Beetlejuice (1988), Happy Birthday Tim Burton!

Beetlejuice will always hold a special place in my heart; the first time I ever went to America I was on a trip to San Francisco and after a long day of constant traveling we made it to the Hotel, ordered a pizza and put on the TV only to find the film playing. I had never seen it before and cherished every moment as I indulged on my first ever authentic American pizza, and ever since it’s always been a favourite of mine. Despite a somewhat rocky career, Tim Burton has always been a personal favourite of mine. His unapologetically stylish flourish and painstakingly emotional stories have captured my heart for years and I am a firm champion for Burton’s place among the great directors. 

For me, Beetlejuice represents a significant milestone as well as a high point in Burton’s career; after being fired from Disney after his Frankenweenie short, his work on Peewee’s Big Adventure propelled Burton to being considered a marketable director. While I’ve heard good things about Burton’s work on Peewee, from what I’ve seen it doesn’t convey Burton’s soon-to-be signature style in the way that his later films would. Due to this I feel Beetlejuice was clearly a formative work in Burton’s career, bringing his niche gothic-inspired style to the mainstream, ultimately becoming the 10th-highest grossing film of 1988. Performing so well in this regard can certainly be seen as proof that Burton’s particular style managed to capture the attention of the general populace, which paved the groundwork for Burton’s later masterpieces like Edward Sicssorhands and Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (produced by Burton). 

I find that Beetlejuice is such a relatable and enjoyable film because it turns the macabre topics of death, the afterlife and ghosts into such a charming and funny film. The humour is very dark, something I often forget (think about the receptionist in the waiting room who is dressed in a runner’s-up Mrs. America outfit who makes a joke about her own suicide), but delivers its joke in such a off-kilter way it becomes hilarious (just think about the team of footballers who can’t comprehend their death in a highway accident). Whether you’re afraid of your own mortality, or the idea that restless spirits haunt your house, this film creates a world that approaches these topics with humour and levity. You can’t talk about the comedy in the film without following swiftly by talking about Michael Keaton’s brilliant performance as the titular, although spelt differently, bio-exorcist. From the iconic striped suit, to the wild and elaborate costumes and effects that work with Keaton’s delivery to craft these unforgettable moments of humour. One of my absolute favourites is the cowboy themed TV commercial that Betelgeuse stars in; Keaton’s accent and physicality makes this scene so funny for me. The fast-paced talking and distinctive drawl that Keaton uses for his character really amplifies the comedy of the film, and even in the climax of the film his one-liners really help keep the film’s pacing fast and flowing. But while everyone remembers Keaton’s comedic presence in the film, you really have to celebrate the rest of the leading and supporting cast. From the background characters in the afterlife waiting room, or the footballers I mentioned earlier, to Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, and even Jeffrey Jones & Catherine O’Hara all need to have their comedic timing and delivery’s credit as they bring so much to the table as well. Some of my favourite scenes are when O’Hara and Glenn Shadix are walking around the house planning their renovations. Winona Ryder does a great job of keeping up with her adult colleagues, and she really fleshes out and personifies her character through her performance of Lydia. 

One element of the film that deserves a whole piece devoted to it, is the use of miniatures and the effects utilised in the film. It would be a lie to say that the green screen and similar effects have held up to 2020 standards, but they carry the same charm that the effects in something like Hausu carries. But what has held up beautifully is the use of practical effects; from the very beginning of the film with what you assume is a helicopter tracking shot to capture a small rural town is revealed to be swooping over the streets of a model town in the house’s attic, but even going deeper into the film you only need to look at scenes of Baldwin & Davis’s Adam and Barbara manipulating their faces to scare the Deetz’s to see how incredible the practical effects are. The latter example is one of my favourite sequences in the whole film, and have made the film age so nicely. Even the scenes like the close-up of the fly on the fake-grass of the model town looks astounding with the newer restorations of the film. 

Out of all the Tim Burton films I love, none come close to Beetlejuice for me. When I first watched it at such a formative age in my film watching, the unabashedly stylistic presentation left a deep impression of what films could be. And as I’ve watched it again and again over the years, it has been so fun to share my love of the film with people for their first time watching, and grow a deeper appreciation for it myself as a subversive, about death that is suitable for all ages. The iconography and legacy this film have left are incredible, but more than a pulpy old horror-comedy, the film remains a poignant and hilarious film that cemented the career or not only Burton but Winona Ryder too, and if you need any more convincing of how great this film is you only need to reflect on the brilliant use of the Banana Boat Song to cement this film’s place in the history of cinema.

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