Beetlejuice (1988), or YOU WANNA GET NUTS?! COME ON! LET’S GET NUTS!

28 07 2009

Tim Burton’s a mysterious egg. He has an entire school of Gothic and spooky misunderstood child style behind his films, and his penchant for making everything surrounding his art faux-dark and macabre-chic seems to be a sure-fire way of selling tickets. From his movies about dead guys stealing Christmas, dead gals stealing grooms from weddings, or dead guys cutting off people’s heads, he has it on his agenda to make everything offbeat and appealing to teens and awkward adults, who believe that they’re a step away from the grave at the ripe old age of 18. Now that Burton himself is WAY past 18, he’s finally started to do fewer “Woe-is-me! Untimely death!” movies in favor of something with a modicum more decorum. But when Beetlejuice came out in ’88, Burton was only 30, which in Hollywood years is about 15, which meant the angst was turned up to the “I wish I was DEAD” setting, a setting which comes in handy for this ghoulish tale of banal teenagers, clueless parents, and, wouldn’t you know it, dead people. Out of all this, though, here’s the catch; it’s actually a comedy, and it’s actually pretty funny.

It stars Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin as a recently married couple who, on their way home one day, swerve to avoid hitting a dog. They miss the dog, but they fall over a bridge in the swerve and find themselves on the receiving end of the whole death thing. Their spirits return home, though, strangely enough, after their fatal incident, and they don’t even realize they’re dead at first. But once they do, they find that their house is being sold and is being occupied by another, more living family. The couple wants to keep their house, though, and, since they find that the only way to get rid of the people in their house is to scare them away, they try haunting the family of three (two clueless parents and a Goth daughter). Trouble with that is, they’re nice people, and they can’t really do a great job scaring anyone. Plus, Goth daughter Lydia can see them, which kind of negates the whole “mysterious” angle. So, against their better judgment, they decide to call on what’s call a “bio-exorcist”, a ghost-for-hire who will scare the family away for them. It sounds good at first, but the bio-exorcist, Betelgeuse, is a pervert weirdo jerk who’s really only out to cause havoc and mayhem. Can they keep him in control long enough to get the living family out of their house, or will that weirdo cross one too many lines and end up killing the family instead?

It all hinges on the character of Betelgeuse, played by Michael Keaton. He is the funniest, most interesting character involved with this film. The entire time you’re sitting there waiting for him, hoping the Baldwin-Davis scenes are over, waiting for Winona Ryder to exit stage-left. He is the glue that holds this thing together. Keaton plays this sleazy, wheelin-and-dealin’ ghost mercenary with typical Keaton machismo. In spite of his definite evil vibe, or perhaps even because of it, I felt a strong affinity for Betelgeuse. He has charisma, a charm that defies his evilness. The rest of the cast honestly seems bland by comparison, and doesn’t really inspire any feeling in me whatsoever. But Keaton is so on the ball, and he makes me laugh 90% of the time he’s on screen.

The special effects, for the time, were very impressive for their vision. Taking a Cabinet of Dr. Caligari approach to the set design, he imbued the world of Beetlejuice with a creepy German Expressionist vibe that translates into weird, elongated people and props. All the models and sets feel like they came straight out of Vampyr, and all the stop-motion for the ghosts and ghouls of the afterlife give the impression of a unified idea that goes a long way to have me take this goofy afterlife house party seriously. The make-up is well-done and thoughtful, the character design is intriguing, and all in all I was really impressed with the director I usually deride as “inconsistent”.

Odds are, you’ve seen Beetlejuice.If you’re in a certain age group, I can pretty much guarantee it. But I would take another look at it if I were you. There’s a lot to appreciate from the standpoint of a director with potential and an actor with energy in spades. It’s a movie about a bland family, two bland ghosts, and their decision to use someone infinitely more interesting than they to propel their plot to the end. It’s surprisingly effective, which leads me to give Beetlejuice 7 1/2 Gothic Princesses out of 10.

Tomorrow we dive down into the depths of NC-17 with a favorite of mine! It’s a PSA for Lust, Caution! Until then!

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