(Tim Burton, USA, 1988)

BY ANN OLSSON | March 17, 2023

Even after the financial success of Tim Burton’s 1985 feature debut, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Warner Bros. rejected his vision for Batman and he was left in search of a follow-up. With a background in animation and an affinity for gothic horror, Burton was perhaps the only director who could know what to do with a strange entity like Beetlejuice, which was presented to him by The Geffen Company after other filmmakers, including Wes Craven, were weeded out. Burton enlisted noted script doctor Warren Skaaren to both soften some of the more gruesome elements of Michael McDowell’s original version and dial up the funny, resulting in a whole new style of dark fantasy/comedy suitable for (nearly) the entire family.

The film immediately flips convention on its head when, not even 10 minutes in, its newlywed protagonists—the adoring, wholesome Barbara and Adam Maitland (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin)—die in a car accident. They reemerge as ghosts, albeit content ones—that is, until the pretentious Charles and Delia Deetz (Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O’Hara) move into their oversized Victorian farmhouse along with Charles’s teenage goth daughter, Lydia (Winona Ryder). To the Maitlands’ horror, Delia also brings on interior designer Otho (Glenn Shadix) to transform their creaky home into a house of modern-art kitsch.

Weary of being haunted by these humans, Barbara and Adam refer to the Handbook for the Recently Deceased and are transported to a limbo waiting room filled with frightful souls, where the bureaucracy is as absurd as anything living beings must contend with. In a nutshell: the late couple must remain in their house for 125 years, and if they wish to do away with the Deetzes… they must chase off the intruders themselves. But several failed attempts later, the kindly spirits have only managed to befriend Lydia and scare away absolutely no one, so they decide to call upon a freelance bio-exorcist: Beetlejuice. Beetlejuice. Beetlejuice. Offensive, foul-mouthed, and disruptive, the ghoul-for-hire, played to the hilt by a magnificent Michael Keaton, quickly makes the Maitlands reconsider their choice of contractor. Eventually they find themselves fending him off from the very people they were using him to eradicate.

Superb casting for the leads (if David Geffen hadn’t pressed for Keaton, Beetlejuice could have been Sam Kinison, Dudley Moore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Sammy Davis Jr., Burton’s initial pick!) and the supporting actors (Sylvia Sidney as a chain-smoking afterlife caseworker is one standout) are only part of what makes Beetlejuice so enjoyable. Working with a limited budget, the art department leaned into the cartoonish elements of the limbo world with gusto, and the film’s overall aesthetic is Pee-wee’s Playhouse meets The Addams Family, New England–style. Also instrumental in this franchise-in-the-making—later spawning an animated TV series, a Broadway musical, and continued promises of a Burton-directed movie sequel—were the inspired use of four Harry Belafonte songs as well as the playful compositions of Danny Elfman, whose close-to-20-film collaboration with Burton is now legendary.

Beetlejuice erased any doubts about Burton, and he of course had no trouble getting his Batman film greenlit (even if making it was another story). 🩸


is film lover/writer living in New York City.

How to see Beetlejuice

The film is widely available on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital platforms.
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