Directed by Tim Burton.
Starring Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones and Michael Keaton.
After dying in a car accident, Adam and Barbara are horrified by the new obnoxious residents moving into their former home. Eager to rid their house of the new tenants, Adam and Barbara are brought into contact with a mischievous poltergeist named Betelgeuse.
Tim Burton is a director with a cinematic identity that is uniquely his own. Crafting a filmography imbued with a blending of Gothic horror sensibilities and a quirky, often morbid sense of humour. While he has had his ups and downs over the years, Burton is at his best when is given free rein to indulge his particular sensibilities. And no film does it better than the first in which he was allowed to fully express his uniquely weird style to the world; the cult horror-comedy Beetlejuice.
Beetlejuice is one of those films that I find difficult to talk about without this review devolving into a mushy puddle of joy in which I detail every single wonderful thing about it. The characters, the direction, the performances, the jokes, the Harry Belafonte, I adore this film and everything about it with every fibre of my being. So bear with me as I delve into a mushy pathetic puddle of nerdy joy and tell you about why Beetlejuice is so damn wonderful.
The casting is perfect from the protagonists to our hilariously terrifying antagonist. Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin are delightfully dorky as Barbara and Adam, two lost souls who can’t seem to get the hang of this whole ‘being dead’ thing. Their constant confusion being a source of hilarious misunderstandings and infuriating setbacks. Winona Ryder also excels as Lydia, a stereotypically morose teenage goth whose ‘woe is me’ teenage angst is made sympathetic and funny thanks to Ryder’s charming personality and dry humour.
However, the star of the show is, of course, the brilliant Michael Keaton’s wicked performance as the lecherous demonic ne’er-do-well Betelgeuse. Keaton dominates the screen with a barrage of vulgar jokes, physical comedy and a highly infectious mischievous energy that seems limitless, reaping and relishing every minute of his sparse screen time and making his every scene a joy to behold. Suffice to say, this is some of Keaton’s best work. And while he was arguably the greatest Batman, based on his appearance here, he could have made for an interesting Joker.
The humour is the kind I especially love, twisted and dark with a strong whiff of silliness. The film offers a uniquely miserable albeit wickedly funny depiction of the afterlife as a kind of twisted civil service populated and operated by the dead. Their hanging (sometimes squashed) corpses swinging around the office as they file their paperwork. The attempts by Adam and Barbara to scare their new tenants away are hilariously pathetic, the pair’s initially horrific attempts (severed heads and tearing their faces off) failing to the point that they are forced, in desperation, to adopt the classic sheets with holes routine. It’s wonderfully ghoulish and morbid, but the overall silliness of the humour works well to stop the darkness being too overpowering.
The dialogue is sharp and littered with causal barbs about suicide, murder, death and interior design that shouldn’t be as funny as they are, yet they never fail to raise a nervous chuckle or two. Keaton is, of course, often at the heart of the funniest moments, yet it’s often the smaller gags that made me laugh the most, such as a disgusting scene in which he spits into his jacket pocket to ‘save it for later’. It’s a simple throwaway joke, but it never fails to make me crack up no matter how many times I see it.
Beetlejuice, while not his first directing effort, is perhaps the first film in which Tim Burton was given full freedom to revel in his uniquely weird brand of Gothic horror and comedy. The visual style has Burton embracing a palette of creatively strange sights inspired by the B-movies and classic horror cinema of his youth, creating a suitably ghoulish atmosphere. The production design is incredible, particularly in the afterlife scenes, being a wonderfully warped sight to behold, the angular hallways resembling an MC Escher painting and the style of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
The special effects are brilliant, the stop motion effects, in particular, still proving highly impressive even after 30 years. The sight of the demonic Betelgeuse snake creature though stands out as one of the film’s few genuinely scary moments, with the terrifying teeth and face being the stuff of my childhood nightmares. The musical score by Danny Elfman is the composer at peak Danny Elfman. It’s zany brass-heavy styling perfectly complimenting the film’s nightmarish circus funhouse feel, the opening theme bound to have you grinning like a mad man from its opening notes.
Led by a show-stealing performance from Michael Keaton as a delightfully devilish bastard and presented with a mischievous sense of humour that you can’t help but fall in love with, Beetlejuice is a horror-comedy masterpiece that stands as of one Tim Burtons’ best films.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★