by now. It certainly won't be that long before I see it again. In fact, right about now seems like a good time. And I don't even have to press play. "Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice..."

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  1. Great review! I really enjoyed this movie. Michael Keaton was memorable in this one.

  2. Absolutely. Keaton casts a huge shadow over this film by the force of his personality and the manic glee of his performance, and yet, as you say, he's not in it much. In that respect, it reminds me of the Hammer Horror of Dracula with Christopher Lee in the title role. He's barely in the movie for huge parts of it and doesn't say a word much past the first half hour, and yet he casts a huge shadow over the whole production. A more modern example might be Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. Everyone remembers Hopkins as being the focus of the film, yet he's onscreen for fewer than 25 minutes. A lot of people forget that the movie is focused on Ted Levine's character. How strange is it that Levine gives such a career performance that seems to be completely forgotten because Hopkins casts such a long shadow over the proceedings? A non-horror version might be Alec Baldwin's eight minutes in Glengarry Glen Ross.

    Spot on observation--I never made that connection with Beetlejuice, but you're absolutely right.

    1. Thanks. All of those characters are very apt comparisons. Another good one is Robert DeNiro as Al Capone in The Untouchables.

  3. This is still my favorite Tim Burton film. I just love everything about it. Mostly Michael Keaton's performance as I just love how he's properly introduced and he just owned the screen from then on. "YOU BUNCH OF LOSERS! YOU'RE WORKING WITH A PROFESSIONAL HERE! NICE FUCKIN' MODEL!!!!!" It was my favorite film when I was 7-8 years old and it's still one of my all-time favorites. Every time I hear Harry Belafonte, I think of Beetlejuice.

  4. Love Keaton in this. Nice to see him back.

    1. He has been on quite the roll over the last few years.

  5. "morbid, but ultimately harmless, sense of humor" ha, well-put! It's oddball and over the top, and that's part of its charm. The sets and sfx are imaginative, and I like the original idea of ghosts learning the ropes.

    1. Yes! The entire thing is original and imaginative.

  6. I love this movie and you captured so much in your review. Michael Keaton is great and so is Winona. I love Catherine O'Hara who plays her role so over the top. The dinner scene with Belafonte's song playing is my favourite but another fav is seeing Sylvia Sidney as the old lady helping out the new ghosts. She died of the same thing her character died of in this movie...sad actually.

    1. Thanks! The movie gave me a whole lot to work with. Didn't know that about Sylvia Sidney. That IS sad.