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by Alex Kirschenbaum Dec 20, 2019

There never has been (nor will there ever be) anything quite like Beetlejuice, that inimitable horror comedy concoction hailing from the demented minds of screenwriter Michael McDowell, plus writer/producer Larry Wilson and script doctor extraordinaire Warren Skaaren, filtered through the wacky gothic lens of director Tim Burton.

To celebrate Beetlejuice’s Los Angeles return to the big screen at the Nuart Theatre at midnight tonight, December 20th, TFH decided to take a look back at the film’s singular significance 31 years later.

As our tale unfurls, Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) are a fairly bland couple in the throes of (bland) domestic bliss. They occupy a pleasant, spacious house in the leafy suburb of Winter River, Connecticut. Adam owns a hardware store up the road, and enjoys whiling away his free time building a remarkably thorough model replica of Winter River while jamming out to Harry Belafonte songs. Their good time is short-lived, however, as they soon find themselves in the deep end of a river.

The Maitlands’ adjustment to life as ghosts goes through some bumps early on. They quickly discover that they are doomed to haunt their house for 125 years (if they stray outside, they are greeted by vicious multi-mouthed Sand Worms patrolling a dismal desert landscape), with only a handbook, the Handbook for the Recently Deceased, that “reads like stereo instructions” and a limited amount of consultations with their cigarette-chomping caseworker Juno (Sylvia Sydney) to guide them.

Two months after their cessation from the physical realm, the Maitlands must confront a bigger problem: new residents. The Deetz family has relocated from Manhattan to Winter River after patriarch Charles (Jeffrey Jones), a real estate developer, suffered burnout in the big city. His wife, Delia (Catherine O’Hara), an abstract sculptor, enlists her interior designer/best friend Otho (Glenn Shadix) to help gut the property.

Delia’s tastes in redecorating have very little overlap with the Maitlands’, and soon the ghost couple finds themselves exploring any means necessary to force the Deetzes out. After amateurish spooking efforts via their handbook and Juno’s advice do little to unsettle the cynical New Yorkers, Adam and Barbara turn in desperation to the freelance “bio-exorcist” ghoul Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), pronounced “Beetlejuice.” Betelgeuse soon proves to be more trouble than he’s worth, terrorizing both families with his particular brand of mischief.

Charles’ goth daughter (and Delia’s stepdaughter), Lydia (Winona Ryder), naturally attuned to the “strange and unusual,” soon befriends Barbara and Adam. The ghost couple begin to have second thoughts about forcing Lydia and her folks away, even as their haunting skills begin to improve.

After the Maitlands induce a mass-hypnosis dinner dance to “Day-O” on the Deetzes and some of their big city guests with the help of some very disagreeable shrimp platters, Charles and Delia recruit Charles’ old real estate chum Max (Robert Goulet for some brilliant reason) to pitch him on making their haunted house a tourist attraction. When Otho and Beetlejuice gum up the works, the Maitlands and Lydia band together once and for all to unite their families and stave off disaster.

Though the film does boast a narrative as outlined above, it thrives by being impishly atypical in its storytelling. Burton, speaking with author Mark Salisbury for the excellent interview collection Burton on Burton, relished this attribute. “I loved it because I had read a lot of scripts that were the classic Hollywood ‘cookie-cutter’ bad comedy,” Burton told Salisbury. “The script for Beetlejuice was completely anti all that: it had no real story, it didn’t make any sense, it was more like stream of consciousness… Michael McDowell had a good, perverse sense of humor and darkness…”

Every single element in front of and behind the camera feels loaded with intention and stylistic cohesion. The film boasts a laundry list of first-rate performances from terrific actors who would become frequent Burton collaborators. Keaton, Ryder, O’Hara, Shadix and Sydney present especially fresh and ingenious depictions of unforgettably specific characters.

Burton, a former Disney character designer, developed oodles of sketches for the film in pre-production (many of which are viewable in Burton on Burton). His design style can best be described as a synthesis of Dr. Seuss and Edward Gorey filtered through the Universal monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s, with a pinch of Hammer horror from the 1950s and 1960s. Those illustrations served as the visual foundations for the remarkable work of production designer Bo Welch and costume designer Aggie Guerard Rodgers, who soar here with some wonderfully tactile and vibrant environs and attire.

The Betelgeuse character design, concocted by makeup artists Ve Neill, Steve La Porte and Robert Short, deserves special mention here. Designed to appear as if Betelgeuse was a moldy corpse who had crawled out of the ground, it has proven to be one of the most iconic monster makeups in the history of the movies.

Another standout performer here is composer Danny Elfman. From the ominous strains of Belafonte’s “Day-O” mixed through the haunting extended “Beetlejuice” theme song to the manic music cues that somehow manage to expertly balance the wacky and the creepy, Elfman is on fire throughout the film, his second soundtrack for Burton.

Beetlejuice‘s biggest strength stems from its unique ability to mine its signature macabre humor from death. Horror movies grapple with the threat of death almost universally. By filtering the topic through imagined threats, horror movies help demystify the topic for people. Beetlejuice belongs in the horror comedy Hall of Fame because it takes that demystification to such inventive and unforgettable comic extremes.

Death was long the defining topic of Michael McDowell’s professional interest. Critic Lloyd Schultz, a longtime friend to McDowell, is quoted in a great Alan Siegel piece for The Ringer as writing that “death seemed to [McDowell to be] life’s most grotesque joke.” Beyond the wild production design, character makeups and stop-motion animation, the film ultimately treats much of the afterlife as just that: an extended, gross joke — a bureaucratic drag, scored by Harry Belafonte calypso music as the mise-en-scene soundtrack of choice.

The Best Picture Oscar winner for 1988 was Rain Man, a completely competent film with three stellar performances that essentially boils down to being a sympathetic portrait of a huckster taking advantage of his autistic brother to cheat at poker. Beetlejuice did get a little Academy love, netting a richly deserved Best Makeup Oscar. 31 years after the two films’ release, which one was the subject of a hit Broadway musical and a themed bar? Which movie’s star is the subject of untold millions of Halloween costumes, some of which are weirdly sexy? Exactly.