Close your eyes and imagine a time before Tim Burton used Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in almost every production. Before his films were leached of color, looking drab and dull. A time where his creations of whimsy were twinged with the macabre. Welcome to the early period of Tim Burton’s career with his second film: Beetlejuice.
Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis star as sweet domestic couple Adam and Barbara Maitland. They live together in a lovely house in the countryside until an accident leaves them both dead and haunting their own house. Shortly, the Deetz family (played by Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara, and Winona Ryder) moves in and their modern tastes clash with the simple country ones of the Maitlands. Enter Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton), the ghostest with the mostest and a crafty bio-exorcist.
This is Tim Burton in his prime. The film was audience’s first real introduction (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was the first Burton film) to his signature. We all know them and (mostly) love them, from the dour colors to the playful kitsch. And this is what makes Beetlejuice so fun. Having seen Burton’s other works, it was fun to trace specific concepts, designs, and character traits from this film to his later works.
One of my favorite Burton-isms is his goofy take on the macabre. Death and the afterlife are no longer sombre events and are often more fun than the living. Beetlejuice is no exception, with the comedy hinging on the deceased. In its own way, the film serves as a prototype for Burton’s later film Corpse Bride. Beetlejuice’s view of death takes a blend of abstract style and a droll bureaucratic approach, complete a motley assortment of the dead in a DMV style waiting room and a helpful handbook titled Handbook for the Recently Deceased. Like the drollness of the DMV, the clueless Maitlands are the perfect vehicle for introducing this world to us. The humor is found in their reactions to other dead people, aided by the clever use of make up to show how that person died.
This film wouldn’t be the same without Keaton’s knockout performance as the title character. He is only in the film for roughly 18 minutes out of the hour and half and he makes use of every second. You never are quite sure what he will do, whether or not it will be helpful to the Maitlands or crude. In fact, there are moments where the camera isn’t even trained on him, and he just wanders in the frame and steals it back. He is one of those characters that you just look forward to coming onscreen. As much as I wish he had more time to play around, his limited time was perfect. His arrival was something to anticipate and if he was on there any longer, I fear this review would talk about how annoying he was.
Another favorite character of mine was early Tim Burton staple Winona Ryder as Lydia Deetz, the daughter of the new homeowners. She plays his typical female archetype: the pale, wispy girl in all black. Of course she spouts the usual mopey things in the beginning and isn’t completely understood by her own parents. Yet Lydia Deetz strikes me as the prototype for the future “Burton Girl”. She still has a lightness about her, almost like a typical 1980’s movie kid who gets sucked into wacky shenanigans. We see this primarily through her interactions with Barbara and Adam. The angstiness appears to shrug off her, only visible through her black clothes and she is key to the film’s final resolution.
In the end, Beetlejuice is a hilarious film that is one of the crown jewels in the Tim Burton collection. I hope one day that Burton will go back to his roots and make another film like this. It led the way to so many other iconic films like Batman, Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands, and The Nightmare Before Christmas (not directed by him, but his style and ideas are there). It’s a directorial style like no other in Hollywood. If you’re curious how Tim Burton’s style evolved to where it is now, Beetlejuice is a film to check out, I’m giving it an A. Just don’t say his name three times, ok?
Thank you for reading! Have you seen Beetlejuice? What did you think? What is your favorite Tim Burton movie? What would you like me to review next? Comment below!