Film Review: Beetlejuice (1988)

in #aaalast month


When the style takes precedence over substance, film makers that nurture specific style might become successful film authors even in such author-unfriendly environment like 1980s Hollywood used to be. One who benefited the most from this phenomenon is Tim Burton, immensely talented director and one of the rare whose work, due to specific creative and stylistic choices, is instantly recognisable even to causal viewers. That includes his second feature film, 1988 dark supernatural comedy Beetlejuice, which became great hit and launched him into orbit as one of Hollywood’s most celebrated and respected directors.

The plot begins with young married couple Adam (played by Alec Baldwin) and Barbara Maitland (played by Geena Davis) working hard to redecorate their country house in small Connecticut town. One day their car ends in the river and, later, when they wake up back in their home various strange details, like inability to leave house, lead them to conclusion that they are dead. After some time Maitlands’ home gets new owners and occupants – New York businessman Charles Deetz (played by Jeffrey Jones), his artistically ambitious wife Delia (played by Catherine O’Hara) and Lydia (played by Winona Ryder), Charles’ daughter from first marriage who embraced goth subculture. Charles and Delia begin to refurnish the house with the help of interior designer Otho (played by Glenn Shadix). Maitlands aren’t happy with those developments and when they complain to Juno (played by Silvia Sidney), secretary handling recently departed souls in netherworld, they are told that they must live in house as ghosts for next 115 years; if they want Deetzes out, they would have to scare them. Maitlands’ attempts fail, but Deetzes fail to see them, with exception of Lydia who becomes their friend. In desperation, Maitlands turn to Betelguese (played by Michael Keaton), ghost who advertises himself as “bio-exorcist” specialised for scaring living persons. However, it turns out that Betelguese (or “Beetlejuice”) is an unhinged lunatic who also developed unhealthy obsession with Lydia.

In Beetlejuice Tim Burton leaves unmistakeable impression of an author whose stylistic obsession revolve around macabre, grotesque, Gothic and 1950s Americana while mixed with great dosage of humour. A great deal of effort is invested into the look of the film and that effort generally paid off, resulting in Beetlejuice being quite visually appealing. Burton was aided by small army of very talented people, which included cinematographer Thomas E. Ackerman and special effects team that, despite low budget and use of old school techniques like stop animation, created very impressive images. A good example is Maitlands’ miniature model of town which is used in the opening and later plays part in second part of the film. Even more impressive is the work is done by production designer Bo Welch, who experimented with different styles in different sets – traditional Gothic in Maitlands’ and modernist and Deetzes’ version of the house, while creating interesting version of afterlife based on German Expressionism. Danny Elfman, composer who would later become Burton’s lifelong collaborator, delivers another recognisable score, although not as effective as one he would provide Burton with in Batman, their next film. Elfman’s score was enhanced with the use of Harry Belafonte’s classic calypso hits, including famous “Banana Boat Song”, which is used to great effect in the most memorable scene of the film.

Another good thing about Bettlejuice is very diverse cast. Apart from Keaton, only one member was a genuine star at the time – Geena Davis – while others were get their stardom later, like Alec Baldwin or Winona Ryder, the latter establishing reputation for quirky and unconventional roles, very much like Lydia. The rest represented dependable character actors like Jeffrey Jones, Glenn Shadix, Classic Hollywood veteran Silvia Sidney. Catherine O’Hara, who would later be associated with Home Alone, proves herself as formidable comedienne in the role of near-hysterical Delia. Keaton is great in the role of title character, providing a lot of humour both with his strange looks, verbal improvisations and outrageous mannerisms.

However, Keaton’s performance also shows film’s main problem – lack of focus and rather weak plot. His character appears is introduced very late in the film and never has time to develop nor to fit into the plot. His motives remain unknown, just as the whole concept of afterlife and ghosts’ interaction with the life of the living is undeveloped. Some of the humour, especially in the second part of the film, doesn’t work. However, Burton keeps quick pace and in hour and half of running time those flaws don’t look that annoying. Bettlejuice, despite mixed reviews, became big box office hit and later became basis for successful cartoon television show. Looking from today’s perspective, it is easy to forgive Burton for giving emphasis to style over substance, since it not only provided him and Keaton with great springboard for formidable careers, but also still functions as very entertaining piece of cinema.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

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