BEETLEJUICE

(1988)
With Michael Keaton, Gene Davis, Alec Baldwin, Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O'Hara,
Winona Ryder
Directed by Tim Burton
Reviewed by JB

     Tim Burton's followup to the surprise hit PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE, BEETLEJUICE is nearly as difficult to categorize as that film.  Is BEETLEJUICE a comedy, a fantasy, a ghost story, a horror movie? A satire on small town life?  TOPPER cross-pollinated with a Tex Avery cartoon?  The answer to all these questions is "probably".

I'm the ghost with the most, babe     In BEETLEJUICE, a young couple dies in a drowning accident and find themselves stuck in their quaint Connecticut home as ghosts. When a new family moves in and starts modernizing the place, the ghosts hire another otherwordly being, Beetlejuice, to scare them away.  But Beetlejuice turns out to be a flim-flam man with an agenda all his own. The only person who seems to have a clue as to what is truly going on is Lydia, the new couple's young, dark and semi-suicidal daughter, while her father and step-mother try to exploit their new "haunted house" for profit.

     The cast list reads like a Who's Who of Eighties films.  Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis play the ghostly Maitlands, who are just too nice to be able to scare anybody effectively on their own.  Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O'Hara are the Deetzes, the New York couple that move in and want to bring some of that New York atmosphere with them.  A young Winona Ryder is the goth existentialist Lydia, the only person who is strange enough to be able to see the ghosts.

     The star of the show, despite limited screentime, is Michael Keaton in a hilarious performance as Beetlejuice, "the ghost with the most".  The character is an off-the-wall nonstop chatterbox, forever verbally riffing on one thing before getting to his point.  After a particularly difficult ghostly maneuver, he announces "And that is why I won't do two shows a night" as if he is a Vegas performer.  A moment later, he is suddenly Johnny Carson doing a monologue, and a few moments after that, he is Bugs Bunny, tormenting an interior decorator with a kiss.  Too much of him and he would start to irritate, too little and the film would lack a proper antagonist.  Luckily, Beetlejuice is on screen for just enough time, a crazy counterpoint to the quiet, likable Maitlands and the quirky Deetzes.  When he's needed, he's there. When he's not, the film concentrates on other concerns such as the Maitlands' confusion about what one is supposed to do in the afterlife, or the inner tensions of the barely functional Deetz family. There are quintessential performances from Michael Keaton, Jeffrey Jones, Winona Ryder and especially Catherine O'Hara, who has the majority of the film's best lines that do not come out of the mouth of Michael Keaton. (When Lydia explains that the ghosts are too ashamed of themselves to manifest, O'Hara quips "Please, they're dead.  It's a little late to be neurotic.")  BEETLEJUICE could be on the Top Five Best Performances list of just about anybody in the cast.   Rarely has Keaton been so funny, Davis so sweet, O'Hara so endearingly unlikable, or Jones so hilariously normal.  Winona Ryder's early screen character was defined by this film - she followed up with similar "lone teenager filled with angst"roles in WELCOME HOME ROXY CARMICHAEL, MERMAIDS and HEATHERS.

Don't think he would look better in CGI     It's probably said on this site too much, but CGI-effects have really made Hollywood lazy.  In order to get the vision he wanted onto film, Burton had to use stop-motion photography, bizarre makeup, blue-screen processing, miniatures, puppetry and elaborate cartoony masks.  More than anything else, this is why BEETLEJUICE looks like a Tim Burton movie and, for one example, the PLANET OF THE APES remake does not.   The fact that the various strange elements in BEETLEJUICE never seem all of one piece, the stop-motion clashing with the real-time photography, the goofy masks used by some actors clashing with the makeup effects worn by others, is what gives the film much of its charm.  There is a reason why Burton and Terry Gilliam flourished during a time when it took hard work to create special effects. They seem to enjoy the hard work.  I may be wrong but I can't see either director getting all excited over sitting in front of a computer.  And if they do, they are clearly wasting their real talents.

Jump in de line, rock yer body in time

     BEETLEJUICE features two of my favorite musical moments from the movies.  The first and most famous is the dinner party scene when the Maitlands possess the Deetz family (all but Lydia) and their guests and make them mime to Harry Belafonte's "Banana Boat Song".  Katherine O'Hara, marvelous comedienne that she always is, steals the scene with her funky dancing and facial expressions.  The second sequence comes right before the end credits.  There is something truly weird, wonderful and completely Burtonesque happening when Winona Ryder as Lydia dances in the air to Belafonte's "Jump in the Line", backed by a team of dead football players on the staircase behind her.  In retrospect, it is the only possible way a film like this could end.  Or maybe not.  But that's BEETLEJUICE.  4 - JB

Fantasy      The Secret Vortex


IN SPACE, NO ONE CAN HEAR GOOD MOVIE QUOTES

GUEST: "Charles, we're here to see some ghosts."
LYDIA: "They're not here any more."
CHARLES: "Heh... every time she says that, the paint peels and, uh, some wild creatures try to kill us."


WHAT ARE YOUR QUALIFICATIONS?

"Ah. Well... I attended Juilliard... I'm a graduate of the Harvard Business School.  I travel quite extensively. I lived through the Black Plague and had a pretty good time during that. I've seen The Exorcist about A HUNDRED AND SIXTY-SEVEN TIMES AND IT KEEPS GETTING FUNNIER EVERY SINGLE TIME I SEE IT!... NOT TO MENTION THE FACT THAT YOU'RE TALKING TO A DEAD GUY!... Now what do you think? You think I'm qualified?"