Beetlejuice: The Blockbuster Nobody Saw Coming
The brilliance of Tim Burton’s directing and art style was untapped until the script for the movie Beetlejuice came along. After the success of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Warner Bros trusted him with another film — just some silly movie about the afterlife, the studio probably thought. But to everyone’s surprise, the crazy and original script inspired Burton in ways that no one had ever seen before.
Beetlejuice (1988) was a film about a husband and wife who passed away and were doomed to spend the afterlife in their house for eternity with no escape. When a new (alive) family moves into their home and won’t leave, the husband and wife consider hiring a “bio-exorcist” named Betelgeuse (Beetlejuice) to solve the dilemma.
Beetlejuice is Tim Burton’s Masterpiece
For a lot of artists, your first professional work is your baby. You haven’t gotten your feet wet yet, and you want to make a good impression. This shines through when watching the Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice.
In fact, I would call this movie Tim Burton’s masterpiece. Who else could have made a movie with a decapitated head and still manage to get it rated PG (in the 1980s)?
Tim Burton couldn’t do it on his own though. He needed a stellar cast to pull it off and make it convincing. Michael Keaton, known from the comedy film Mr. Mom, was cast as the character Beetlejuice (usually spelled as Betelgeuse in the movie, as in the brightest star in the constellation). Ironically, though, he would not be the main character, nor the most popular one.
The most popular and interesting character in the movie Beetlejuice was Lydia, the family daughter, played by Winona Ryder. At the time, Ryder was only featured in one movie, and she only narrowly grabbed the role away from Alyssa Milano.
Basically, every popular young actress in Hollywood was considered at the time, including Molly Ringwald, Brooke Shields, and Jennifer Connelly. Another consideration was Sarah Jessica Parker. Yes the horse-faced actress with no talent. I wonder why they didn’t choose her?
Winona Ryder turned out to be the hidden gem that made her into a superstar. At least until the infamous shoplifting incident she performed in 2001 (Yes, this made national news along side 9/11 in the same year.)
With Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis cast as the deceased couple Adam and Barbara, the chess pieces were set up for a great movie.
From the very beginning of the film, we see an aerial view of the town, ending with a fairly large house on a hilltop. A gigantic spider emerges from behind the house and goes on top of it! It turns out that we were actually looking at a carefully crafted model of the house, and town, that this movie takes place in.
The main character, Adam, makes these models as a hobby and keeps a replica of the entire town in the attic. The other main character, Barbara, also prefers to hang out in the attic with her husband, Adam. When Adam needs to stop by the hardware store for pieces to carve more model parts, he invites Barbara to come with him. The two of them drown while avoiding a dog and having their car topple upside down off a bridge.
Barbara and Adam are suddenly in their homes and don’t know how they got there. In fact, they don’t even realize that they are dead. It’s not until they find a book on their table titled “The Handbook for the Recently Deceased” do they understand.
Extraplanetary Sand Worms (of course)
They also discover the horror of being trapped in their own home and not being able to leave. If they do, they are suddenly on another planet with giant “sand worms” out to eat them. I should point out that the special effects for its time are especially good with these sand worms. Not only are they imaginative looking but the worms have moving eyes, mouths, and teeth with full facial expressions. They appear to have been created using “stop motion” from sculpted models.
But That’s Not All
Things get from bad to worse when a mother, father and daughter move into the house. They are from the city and the father just wants to get away from the urban area and find a rural place to get some peace and quiet. The mother, however, is a lunatic self-proclaimed artist and they destroy the entire home remodeling it.
Our deceased couple is forced to hide out in the attic just so they can have their own personal space. They try to scare the family out of their homes on their own but fail, so are forced to turn to a freelancer, Beetlejuice. Things get out of hand when Beetlejuice makes a deal with Lydia. He says he will help Adam and Barbara in exchange for Lydia’s hand in marriage. He neglects to mention that his solution was to kill the house residents.
Art and Humor
The plot of Beetlejuice is crazy, but there’s more to this Tim Burton masterpiece than that. Consider art and humor.
The movie has a dark tone but somehow still is able to maintain a sense of humor. For example, Barbara and Adam encounter other dead people, and the ways they died are apparent. A man has a chicken bone stuck in his neck. A woman has slit wrists. One character is completely charred to the bone and is smoking a cigarette. This movie jogs the animation while moving the plot forward in the most entertaining way possible.
By far the most memorable part of the movie is the dinner party scene. In an effort to scare the residents, Adam and Barbara possess the residents of the house and make them go through a singing and dancing routine to the song Banana Boat (performed by Harry Belafonte in 1956). The scene is both funny and frightening as they are forced into the ridiculous situation.
But I can’t spoil everything for you, now can I? Just as in the beginning, the film ends in a clever, uplifting way that makes the movie memorable. Everything works out in a positive light, which is saying a lot since the movie is about dead people. You can find this movie on Amazon, so be sure to rent or pick up a Blu Ray copy. You won’t regret it!