Tim Burton's films are populated by outsiders and non-conformists with their own unique vision of life that sets them apart from mainstream society. It is this affinity for the disaffected that is perhaps the most personal aspect of his work. The success of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985) paved the way for Burton's next feature, Beetlejuice (1988), his calling card – a breakout film that led to his getting the job to direct Batman (1989). It is also one of the purest examples of his distinctive sensibilities – a skewed sense of the world as seen through the eyes of someone who is an outsider.
Barbara (Geena Davis) and Adam Maitland (Alec Baldwin) are a happily married couple living in a small town when they are killed in a car accident on the way home from running an errand. In a darkly whimsical touch, their demise hinges on a small dog perched precariously on a plank of wood that sends them off a bridge to a watery demise. The Maitlands come home with no recollection of how they got back. It slowly dawns on them that they’ve died. Maybe it’s the presence of a book entitled, Handbook for the Recently Deceased (“It reads like stereo instructions,” Adam laments) or maybe it’s when he steps out of the house and finds himself in a nightmarish realm populated by a gigantic sandworm.
At first, Barbara and Adam think they’re in some kind of heaven – getting to spend eternity in a home they love, but their idyllic existence is shattered when the Deetzes arrive and move in. Delia (Catherine O’Hara) fancies herself an artist (“This is my art and it is dangerous!” is a priceless bit she says in describing her work), but is actually quite awful. Her husband Charles (Jeffrey Jones) is a crass former real estate developer. Lydia (Winona Ryder) is their daughter, a brooding girl decked out all in black and who lives by the credo, “My life is a dark room. One big dark room.” Only she can see the Maitlands (“I myself am strange and unusual.”) and becomes sympathetic to their plight.
Thrown into the mix is Otho (Glenn Shadix), a trendy hipster interior decorator (“So few clients are able to read my mind. They just aren’t open to the experience.”) that helps Delia transform the Maitland house into a Yuppie nightmare. Barbara and Adam want to get rid of the Deetzes and seek help from the afterlife. First, they go to a kind of Department of Motor Vehicles from the beyond and are assigned a caseworker by the name of Juno (Sylvia Sidney) who gives them some advice.
The waiting room on the way to meet Juno is an amusing tableau of grotesques, from a woman cut in half to a man with a shrunken head to a man with a shark still attached to his leg. It is all of these little touches that bring the afterlife scenes vividly to life and are so memorable, like the sickly yellow and green lighting scheme that portrays it as some kind of bureaucratic hell, or when Juno has a cigarette and the smoke exits the slit around her neck.
When her advice doesn’t get rid of the Deetzes, but instead encourages them to stay (in a memorable scene where the Maitlands force the Deetzes and their friends from the city to lip-synch and dance around to “The Banana Boat Song” by Harry Belafonte), they enlist the help of Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), a self-professed "bio-exorcist" who helps the recently deceased from being "plagued by the living,” and acts like a perverted used car salesman. Not surprisingly, he has his own agenda, which soon puts him at odds with the Maitlands, culminating in a wonderfully surreal battle royale between the good ghosts and the bad mortals with Betelgeuse ping-ponging back and forth like a bee on acid.
Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are well cast as the nice but rather bland Maitlands. All they want is to be left in peace and see the Deetzes as an affront to everything they value. The Maitlands represent wholesome, small-town America and much of the humor in the film comes from the culture clash between them and the insensitive big city Deetzes. 1988 was a good year for Baldwin who showed versatility in several films, including Married to the Mob, Working Girl and Talk Radio, but playing such a “normal” guy in Beetlejuice was quite a departure from these other roles. Likewise, it was a strong year for Davis who also appeared in Earth Girls Are Easy and The Accidental Tourist, which featured the actress playing very different roles. Their easy-going charm and how comfortably the play off each other made Baldwin and Davis a believable couple.
Michael Keaton’s Betelgeuse is the comedic equivalent of a whirling dervish – a force of nature as he makes the maximum impact with his limited screen-time. Betelgeuse is a venal degenerate willing to say or do anything to get what he wants. Keaton embodies him with just the right amount of manic energy. The scene where Betelgeuse meets the Maitlands for the first time and lists his “qualifications” is a marvel of comic timing and tempo as the actor bounces off of Baldwin and Davis’ intimidated couple. Keaton conveys a zany energy that recalls his feature film debut, Night Shift (1982), only cranked up another notch. Beetlejuice was the culmination of a string of comedies for Keaton and served as a fitting conclusion to an impressive run of films (although, he did star in 1989’s The Dream Team) and so it’s not surprising that he went all out with this role. He would go on to play Batman in Burton’s two contributions to the franchise and then tried his hand at more serious fare.
Beetlejuice was a breakout film for a young Winona Ryder whose Lydia was a poster child for young goths everywhere. She does a nice job playing a death-obsessed girl who isn’t overly fond of her parents and finds herself increasingly drawn to the Maitlands. Ryder’s performance goes beyond the superficial trappings of her character to reveal a deeply unhappy person. The most obvious character who represents Burton's loner motif would seem to be Betelgeuse with his outrageous appearance and worldview that threatens to dominate the whole film, but it is Lydia who is also the most autobiographical character in Burton's film. Lydia's all-black attire and dreary credo, "my life is a dark room," mirrors the filmmaker's own fashion sense and personal assessment of himself. Therefore it seems only natural that Lydia is the actual emotional center of this film, not Betelgeuse, with the true conflict being the resolution of her morbid fixations, while the larger battle of life vs. death rages on around her. The success of Beetlejuice would lead to her signature role in the pitch black comedy Heathers (1988).
Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones play vain, self-absorbed Yuppies that are the complete antithesis to the Maitlands. O’Hara, in particular, is excellent as the sometimes shrill wannabe artist who feels the need to impose her taste on others. She plays well off of Glenn Shadix’s pretentious interior decorator as evident in the scene where they go through the house, picking out color schemes for various rooms. Coming out towards the end of the 1980s, Beetlejuice can be seen as a cheeky critique of Yuppie materialism as embodied by the egotistical Deetzes who see the quaint small-town as an opportunity for them to exploit it for commercial gain. They are set-up as the film’s antagonists and we can’t wait to see them their comeuppance at the hands of Betelgeuse.
After Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Tim Burton was offered screenplays with the word “adventure” in it and found that they lacked originality. “I had read a lot of scripts that were the classic Hollywood ‘cookie-cutter’ bad comedy. It was really depressing.” He finally started work on a script for Batman, but it was put on hold by the studio until the director proved his box office appeal. Eventually, record industry mogul turned movie producer David Geffen gave him the script for Beetlejuice, written by Michael McDowell. For Burton, McDowell’s script had a “good, perverse sense of humor and darkness … It had the kind of abstract imagery that I like.”
Burton worked on the script with McDowell and producer Larry Wilson for a long time until they felt that a fresh perspective was needed. Script doctor Warren Skaaren was brought in to provide some logic. Burton ended up casting several actors with a knack for improvisation, which was incorporated into the shooting script. For example, when Michael Keaton was cast as Betelgeuse, Burton would go over to his house and they would come up with jokes, creating the character through lengthy discussions.
Burton originally wanted to cast Sammy Davis Jr. as Betelgeuse, but fortunately the producers rejected that notion. It was Geffen who suggested Keaton, but Burton hadn’t seen him in anything because he preferred to meet with the actor in person. When they met, Burton began to see Keaton as Betelgeuse. For the look of the character the director wanted him to resemble someone that had “crawled out from under a rock, which is why he’s got mould and moss on his face.”
Geffen had overspent on their remake of Little Shop of Horrors (1986) and so they allocated only $13 million for Beetlejuice’s budget with $1 million designated for its extensive special effects. To this end, artist Alan Munro was hired and worked closely with Burton storyboarding the film in the spring of 1986. They quickly found a common affinity for movies that came up with creative ways to create SFX cheaply. This translated to effects that were “more personal … What people will see are effects that are, in a sense, a step backward. They’re crude and funky and also very personal.”
Burton and Munro decided early on to avoid costly post-production opticals in favor of performing the effects live on set. Munro was brought back two months after completing the storyboards to oversee the visual effects when the producers realized it was going to be a bigger job that originally anticipated. To help out Munro, Burton brought in frequent collaborator effects consultant Rick Heinrichs. He and Munro spent the first few weeks of production filming tests to show the crew that they could create effects via “cheap, stupid, easy methods.” The crew wasn’t convinced and Munro remembers, “There weren’t a lot of believers when we were actually working on the film.” Heinrichs remembers that they ran into problems creating the effects live and this made for “one of the most exhausting and frustrating experiences I’ve ever been through.”
Beetlejuice received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and wrote, “But the story, which seemed so original, turns into a sitcom fueled by lots of special effects and weird sets and props, and the inspiration is gone.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Burton, who seems to take his inspiration from toy stores and rock videos in equal measure, tries anything and everything for effect, and only occasionally manages something marginally funny.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley called it a “stylish screwball blend of Capraesque fantasy, Marx Brothers anarchy and horror parody … Not since Ghostbusters have the spirits been so uplifting.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas wrote, “There’s a distinctive feel to Beetlejuice, a deliberate Brecht-Weill jerkiness that allows satire and just plain silliness to play off each other most successfully.”
Beetlejuice has the polished, yet personal, handmade feel of Burton’s previous film complete with old school effects that included stop-motion animation, matte paintings and practical makeup effects, which have helped the film age well over the years. Like his other films, Beetlejuice is interested in outsiders, people like Lydia and Betelgeuse that don’t fit in or taking people like the Deetzes, who are at home in a big city like New York, and making them fish out of water in small-town Connecticut. The Maitlands are also taken out of their comfort zone of a living existence and thrust into the strange world of the afterlife.
Beetlejuice serves up many of the clichés of life after death and the supernatural and proceeds to gently poke fun of them in an entertaining way with a showstopping performance by Keaton at the heart of it. It remains one of Burton’s signature films and one of the best examples of how he managed to marry an idiosyncratic style with commercial appeal. Beetlejuice’s success would lead to a short-lived cartoon and occasional talk of a sequel that has gained some traction in recent years.
Salisbury, Mark. Burton on Burton. Faber & Faber. 1995.
Shapiro, Marc. “Explaining Beetlejuice.” Starlog. May 1988.
White, Taylor L. “Making of Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice and His Other Bizarre Gems.” Cinefantastique. November 1989.