Beetlejuice (1988)

Directed by Tim Burton

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Beetlejuice is a macabre wonder.  It’s a blend of the same bright, colorful, purposefully Mayberry-esque small town that you see in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, with the dark and slimy world of something like a German expressionist horror film.

Adam and Barbara (Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis), are a happilyy married couple in that quaint small American town.  After a freak car accident they slowly realize they’re dead but that their ghostly bodies are stuck within the confines of their home.  When a new, chic family with remodeling on the brain moves in Adam and Barbara will try their best to frighten them away and keep their home for themselves.

It’s a while before the titular character (played by Michael Keaton) shows up, a renegade, final option in their fight to scare off the family that won’t be scared away.  In one of the best sequences of this fantastic, strange movie, the two ghosts will conduct a performance using the family as puppets, but rather than running away, they are instead excited by the possibility of glimpsing a ghost or two.

Beetlejuice is the weirdest feel good movie I have ever seen.  It’s utterly delightful and playful, in spite of or because of its morbid fascinations.

Like other Tim Burton films, the construction of the world and the characters in it feels wholly original.  Each new character Adam and Barbara come across in the after life bares the evidence of their death, and each one, no matter how dark, is uniquely funny.

They meet those who have committed suicide and as a result now work in bureaucracy, they come across an entire team of football players who don’t yet realize they’re dead, and they meet a charred skeleton that can’t quit smoking and a man with a shrunken, dried out head and bulging eyes who looks like a nervous chihuahua.

That being said between the land of the living and the land of the dead, it’s the living who are the most bewildering.  They are a wild bunch of characters, with a money-obsessed husband, an art-obsessed wife and a death-obsessed daughter who seems a perfect match for the young man from Harold and Maude.

The daughter, Lydia (Winona Ryder) is perpetually unhappy, but when they first move into the new home it’s clear she can sense the ghostly presence.  She announces that she is satisfied, and soon enough she will glimpse Adam and Barbara through her camera and develop a friendship with them.

When the rest of the family (Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara) learns of their existence, they similarly become obsessed, though they will perform an exorcism to bring them to light.  Their interest in the ghosts feels much more selfish than Lydia’s.  Where she just wants to coexist, they want to control.

Beetlejuice is some strange kind of farce.  I suppose it is like a comedy version of a David Lynch movie.  As with many of his films, as far as I’m concerned, the character is much less important than the world constructed around them.  His characters often even seem dull and hallow, like mannequins to bounce through the pinball machine plot of his movies.  They are vapid and purposefully subdued, like sponges the audience can squeeze to soak in the perplexing world orbiting him or her.  (there may be points to the contrary, I admit I’m generalizing here)

In Beetlejuice Adam and Barbara are woefully underdeveloped, but it doesn’t matter.  All we need to know is that they’re happy and safe, and then they die and are thrust into this new world, with a whole lot of absurdity to contrast with their blandness.

The more defined characters are that of the family that moves in and, certainly, Beetlejuice himself.  The blanker the slate of the main two characters, the more we can put ourselves in their shoes and just go along for the ride.

I suppose it’s either praise for that world or praise for the Baldwin/Davis performances that by the end I had bought into their story wholeheartedly.  Things work out for all the heroes, and the final dance scene simply made me happy.  I guess that’s all there is to say.  It’s morbid and lighthearted at the same time.

Up Next: Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018), The Crying Game (1992), Clown (2014)

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