Half "Bloody Mary" and half decomposing sleezeball, Beetlejuice is the titular anti-hero that helped put Tim Burton into the who's who of Hollywood. Now at its 20th anniversary, let's take a look back at a sparkling example of dark comedy that stands as a precursor to Burton's magical films.
Reading the cast list will illicit at least one "oh yeah, he/she was in this" reaction. The ensemble would also make a 1990s romantic comedy cast director salivate: Michael Keaton, Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Winona Ryder, Catherine O'Hara, an appearance by the late Robert Goulet, and the unfortunate Jeffrey Jones. They all contribute in one fantastical manner, whether it is Baldwin and Davis’ meek attempts at trying to scare the haughty new landowners, O’Hara and Jones' portrayal of all that is wrong in the New York art community, or Ryder’s dead-on portrayal of a young woman a little too interested in death and the occult. It’s worth mentioning what Winona’s character, Lydia, bears a striking resemblance to Tim Burton’s fiancée Helena Bonham Carter.
Now we know where she got her inspiration!
Beetlejuice starts off as a breezy romantic film: The Maitlands (Davis and Baldwin) are departing their Connecticut home for a much-needed vacation, when suddenly they swerve to avoid a dog and crash their car. Everything seems fine when they return to their home – that is, until they find a new book titled The Handbook for the Recently Deceased. And oh yeah, every time they try to leave the house, the outdoors turn into an endless desert infested with Dune-like worms.
Things get worse when the counter-culture Deetz family from New York (O’Hara, Jones, and Ryder) move in, and suddenly the deceased pair has to deal with Catherine O’Hara’s ghastly taste in décor and art. Finding the afterlife hilariously over-bureaucratic and their attempts to haunt the house ineffective, the Maitlands turn to a ghoul-for-hire that will get rid of the house’s inhabitants once and for all.
Beetlejuice (a fine performance by Michael Keaton), of course, lives up to his disgusting name. He gets the job done, but manages to broker a deal to marry Lydia. To save Lydia from unholy matrimony, the Maitlands lure one of the giant sandworms just in time for it to much down on Beetlejuice. With him gone, the Maitlands and Deetz families learn to live together in harmony.
One of those films by Burton was Batman. Shelved because no one saw Burton as a bankable director, Warner Bros. immediately changed their mind thanks to Beetlejuice. Of course, they clashed with Burton soon after when the director demanded to have Michael Keaton play the Dark Knight. We all know how the franchise turned out when Burton was cut loose after Batman Returns (see Batman Forever, Batman & Robin).
And so we say, “one year until you can legally drink in the States, Beetlejuice!”
While Beetlejuice itself is certainly not considered one of the best films of all-time, it leaves a lasting impression on any viewer as a refreshing take on death and the afterlife. Of course, it also featured this iconic scene that you were clamoring for ever since you started reading this article: