“Spook Show 2019 – 05: Beetlejuice (1988)” by Richard F. Yates
I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Tim Burton’s films, and I’m often disappointed by films that look, from the advertisements and previews, like they’re going to be about something in particular, but when I go see them---they ain’t. For instance, the trailer for Big Fish looked like it was going to be an interesting, weird, creepy movie---but instead it was sentimental garbage, and the trailer for A Nightmare Before Christmas looked, TO ME, like the film was going to be about a WAR between the forces of Halloween and the goody-two-shoes of Christmas, but when I actually SAW the movie, I was bugged by how the story unfolded. (For one thing, there were no Christmas “forces,” besides Sandy Claws.) EVENTUALLY, after watching the show a few times, without the BURDEN OF EXPECTATION getting in the way, I did grow to really enjoy the movie for WHAT IT WAS---but I still wish, deep down, that the film had been about what I THOUGHT it was going to be about, even though I now think it’s a good movie. The same holds true for THIS film, Beetlejuice, which, based on what I saw in the previews, I thought was going to be about the character, Beetlejuice…
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual DVD that I watched. The image is included for review purposes only!]
Beetlejuice was released way back in 1988, and although he’s a famous director NOW, at the time, Tim Burton only had ONE major motion picture to his name, Peewee’s Big Adventure, (starring Paul Reubens), and a few short films, (like the live action version of Frankenweenie (from 1984) and the excellent stop-motion short, Vincent, which I love and highly recommend watching.) Starring in this new film, Beetlejuice, were Michael Keaton (who was mostly known for his comedy rolls in films like Mr. Mom, Johnny Dangerously (great movie), and Night Shift), Jeffry Jones (who we didn’t yet know was a sicko), and Catherine O’Hara (from SCTV and about a million humorous films), plus a relatively unknown seventeen year old named Winona Laura Horowitz (aka Winona Ryder). With this cast, and knowing Burton as the guy who directed Peewee’s Big Adventure, I assumed, going in, that this was going to be a hilarious farce of a film about a ghost who torments a bunch of people---and I was about half right. The movie is VERY funny, but Beetlejuice (or Betelgeuse) is barely even IN IT… He’s only on screen for about TEN or FIFTEEN MINUTES total. I could look up exactly how long…but it’s not that important. The point is he isn’t in the film very much, and Burton decided to focus MOST of the screen time on the least interesting characters in this rich, full universe.
If I’d known that the movie was going to be about a boring, small town, middle-aged couple who become boring, small town, middle-aged ghosts---I might not have even WANTED TO SEE the movie…so in that sense the trailers worked. They got me to the theater---even if the movie-going experience didn’t match what the previews promised.
For those who’ve never watched Beetlejuice, (are there people out there who haven’t seen it?), here’s a rough outline of the film. Adam and Barbara Maitland live in a small town and run a hardware store. They have no children, which is (apparently) a touchy topic for them…(and becomes a major plot point later on.) One lovely, sunny day, while enjoying a dull and excitement free stay-cation, the Maitlands pop into town to grab some non-important items from their shop. As they’re driving home from town, they swerve to avoid running over a dog and wind up with their car, upside-down, in a river. The next scene is them, at home, wondering how they got there, and after a few odd things happen, they find a book sitting on a nightstand that they don’t remember owning: “The Handbook for the Recently Deceased.”
