(1988) director Tim Burton
Going back to the late 1980’s, Beetlejuice was a favorite film of mine. It turned me on to both Tim Burton and Winona Ryder. I watched it numerous times back then, reveling in the lively comedy, cool designs, and the lovely pale-skinned, dark-eyed teen beauty. Its mixture of black comedy and strange fantasy was revelatory and I really enjoyed Burton’s designs and cartoons from which the characters, the dead ones, evolved.
In my varying range of films to watch with the kids, I was looking for a change-up, and like a flash, it struck me that this film might be quite good for them. And besides, it had been years since I had last seen it.
Coming on the heels of Burton’s first feature film, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Beetlejuice was an original story concept, with some very inventive characters (Beetlejuice, Michael Keaton, the liveliest of all), it showed a kind of promise that belied the direction of Burton’s career.
The characters are terrific, deftly sketched, quite often pitch perfect, beyond Keaton and Ryder, Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O’Hara are hysterical as Lydia’s (Ryder) parents, the nebbish and high-strung dad and the delusional, shallow step-mother and great. O’Hara may never have been better. Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin are very charming as the small-town couple whose happy home is invaded by the tactless, tasteless Deetzes. And Glenn Shadix as Otho, Silvia Sidney as their caseworker Juno, and Dick Cavett and Robert Goulet as pompous New York snobs, the whole group is pretty terrific. It was one of Ryder’s most effective roles; she was in her element as a teenager.
The story of how Baldwin and Davis wind up dead, returned as ghosts to their small town home, which is invaded by the Deetzes and their dealings with the afterlife is all strange, tweaky funny stuff. Apparently, the film started as something much darker and creepier, but it plays well as a family-friendly romp. When Baldwin and Davis discover the “bio-exorcist” Beetlejuice, the most crass, offensive, madcap “ghost with the most”, all heck breaks loose.
This time around, I found much of the dialog to be surprisingly snappy, sharp and very funny, tuning in to the characters and performances with far more panache that Burton is known for usually. The kids really enjoyed it. Clara said she wanted to watch it again, right after it was over.
Burton has been an interesting yet frustrating director for me, perhaps because of his early promise and his failure to grow and blossom. He’s still a big name in Hollywood, bigger perhaps than he would have imagined back in 1988. But really, outside of Ed Wood (1994), Beetlejuice may be his best film. That said, the kids have virtually no memory of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and when considering re-queueing it, thoughts of Mars Attacks! (1996) or either of his Batman films has suddenly seemed like another trope that the kids might enjoy.
Keaton’s performance is so manic, so bizarre and hilarious, I find myself still humming his Beetlejuice jingle:
“I’ll eat anything you want me to eat,
I’ll swaller anything you want me to swaller,
Give me a call,
I’ll chew on a dog!”
Pretty damn good.