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Beetlejuice (1988)


Let’s face it – being dead can really suck. The living can’t see or hear you, no matter how hard you try, which is annoying because a family thereof has just movied into your house an renovated it beyond all recognition. The afterlife is no help because the Netherworld is an endless desert populated with sandworms, and your only hope of moving on is through a process of soul-crushing bureaucracy, and in any case you’re not ready to go on to your final reward. It almost makes you want to summon up that “bio-exorcist” who’s been advertising himself on TV…

Beetlejuice is a horror-comedy directed by Tim Burton and featuring a soundtrack by Danny Elfman, with contrbutions from Harry Belafonte. It stars Michael “Batman” Keaton, Alec “The Shadow” Baldwin, Geena “The Long Kiss Goodnight” Davis, Winona “Girl, Interrupted” Ryder, Catherine “Home Alone” O’Hara, Jeffrey “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” Jones, Sylvia “Mars Attacks!” Sidney, and Glenn “Demolition Man” Shadix.

Adam (Baldwin) and Barbara (Davis) Maitland were going to spend their vacation redecorating their country home, but these plans are derailed when they are both killed in a car accident. Returning to their house in spirit form, the notice that they have no reflection in the mirror, and a strange tome has appeared, The Handbook for the Recently Deceased which confirms their fears that they are dead. When Adam tries to leave their house, he finds himself in a bizarre, alien desert populated by huge sandworms, driving him back inside. So. They’re dead, and trapped in their own house. Great.

Complications arise when their home is sold to an obnoxious family from New York, the Deetzes, who transform the Maitlands’ county haven into a gaudy horror of modern art. The Maitlands seek help from their afterlife caseworker Juno (Sidney), who tells them that they are bound to their house for 125 years, and if they want the intruders to leave, they will have to scare them away. Problem: the living intruders can’t even see the ghosts trying to haunt them, except for their Goth daughter Lydia (Ryder), and an attempt to scare them away with an induced performance of “Day-O” during a dinner party (my favorite part) only makes the Deetzes want to stay and meet their hip dead neighbors. In desperation, and against the advice of Juno, they summon up self-styled bio-exorcist Beetlejuice (Keaton) to exorcise their house of the living, never realizing how much trouble they’ve just bought for themselves…

Beetlejuice was my first taste of Tim Burton, and I was pleasantly surprised by what I would soon come to recognize as his trademark quirky style of direction. His vision of the afterlife as mind-numbing drudgery similar to an unemployment office was a nice change from the fire-and-brimstone hells or angels-and-clouds heavens. The afterlife was just like the land of the living, two degrees off center, sprinkled with enough dark humor to have you giggling at the ghosts of people who clearly died from everything ranging from getting run over by a truck to a botched magic trick to falling asleep while smoking in bed. Beetlejuice’s introduction to the afterlife was less clear, but I suspected he was just a freelance poltergeist.

The makeup and other effects were well-done for the day, merrily portraying things like Barbara ripping off her face whilst hanging in a closet, a flattened road pizza of a ghost, the Maitlands transforming themselves into frightening apparitions, or huge stop-motion sandworms the size of a train rearing up in an otherworldly landscape. The stop-motion is dated now, of course, and could be done more smoothly with CGI today, but it doesn’t detract from the overall story too much.

If you want a quirky story about coping in the afterlife and a look at some of Tim Burton’s early work, I recommend picking up this older classic. It isn’t for everyone, but fans with a dark sense of humor will enjoy themselves throughout.

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