Today, I’ll be watching a film that I haven’t seen in, oh, at least a decade. It’s a film at could be described as ”Good Old Family Fun” and features a pretty gosh darn impressive cast who would all go on to some pretty decent long term fame (including a man who would work with the same director and give us one of the definitive performances of a very popular long running character) and was directed by a man who was beginning his career as a director and was still eager to show the world what he could do, and not be seemingly stuck in a rut.
No, I’m not talking about Mr John Hughes (I’m sure I’ll cover at least some of his films at some point thought). I’m actually talking about one of the current targets of the Internet Hate Machine, Mr Tim Burton. And the film, 1988’s Beetlejuice - one of Burton’s best, IMO; and without a doubt the best live action stop motion film there has ever been. For all those who say that Burton only does “Hot Topic Nightmares”, my favourite Tim Burton films are this, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Ed Wood and Big Fish (remember Nightmare Before Christmas is NOT a Tim Burton film, no matter how many of his fingerprints are on the final product) – none of which you typically find hanging on the wall of your “typical” Hot Topic fan. Straight up, the man is a damn good director. Beetlejuice however, as you will see, is the birth of why we typically think of as a Tim Burton Film.
Beetlejuice, for those who don’t remember is the story of a couple that dies (relax, it happens in the first 10 minutes, so it doesn’t count as a spoiler) and end up haunting the family that move in afterwards, with the help of their “friend” Beetlejuice. Let’s have a watch, shall we?
While Mr Burton had directed several films prior to this, as stated above I feel that Beetlejuice is the birth (at least in terms of live action representation) of the so-called “Tim Burton style”, which a lot of people have decried as being the only thing the man does now. And you can definitely see it from, the very first scene, in which we pan over a miniature version of the town the story is set while the music of Danny Elfman does its thing over the top. It’s a town that would not look out of place in just about any Stephen King story (something I like to call New England American Gothic). The man is proud of his art, and is good at it – can you blame him for using it where and whenever possible?
From there, we spin out into the human world and get introduced to our central human (though soon not to be) players, Adam and Barbra (a surprisingly young Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) who are being pressured to sell their house. But hell, if I lived there, I wouldn’t sell either. And within the first 10 minutes we have not only some delightful death, but also our first WSD moment; Adam says hi to an old man as he enters the general store, who starts talking, and when Adam comes back out, the old man is STILL talking and didn’t even know Adam was gone for that time. Then the couple die and quickly realise such, primarily when Adam ends up in a zany stop motion nightmare zone (some would call this very Tim Burton influenced, were it not a Tim Burton film). Their suspicions are confirmed when they find have no reflections and are now in possess of The Handbook For The Recently Deceased.
After accepting their status as spirits, the couple stick around the house, until they find a new family having moved in – the Deetzes, typical “city folk’, henpecked husband Charles (Jeffery Jones, in one of the few roles I’ve seen him be remotely sympathetic); his new wife, and villain of the piece, Delia (the excellent Catherine O’Hara); Charles daughter, and prototype for The Burton Look, Lydia (Winona Ryder) and Delia’s sycophantic interior designer Otho (the late Glenn Shadix). After some very half assed “hauntings” by the dead couple, they find themselves drawn into the sights of a “Bio-Exorcist”, the eponymous Betelgeuse (Beetlejuice). After following the Handbook’s advice and getting treated to a little bit more stop motion wonderment, the pair find themselves in what can only be described as the inside of Tim Burton’s head, the brilliantly realised Limbo, a memorable mix of puppetry, stop motion and make-up (I am a huge fan of masks-a-go-go, wild and wacky scenes like this, and it’s like a small budget Mos Eisley) where they meet their Afterlife Case Worker, Juno, who warns them away from Mr Juice (no idea why, because he seems harmless enough). Around the same time, they work out that Lydia is the only living human (in the cast, at least) who can see them and she soon gets tied up in their wild and wacky (soon to get more of both) adventures in exorcising the living.
Adam and Barbra soon say the magic words (which I won’t be saying, just in case.....ok, ok, I’ll say them: Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse) and find themselves on the set of Nightmare Before Christmas, where they meet the ma.....
HEY, HOW YA DOIN’, IT’S GOOD OL’ MR B HERE, AND I HAVE NO IDEA WHY YOU ARE READING THIS. THIS GUY IS FREAKIN’ DULL. HE DEFINITELY NEEDS MORE EXCITEMENT UP HERE. NOW, WHERE WERE WE.....
