Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, June 9, 2014

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (1988)

2. Beetlejuice

“Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” might have been Tim Burton’s first movie but “Beetlejuice” was the first Tim Burton movie, if you understand my meaning. It was the film that truly established the director’s gothic style, his obsession with idealized suburbs, outsider protagonists, and melding of macabre elements with a silly sense of humor. It’s no surprise that Warner Brothers would hand the filmmaker the keys to their huge tent pole blockbuster after this. On only his second film and Burton was an amazingly self-assured, fully form stylist.

Set in the picturesque town of Winter’s Gate, Connecticut, the film follows the Maitlands, Adam and Barbara, a young, happy married couple. When their car rides off a bridge, the two wake up, unexpectedly, as ghosts. Now spirits, they have to learn to navigate the bureaucratic world of the afterlife. When a yuppie family moves into the house, led by artsy mother Delia, the Maitlands have to learn how to be proper, haunting ghosts. Turns out they're not very good at it and soon call on the services of Beetlegeuse, an unpredictable freelance “bio-exorcist,” a ghost-for-hire. In retrospect, this wasn’t the best idea.

In most movies, the hip folks from the city would move to the small town and show the up-tight locals how to live. Instead, “Beetlejuice” reverses the formula. Adam and Barbara are undeniably square. Adam’s passion is model making while Barbara seems quite content to be a home-maker. Both dress like characters out of a 1950s sitcom, Adam having a lot of plaid in his wardrobe. Yet the movie never besmirches the Maitland’s their less-then-cool lifestyle. They are perfectly happy in their squareness and seem content to be left alone. The film has a surprisingly mature outlook in this regard: People are satisfied to be left in peace, do what makes them happy, and don’t really care about what anyone else thinks. Adam and Barbara might be dorks but the audience is entirely on their sides.

Compare to the laid-back, happy Maitlands to the neurotic, “cutting edge” Deetz. Dad Charles’ resents his family so much that he’s moved them all to Connecticut just so he can get some peace and quiet. Even while supposedly trying to relax, his focus is on making money, planning to buy up the ideal small town and sells pieces of it to his clients back in New York. Mom Delia fashions herself an artist and fills the home with her hideous, industrial modern art. Their best friend is an obnoxiously stuffy interior decorator named Otho.  The Deetz are obsessed with image and appearing as cool as possible to their boring friends.

Yet Burton and his screenwriter seems to have an affection for both families. Many of Burton’s film show a fascination with suburbia, from the original “Frankenweenie,” to “Edward Scissorhands,” “Big Fish,” and the later “Frankenweenie.” The filmmaker has shown a love of the artifice of suburbia, the clean yards, evenly painted homes, and happy, smiling families. At the same time, he has always been willing to mock the foibles of the culture. The perfectly arranged homes frequently hide comic dysfunction. In “Beetlejuice,” we see this theme emerging. The Maitlands, though hopelessly square, are nice people and their small town seems genuinely peaceful. Similarly, the Deetz are boorish and stuck-up. Yet their visual sensibility is undeniably the director’s. Delia Deetz’ artwork; abstract, concrete-grey figures; are right out of Burton’s sketchbooks. The director loves all of these things but seems very willing to mock their innate silliness as well.

Aside from Adam, Barbara, and the titular ghost, the central character of “Beetlejuice” is Lydia Deetz. Lydia is another important character to Burton’s development as a filmmaker. Firstly, it was his first pairing with sometimes muse Winona Ryder. Secondly, the character is a tragi-comic outsider. The misfits, people who just don’t fit in, is something the director has continually revisited over his career. Pee-wee was an outsider too but only outside his quirky little world where most everyone understood him. Unlike Lydia, who is a misfit among her own family. She actively resent her father and step-mom, neither of whom make any effort to understand her. Nailing this alienation home, her only friends are ghosts. The girl’s isolation and morbid outlook, not entirely unlike the director’s own, makes her able to interact freely with the afterlife. Even if her family rejects her, the Maitlands immediately accept Lydia as a “nice girl” and a surrogate daughter. If “Beetlejuice” is Lydia’s story – and it partially is – it’s about a misfit teenager finding a place where she belongs.  

“Beetlejuice” is also, of course, a goofy horror-comedy, a film that flips the haunted house narrative on its head. It’s a ghost story told from the perspective of the ghosts. In this flip-around story, the ghosts are the nice people and the living are the assholes. Part of the joke is that the Maitlands also aren’t very good ghosts. Their simple nature and kind hearts make them unlikely poltergeist. Their initial attempts to spook the residents are hopelessly lame, involving throwing sheets on their head and mock-moaning. Even when they get a handle on the haunting thing, during the film’s stand-out “Day-o!” sequence, their quote-unquote victims are more delighted then frightened. “Milquetoast ghosts” is high-concept writing at its hackiest but in the hands of screenwriters Michael McDowell and Warren Skaaren, it becomes a genuinely funny joke.

