Yeah Halloween was two weeks ago, get over it. I swear the most haunting thing about the bewitching season is that once it ends I begin to hear the eerie jingling of sleigh-bells on the horizon, beckoning us all forward to Christmas as a Banshee would to our deaths. So in a clawing attempt to stave off the encroachment of discount eggnog and Mariah Carey’s 1994 hit “All I want for Christmas is You”, I’m still watching Halloween movies. Well kind of…
For a film that’s exclusively watched in October, there isn’t a single mention of Halloween in Beetlejuice. Instead it’s earned its place in the Halloween pantheon by being a product of Tim Burton. Nowadays that name conjures images of Johnny Depp with a powdered face and a gaudy get-up hamming like he’s Christmas dinner (see: Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dark Shadows) but this is 1988, where Burton was just beginning to hit his stride.
Beetlejuice, best categorised as a dark comedy, is the story of Barbara and Adam Maitland who die in a car accident and find themselves trapped within their old home as ghosts. The house is then bought by the Deetz family who, along with their interior designer, begin to transform the home into a gaudy tribute to modern art. Soon the Maitlands discover than haunting isn’t as easy as it seems and are unable to rid themselves of the hack artists. Finding themselves growing desperate they render the services of sleazy bio-exorcist Betelgeuse, a decision they soon grow to regret.
So when people talk about this film they usually sing the praises of Michael Keaton’s whirlwind performance or the iconic musical numbers, both of which absolutely deserve the accolades, but there is something that often goes overlooked about Beetlejuice: the concept. The idea that ghosts who are inept at haunting can hire a bio-exorcist to expel the living from their homes is genius. It’s such a simplistic clever inversion that it barely registered when I watched the film as a child, but now magnifies my appreciation of the film immensely.
Returning to your scheduled programming, it would be sinful not to extrapolate on Keaton’s star-making role. A repulsive loon, Betelgeuse is Bugs Bunny if he was a sex offender. He bandies from slapstick, vulgarity and psychopathy seamlessly, and Keaton is so magnetic and commanding it seems the rest of the cast are just there to facilitate his antics (and to an extent they are) despite the fact he’s barely in it. The manic energy he brings makes Betelgeuse pop from the screen and it’s impossible to image any other actor could inhabit that striped suit half as well as Keaton does. It’s astonishing that merely one year later he would play the stoic and brooding Batman. Perhaps the only man who could perform a one man show of The Dark Knight.
Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis do a solid job of playing the Maitlands as the ghostly couple who are really just too nice to be haunting people and Winona Ryder appears as Burton’s author insert as a mopey goth who can see the dead. But my favourite supporting character has to be Glenn Shadix as the oafish interior designer Otho. And speaking of design, it wouldn’t be a Tim Burton film if it didn’t have some really interesting visuals. From the stop motion sand worm of Saturn to the eerie otherworldly waiting room full of the dead there’s a visual feast on display. And of course there’s a certain sing along which takes place at a feast.
There’s a significant amount to enjoy about Beetlejuice, and even better it doesn’t strictly have to be Halloween to requisite watching. You get all the visual flair and creativity of Burton without being bogged down with an awful Johnny Depp performance, and that’s really special.