Film discussion

Throwback 30: Beetlejuice

It’s probably strange to think of it in these terms, but the potential cinematic future of Batman rested on a bio-exorcist whose name you had to say three times in order to gain access to. Such as it was, the top brass of Warner Bros. Studios were keeping a big eye on Tim Burton’s spooky comedy to see if he was the right choice to helm their forthcoming, and long time in development, Batman movie.

In the end, it all worked out okay; the film that was at one point going to be titled Scared Sheetless, would clear the way for Burton and, in a controversial move, Michael Keaton, to travel to Gotham City.

It’s strange to look at Beetlejuice and think that its director and scene-stealing title character would be the ones of the bring the famed DC Comics character to live action, but it would pave the way for both to have successful careers, with Burton himself in the end almost becoming something of a stylistic directorial franchise, although in 1988, the idea of a Tim Burton movie being a recognisable thing in itself probably seemed far off.

Beginning his career as an animator at Disney Studios, but being a job he didn’t find that he fitted into all too well, Burton subsequently found himself behind the camera, and would bring Pee Wee’s Big Adventure to the big screen, and then subsequently find himself calling the shots on another somewhat wacky, albeit more creepier, comedy.

For a film that is big on laughs and has the earlier development of many of Burton’s tropes (a Danny Elfman score, sympathetic outsider characters), it’s easy to forget that for a film that was rated PG-13, has aired on television many times in an early evening time slot (with an unsurprising edit for the use of the F-word) and even spawned an animated children’s cartoon, Beetlejuice is a surprisingly dark-around-the-edges comedy with death front and centre in many of its jokes.

The film keeps a light and jaunty tone that stops it from falling into a darker slice of realism that would be part of something if it had been scripted by Bruce Joel Rubin (Jacob’s Ladder), and with Burton calling the shots, the film is filled to the brim with comedic sleight of hand and a wealth of imagination, while making death a hilariously bureaucratic affair; The Handbook for the Recently Deceased (it reads like stereo instructions) and the DMV-like wait to see your afterlife social worker, complete with a ticketing system that goes to astronomically high numbers.

While Burton has went onto have an incredibly successful career, ranging from a career defining link (for better and worse) with Johnny Depp, to wonderful fantasy dramas such as Big Fish, brilliant biopics like Ed Wood, a brilliantly subversive sci-fi comedy in Mars Attacks (which is criminally underrated and brilliant in this reviewer’s humble opinion), to the recent, incredibly under-appreciated Big Eyes, to franchise fodder, and less interesting works, such as Alice in Wonderland and the misjudged Planet of the Apes reboot from 2001, there’s a heart and soul to Beetlejuice amongst the crazy comedy that makes the film a wonderful watch.

Right from the off we’re introduced to the picture perfect couple the Maitland’s, Adam and Barbara (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin); joyful, happy, looking forward to their recently begun vacation. The film subtly hints at a touch of sadness in their lives, with a suggestion that they are unable to have children, but despite this, everything is roses, until an unfortunate accident involving their car, a dog and a bridge leaves them dead, and their beautiful home being bought and sold, and subsequently changed beyond recognition, by the Deetz family, (dad Jeffrey Jones, mum Catherine O’Hara and goth daughter Winona Ryder, a role that was pretty much responsible for this reviewer’s first crush/love in life).

This in turn leads to Maitland’s trying to procure the services of Beetlejuice, a so-called bio-exorcist who claims to be able to exorcise the living.

Interestingly, the film was originally conceived as a darker supernatural horror by screenwriter Michael McDowell, but the involvement of Burton, who subsequently brought on screenwriters Larry Wilson and Warren Skarren to oversee rewrites, saw the film become lighter and funnier, which was probably for the best. Original concepts for the movie saw the titular character as a more demonic figure, while Adam and Barbara’s death at the start of the movie was a lot more graphic and disturbing, with emphasis on their drowning and Barbara’s arm being broken, the latter being referred to subtly upon their return to the house in the finished film.

In the end, the original concept of the film as a dark supernatural horror saw it develop into the type of high concept fantasy comedy that makes it the equal of Ghostbusters, mixing PG-13 scares, an abundance of imagination and some wonderful use of old school special effects, such as the stop motion used for the creatures such as the sandworms and Lydia’s (Catherine O’Hara) sculpture work coming to life.

The darker elements from before are still there hanging around the air, and the film does dip into darker emotional territory for a spell in its final act as the Deetz and their odious friend Otho (Glenn Shadix) attempt to make contact with Barbara and Adam, but which sees them begin to rot away while clad in their wedding attire.

It never gets too maudlin though, and the film always throws Keaton in before things get too intense. On this basis, it’s probably easy to see why some were unsure of the actor being cast as the famous brooding comic book character, but it probably says a lot about his range, and why it’s amazing that it took Hollywood so long to rediscover his talents with the likes of Birdman and The Founder, that Beetlejuice came out the same year he delivered a more serious and intense turn in Clean and Sober.

The film itself is very much a product of its time, but like Ghostbusters, or a John Hughes teen comedy, the film has a timeless quality, and the use of stop motion special effects has simply added to the charm. Thirty years of age, it’s a prime example of how magic and wonderful the viewpoint of a Tim Burton movie can be, or was back when he was unleashing his voice on the film going world.

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