Friday, October 28, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Beetlejuice (1988)

Tim Burton's Beetlejuice (1988) remains a  perfect Halloween treat, a movie by turns ghoulish, garish, goofy, and giggle-provoking. 

The 1988 film was a huge box office hit when originally released theatrically, a fact which enabled Burton to assume directing duties on his blockbuster, Batman (1989). 

The comedy also spawned a 1989 animated series named after its titular character, a "bio-exorcist" played in the film by an over-the-top Michael Keaton. 

Today, progress is apparently being made towards a long-awaited sequel.

Never scary or frightening in the traditional sense, Beetlejuice plays throughout its duration like a cartoon come to vivid, three-dimensional life. Critic Roger Ebert didn't care for the film much (he felt it was gimmicky, like a TV sitcom) yet nonetheless cannily observed the overriding aesthetic as "cartoon surrealistic." 

Frankly, you can't describe the movie in better or more accurate terms than that.  Beetlejuice is both exaggerated in nature (like a cartoon) and utterly bizarre (hence surreal), a dazzling conjunction of the real and the fantastic. 

The masterful if deliberately quirky visuals are macabre indeed -- from shrunken heads to giant sandworms --yet this Burton movie doesn't play such brawny imagery for the inherent chill factor. 

Instead, as is often the case in the filmmaker's distinctive canon, the audience feels if though it has wandered into the fully-realized (and extremely personal) fantasy world of a highly-imaginative artist; one with a dark side, but also boasting a pronounced sense of, well...whimsy.

In terms of the particulars of the Burton Brief, we're back once more to the notion of outsiders bonding together to form a family of sorts, a quality we've already witnessed in Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1985) and Ed Wood (1994).  Here, a couple of innocent (and child-less) ghosts played by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin end up the "spiritual" parents of an isolated, vulnerable, goth girl, Winona Ryder's Lydia. 

Uniquely, this relationship is depicted as wholly symmetrical: Barb and Adam Maitland appear to learn as much from the young woman as she gleans from her experience with them.  It's a nice, folksy aesthetic, especially considering what the protagonists are up against in the scheme of things.

And what are they up against? 

Well, the protagonists and their latent misfit-ism run smack dab against two very negative characteristics of  real life: exploitative, avaricious people on one hand and an uncaring and byzantine bureaucracy on the other.  In particular, Lydia's Dad (Jeffrey Jones) and step-mom (Catherine O'Hara), the Deetzs -- much like Beetlejuice (Keaton) himself -- view the Maitlands as exploitable resources; tickets to personal satisfaction, embodied by wealth or celebrity. 

And in the halls of the Afterlife, the Maitlands find only hellish levels of barely functional bureaucracy.  The Afterlife is depicted as an endless maze of waiting rooms, foreboding cartoon architecture, "lost souls," and put-upon, uncaring civil servants.  People are encouraged to "take a number" and wait to be helped...forever.

Although Adam tells Barb that as dead people, they have little to worry about, that belief proves patently untrue in short order.  In the Great Beyond -- as in life upon this mortal coil -- success seems to belong to those who seek to leverage "the upper hand" in every situation, to utilize the movie's terminology.

Goofy and fun, Beetlejuice thus makes its case for family -- a social support net -- against the vast canvas of spectral officiousness and mortal narcissism.  An extended tour of the afterlife mid-way through the proceedings permits Burton's unfettered imagination to run wild, and his vision of a bureaucratic Great Beyond plays nicely against the idyllic qualities of the Maitlands' historic house and the pastoral New England environs. 

When Burton's idiosyncratic visual jokes and colorful paint strokes are combined with the movie's creative high concept -- the idea of a haunted house from the ghost's perspective -- Beetlejuice emerges as an inventive treat indeed.

"Maybe you can relax in a haunted house, but I can't."

Beetlejuice depicts the tale of a perfect American life ruined.  Adam and Barb Maitland live in a beautiful old house atop a hill in grassy New England.  But one day, things go awry and the couple dies in a car accident. 

They return to their home as ghosts, only to find there an incomprehensible, indecipherable and impersonal manual to their new existence: The Handbook for the Recently Deceased.

