Shake, shake, shake, Tor.comma, for it is a brand new Movie Rewatch of Great Nostalgia!
For today’s entry: He is, according to himself, the ghost with the most, and therefore we must watch him jump in de line: 1988’s Beetlejuice is on deck!
Previous entries can be found here. Please note that as with all films covered on the Nostalgia Rewatch, this post will be rife with spoilers for the film.
And now, the post!
LIZ: Well, obviously there’s only one way to start this party.
KATE: Yep, still awesome.
The phrase “timeless classic” gets seriously misappropriated more often than not, but in this case my sisters and I feel like it absolutely applies. Mainly because it is really difficult to believe that Beetlejuice is a nearly 30-year-old film. Watching it now, it felt just as relevant and clever—and, of course, funny—as it did when I watched it as a kid.
A criterion I’ve seen mentioned for what makes it possible for a movie to be “classic” is that it doesn’t anchor itself to any particular time period, and that is something Beetlejuice achieves beautifully. There are no brand names, no product placements, no references to recent events anywhere in the film. Purposefully or otherwise, there are as few clues given as possible to indicate where in time the movie is set, other than “within the last few decades”.
Even the things which should date the movie do not. Use of technology or electronics is kept to a deliberate minimum, and most of what does appear (Adam’s cassette tape player, Jane the Real Estate Agent’s boxy sedan) can be attributed to provincialism or Luddite tendencies as much as it can be used to pin down the film’s time period. The production design further muddies the issue with obvious anachronisms, like the ancient TV that Beetlejuice’s “ad” appears on.
Director Tim Burton’s not-quite-yet-at-that-point-but-rapidly-becoming-iconic brand of heavily stylized aesthetic helped immensely with this sense of timelessness. It turned what should have been, for instance, terribly 80s-specific fashion and interior décor, into an enduringly applicable (and hilarious) template for mocking frantically trendy posers with more money than taste.
In the same way, it took what are now, technically, deeply subpar animated effects and made them seem both intentional, and indelibly a part of the overall Burtonesque look.
So, you know, good job there.
Many people have attempted to define the Burton look, many of them probably much more accurately than me, but I personally have always rather thought of it as what it would look like if M.C. Escher and Salvador Dali got together and had a violently cheerful Goth baby.
Which is an aesthetic that I, and evidently a good deal of the world, can absolutely get behind. Like both Dali and Escher’s work, there’s something about Burton’s visual style that instantly makes sense to us, through the seemingly completely paradoxical quality of being bizarre, distorted and nonsensical.
But a film cannot (or at least should not) stand on looks alone, and what elevates Beetlejuice from a merely visually interesting movie to a great movie is that the writing, the acting, and the music all work wonderfully together to support and complement Burton’s unique style.
I thought the movie was funny as a kid, but as a kid I really only got the overt slapstick parts of the movie. Or, in other words, every last thing Beetlejuice himself did was hysterical, and the Day-O scene, of course, was pure genius, but a lot of the rest of it was more… confusingly interesting, to young me. It was intriguing, and I could sense that it was supposed to be funny in some way that made me happy, but I didn’t actually get what the joke was most of the time.
Now, of course, it’s the rest of it that’s brilliant. Not that I don’t still love Michael Keaton’s shtick (with some exceptions, which I’ll get to in a minute), but the movie’s sly send-up of the clueless snottiness of New York’s nouveau riche set, embodied in the Deetzes and their terrible “friends”, is ten times more delightful to me as an adult. And it’s only now that I can appreciate how well even the smallest speaking roles are developed; even the ones with only one or two lines managed to be distinct and memorable characters, which is a harder thing to pull off than you might think, if you’re not a writer; if you are a writer, it’s impressive as hell.
Not to mention the film’s central and most inspired joke of all:
As Liz commented, the idea of death being just as filled with ridiculous, dreary, arcane bureaucratic bullshit as life is makes us laugh even as we cringe. Because it’s nuts, but at the same time something seems so terribly right about the idea; it makes sense even though it doesn’t. In that way, the story of Beetlejuice represents the Burton aesthetic just as much as the production design, and that’s some breathtaking symmetry once you really look at it.
Another thing you need to make a classic movie is a stellar cast, and holy hell did Beetlejuice have one of those.
YES. Catherine O’Hara is hands down the best thing about this movie, and my sisters and I will fight you if you disagree. Or at least frown at you very disapprovingly. My delight in her fantastic performance in Beetlejuice surpasses even my adoration for Carol Kane in Scrooged, and that is really saying something.
Also, Kate pointed out something that I’d never noticed before and which thrilled me beyond words: there’s a scene early on where Charles Deetz is trying unsuccessfully to “relax”, while wearing a hideous red sweater.
Then later, we see Delia cooking while pooh-poohing Lydia’s attempts to convince her the house is haunted, and we very briefly see what she’s using for an apron:
ME: Oh my god that is AMAZING.
It’s such a throwaway tiny detail, but it perfectly captures the dynamic of the Deetzes’ wildly dysfunctional marriage, and it is brilliant.
LIZ: Too bad Jeffrey Jones turned out to be a horrible child porn person.
…Yeah, that was not fun to find out about, considering that Jones was also famous for his role as truant-student-chasing Principal Rooney in one of my other favorite 80s films, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—a role which, unfortunately, was made way more creepy than funny in the wake of his conviction as a sex offender. Ugh.
