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Tired of morose ghost stories where children see dead people? Or how about the old gag that keeps coming back, where the heroes turn out to be ghosts and the ghosts the real people? Beetlejuice is the second hit feature from the endlessly inventive Tim Burton and the movie that confirmed him as a talent to be reckoned with. A Cal Arts animation student with a charmed career, Burton shifted from the kooky world of Pee-Wee Herman directly to his own goth-lite vibe, a sensibility that toys with morbid ideas yet is endearingly romantic and life-affirming. Blessed with a likeable, talented cast, Beetlejuice gave Michael Keaton a defining role and launched the career of Winona Ryder.
"Fun" Halloween movies more often than not fall flat on their faces; I'd say that Beetlejuice is the best in forty years, since Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The straightforward script by Michael McDowell (The Nightmare Before Christmas) and Warren Skaaren (Batman '89) posits Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin & Geena Davis) as the cute owners of a hilltop house in New England, who run afoul of "life-continuance issues." As ghosts in the next world, they fail to absorb the wisdom in a thoughtfully provided Guidebook for the Dead, and are horrified when a New York family moves in and begins remodeling their happy home. Charles (Jeffrey Jones) is a financial adviser taking a break from the strain. His wife Delia (Catherine O'Hara), an artist hungry for recognition, insists on turning the house into an avant-garde eyesore. Daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder) dresses in widow's black and luxuriates in morbid thoughts. The Maitlands make contact with Lydia, who is delighted until her parents attempt to co-opt the ghostly tenants as a moneymaking status symbol (this is the 1980s, after all). But Adam and Barbara have troubles too. Frustrated by the red tape they find in the afterlife -- pictured as a welfare office manned by the acerbic Juno (Sylvia Sydney) -- the Maitlands are so keen to evict the new owners that they summon the services of the demon Betelgeuse, aka Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton), an obscene, unkempt imp who bills himself as a "bio-exorcist" -- a Ghostbuster in reverse.
Filmmaker Tim Burton may work within a limited range of themes, but in his personal playroom there's nobody better. Beetlejuice is crammed with visual invention and whimsical allusions. The Maitlands' moment of crisis on a New England-style covered bridge is a lampoon of a Norman Rockwell "human interest" painting, complete with a "cute" dog. Delia is obsessed with annoyingly aggressive modern artworks. When possessed by spirits, one of her sculptures crawls like the brain-things in Fiend Without a Face and another engulfs Delia like an Iron Maiden (one of umpteen recurring motifs in Burton films). Charles' attempt to relax through bird watching results in an hilariously black comedy throwaway gag worthy of Charles Addams.
The pushy small town real estate agent (Annie McEnroe) balances the script's New York snobs, played by Robert Goulet and Dick Cavett. In his best film appearance, Cavett dismisses poor Delia as a consummate flake. Burton uses the gathering to pull off an uproarious musical number, using Harry Belafonte music to great effect. Glenn Shadix's conniving art hustler Otho is forced to dance along to the calypso beat. As the ultimate humiliation, Beetlejuice throws Otho into a brightly colored leisure suit. Otho's reaction proves that horror is where one finds it.
The over-the-top Michael Keaton figures in only about of the third of the show, which is perfect judgment. Beetlejuice rattles on like Robin Williams, eats bugs and tries out the raunchier jokes. Running his bio-exorcism racket like a used car lot, Beetlejuice hangs out at the brothel in Adam's miniature model of the town; to scare the humans he turns into a manic phantasmagoria of illusions. The character was such a success, it was incorporated into a theme show for the Universal Tour. 1
Winona Ryder is the first live-action representative of Burton's ideal introvert's girlfriend, initially represented as a portrait of the "Lost Lenore" in his animated short Vincent. Since then Burton's dream girls, from the Corpse Bride to Helena Bonham Carter in Sweeney Todd have all had tiny chins and soulful eyes ... hmm ... Burton's ego-surrogate Johnny Depp follows the same pattern. Like Natalie Portman in Mars Attacks!, Lydia suffers in the shadow of overbearing parents but blooms when confronted by real adventure -- in this case her friendship with the dead. Even in the afterlife, the Maitlands continue to be caring individuals. This makes Beetlejuice less of a horror spoof than a charming addition to the ranks of Films Blanc.
Tim Burton's arts 'n' crafts visual sense invests Beetlejuice with several arresting stylized environments. The yuppie heaven of the Maitland home gives way to Delia's Manhattan tastes. The attic has Alec's hobby world, the miniature map of the town. A hole in a brick wall leads to the expressionist bureaucracy of Juno's welfare office, where an ordinary janitor mops the floors of Caligari-like corridors. Beetlejuice can slip between dimensions as long as he's given a verbal passport, like Rumplestiltskin. Seen first in cheesy advertisements, Beetlejuice can inhabit Alec's miniature as well as perform fantastic transformations. He appears as a gaudy carousel and as a giant demon-snake (courtesy of stop-motion animator Ted Rae). Turning the comedy to a darker tone, Beetlejuice resurrects Alec and Barbara as Dia de los muertos wedding ghouls. He summons a toad-like preacher from hell for his marriage to the dazed Lydia -- who finds herself outfitted in a scarlet wedding dress. All of this great fun is at the expense of Fritz Lang, The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby, with free public service messages thrown in about smoking and Ecuadorian headshrinkers. In the spirit of playfulness, Burton leaves us with a literally uplifting calypso coda. Lydia spoke idly of suicide, but her happy times with the dead have helped her to enjoy life all the more.
Warners' DVD of Tim Burton's nearly perfect Beetlejuice was a knockout even on fuzzy VHS. It really takes off in the clarity of Blu-ray, which enhances all of the visuals -- the 'pretty as a picture' exteriors, the ghostly world beyond the brick wall and the insane cartoon limbo Alec and Barbara encounter when they try to leave their appointed house-of-haunting. Danny Elfman's quirky music incorporates bits of Harry Belafonte into the track ... after the release of this film his calypso classics enjoyed an upturn in sales. Belafonte's Jump in the Line song is as infectious a dance tune as was ever recorded. 2
The lack of extras for this Beetlejuice 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition can only be because Tim Burton is simply too busy to get involved; there's really not much here. Danny Elfman fans get the best shake, with an isolated music track (in 5.1) and a separate sampler CD containing several of his tracks and Harry Belafonte's Banana Boat Song. Beyond the superlative original trailer, Warners has added three episodes from the Beetlejuice Animated TV Series. The show may have its dedicated fans but didn't tickle this viewer. 3
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Beetlejuice Blu-ray rates:
1. I haven't seen Beetlejuice in a long time, and it clears up a question about Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!: Jack Nicholson's second character Art Land (not the President) is clearly based on Keaton's Beetlejuice characterization, right down to the raspy voice and pelvic gyrations. Burton and Nicholson must have been hard pressed to find something that would work; I love Mars Attacks! but the Art Land character is its least funny joke.
3. When I wanted to show my little kids Beetlejuice, I just exited my old WHV laserdisc a few seconds before the end of Side 1, to pre-empt Michael Keaton's one use of the F-word. I also plead guilty (or responsible) to editing out some of the raunchier moments from Ghostbusters, to make it suitable to my 6 & 7 year-olds inundated with toys marketed for the film. And I don't live in Salt Lake City.
I was interested to find that Ghostbusters was originally rated PG. A VHS I had in the 1980s must have been in error, because it definitely bore an "R" MPAA tag.
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