Jared and I sat down to Beetlejuice with pretty low expectations. We'd seen the film as kids, of course, and again at some point after we'd hit the puberty wall. Jared thinks he must have been about 14; I honestly have no idea how old I was when last I watched it. But our memories were hazy, all stripes and sandworms and weird subplots about model towns. It's okay, we reassured each other; we only have to watch it once.
You know what we discovered? Beetlejuice is actually pretty great.
Adam and Barbara Maitland are a pleasant couple. They have an enormous, creaky old mansion (a comfy version of the Bates Motel house) and a two weeks vacation ahead of them. They can't have kids (this is nicely, if not subtly, established). They love each other. They're happy.
Of course they die horribly.
The long and the short of their afterlife situation is this: Barbara and Adam are stuck in their house for 125 years, as a sort of trial period before they can move on. They have a caseworker and a handbook and everything. (Suicides become civil servants in the afterlife.) So things return to a kind of normal; they can't change clothes or leave the house, but they're together in their beloved home, with all the peace and quiet they ever wanted.
Adam and Barbara's "outside," by the way, is a sandy hellscape of burning winds and awesome stop-motion giant sandworms. As a major fan of ye olde school stop-motion animation, I was very pleased with the creature effects in Beetlejuice.
Of course such peace cannot last, and the Maitland house is sold to a seriously yuppified couple and their teenaged daughter - Charles, Delia and Lydia Deetz. Charles and Lydia are pretty happy with the house as it stands, but Delia, a failed sculptor, sets to tearing the heart out of it, to turn it into the 1980s Sunset Magazine centerfold from hell. The Maitlands do their best to scare the Deetz family off, but to no avail... as no one can see them.
Their caseworker can't do much for them, other than warn them not to engage the services of "bio-exorcist" Betlegeuse, an oversexed, foul-mouthed ghost who's been camped out in the model town Adam built before he died. But the Maitlands are getting desperate; their house has been transformed into something unrecognizable, and Charles and Delia seem set on doing the same to their entire quiet town. So they summon Betelgeuse.
Not, however, before they realize Lydia can see them. The deceased couple and the depressed teenager make friends, and the Maitlands come to look on Lydia as a kind of surrogate daughter.
But they've unleashed Betelgeuse. He terrorizes the Deetzes and takes a bit of a shine to Lydia before the Maitlands' caseworker shows up, uninvokes him and then distracts him with a whorehouse filled with sexy devil ladies. She warns the Maitlands again not to mess with Betelgeuse, and they promise to leave him be.
Unfortunately, the elder Deetzes have finally cottoned to the fact that their house is haunted. This is not just thanks to Betelgeuse, but to the Maitlands' own efforts: a bravura and rightly-famous sequence where they possess the guests at one of the Deetzes' dinner parties. In an effort to impress Charles' boss, Delia's agent, and an art critic, the Deetzes throw a kind of haunting party and try to raise Barbara and Adam from the dead. Doing so, however, starts to kill them - so Lydia releases Betelgeuse to save the Maitlands. Betelgeuse brings the house (and Delia's horrific sculptures) to life, fetters the adults and tries to marry Lydia. The Maitlands and the Deetzes team up to defeat Betelgeuse, with Barbara delivering a seriously cool coup de grâce while riding a sandworm. The Deetzes and the Maitlands finally learn to live in harmony, Lydia finds happiness, and Betelgeuse gets his comeuppance while waiting to see his caseworker in the afterlife.
There is a lot, and I do mean a lot, to like about Beetlejuice. The set designs, the props, the effects, the actors, and even the bonkers story are well-delivered. The action never drags and everyone is likeable, even the semi-loathsome Delia Deetz. (It doesn't hurt that she's played to the hilt by the wonderful Catherine O'Hara.)
Beetlejuice's commitment to detail is particularly laudable. Late in the film, for example, Delia can briefly be seen modeling trousers made from a sweater Charles wore much earlier in the movie. It's one of many blink-and-you'll-miss-it moments of clever prop-use and character development that combine to build a truly cohesive, coherent film.
But what truly makes Beetlejuice so special is Betelgeuse himself. Like so many Burton villains, Betelgeuse is entirely invested in his own pleasure, no matter what destruction he might wreak in its fulfilment. He's anarchy personified. Michael Keaton plays the character so filthily, as lustily, and so darkly that he steals every scene he's in - indeed, his performance is so magnetic that it's easy to forget that he's the villain. But he is, and that's particularly important to remember when considering the moral universe that Beetlejuice, and all Tim Burton's mid-80s to mid-90s movies, inhabit.