Now dead, the Maitlands bumble around their house, not really doing much differently than they did when they were alive---except they quickly discover that they can’t LEAVE their house, or they find themselves thrown into some weird, freaky, desert area filled with monstrous stop-motion sandworms. (Beetlejuice says, later in the film, that this desert is on one of the moons of Saturn, and that’s weird...) After being dead for a while, we don’t know exactly how long, Barbara and Adam wake one morning to find that their dull but peaceful prison is being invaded. They discover that, after they died, their house was sold to the Deetz family, a group of New York sophisticates, including Charles (a real-estate agent), his gothy daughter, Lydia, and Lydia’s step-mother, Delia (an artist), and Delia brings her friend and mentor, Otho, to her knew home so that he can help redecorate the house. The Maitlands, who are dull, boring people, HATE the new folks, almost immediately, and try to frighten them away---eventually requesting the aid of Beetlejuice, a crude, malevolent spirit who advertises himself as a “Freelance Bio-Exorcist.” And that’s the basic set up, with the rest of the film covering the conflicts between the living and dead, which build to a wacky climax…
Oddly, though, I think I come at this movie from the wrong perspective. For one thing, I REALLY dislike the Maitlands. Although Adam Maitland seems crafty---his major hobby is building models---he doesn’t really CREATE anything new, he just miniaturizes existing objects, going so far as to make a scale model of the entire town in the attic of his house. He’s obviously got skills, but NO imagination. If the Maitlands do have any kind of redemptive story-arch in this film, it’s the transformation they go through, from dull, boring people to CREATIVE, exciting ghosts, as they’re forced to embrace the bizarre and extraordinary in order to make any kind of impression on the Deetzes, who (being so sophisticated) are at first unphased by the Maitland’s boring, by the number haunting attempts (they actual put sheets on and try moaning to scare everyone, but it doesn’t work), but later, when the haunting gets more exciting (even dangerous) then the Deetzes become not frightened but INTERESTED…even excited by the idea of living in a haunted house.
Beetlejuice, on the other hand, is INCREDIBLY creative---MANIC even---a whirlwind of ideas and chaos and energy, but he’s also a horrible, psychotic, perverted, self-serving, nasty creature, with almost no empathy or redeeming characteristics. (The fact that he became the star of a CHILDREN’S CARTOON in the early ‘90s is shocking, considering how EVIL he is in this film.) Reflect on these Beetlejuician antics: He becomes a giant snake in one scene and smack’s Otho with his tail, sending him rolling down a flight of stairs (potentially fatal); he drops Charles Deetz head-first from a second story balcony (almost certainly fatal, although the cartoony nature of this film shows Charles, in the very next scene, basically unharmed, with the exception of a band-aid on his head); Beetlejuice gropes Barbara several times, and he basically coerces Lydia, who is supposed to be a teenager---like still in high school---into marrying him, and it seems unlikely that his motives are entirely noble. He is not a likeable character, despite his funny jokes and the silly noises he makes. He is, in every conceivable way, awful.
Of the Deetzes, Charles is somehow both bored with his life and completely stressed out, and he claims that all he wants is to enjoy their new country home and relax, but he’s so profit oriented, he isn’t in Winter River, Connecticut, for more than a few days before he comes up with a scheme to try and buy the whole town and turn it into a tourist trap. Delia is shallow and bossy, but I think she genuinely enjoys making the art that she creates (even if we’re supposed to think she’s flaky and annoying. “This is my art, and it is dangerous!” she shouts at the movers who are wildly swinging one of her large sculptural pieces around on a crane.) Otho, who for some reason seems to be staying at the house with the Deetzes, is egotistical and petty, but again, he seems to believe in the work that he produces, and given the fact that Delia seems to respect and even worship him, I see nothing wrong with their partnership. Both Delia and Otho are ultimately pleased with what they accomplish---even if the Maitlands, who I would argue have TERRIBLE taste, don’t like the overall results. Tastes differ and we don’t all have to agree on what looks good and what doesn’t. Still, the Deetzes are, in the end, too image conscious, too devoted to SURFACE APPEARANCE, and unarguably, not a happy family.
This leaves us with Lydia, the teenage daughter---who, despite her goth appearance, is the only empathetic human character in the film. Unfortunately, she is also desperately lonely and suffering from severe neglect. “So you were miserable in New York, and now you’re going to be miserable here in the sticks,” Delia yells at Lydia over dinner. Is it any wonder that the girl is suicidal? In fact, Lydia is so starved for attention and affection that when the Maitland’s show her even the tiniest bit of kindness, she immediately gloms onto them---and they quickly take on the role of her surrogate parents. Meanwhile, the Maitlands, Barbara in particular, have always wanted a child, so having someone to mother suits her, just fine. I would argue that (SPOILER ALERT) the reconciliation between the Deetzes and the Maitlands, which ends with the two families SHARING the house in the end, is the best possible outcome. Lydia gets “parents” who are interested in her, (even though they are dead), and the Maitlands (who, as ghosts, are trapped in the house for the next 125 years---although we aren’t told what happens AFTER that 125 years is up) get a child to help raise AND a much needed infusion of INTEREST into their dull “lives,” while Charles and Delia Deetz get to pursue their personal interests without feeling guilty about ignoring their daughter. Wins all around.