OH YEAH, TALKING ABOUT MY ADVENTURES WITH THOSE SQUARES....I MEAN, MY BEST PALS, THE MAITLANDS. NOW, I GOTTA TELL YA, THAT KID BURTON MADE A REALLY GOOD SHOT OF SHOWING WHAT HAPPENED – BUT HE DIDN’T GO FAR ENOUGH. THERE WAS A LOT MORE FUN, FAMILY SCARES AND TEARS WHEN WE REALLY DID THAT. HELL, EVEN THAT CUTE LITTLE THING, LYDIA, GOT IN ON THE ACT – THAT KID REALLY GETS ME, AND I GET HER TOO. NOT LIKE THAT, YA DAMN PERVS, IT’S SO HARD TO FIND WILLING MEMBERS OF THE LIVING WHO ARE COOL WITH THE AFTERLIFE, SO WHEN YA FIND ONE, YA GOTTA KEEP ‘EM ON SIDE. AND HELL, IF THAT MEANS I GOTTA FAKE MARRY ‘EM, THEN THAT’S WHAT I’LL DO – IT WAS NEVER GONNA BE LEGAL, I DON’T KNOW WHY THEY PANICED AND TRIED TO STOP ME. I WOULDA ANNULLED THE THING IMMEDIATELY. IT WAS JUST A CHANCE TO GET OUT, CAN YA BLAME ME FOR TRYING?
SPEAKING OF PEOPLE NOT ON MY SIDE – LET’S TALK ABOUT THE REST OF HER FAMILY. SHEESH, WHAT IDIOTS THEY ARE, I CAN SEE WHY ADAM AND BABS WANTED THEM GONE. AT LEAST THEY LOOK GOOD DANCING. THAT’S ONE OF THE FEW THINGS BURTON GOT EXACTLY RIGHT...IF YA CAN’T DANCE, WHAT THE HELL CAN YA DO – AND EVERYONE DANCES TO BELAFONTE (YEAH, BURTON SAID IT WAS THEIR IDEA, BUT IT WAS ALL ME BABY...HEY, EVEN THE AFTERLIFES BEST BIO EXORCIST HAS GOTTA PARTY). I REALLY SHOULDA TRIED SOMETHING DIFFERENT FIRST, BECAUSE THE DEETZES ARE THE WORST KIND OF POSER YUPPY AND TRIED TO HIRE US AS ENTERTAINMENT. THE ONLY PERSON WHO I ENTERTAIN IS ME....OR WHOEVER HIRED ME, SO I REJECTED THEM....THEN THE FUN REALLY STARTED. I EVEN HAD TO BUST OUT THE OLD SNAKEHEAD ROUTINE. BURTON TRIED HIS BEST DOING HIS LITTLE STOP MOTION TRICK, BUT IT REALLY DIDN’T LOOK ALL THAT MUCH LIKE ME. HE TRIED, THOUGH, ESPECIALLY IN THE SCENE WHERE HE HAD ADAM AND BABS PULLING THEIR FACES INTO SCAAAAAAARY SHAPES – GOTTA LOVE THAT KID. LIKE I SAID, ONE OF THE LIVING THAT REALLY GETS ME - EVEN THOUGH HE ENDED THE FILM WITH ME BANISHED TO SATURN WITH THOSE DAMN SAND WORMS....MAKES ME MAD JUST THINKING ABOUT IT....I SHOULDA NEGOTIATED A BETTER CONTRACT, MADE ME THE HERO...UGHHH....I NEED A DRINK...CATCH YOU LOSERS ON THE FLIPSIDE.
Ugh, sorry about that. I didn’t know he was in earshot. Either way, the last twenty minutes of the film are where Keaton and Shadix get to shine. Shadix first during the séance scene (it really is a shame that man didn’t get a larger degree of success when he was alive), and Keaton during the wedding scene, both of which have given the make-up, SFX and lighting departments (or just Burton. I really do love his stop motion stuff) a chance to run wild. The whole last act is an absolute joy for the eyes, which is really what Tim Burton excels at.
Seeing the kinds of things that Burton gave us later in his career, especially the stop motion work (which has really been what the man has truly excelled at all these years) – it’s amazing to see just how much of that comes through in his human performers, especially the female performers. Sure, Winona Ryder has the beginning stages of The Tim Burton Look and Keaton IS a scenery devouring over the top tour de force, but I was amazed at just how much Geena Davis put forward the overall feel of a character that wouldn’t seem out of place in Nightmare Before Christmas or The Corpse Bride – to the point that I am surprised they didn’t work together more than they did. Baldwin was just as good as the human embodiment of a Tim Burton Hero – awkward, clumsy, a little bit innocent, yet more than capable of loving those around him and stepping up to the plate if pressed (and the reason why Burton works so often with Johnny Depp is the fact that Depp plays all those aspects really well himself), and for every giant step that Keaton takes, Baldwin manages to keep up with him, but in a much more understated way. And the fact that Keaton is in the film for less than 20 minutes, compared to the fact that both Baldwin and Davis are on screen for over 90% of the film, yet he remains a million times more ensconced in filmgoers minds is just proof as to how underrated an actor he truly is.