Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tim Burton #1: 'Beetlejuice' (1988)

After the critical and financial success of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Burton began working on a script with Sam Hamm for a little project called Batman. But Warner Bros. was only willing to go so far and had yet to greenlight the film's production until the script was finished.

So in limbo, Burton decided to shoot a modestly-budgeted film ($13 million) from an original script by Michael McDowell about a married couple who struggle to deal with the realities of their deaths and the petulant, estranged family who move into their home.

Beetlejuice is essentially Burton's fun-house of horrors and the beginning of the director's fascination with the supernatural, the superhuman and the chimerical. He was perhaps never as kooky, unchained or low-rent and macabre as he was here, and thus the film has a sizeable following and a place in the heart of many.

In essence a ceaseless barrage of stop-motion effects and unfathomable creature designs, it also strongly represents Burton's visual and thematic sensibilities in regards to character alienation and design. It also marks the first great score by Danny Elfman, who is almost as synonymous with the director as his frequent on-screen collaborators, Johnny Depp and his own corpse bride, Helena Bonham Carter.

Additionally, it sets the groundwork for Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder to land roles in Burton's future films, Batman and Edward Scissorhands. Both are simply a joy to watch here - with the latter assuming Burton's fetishistic approach to hairstyling.

Now, Michael McDowell's original script (before going through various rewrites) was apparently far more violent and stern and less of a haunted house. For example, when Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis) Maitland drive off of a bride to their deaths, McDowell's script originally provided a very descriptive and real account of the tragedy - in Burton's film, in which a dog is the culprit, the scene is almost comical.

And thus, Beetlejuice took on this farcical, tongue-in-cheek, absurdist sense of humor that would dominate the filmography of Burton for the rest of his career - mixing the ghastly and the ghoulish with fun, almost flippant irony.

But where Beetlejuice feels artistically schlocky in the best Sam Raimi kind of way, it has a strange and unfortunate penchant for over-stepping its boundaries. When a dinner table Harry Belafonte sing-a-long breaks out, it's kinda funny, but when Winona Ryder closes the film by apathetically signing and dancing to "Jump in the Line (Shake, Senora)," well that's just a little more than I can stand.


  1. For some reason this flick has been on TV a lot lately, and I'm actually impressed with how well it has aged. Sure it could have been done much scarier and/or gorier...but something about keeping the violence tame seems to have helped the overall story.

    As for "Jump In The Line"...I must admit, I'm a bit of a sucker for that moment.

  2. The final scene is just a little too absurd for me. The best things about "Beetlejuice" are Michael Keaton, Winona Ryder and the assembly-line parade of creepy, crawly creatures and the initiation that Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis go through once they realize their dead.

    I think it fits in nicely with Burton's filmography in hindsight, but its just a little too low-rent for my tastes. Its still a fun time, I just don't really love it that much.

  3. It's surprisingly funny today, mainly because of Keaton's performance, and the constant jokes that come from this film.