Writers: Michael McDowell, Larry Wilson & Warren Skaaren
Cast: Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton, Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones, Glenn Shadix, Sylvia Sidney, Robert Goulet, Annie McEnroe
Plot: Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) decide to a vacation at home, decorating their quaint New England house. On their way home from a shopping trip, Barbara swerves to avoid a dog and the two plunge off a bridge. Returning home, they are startled to find they don’t feel fire, they have no memory of how they got back from the bridge, and attempting to leave the house teleports them to a bizarre, horrific landscape full of enormous sandworms. They have no reflection, and a book is waiting for them: Handbook For the Recently Deceased. Adam and Barbara are dead.
Some time later a new family moves into their house: Charles Deetz (Jeffrey Jones), his wife Delia (Catherine O’Hara), and his cynical daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder). Delia, a pretentious would-be artist, begins to gut Adam and Barbara’s charming home, transforming it into a wild, gaudy funhouse with the help of interior designer Otho (Glen Shadix). Adam and Barbara try haunting the Deetzes to drive them from the house, but find the living cannot see them at all. Adam locks the attic, protecting his prized model train set from Delia and Otho. He uses the Handbook to open a portal to a “waiting room” full of other ghosts who have died in various grotesque ways. In the waiting room, the Maitlands learn that they must spend 125 years on Earth, in their house, during which they can contact their caseworker Juno (Sylvia Sidney) for help three times. As they wait, Lydia uses a skeleton key to open the attic, where she finds the Handbook. When the Maitlands finally meet with Juno, they find they’ve been waiting for three months and their home has been completely transformed. Juno tells them to study the Handbook for tips on how to haunt the Deetzes, but warns them not to turn to Betelgeuse, her former assistant, for help. She warns them not even to say his name, as saying it three times will summon him.
The Maitlands try again to haunt the Deetzes, but instead wind up revealing themselves to Lydia, who can see them. When they fail to scare her and she warns them that her parents aren’t likely to leave, they give in and summon Betelgeuse, or “Beetlejuice”. A quick interview disturbs Barbara, and she refuses his help. Their next attempt forces the Deetzes and their dinner guests to perform an impromptu dance to “Day-O,” but rather than scaring them off, they love it and try to convince the Maitlands to come out for another performance. With nowhere else to turn, they again summon Betelgeuse who turns up the haunting in earnest – transforming into a giant snake and attacking. Barbara prevents him from hurting Charles, but Beetlejuice has taken a liking to Lydia.
The Maitlands are tasked with driving out the Deetzes – without Betelgeuse – before it goes too far, but Barbara is upset, not wanting to frighten Lydia. They go to her just before Betelgeuse tricks her into freeing him and tell her they want her family to stay, but Charles arrives with his boss, Maxie Dean (Robert Goulet). Charles wants to turn the house into a tourist attraction, and Maxie is still skeptical about the existence of the ghosts. Otho summons the Maitlands via a séance, in view of everyone, but they immediately begin to age and decay. Lydia turns to Betelgeuse to save them, but he’ll only do it if she agrees to marry him. She agrees, and he unleashes his madness on the living. He drives out Maxie and Otho, then summons a ghoul to perform the ceremony and marry him to Lydia. The Maitlands try to save her, but he banishes Adam to his train set and Barbara to the sandworm-plane beyond the house. Adam distracts him while Barbara steers a sandworm back into the house, devouring Betelgeuse whole. In the end, the Maitlands and Deetzes find peace with one another, living together in harmony, while Betelgeuse is sent to face the ultimate punishment for his crimes… he’s sent to the waiting room.
Thoughts: Tim Burton has had an interesting career, starting with shorts and cartoons that blended a twisted sense of humor with a macabre sense of story. Over the years he’s tapped into blockbuster franchises like Batman, ruined blockbuster franchises like Planet of the Apes, and tackled everything from Pee Wee Herman to Roald Dahl. To my way of thinking, his best work is done when he gets to create a whole world with his unique, bizarre perspective, and he’s never better than when it’s a world he conjures from whole cloth rather than an existing property. This is the first time he did it really well, before A Nightmare Before Christmas marked him as a master of this quirky, “safe” kind of horror/comedy mashup. This movie also allows him to practice his beloved stop-motion animation, a style he’d use much more in the aforementioned Nightmare (with director Henry Sellick) and, on his own, in The Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie. In anybody but an artist, you’d start to get worried if they focused on this sort of macabre style. Fortunately, for storytellers, sharing the bizarre is nice therapy.
