Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Michael (f’ing) Keaton, Winona Ryder, Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin, Jeffery Jones, Glenn Shadix, Robert Goulet, Dick Cavett… Christ, the cast on this picture is bonkers.
Have I Seen it Before: It is a core member of the “VHS tapes I wore down to the point of evaporation during childhood” association.
Did I Like It: It’s a weird movie, but that’s more of an objective statement, isn’t it?
Beetlejuice—Tim Burton’s second feature—is about death. Again, that seems like a pretty objective statement. Perhaps it is about death in the same way that Young Frankenstein (1974) is about neurosurgery. And yet, over dozens of viewings in the late 80s and early 90s, that never seemed to be what the film was about. If you were to ask me in my first decade of life what the story of the film actually is, and I would probably tell you that some people wander around a movie for the better part of an hour before Michael Keaton shows up and the real movie begins. This may be because a) I was more familiar with the ensuing cartoon series based on the movie, that transformed Beetlejuice (Keaton) and Lydia Deetz (Winona Ryder) from the lecherous demon in search of a suicidal child bride into a pair of wacky pals and b) I wasn’t quite ready to comprehend the idea of death at the age of five.
And yet, I can kind of get where I missed the idea way back when. The whole movie attaches itself to a pointedly nebulous aesthetic. The football team is out of left field, especially when they’re in the last shot of the picture. Why do dead people get sent to Saturn? Why is it a huge public health issue in the deceased community? Why has no one noticed Sand Worms traveling the surface of Saturn? Why did the sandworm appear out of nowhere at the Maitland/Deetz residence? That one’s a bit of deus ex machina, right? Don’t get me started on the fact that this may be the only film in existence which is regularly uncertain about the spelling of its title.
And so the film exists in a state of contradiction, often bewildering, but just as frequently charming. It might be the key case study in my Michael Keaton Theory. (Which postulates that a film is automatically ten percent better than it would have been otherwise. It works wonders in cases like Robocop (2014), and brings the rottentomatoes score of a movie like Multiplicty (1996) into the mid-eighties).
Another thought that only just now occurred to me on this screening: So odd that Burton directed this as sort of a warm up to Batman (1989) and didn’t cast Baldwin as the Dark Knight the next year. I mean, I’m grateful. Baldwin at this point in his career is too-on-the-nose for the “dance of the freaks” Burton was intent to bring to the screen, but the fact that the studio didn’t insist—or, in the alternative, Burton was able to bypass their insistence—is sort of freaky.