Beetlejuice (1988)

Film review: Beetlejuice (1988), directed by Tim Burton

Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis) Maitland live in a big, old house on a hill near a small town in the middle of nowhere. Just the sort of place where people from the Big City would like to come and buy property for loads of money, and real estate agent Jane (Annie McEnroe) is desperate for the Maitlands to sell. Why do they need such a big house when it’s just the two of them?

Meanwhile, the couple have two weeks off and they’re set to do lots of work on the house in this time. Unfortunately, their car crashes into the river and they both drown … and return to the house as if nothing happened. Soon enough, they realise that they’re dead and have a manual welcoming them to the afterlife. They’re stuck inside the house as ghosts.

The house is sold to a family from New York City, the Deetzes. Charles (Jeffrey Jones) likes the house, but his wife Delia (Catherine O’Hara), a sculptor, is keen on remodelling it completely together with interior designer Otho (Glenn Shadix). This is seen as a most unwelcome intrusion by the Maitlands, who try to scare them away, but to no avail. The only one who can actually see them is Charles’s goth daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder), who rather likes her spectral friends.

Even the Maitlands’ afterlife case worker (Sylvia Sidney) isn’t of much help, except to say that whatever they do, they should not, repeat: not, summon Beetlejuice (actually “Betelgeuse” in writing), a “bio-exterminator”. However, desperate times call for desperate measures … and when you call for Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton), you’re calling for trouble …

Nowadays, we’ve come to expect Tim Burton films to feature Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter, but this is one before their time, so to speak. Beetlejuice is a bizarre and quirky film – Burton’s trademarks – and it’s also rather amusing. Keaton’s portrayal of the ghastly ghoul is hysterical and cracks me up, and even if I’m not laughing out loud, I’m definitely smiling with delight on the inside. Some of it turning into cringing, as Beetlejuice is a thoroughly slimy and creepy creature.

The special effects are dated by today’s standards, but the masks and puppet work is still very good. It’s the sort of film that would go very well with Halloween, I imagine. The whole afterlife theme is amusing, like seeing the waiting room and the bureaucratic offices for the civil servants.

My biggest gripe with it all is not that it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with actual hauntings – Beetlejuice a ghostly fantasy romp, and I take it as such – but rather that the whole premise is flawed. In order for the film to take place, of course, the Maitlands need to die. However, they’re not exactly on a hill far, far away from the town centre, so I’m struggling to see why they’d need to take the car just to pick up a few bits from their hardware store in the first place. You’re on holiday, it’s a five-minute walk, just use your feet? If I need to pop to the post office, yeah sure, I can drive there, but as it’s just a five minute walk away, so I might as well get some exercise.

Even if we disregard using the car unnecessarily, there’s the issue with the dog. First, they should pay attention to the road and spot it earlier. Second, they weren’t going at a speed high enough to warrant spinning out of control and crashing through a wooden wall – they might break through, okay, but not half the car, surely? Thirdly, the windows were open, so even though the car landed on its roof, there was nothing to say they couldn’t have got out of there quite easily.

Yes, the Maitlands dying is a plot device and had to happen, but the point is, the accident was more than easily preventable and it should not have been fatal. Surely there were other, more believable, ways they could have died? Oh well. Aside from that, it’s an over-the-top film, but I enjoyed the characters and love the house – although Delia and Otho’s interior design leave a lot to be desired. So does the Maitlands’, fair enough, but at least their style is homely, if not to my personal taste. Yeah, interior design is another thing I really enjoy. 🙂

I do like Tim Burton’s style, and think Beetlejuice is a fun film, if not the most amazing thing ever. 3 out of 5 queue tickets.

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