Another clever element of the film is how it treats the afterlife. There are no harps, floppy clouds, pits of fire or pitchforks. In the world of “Beetlejuice,” Heaven and Hell don’t seem to exist at all. Instead, the afterlife resembles the DMV. The dead show up, still in whatever state they died in, take a ticket, and wait anywhere from a few months to a century for their turn. Once inside, a supervisor takes their case, helping them out on the basic of haunting. Upon dying, everyone is issued a book that instructs them on the ins-and-outs of the afterlife. The manual is indecipherable, written in thick legal language. Comparing lofty ideas about the afterlife to the dullness of the office wasn’t a fresh idea in 1988 and “Beetlejuice” didn’t do it first. However, the film makes the premise its own, creating a funny, satirical version of life after death.

“Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” featured a few choice sequences and moments rift with Burton’s trademark visuals. “Beetlejuice” allowed the filmmaker to cut loose. The Deetz redesign the Maitland home into a goth-industrial nightmare. The house is full of unnecessary arches, heavy borders, and eschew angles. Once entering the world of the un-living, the director’s love for Expressionistic set design comes to the surface. One hallway looks right out of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the doorways and ceilings all sloping at jagged angles. When Beetlegeuse appears, the Burton-style set design goes into overdrive. The stairway banister turns into a giant snake, topped off with a nasty cartoon version of Michael Keaton’s face. My favorite moments comes during the very end, when the fireplace morphs into a huge doorway, a big-headed, diminutive priest stepping through. “Beetlejuice” would widely codify what the Tim Burton look is.

The movie also clarified the director’s sense of humor. The macabre is frequently stretched to absurd levels. Ghastly elements are contrasted with the mundane, lessening the effect of both. The Deetz open a closet, Barbara hanging there. The ghost tears her own face off, her eyes bulging out. The living pushes the corpse aside, not even noticing it. When attempting to be scary, the Maitlands twists their faces into grotesque caricatures. Barbara stretches her mouth out to huge, crocodile levels. Adam morphs his head into a nightmare chicken. The transformations are brought to life through funky stop motion, defusing the horror of the scene. The dead bodies that line the afterlife’s waiting room are similarly grotesque. The make-up intentionally recalls “MAD” magazine, the injuries stretch to absurd levels. Being burnt to a crisp or having a shrunken head shouldn’t be funny but here, when the idea is pushed to cartoonish levels, it is. The movie’s most satisfying absurd element comes when the ghost try to leave their house. Stepping out their door, they land in the middle of a distant, desert planet. Giant sand worms, decked out in the director’s trademark black-and-white spirals, burst from the ground. It’s such an oddball, one-off joke, mostly unrelated to the rest of the film, that pays off brilliantly at the end.

I’ve come this far but I still haven’t discuss the title character. Beetlegeuse is ultimately a supporting player in his own film. He’s also an inspired comedic creation. Michael Keaton plays him as a mile a minute, sleazy conman. He’s always talking, always on the con, hoping his marks can never get a word in. He’s a pervert, hitting on the innocent Barbara and Lydia. He’s also a pure vulgarian, spitting, wiping boogers, and eating bugs. He attends a Satanic brothel and drops an F-bomb, pushing the limits of the PG rating. Keaton makes the ghost endlessly entertaining. My favorite moment is when he has to convince Lydia to say his name, making a very casual giant beetle appear in the room. (Ryder’s confused shouts of “Orange Beetle?” are also hilarious.) That the character is so likable and memorable is impressive, especially when you realize he’s almost a statutory rapist. Beetlejuice appears just as the film named after him is starting to lag, injecting an awful lot of energy.

The game cast delivers the screenplay frequently perfectly. Alec Baldwin was never this likable before and was, probably, never this likable again. Geena Davis’ natural sweetness and silent, strong determination makes her ideal for Barbara. She’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet but knows when to put the brakes on something. This film would largely make Winona Ryder a star, not to mention turning an entire generation of boys onto goth girls. Lydia’s melancholy is never coying or obnoxious and the character is never anything less then lovable. Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara, and the late Glenn Shadix have no problem playing their parts broad. All three inhabit the yuppie stereotypes, reach for the ceilings, and make the characters as exactly as obnoxious as they need to be.

I can’t even piss on Danny Elfman’s score. It’s full of the jaunty tubas, cascading choir sounds, and sweeping woodwind that would define his work. In time, his reliance on this tools would be easily mockable. But, as a singular piece of music, the “Beetlejuice” score is incredible. The instantly recognizable themes perfectly establishes the film’s tone. The music lets the audience know this ride is whimsical, sometimes chaotic, a little dark, but ultimately a lot of fun. You’re humming it right now, aren’t you?

“Beetlejuice” is not the definitive Tim Burton but it is one of the most distinctly Burton-esque movies. His style powers the film. From the fly-eye POV zipping over the model town, to the chaotic finale, the film is his from start to finish. It was a sizable hit at the time, spawned an animated series, a toy line, several video games, and an ongoing amusement park attraction. A sequel has been on-and-off for years now and who knows if it’ll ever get made. Despite Burton’s style being widely emulated, parodied, and rip-offed, frequently by the filmmaker himself, “Beetlejuice” is still an inventive, creative comedy. 26 years later and there’s still nothing quite like it. [Grade: B+]

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