So, does this work as a SPOOKY SHOW??? Yes. Absolutely. The visuals alone make this a great Halloween movie. Burton’s color palate, the various skeletons and ghosts in the spirit world, and the odd, angular architectural elements throughout the film, which are based on German Expressionist films, like the brilliant Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), are all spooky and dream-like and weird, and they make the movie a real treat to watch. The film is also saturated with spiders and graveyard paraphernalia and ghostly atmosphere. Visually, Beetlejuice is fantastic---a spooky feast! And, in addition, it’s a very funny story, with some brilliant acting by Catherine O’Hara (Delia) and Glenn Shadix (Otho), who are in FULL CAMP mode throughout. But it’s not ALL laughs, as the mood does get a bit macabre in several scenes. The film is never actually SCARY, but it’s infused with a nice, creepy MOOD, which I find very appealing.
There are a few cuss words in the film, (most from Beetlejuice, of course), and the ghoulish topic (DEATH) might be upsetting to some people, AND the movie might also be distressing for religious folks, who could be bothered by the obvious paganistic representations of the “afterlife,” which doesn’t mesh---at all---with Christian ideology (unless Earth is supposed to be some kind of Purgatory---but I don’t see much evidence of that.) But odd cosmology aside, probably the most unpleasant aspect of the film, NOW-O-DAYS, is Beetlejuice’s perverted, sexist personality---he’s constantly looking up women’s dresses, groping anyone he can reach, and forcefully kissing them against their wishes. Although a character like this might have been thought of as “FUNNY” in the late 1980s, when teen sex comedies were still a big genre---in the “Me Too” era, his character comes across as disturbed, hurtful, and abusive---and it’s rather tough to watch. (Although not as hard as movies, like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Revenge of the Nerds, where rape is treated as a casual, even humorous occurrence…)
And so, if you’ve never seen Beetlejuice, or if it’s been a while, I would definitely recommend giving it another spin---but this time, really keep an eye on the visual elements. These are where Tim Burton truly shines in this film. It’s also a good idea, in my opinion, to try not to dislike the Deetzes, even though we’re SUPPOSED to find them ridiculous and petty and unlikable. They represent a wild, personal form of creative life, which I personally really relate to, even if the film tries to makes them SEEM like villains. I definitely relate to the Deetzes way more than I do the Maitlands---even though I’m from a small town. And even though I originally wished that Beetlejuice was in the film MORE, given the nasty nature of his personality AND the potential for him to heap more abuse on the female characters if he’d had more screen time, it ended up being a GOOD thing that he doesn’t dominate the story. Still, I do enjoy this movie and watch it several times a year. How about you? Never seen the film? Watched it but hated it? Think my review is completely bonkers? Let me know!!!
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)
P.S. – I said I was going to include my complete Spook Show recommendations list with each Spooky review, just in case this is some reader’s first encounter with this series---even though I've already forgotten to include the list in one review! My memory is garbage!!! Anyway, here are the films I’ve already looked at:
SPOOK SHOW 2019 Reviews!!!
“Spook Show 2019 – 01: The Shining (1980)”
“Spook Show 2019 - 02: Salem's Lot (1979)”
“Spook Show 2019 – 03: The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror (2003)”
“Spook Show 2019 – 04: House by the Cemetery (1981)”
SPOOK SHOW 2018 Reviews!!!
“Spook Show 2018 – 01: The Exorcist (1973)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 02: Curse of the Demon (1957)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 03: Frogs (1972)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 04: Child’s Play (1988)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 05: The Haunting (1963)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 06: Shaun of the Dead (2004)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 07: Fright Night (1985)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 08: Mr. Vampire (1985)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 09: The Devil Rides Out (1968)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 10: Ghoulies (1985)”
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