It's hard to believe that a movie as defiantly odd as the horror-comedy Beetlejuice even got made by a Hollywood studio in the '80s, let alone that it became a substantial hit and a sleepover staple. The title character—a pasty-faced, hollow-eyed, green-teethed, bug-chomping corpse played by Michael Keaton—doesn't make his first full appearance until halfway through the movie, and then comes roaring across the screen like a pop-eyed beast from a Tex Avery cartoon, belching and swearing and boasting. Chief among those boasts: that he can help recently deceased couple Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis scare away the hideous New York yuppies now inhabiting their charming country house. (Yes, Beetlejuice is pro-ghost.) Dry in tone, packed with grotesque sight gags, and surprisingly sweet at times, Beetlejuice never seems concerned with straightforward storytelling. First and foremost, it's a funhouse ride.
Beetlejuice was the perfect showcase for director Tim Burton, whose previous feature, Pee-wee's Big Adventure, announced him as a filmmaker capable of making the outré mainstream. A lot of the credit for Pee-wee's inventive eccentricity went to its star, Paul Reubens, but there was no mistaking Burton's touch in Beetlejuice's bizarre, brilliant visualizations of afterlife bureaucracy, or in the movie's cast of rickety, handmade ghosts and demons. Working from a script by horror novelist Michael McDowell (among others), Burton emphasized throwaway moments, often involving new homeowner Jeffrey Jones. When Jones picks up his binoculars to do a little bird-watching, he sees a predator gnawing the guts out of its recent kill; when he flips the pages of a magazine, he gets softly showered with subscription cards. It's like he's stranded in a New Yorker cartoon.
Tonally, Beetlejuice resembles some of the other witty horror films of the era, like the Evil Dead and Nightmare On Elm Street series, but the fascination with model-building and heroic outsiders is pure Burton. There's something unexpected and new popping up in almost every minute of Beetlejuice, which helps the movie overcome Burton's chilly disinterest in—or disdain for—ordinary people. Beetlejuice's reverse-exorcism premise is an apt one for Burton, who spent much of the next decade making films in which he sought to drive out "infestations by the living."
Key features: Three episodes of the what-the-hell? Beetlejuice Saturday-morning cartoon series.