Soon, a new family, the Deetzs, moves into the old Maitland place.  Step-Mom Delia is a self-centered, narcissistic woman, and Dad is too busy conjuring ways to make money to spend time with his daughter, the alienated Lydia. 

Unwilling to share their beloved home with this cosmolitan but dysfunctional family from the city, the Maitlands set out to haunt the Deetzs.  It's not as easy as it sounds, however, and after failing to succeed, the Maitlands take the conceivably dangerous step of "hiring" a manic bio-exorcist named Beetlejuice to complete the job.

Although the Maitland's spectral case-worker, Juno (Sylvia Sidney) urges restraint, the Maitlands bring in Beetlejuice and a difficult situation immediately goes from bad to worse...

"I have a chance to teach you something here. You have got to take the upper hand in all situations or people -- whether they're dead or alive -- will walk all over you."

From a certain perspective, Beetlejuice is a literalization of the idea that the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Specifically, the film depicts three different levels of existence that, despite their differences, share something in common.   To wit, the production showcases life in idealized miniature (in Adam's table-top representation of the nearby town), life in the Maitland's

Beetlejuice -- a Loki-like force of mischief -- shifts constantly from one level of reality to the next, bringing with him chaos, uncertainty and, inevitably, disaster.  After he's through with them, not one of these levels of existence is safe or unchanged.

In whatever manner these three levels of existence (tabletop miniature, mortal life, and the afterlife) seem to differ from one another on a superficial nature, the more they are revealed to be precisely the same.  At various points, all three "fields" prove prisons for Adam and Barb, for instance. 

In all three levels, there are also rules to obey and follow (and if necessary, to manipulate).  That seems to be the point.  "Why don't they tell us something?" Barb asks at one point, frustrated.  "I mean, where are all the other dead people in the world? Why is it just you and me?"  In other words, the rules in any level of reality are not always clear. 

Commendably, the film's opening shot -- a pan up the hill to the Maitland's house -- reveals this quality on a visual level.  As the shot commences, we assume we are looking at a real landscape (and a real aerial shot...) only to recognize later that we are actually gazing at Adam's miniature world.  Full realization of this fact comes as a spider -- apparently a giant -- crawls over the model of the Maitland home.

Extrapolating from that tricky opening shot and the three levels of existence portrayed throughout the film,  Beetlejuice might be said to concern the ways that people navigate uncaring or at least difficult social systems.  People are either part of the establishment (like Juno), or work against the system (like Beetlejuice), taking advantage of its size and flaws. 

In between these poles are the regular people -- the Maitlands -- for whom the system does not always work. And yet they do not wish to entirely destroy the system, either.  More than anything, the Maitlands seem like good people trying to...understand a complicated tax code

They want to do right, but aren't sure how to do right.

The Maitlands are the typical Burton outsiders because these freshly dead souls are confused about the shape of their new  "lives."  They are vexed by both the living (the Deetzs) and the dead (the exploitative Beetlejuice). Left to handle their problems on their own -- without a usable guide, really, since their handbook resembles a "stereo instruction manual" --  they don't know where to turn.  Lydia is a lot like them in that way, boasting very different values than her yuppie parents.  She also doesn't understand who she should be.   This quality of "not knowing" is the thing that binds outsiders Adam and Barb, and Lydia together.

Meanwhile, both the Deetzes and Beetlejuice seem to live by Delia's advice (enumerated above) that people must take the upper hand in all situations.  In the final analysis, this is a lesson that the Maitlands and Lydia both learn, but in less-callous, less-thoughtless terms than either the Deetzs or Beetlejuice.  At the very least, the Maitlands and Lydia learn to look out for each other. Again, the focus is on a family, even an ad-hoc family, as the center of existence.

So what we have here is a (very) light social satire of the way things are.  One on side you have impossibly big bureaucracy, unable to tend effectively to the needs of the individual.  On the  other side, you've got individual hucksters and frauds such as Beetlejuice -- exemplifying  a laissez fair approach -- deliberately taking advantage of the individual.  In the middle are the regular folk, ones caught between an unworkable, officious bureaucracy and an unscrupulous character who might as well live by the motto caveat emptor. 