The major theme that underlies Burton's early films (things start to go awry after Ed Wood) is this: it doesn't matter if you're weird; it only matters that you remain true to yourself. In Burton's world, individuality is precious, and constantly under siege from a universe bent on punishing anything or anyone who strays, however lightly, from the status quo. The stand-out characters from Burton's early films are always the straight-up freaks, like Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood, but these characters are surrounded by - and more importantly, supported by - much more quietly unusual people, sometimes even just very straightforwardly normal people. People like Dianne Wiest's Peg (Edward Scissorhands), who only wants to make sure Edward himself has a home and a family, or Patricia Arquette's Kathy (Ed Wood), who supports Wood's transvestism.
In the case of Beetlejuice, the quiet weirdos are Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis' Adam and Barbara. They're two exceedingly nice people who want only to be left alone with their house and model town. They're unrepentantly normal, but Burton isn't punishing them for their boring clothes and square attitudes. The Maitlands don't care about fitting in, or getting wealthy, or being famous. They do what they do because they want to, because they like to, and not because they feel they have to.
Compare Adam and Barbara with the other couple in Beetlejuice, Charles and Delia Deetz. Charles, we learn, is a wealthy man, but his big-city career (as some sort of real estate magnate) has been hobbled by his "nerves." He's not a bad guy, but he lets his social and marital anxieties control him. His wife, Delia, is a thousand times worse; she's a sculptor who only cares about art insofar as it can make her famous and wealthy. She's entirely invested in appearance; she guts the warm and shabby interior of Adam and Barbara's house to replace it with the apex of cold '80s mod aesthetics, all track lighting, grey walls, harsh angles and rubber trees. There's nothing warm about it, and more importantly, there's nothing individual about it.
Burton's favorite move is to take a relatively cold and anonymous setting - like the redecorated house - and drop an agent of chaos smack into the center of it. Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, the Joker, Catwoman, and Betelgeuse himself are personifications of anarchy; they exist to throw everything and everyone out of whack, to illustrate the dangers of a stultifying environment and why that individuality is so crucial to personal happiness and social stability. These characters are almost entirely self-serving; they exist to make themselves happy, no matter what the cost to the people around them. (Catwoman is a more sophisticated version of this, but we'll deal with her when Monsters & Mullets reviews Batman Returns.)
In Beetlejuice, Betelgeuse is a man without totally without inhibitions, a funhouse mirror so distorted and so distorting that he brings wrack and ruin to everything he touches. He plays on the fears of our quietly individualistic Barbara and Adam, causing them to question themselves and putting everything they care about - their house and surrogate daughter stand-in - into mortal danger. And he turns the Deetz's need for social acceptance against them. He animates Delia's sculptures into violent, monstrous creatures bent on savaging their hapless creator. He even turns the house itself against the Deetz family; under his psychotic rule it becomes a distorted and hellish vision of the worst of '80s architectural excesses: murderous bannisters, gaping chasms, and even a firey maw.
The moral of the story, of course is this: it's okay to be a square. Just be your own square.
Monsters: So many monsters. Sandworms and oversexed ghosts and giant flies oh my! Props especially to tiny Sylvia Sidney as Juno, the Maitlands' social worker. She's a smoker who apparently crossed over after slitting her own throat; when she exhales, smoke wafts out of her neck wound. It's fantastic. Oh, and Sidney was a total hottie back in her salad-eating days. You're welcome.
Mullets: Winona Ryder's Lydia has some pretty awful hair, but the real crime against taste is the clothing in this film. Pity poor Barbara Maitland, doomed to spend her afterlife in a flowered potato-sack. Ye gods.
Hookers, Victims & Doormats: Delia's a self-involved harpy, but she learns the error of her ways - and, even at her worst, she clearly does care about her stepdaughter. Barbara is as active as Adam in getting rid of the Deetzes, and Lydia is a well-written, recognizably melodramatic teenaged girl who finds happiness... in a haunted house. I honestly have no problem with the way women are depicted in this film.
Doesn't Anyone Think This Shit Through? I've just written a two thousand word article speculating that Tim Burton used to.
Destroying my Childhood by Inches: Beetlejuice is the first movie I remember wanting to see because everyone else had seen it. (Don't judge; I was eight.) Despite Burton's best efforts, however, (he tried to make a sequel called Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian), no one seems to be trying to sequelize or remake this film.
Comprehensive Monsters & Mullets Awesomeness Spectrum Rating: The awesome end of Awesome. Obviously.