Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Stubs - Beetlejuice

Poster of Beetlejuice

BEETLEJUICE (1988) Starring: Michael Keaton, Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones, Glenn Shadix, Sylvia Sidney  Directed by Tim Burton. Produced by Larry Wilson, Michael Bender, Richard Hashimoto. Screenplay: Michael McDowell, Larry Wilson, Warren Skaaren. Music by Danny Elfman Run Time: 92. Color. USA. Comedy, Horror

It may be hard to believe, but there was once a time when Tim Burton made movies that weren’t based on comic books, children’s stories, or weren’t remakes of other movies  or television shows. And there was a time before he worked, exclusively it seems, with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.

Apparently, 1988 was that time. Fresh off the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Burton chose this off kilter comedy as his next project. While the film was a success it really isn’t all that scary, it is usually, but not always funny.

A happily married, calypso-loving, but childless couple, Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara Maitland (Geena Davis) are on a staycation in their home in rural New England. Adam, whose hobby is making a model replica of the small town where they live, needs a few supplies and the couple rush off to town for what should be a short shopping trip. However, on the way back, Barbara swerves to avoid hitting a dog in one of New England’s classic covered bridges and the couple fall to their deaths.

Only, they don’t know they’re actually dead. That is until Adam leaves the house and just outside is a hellish desert with sand worms that scour the sands for food. Adam narrowly avoids being food. A strange book has also shown up, a Handbook for the Recently Deceased, which is a puzzling guide to the afterlife. But while they intended on spending their next 125 years on earth in their idyllic home, they are not allowed to rest in peace.

The village real estate agent, who had tried unsuccessfully to get the Maitland’s to sell, gets her chance and sells the home to Charles (Jeffrey Jones) and Delia Deetze (Catherine O’Hara), who have a daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder). Charles is a former real estate developer who wants nothing more than to relax in the Maitland’s house. However, his wannabe artist wife, can’t wait to change things. She brings Otho (Glenn Shadix), an interior designer hyphen ad nauseam to help redecorate. He transforms the farm house into a gaudy structure.

The Maitland’s turn to help from their afterlife caseworker Juno (Sylvia Sidney), who informs them that they will have to scare the Deetze’s out of the house. However, that attempt only makes the Deetze’s want to stay with thoughts of turning the house and surrounding village into a paranormal exhibit.

While the Deetze’s can’t see the Maitlands, Lydia can and they become friends. However, the Maitlands are determined to get rid of Lydia’s parents. Even though Juno had warned them against using him, the Maitlands call for Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton) who advertises himself as a bio-exorcist, which means he gets rid of humans. However, he turns the couple off with his crude behavior and they decide not to use him after all. The Deetze’s continue with their plans to make the house into a tourist attraction and Charles invites his boss Maxie Dean (Robert Goulet) to their house for a presentation and a meet and greet with the ghosts. Though Lydia asks, the Maitlands refuse to participate. However, Otho, who claims to be a paranormal expert, armed with a stolen copy of the Handbook for the Recently Deceased, knows just enough to summon the Maitlands against their will in a séance. But he doesn’t know enough to stop things before he starts destroying them.

Lydia, in an effort to save her friends, makes a deal with Betelgeuse. She agrees to marry him in exchange for his help. After successfully chasing Dean and Otho away, Betelgeuse expects Lydia to keep her end of the bargain. While he manages to thwart the Maitlands attempts to stop the ceremony, he goes too far, banishing Barbara to the sands. This allows Barbara to commandeer one of the Sand worms which she rides back into the house to devour Betelgeuse.

Betelgeuse ends up in the afterlife waiting room where he angers a witchdoctor, who shrinks his head.

In the end, we’re shown that the Maitland’s and Deetze’s have found a happy way to coexist.

Despite its subject matter of the afterlife, the movie manages to be funny. The funniest moments belong to Michael Keaton, who was just coming into his own as a film actor. He supposedly ad libs a lot of his dialogue and delivers it like a standup comic. The film deals with some pretty gruesome ways to die: being burned to a crisp, bus crashes, being cut in half, being run over with a steam roller, etc., with a certain amount of humor. How this film deals with the macabre could be seen as a precursor to future films like A Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), which Burton would produce, but not direct; and Corpse Bride.

While Keaton deserves a lot of the credit for the humor, the supporting cast is strong. The Alec Baldwin we see here is the way you think he’d want to be remembered. Thin and good-looking, Alec manages to show that he is more than just a pretty face. Geena Davis, who had made her mark in the off-beat TV sitcom Buffalo Bill, was also on her way to becoming a movie actress. She had appeared in Tootsie (1982) and The Fly (1985), but was still evolving as an actress. Her Barbara was what people liked about Geena Davis: quirky, pretty and funny, a combination that would suit her well throughout most of her film career.

Burton at this time was at the beginning of his career. Beetlejuice was only his second feature film. This would lead to Batman (1989) also with Michael Keaton as the lead. The next year, Burton would join forces for the first time with Johnny Depp with Edward Scissorhands (1990) and the rest they say is history.

Also notable, is the music of Danny Elfman, former leader of the rock band Oingo Boingo. The music sometimes sounds derivative of Bernard Hermann’s work on Psycho (1960), but Elfman was truly at the beginning of a career that has seen him become one of the most sought after film composers in Hollywood.

I have to admit that the first time I saw Beetlejuice I really liked it. A second viewing and the story was starting to age almost as badly as the special effects, which look downright primitive. The sandworm is almost laughable by today’s standards.

Beetlejuice is one of those films that you should see, like Caddyshack (1980) and Stripes (1981), not because they’re great films, but because they are films that you’re going to hear about over and over again. You have to see them to see what all the fuss is about. While they might not make your list of all-time favorites, they are at least worth a viewing.

Beetlejuice is available at the WB Shop:

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