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Beetlejuice
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Beetlejuice

In the mid-'80s, Tim Burton became the most sought-after director in Hollywood due to the wholly unanticipated financial returns of Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985). While Burton found himself deluged with offers of studio comedy projects, none of them appealed to the renegade Disney animator's bent for the bizarre. That changed when he was presented the initial screenplay for Beetlejuice (1988), an engagingly demented fantasy-comedy that became one of the biggest successes of its year.

Scenarist Michael McDowell's fanciful story, which owed an obvious debt to Topper (1937), caught Burton's immediate attention. As the director reminisced in his 1994 memoir Burton On Burton, "after Hollywood hammering me with the concept of story structure, where the third act doesn't work, and it's got to end with a little comedy, or a little romance, the script for Beetlejuice was completely anti all that; it had no real story, it didn't make any sense, it was more like stream of consciousness. That script was probably the most amorphous ever."

The film opens on Barbara and Adam Maitland (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin), an unprepossessing young couple content to cocoon in their imposing Connecticut farmhouse. The Maitlands' idyll does not take up a great deal of screen time, however, as a freak traffic mishap flips their pickup truck into a creek. As they return to their homestead, it slowly dawns on Adam and Barbara that they did not survive the accident, and that they're now condemned to haunt their dwelling.

You wouldn't think matters could get worse, but they do. Their desirable property is bought by a stress-addled developer, Charles Deetz (Jeffrey Jones), whose shrewish artiste-wannabe wife, Delia (Catherine O'Hara), loathes it on sight. With her unctuous interior designer (Glenn Shadix) in tow, she proceeds to trash the Maitlands' decor. The newlydeads' gut response is to try and scare these repulsive encroachers away, but their rather uninspired rookie haunting efforts only draw the blasΘ attentions of Jones' withdrawn Goth-girl daughter (Winona Ryder), who is somehow able to see and hear the spectral couple.

Turning to a conveniently-placed "Handbook For The Recently Deceased" for aid, the Maitlands are whisked to the afterlife equivalent of a dreary government assistance agency office, where they receive little more than brusque treatment from their crabby caseworker (Sylvia Sidney). (This setting offers some of the film's funniest conceits, as both the clerks and the claimants bear mutilations that reflect their demises - a bisected magician's assistant, a shrunken-headed big game hunter, and so forth.)

After going through the proper channels proves fruitless, the Maitlands respond to the ubiquitous advertisements posted by a reprobate ghost answering to Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), a self-proclaimed "bio-exorcist" who guarantees the expulsion of the dreaded Deetzes. Baldwin and Davis are reluctant to loose this appalling apparition on the household, but circumstances change once Jones starts to believe in their presence, and schemes to turn the entire property into a theme park.

In one of those instances where a movie performer is acknowledged for an entire body of work within that year, the New York Film Critics handed their award to Keaton on the strength of his yuppie-in-denial addict in Clean and Sober (1988) as well as his efforts in Beetlejuice. It was an honor well deserved; while onscreen for less than 20 minutes of Beetlejuice's running time, Keaton's grungy, overbearing, crass, lecherous, huckstering demon remains one of the most ferociously original comic characterizations ever committed to celluloid.

Burton, whose initial preference for the role was Sammy Davis, Jr. (!), had no prior familiarity with Keaton's work, but the two enjoyed an immediate rapport that allowed the character to truly take shape. In Burton On Burton, the director declared that "when you put make-up on people it actually frees them... What it did for Michael was it allowed him to play somebody who wasn't a human being, and the idea of playing someone who isn't human, behind some cheesy make-up, is very liberating. You don't have to worry about being Michael Keaton, you can be this thing. That was very magical to me."

The supporting performances are uniformly fine as well. Ryder delivered a breakout performance, O'Hara is hilariously shrill, and Burton got to satisfy his penchant for oddball casting with small roles for Dick Cavett and Robert Goulet. Danny Elfman delivered one of his best scores with his merrily macabre work here, which was interspersed with a few Harry Belafonte standards at key moments like "Day-O" and "Man Smart, Woman Smarter."

Only $1 million of Beetlejuice's $13 million budget was earmarked for special effects, and Burton targeted the expenditures to the sort of stop-motion animation and stage illusions that fueled the film fantasies of his boyhood. The results, along with Bo Welch's imaginative production design, and the Oscar-winning makeup work of Ve Neill, Steve LaPorte and Robert Short, left Beetlejuice with its distinctive visual stamp. The film ultimately scared up some $73 million in returns over the spring of 1988, solidifying Burton's bankability and setting up his subsequent collaborations with Keaton in Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992).

Producer: Richard Hashimoto
Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: Richard Hashimoto, Michael McDowell, Warren Skaaren
Art Direction: Thomas A. Duffield
Cinematography: Thomas E. Ackerman
Editing: Jane Kurson
Music: Danny Elfman, Fitzroy Alexander, William Attaway, Raymond Bell, Lord Burgess, Bob Gordon, Rafaeal Leon, Norman Span
Cast: Alec Baldwin (Adam Maitland), Geena Davis (Barbara Maitland), Michael Keaton (Betelgeuse), Jeffrey Jones (Charles Deetz), Catherine O'Hara (Delia Deetz).
C-92m. Letterboxed.

by Jay Steinberg

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