Or as the "ghost with the most" puts it: "These aren't my rules. Come to think of it, I don't have any rules!" 

For me, this is an especially intriguing reading of the film given Keaton's role in the drama.  After Beetlejuice, he appeared in a horror film entitled Pacific Heights (1990) wherein he performed essentially the same grifter-type role, vexing another married couple (played by Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith) by skirting and manipulating the law to his own selfish ends. Here the accent is on outrageous comedy, there the accent is on terror. But the commonalities are interesting.

In Beetlejuice, the Maitlands are truly trapped in limbo, between a rock and a hard place.  And yet in this positioning, they come to gain...perspective. "Being dead doesn't really make things easier," Adam tells a suicidal Lydia at one point, and that's just one grace note in the film,  the idea that avoiding a problem doesn't solve a problem.  The Maitlands, at first, leave Beetlejuice to freely roam their miniature metropolis in the attic, a plan of action that leads to his return and near ascent (not to mention ill-advised wedding to Lydia).  Finally, Lydia and Maitland join forces to actively stop Beetlejuice.  Once the family is whole (or on the same page) it can conquer the interloper, and does so, making way for the happy (and very domestic) ending.

Beetlejuice is loaded with creative invention, not the least of which occurs in its trademark scene of spiritual possession.  Here, the essentially harmless Maitlands use their ghostly powers to make the narcissistic city folk, including the Deetzs -- and Dick Cavett -- perform to The Banana Boat Song, (Day-O).  Spiritual possession as musical number is a good joke all on its own, but the film also garners laughs from the Deetzs's response to their spiritual slavery.  They love it!  They want to use it to make money, to enhance their reputations and wealth. "I didn't know I could do the Calypso" enthuses Delia. 

Coming in 1988 -- in the age of Gordon Gekko - this is surely a comment on yuppieism.  Even haunted houses are apparently a path to upward mobility.

In obliquely dealing with this idea, Beetlejuice emerges as a uniquely American fairy tale.  It's the story of ghosts who lost their home...but gained a daughter.  And that surely represents a triumph of traditional American values over the ideals of conspicuous consumption. 

Like all great fairy tales, Beetlejuice is also about the dark side of life, about a fate worse than death (the room for lost souls), about monsters at the door (giant sandworms) and about a system that doesn't really care if you succeed or not. 

Delightfully, Beetlejuice remains absolutely timely today, in part because its message resonates in the era of Occupy Wall Street, but also because Tim Burton did not apt for a strict adherence to realism in crafting his crazy world.  The special effects in the film have not aged dramatically because they are so expressive, so explicitly emblematic of a whimsical (if dark) nature 

But Beetlejuice works best as a reminder that the human predicament seems to be a constant.  Even in death, it seems, he has to claw, scratch, and fight to find happines.  And as in life, the thing that makes that effort bearable is the company of family.

Like Beetlejuice himself, Burton's 1988 comedy "turns on the juice" and then "see what shakes loose," which, quite frankly, is more than you might rightly expect from a surreal, silver screen cartoon. 


  1. I love this film. Although, I should point out my daughter and I re-watched this again together last night. While my almost 12 year old enjoyed this screening, she pointed out to me when she first saw it three years ago, she couldn't finish it. There were some scenes that did manage to scare her. Wonderful review, John.

  2. Hi Michael,

    Excellent comment, my friend. Like you, I love this film, and count it in the upper-tier of Burton's canon (along with the likes of Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish). The film has a lot of heart, because the Maitlands seems so likable and earnest.

    You also make a fine point about the "scare" factor of Beetlejuice. You and I -- as *ahem* "mature" viewers -- are able to contextualize the macabre imagery in terms of comedy and specfic technique. Younger and more innocent audiences may find the imagery more frightening, absolutely. This is not a film, for instance, I would have Joel (at age 5) watch. I think your daughter is at the perfect age to enjoy the film. Great point!



Gremlins Poseable Stripe Figure (LJN; 1984)

Straight from LJN (the company that also held the license to create toys from the movie  Dune ...), comes this 1984 retro-toy treasure: the ...