So far this series has been all blind spots, with long overdue first time viewings of some 80s classics making up the first six posts. Until now. With Beetlejuice, I finally get to revisit a film I haven’t seen since I was very young. One may even say that Beetlejuice, along with a few other films from the mid 90s, helped me grow into the lover of cinema that I am today. And honestly, I can’t think of a better formative experience than this. Despite it only being Tim Burton’s sophomore effort behind the camera of a feature-length film, the filmmaker’s signature style is all over this.
The film begins in a small Connecticut town that is no different than any other, except already we can tell something is visually askew. It’s not that Burton can’t film a straight drama like any other filmmaker would, it’s that he, crucially, doesn’t want to. As we are introduced to our main protagonists Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis), a couple living in a big house (too big for a family their size – one character notes early on), they quickly become endearing, yet there is something quirky about them. This subtle characterization goes a long way to explain their actions after a tragic car accident takes their lives and they return to their home as ghosts, attempting to scare the new family who has just moved in.
As we move into this main part of the story and Burton truly lets loose with his visual flare, I must say it’s to the film’s detriment and it’s credit. While the supporting characters, especially Lydia (played by Winona Ryder of Heathers), are interesting if not multidimensional, the plot stumbles over itself a bit. Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) himself, is really just another of Burton’s setpieces, and as a character he is used as a chainsaw cutting through the film’s plot. It’s like throwing a monkey-wrench in what is already a fairly complicated mess.
But of course, what’s notable about the character is Keaton’s performance. It’s more than just mere weird comedy – there is something very refreshing about it even 30 years later. The one-liners Keaton is able to fit in within his surprisingly short 15 minutes of screen time are not only many, but very few of them fail, and most are endlessly quotable. The film’s screenplay becomes disoriented and disjointed by the second act and the third act is so brief that we never get the resolution we’ve been set up for.
While the film’s budget may not have supported a longer running time, the abrupt ending leaves us wanting more, and not in a good way. It feels like there wasn’t enough movie to serve these characters. Nevertheless, I do think Beetlejuice has rightfully earned itself the status of being a ‘formative’ film for young cinephiles and filmmakers. It previews the filmmaker Tim Burton would later become and that alone should put it on anyone’s to-watch list. B
The soundtrack (including the contributions by Harry Belafonte), the style, the fact that it was a huge hit when it came out, have all contributed to Beetlejuice‘s enduring reputation as an 80s classic. A family film with practical effects gore; a film about the afterlife that appeals to kids; a film whose title character is in 1/6 of the running time – it’s truly a remarkable mess that only Tim Burton could have pulled off. Burton will forever be associated with this film more than any other, and he may not mind it. Keaton too, has not been able to get away from the goodwill of playing Beetlejuice, not that he’s complaining.
In fact the talks of a sequel have only strengthened as of late. While no one is in a rush to make it, and who knows if it will live up to the sky-high expectations, it’s interesting that it’s a sequel people are clamoring for, not a remake 30 years on. I think the film’s staying power is ingrained in it’s weirdness. We know the special effects don’t really hold up all that well, but they are just so weird, and the story is so innovative and high-concept, one knows it will live on for as long as people are watching movies.
Next up I will watch the Italian classic Cinema Paradiso available on Netflix! See you then!