This movie, more so than most others, treads the line between Type A and Type B very neatly. Although the plot isn’t “pure” horror, the way we saw with Ghostbusters, the gags are a little too gory and bizarre to classify it as a straight comedy either. An early scene with the ghosts attempting to haunt the Deetz family gives us a hanged woman, a missing face, bulging eyeballs and a decapitation – not exactly kid stuff. In the waiting room we see people who’ve been cut in half, a flattened man who was run over by a car, and plenty of other people whose violent deaths have marred them indelibly in death. We even get a nasty realization from the receptionist with her slashed wrists – suicides, in the afterlife, are sentenced to be civil servants. In many ways, this is big a departure from our other movies with dark situations and light comedy. The actual jokes in this story are far darker than in most of the films we’ve discussed so far. This is as true a Black Comedy as we have yet encountered.
The good news is, for all its darkness, the movie really is very funny. This was Michael Keaton at his peak, playing the sort of wild character he was known for at the time. (The irony is that finally escaping the stereotype, thanks to teaming with Burton on 1989’s Batman, somewhat crippled his career since then.) Oddly enough he isn’t even the main character here – like Julius Caesar, he plays a supporting role in his own eponymous story, and doesn’t even join the plot in earnest until 45 minutes into the film. But once he appears, the energy he brings to the film is undeniable. His “qualification” speech was, for some time, the stuff of quotable film gold, and his wild impressions and boundary issues seem natural and unforced.
Winona Ryder, meanwhile, did a lot of this sort of dark comedy earlier in her career (Heathers came out the same year), and attaching herself to the always-entertaining Catherine O’Hara was a great move. The two of them clash a lot in this film, with O’Hara’s Delia desperate to transform the Maitland house and Lydia desperate to save her friends. The regular stepmother/stepdaughter antagonism comes through here as well, as the two of them clearly clash on all points, putting Jeffrey Jones in the middle of the daughter he’s raised and the wife he’s a bit intimidated by. The women are nice foils for one another, with O’Hara’s considerable skills on display and Ryder developing her own talents next to her.
From a technical standpoint, the movie is incredibly impressive. The stop motion animation is good in and of itself, but the makeup, prosthetics, and animatronics that make up the ghosts and other creatures in and from the world of the dead are absolutely amazing. Burton has a bizarre, wild imagination that is so perfectly suited to this kind of story one almost wonders why he ever bothers to do anything else. The world he shapes for us is part carnival funhouse and part Halloween haunted house, with a bit of Looney Tunes cartoons mixed in for good measure. (Once Beetlejuice shows up full-force, he even starts throwing in cartoon sound effects.) The resulting world is horribly familiar, despite its complete alien nature. The finale, when a fully-powered Beetlejuice is allowed to run wild, is one of the most visually creative things I’ve ever seen in a horror/comedy, a perfect blend of grotesque imagery with pure, electric mania.
It was years since I watched this movie until I screened it for this project. In fact, I’d forgotten how much I liked it. I was 11 years old when it was released and, like many of the films of the 80s, it turned into a hot topic of discussion on the schoolyard for months after afterwards, then again when it hit home video. Kids in my class were just at that right age, understanding we were watching something somewhat subversive without taking us so far over the edge that we would wind up scarred for life. I’m really glad to see that this film, unlike so many of the others that we loved back then, really holds up all these years later. Although there’s always talk of a sequel (and for a while there was an actual, horrifying treatment for Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian floating around Hollywood), for the most part this movie has drifted out of public consciousness. It’s a shame – it’s a lot of wild, crazy fun, and just perfect for Halloween viewing.
Don’t forget, Lunatics and Laughter is the second Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!
And while the 20 films for the first phase of Lunatics and Laughter have been selected, I’m still taking suggestions for next year’s expanded eBook edition. I’m especially looking for good horror/comedies from before 1980, so if you’ve got any ideas, please share them in the comments section.