Charles Deetz moved his family to small-town Connecticut from the busy life of New York City in the hopes of finding peace and serenity. He goes through all the motions of trying to find such; as if it will just magically appear in a crackerjack box or a drawer in his new office. He’s earnest in this endeavor. Frequently rejecting to remodel the new house they moved into, he awkwardly flips through a copy of “Practical Homeowners” while attempting to bird watch. He paces around various rooms trying to do whatever people in the countryside do to pass the time.
He is a man who in the midst of becoming a real estate developer, had a freak out, a break down moment and hastily escaped metropolitan life. And yet with each subsequent scene it is clear it’s a suit that doesn’t entirely fit him. When he sees a building in town, his mind jumps immediately to the great parking it affords. And then the veil of mid life metamorphosis falls in a moment of Eureka when he discovers A) his house is haunted by ghosts that can puppeteer him and his family to dance and perform Harry Belafonte’s “Jump in the Line” and B) the previous owner crafted a miniature model of the entire town that combined with point A) make his new surroundings the perfect haunting destination for those who crave supernatural interactivity.
Beetlejuice at its time of release in 1988 was the second major salvo that signaled Tim Burton was a burgeoning talent in Hollywood. It was his third, though, only a year later that would put his jersey in the rafters for the rest of time.
This film is certainly hard to peg. It’s definitely a comedy, but its a lot more nuanced than that. Not many directors can successfully juggle the elements of gothic with those of the sublime and yet not be heavy handed in providing a commentary on the times. Looking at his work particularly with Beetlejuice and Batman, Burton is critical of where culture and society were in the 1980’s. The Joker’s plot revolves around killing people using beauty products and luring large crowds under the promise of free money. Beetlejuice deals with the commoditizing of the undead and supernatural. That is literally what Deetz and his family are trying to pitch to a big city investor by the end of the film.
But as much as Deetz struggles to adjust to a new life while holding onto his ambition for the 80’s desire for “more,” it’s the Maitlands (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) who might be having an even harder time dealing with their circumstance of being recently deceased. They are even given a handbook that reads like stereo instructions to help them along the way.
Its this element of horror that is fascinating in its farcical way because most big budget movies of its day only dealt with supernatural hauntings in a serious and frightening manner. The Maitlands just want the Deetz family to leave. Not for much beyond the fact that they want to completely change their house. Their predicament becomes how do they scare the new inhabitants away from their home. It’s difficult because they’re really wonderful people who you really hate had to die within five minutes of meeting them. Not to mention they develop a quasi familial relationship with Lydia Deetz (Winona Ryder) who is the only person who can actually see them.
That’s why it’s hard to peg this film. It’s not just a broad slapstick comedy about hauntings and exorcism. It’s about family and the awkwardness of growing up in a family that doesn’t understand you. It’s a brief but glaring line in the beginning of the film that the Maitlands have not had children despite the desire to do so. Lydia walks around as the stereotypical goth teenager. Literally looking as if she’s at a funeral in every scene with her wardrobe. She’s the perfect surrogate offspring for the Maitlands in their new place in life or afterlife, even wishing she was dead to only be visible to them.
What makes Beetlejuice so fascinating is that there is so much going on in terms of relationships and desires that the titular character almost seems secondary, but with each brief tease of his entrance before he properly explodes onto the screen at the near 45 minute mark, you never want him to leave. And that credit 100% belongs to Michael Keaton, who delivers what could have been a signature performance if not for what he would do for Gotham City a year later.
He is the perfect antithesis to Aladdin’s Genie and yet its a performance that goes quip for quip against Robin Williams. As a child I saw Batman before Beetlejuice, and it was honestly the first time I can remember seeing how dynamic an actor can be. It’s a performance in terms of nuance and comedic timing that could rival anyone from the decade.
Even with all of the warnings about the irrepressible havoc this movie can reign upon the world of the living and the dead, the “It’s showtime” line after Lydia summons him to save the Maitlands from exorcism is a pop moment. You want Beetlejuice to set things right in his brief moment of being an antihero even though you know he will take it too far and have to be vanquished himself. That’s all Keaton. He makes you wish the movie really was more about him than it really is.
The film certainly hold ups in terms of themes. The clash between big city ambition and small town solitude will always be in style as will children not feeling like their parents understand them only to find out that they kind of do at the same time. Beyond all of it, though, it’s a movie which showcases incredible ingenuity and imagination with every element being extremely on point. Burton certainly found a summit on the mountain of commercial film success that many have tried to ascend to… but almost all fall short of. He’s had some misses over years like many directors do, but you always know when you’re watching one of his movies. That may be his greatest success of all.
By William Renken