BUT ANYWAY, Michael Keaton was also in this movie.
Even though his time on-screen is actually surprisingly short—he appears in less than 18 minutes of the 92-minute running time—Michael Keaton was really really in this movie. But as Beetlejuice himself would no doubt be the first to tell you, it’s not the length, it’s how you use it that counts. And Keaton, er, used the hell out of this role, to the point where it’s pretty much impossible to picture anyone else performing it. We’re going to come back to him.
LIZ: Jesus, I forgot how ridiculously hot Young Alec Baldwin is.
KATE: Even that awful outfit can’t uglify him.
Truth, y’all. Concurrently, the idea that we are supposed to accept Young Alec Baldwin and (Young) Geena Davis as Just Ordinary Folks is, I feel, Burton’s one concession to Hollywood nonsense, as opposed to his own.
This is also the film that put Winona Ryder on the map, even though it wasn’t her first role. This plus Heathers, which came out the same year, made Ryder one of the most hugely popular actresses of the late 80s and 90s. For kid me, Lydia’s Goth-like look represented a sartorial courage that I often wished I dared to attempt but knew even then I did not have the energy or commitment (or emo) to achieve. Ah well.
I also must confess to a special soft spot for Otho, played by Glenn Shadix (who was, probably not coincidentally, also in Heathers). I didn’t understand his character at all as a kid, but with a few decades of life experience under my belt I now know exactly who Otho is (and have met him embodied in at least three different people), and he is deeply hilarious. I was very sad to learn in researching this article of Shadix’s premature death in 2010.
And of course there’s no way in heckfire I can let this movie go by without talking about the score by Danny Elfman, which is in my opinion probably his best work. Certainly it’s by far one of his most recognizable. Liz disagreed with me about that—she thinks that his score for Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is more iconic—but I think if you listen to the two opening themes side by side, the superiority of Beetlejuice’s theme is obvious. It’s the full orchestral blossoming of Elfman’s signature “demented carnival” sound that was still only germinating in Pee Wee’s music.
KATE: “Germinating”? Really?
ME: IT IS A METAPHOR SHUT IT
In any case, I don’t think anyone would dispute that the artistic marriage of Tim Burton’s directing with Danny Elfman’s composing is the best thing that’s happened to Hollywood since the ménage à trois of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and John Williams. It would be hard to imagine a more perfect complement to Burton’s movies than Elfman’s music, and I feel like that gets one of its strongest expressions in this movie.
All that said, not everything is unmitigatedly wonderful about Beetlejuice. For one, the sandworm thing really makes no sense whatsoever in relation to the rest of how Burton’s version of the afterlife worked; considering how clever the rest of the story is, the use of the sandworm as a seemingly random plot device (not to mention a more or less literal deus ex machina at the end of the film) was a distinct sour note, in my opinion.
Then there was Beetlejuice himself, who turned out to be, on this viewing, both (almost) the best and (probably) the worst thing about the movie.
Doing Beetlejuice at some point on the MRGN was inevitable, because hello, but we ended up watching it at this particular juncture because Nephew Remy had been begging to see the movie lately, and so we decided to let him.
Which, uh… okay. Beetlejuice is rated PG, and I… do not understand how that rating came to pass, because, well, this:
LIZ: OKAY! And now we will pause the movie for a short discussion on really bad words young boys are not allowed to say!
Yeah, so apparently the 80s had a significantly different definition of what is appropriate for younger audiences. Either that, or Tim Burton had some serious blackmail material on some folks at the MPAA. Or both.
This is not to say we had no culpability here; all three of us need to be slapped upside the head for not remembering that this F-bomb was coming. Not to mention gems like the supernatural whorehouse, Lydia’s spiel on sexual perversion, and the fact that Beetlejuice blatantly sexually molests every single female he comes within range of throughout the movie. I mean, I’m pretty sure 99% of the sex stuff flew right over Remy’s head anyway, but that’s really not sufficient as an excuse.
There was definitely a lot more sexual harassment/casual sexism happening in this movie than I had remembered, and even though I didn’t want my discomfort to lessen my enjoyment of Michael Keaton’s performance, I have to be honest and say that it kind of did. Especially because I was watching it with a young boy who was now internalizing, even if only subconsciously, the idea that it was okay or funny to treat women the way that Beetlejuice does. Sigh.
Liz was also a little worried that some of the gorier bits would scare Remy, but on being questioned afterward Remy declared staunchly that he hadn’t been scared by any of it. And since he also declared that his favorite part was when Geena Davis “poked out her eyeballs and rolled them into her mouth”, it seems that he took the gross parts in exactly the atmosphere of gleeful macabre fun that they were intended.
But you know what, even with the values dissonance, we still love love love this movie, and I still regard it as one of the great classics of American cinema. There are a lot of rumors swirling around recently that a sequel is in the works, but frankly I kind of hope that they remain just that: rumors. Not that Hollywood ever listens on this score, but really there are some things which are close enough to perfect that you should just leave them alone, sez me.
And so, we close with our patent pending Nostalgia Love to Reality Love 1-10 Scale of Awesomeness!
And that’s the MRGN for now, kids! Hopefully it didn’t read like stereo instructions! If it didn’t, then please come back in two weeks for Moar! Cheers!