I tend to just expect Tim Burton to release something "quirky" on a regular basis these days, often with Johnny Depp or Helen Bonham Carter, or both if he can get away with it. Back in the 1980s he was one of the hottest new directors, owing largely to the success of Pee Wee's Big Adventure, which starred Paul Reubens in his famous children's character role before an adventure of his own in a seedy New York theater brought his career to a screeching halt. It took a lot more to do that with Burton, namely a bunch of terribly unfunny and uninteresting movies - often starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, or both.
Pee Wee's Big Adventure was a surprise hit, and it earned Burton a choice of what project he would do next. Although he was set on Batman at some point, the next movie he chose was a story by Michael McDowell and Larry Wilson, which would be worked into a screenplay by Warren Skaaren. The concept was simple: what if a couple of nice, rural ghosts had to put up with the worst example of an '80s New York City family - a real estate magnate and an avant-garde artist - moving into their home and couldn't get rid of them on their own. Who you gonna call? Well, there's only one in the business, and you just say his name three times.
Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara Maitland (Geena Davis) live in the idyllic village of Winter River, Connecticut, in an old farmhouse overlooking the town. Adam runs the local hardware store and loves everything about the place, right down to building his own model of the entire town in the attic. Unfortunately, on a trip to get some brushes from the store, they run off a bridge while trying to avoid a local dog running loose. Arriving home they realize something quite disturbing: they didn't survive the crash, and are now left alone in their house with only a guidebook that neither can figure out.
Even worse, Barbara's sister Jane (Annie McEnroe), who was desperately trying to get them to sell while alive, jumps at the opportunity to finally put the house on the market. The result is Delia (Catherine O'Hara) and Charles Deetz (Jeffrey Jones), and their daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder). Following along with them comes Delia's interior designer and best friend Otho (Glenn Shadix). Delia and Otho, much to the Maitlands' horror, begin renovations. Desperate to have them leave, and out of options, they decide to hire Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), a "bio-exorcist," but soon find out that his methods are a bit too extreme.
Beetlejuice may be considered a classic at this point, and it was quite popular when it came out. Alec Baldwin, barely recognizable in his young age, and Geena Davis had on-screen chemistry that made the Maitlands believable. Winona Ryder, then 17, had stood out in the movie Lucas, and the overdramatic goth stylings of Lydia was a huge stepping stone to the many memorable roles she would have going forward. Jeffrey Jones was reliably funny as usual, Catherine O'Hara put her all into making Delia hilariously pretentious, while Glenn Shadix brought life to Otho, which easily could have been a one-note role making fun of snooty New York artists. Then, of course, there is Michael Keaton, improvising a good portion of his dialog and, taking a cue on what the character was supposed to be, helping to guide the creation of the costume.
There are also the unique effects and makeup work. Burton didn't have much money to work with, so he just went as silly and goofy as he could, and it provided a certain visual aesthetic - one that owes a lot to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - of the afterlife that it was just as much a star of the movie as Keaton. The few scenes on "Saturn" featuring the sandworms are standouts, and much of this would form the basis to a successful cartoon based on the movie - which, I'll admit, I liked more than I ever liked the movie.
Not that I hate it. I know there are a lot of people who absolutely despise this movie, but I like a good deal of it, especially the ideas of what happens after we pass on, the friendship that the otherwise depressed and isolated Lydia forms with the Maitlands and the digs at hilariously bad art. My problem with the movie is the title character itself. I give credit to Michael Keaton for bringing him to life, but Betelgeuse himself is loud, desperate and generally unfunny. It's not even the things one notices after all these years, like him pretty much assaulting Barbara or the fact that he's got the hots for a girl that, in the movie universe, is supposed to be around 14. Those disturbing parts could be removed and the character would still be unbearable. The stupid voices and hyperactivity is why I have problems with movies like The Waterboy or Cable Guy. I have no idea why I liked Drop Dead Fred so much, as that character is largely just a clownier Betelgeuse, but maybe it's because Rick Mayall can pull it off, while Keaton can't.
It's strange since I can't really see anyone else that Burton had in mind - from Sammy Davis Jr. to Arnold Schwarzenegger - in the part. If this was Burton's intention, to make Betelgeuse such an obnoxious, and noxious, character, then he succeeded and possibly a good portion of the movie went by most of the fans. I know he is nominally supposed to be the villain in the movie as well, but unfortunately the movie was marketed as if he was just one of those strange uncles that are not overly touchy, but still shouldn't have the kids over for an extended basis without supervision. The fact that a groping ephebophilic ghost wasn't clearly made out as a villain is a failure that either falls with Keaton or Burton, or possibly both. To its credit the rest of the cast makes this movie enjoyable, and thankfully Betelgeuse is only in the film for a short time, with most of the focus being on the Maitlands and the Deetzes.
In many ways this deserves its status as an '80s horror-comedy classic. It gets so much right, even if it isn't laugh-out-loud hilarious, nad the number of subtle jokes and sight gags show just how clever Tim Burton can be when he isn't spending a lot of time thinking about how clever he's being. A more reserved, subtle villain in a bio-exorcist, with more of a slow reveal of what he is truly like, would have been preferable to what we got, and it is something that Keaton could have pulled off effortlessly and still have a memorable character on his resumé.
Time: 92 minutes
Starring: Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton, Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O'Hara, Winona Ryder, Glenn Shadix
Director: Tim Burton