“It’s showtime!” — Michael Keaton, Beetlejuice
To my mind, Tim Burton has never matched the sustained invention of his debut comedy, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, a near-perfect synthesis of two sensibilities (the other belonging to Pee-wee creator Paul Reubens) stuck in the blissful Neverland of eternal childhood. This was well before Burton’s love of outsiders curdled into the mopey self-pity and “misunderstood genius” of Edward Scissorhands, and more purely celebrated the imagination’s power to create worlds within worlds. In his quest to retrieve his stolen bike, Reubens’ Pee-wee is forced to leave the safety of his cloistered playhouse, yet no matter how scary things get on the road, he manages to bring everyone around to his point of view, whether they’re escaped cons, biker gangs, or a Francophile truck-stop waitress. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure seems to belie Burton’s reputation as a “dark” filmmaker, but the label never really applied; what Burton does best is appropriate gothic imagery and German expressionism for entertainments that are, for the most part, much lighter than they appear. He was an animator before he was a filmmaker, and that cartoony playfulness hasn’t entirely left him.
Though it never quite achieves the toy-box giddiness of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure—what movie could, really?—Burton’s 1988 follow-up, Beetlejuice, has the same sweetness running through it, and ample opportunities for the director to play around. It’s a ghost story where Burton, not surprisingly, sides with the ghosts, who are trying to expel a pack of officious city slickers from their quaint New England home. There’s nothing scary or malicious about the film—even the villains are oddly likeable—yet it’s still hard to believe that a studio in the ’80s would approve such a defiantly odd vision to be produced for general audiences. Then again, that’s the Burton touch: He makes the outré accessible to everyone, so utterly bizarre conceits—like, say, a haunting that’s set to Harry Belafonte’s calypso standard “Day-O”—are whimsical, infectious, and remarkably easy to process. Beetlejuice is the rare case of a tailor-made cult movie that crossed over into mainstream acceptance, and that speaks to Burton’s ability to express a distinct, uncorrupted personal vision compatible with broad commercial appeal. How many directors can pull that off?
Burton’s ace in the hole, of course, is Michael Keaton, who plays the eponymous spookmeister as a live-action Tex Avery creation—part used-car huckster, part irrepressible horndog, part Groucho Marx-like putdown artist, and all-around malevolent force of nature. As “Betelgeuse,” a specialist at haunting the living, Keaton plays a malleable corpse whose fee appears to be the sheer pleasure of jerking people around. And if you act now, according to his late-night TV ad, he’ll throw in a “free demon possession with every exorcism.” Based on his performance in Beetlejuice—anticipated to some extent by his energetic turns in Night Shift, Mr. Mom, Gung Ho, and Johnny Dangerously—Keaton seemed like the comedic whiz-kid of his generation, given his verbal dexterity, unpredictability, and scuzzy charisma. But Burton stuffed this Tasmanian devil into the Batsuit a year later, and it more or less sucked the life out of him. (See also: Val Kilmer, another promising ’80s prankster turned into a miserable stiff.)
In a movie that layers models on top of models (a Burton trademark), Beetlejuice opens with overhead shots of a New England town right out of the Saturday Evening Post, an iconic, timeless retreat with rolling hills, a covered bridge, and houses that have stubbornly resisted the threat of modernity. The Maitlands, Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis), are the perfect couple for this type of setting, content with their quiet life and craftsy little hobbies, like adding to the meticulous scale model of the town that Adam keeps in their attic. After their Volvo veers to avoid a dog, crashes through the covered bridge, and plummets to the stream below—the weight of the dog they dodged keeps the car teetering ever-so-briefly on the brink, in a move that’s pure Warner Brothers—the Maitlands manage to find their way back home. But they soon discover that they actually died in the accident, and they’re left to wonder what they’re supposed to do. Unfortunately, their lone roadmap to the afterlife, a hefty tome called The Handbook For The Recently Deceased, reads like stereo instructions.
Before the Maitlands have a chance to find their celestial footing, however, their house is sold off to the Deetzes, a snooty bunch of New York elites. They’re led by Delia (Catherine O’Hara), a pretentious sculptress who’s immune to the town’s rustic charms. Her husband Charles (Jeffrey Jones) is a high-strung but deeply ineffectual man who longs for peace and quiet. Their daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder) is a goth girl given to hiding herself behind black veils. And their personal interior decorator (and supernatural expert) Otho (Glenn Shadix) dresses in grotesquely fashionable clothes and tasks himself with turning the Maitlands’ house into an obscene modernist nightmare. That leaves the Maitlands to try and scare the Deetzes away, but when their efforts yield little success (other than putting holes in $300 designer sheets), they call on Betelgeuse to get the job done. In this terrific scene, Adam and Barbara inquire about his qualifications:
My colleague Nathan Rabin floated the theory that Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight owes something to Keaton’s Betelgeuse, and I think there’s something to that. Ledger’s work may be “darker” than Keaton’s—and thus more seriously considered by critics and Academy voters—but they share a manic, nihilistic pranksterism on top of the caked-on white makeup. Another thing the characters have in common: They’re both instruments of chaos, with no goal other than to spread anarchy and destruction wherever they tread. Ledger does blacken the role because he doesn’t have any appetites that might make him human, like Betelgeuse’s tendency to be distracted by women in fishnets. But both are thoroughly unhinged—the difference being that Ledger’s Joker isn’t capable of joy—and they’re essentially loners, partly because they’re unable to work well with others, but mostly because they suck up all the oxygen in the room. When they’re onscreen, it’s impossible to pay attention to anyone else.
It’s a tribute to Burton and his gifted supporting cast that Keaton doesn’t run off with Beetlejuice entirely. As in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Burton creates a premise that allows him maximum opportunity to sketch outside the lines, and the film’s vision of the afterlife is marked by his wacky, candy-colored expressionism. Death turns out to be an adventure in bureaucracy on par with Brazil, where the recently deceased (all exaggerated cartoons marked by the things that killed them) hang out in glum waystations until a chain-smoking case worker can be roused to help them. And if the Maitlands step out of their home, they’re dropped into a Salvador Dalí painting come to life, patrolled by giant sandworms that seem imported from a Ray Harryhausen movie. Beyond his larger visual ideas, Burton peppers the film with offbeat little details, too, like Betelgeuse luring a fly into a trap by using a Zagnut bar as bait, or turning Charles’ peaceful bird-watching into a Darwinian horror show, or casting Robert Goulet and Dick Cavett as the ultimate in big-city dinner guests. And yes, calypso:
Death, the afterlife, haunted houses: In Beetlejuice, Burton takes the menace out of them while leaving the impression of a dark, eccentric, oddball visionary at work. That’s why Betelgeuse himself doesn’t really fit in: He’s genuinely scary and dangerous, and he goes too far in the end. Whereas Burton pushes for a symbiotic relationship between the dead and the living, where all parties can live happily under the same roof. Maybe that’s just Burton conforming to the demands of lighthearted, family-friendly entertainment, but it may also reflect an outsider’s yearning to come back into the fold and connect with other people. The joyous ending of Beetlejuice brings the Maitlands and the Deetzes under the banner of supernatural freakiness, and it’s the kind of compromise that’s unmistakably Burtonian.
Next week: Naked
August 13: Dead Ringers
August 20: Stuck
August 27: The Lovers On The Bridge