Going Back to the Bizarre Birthing of Burton: Splatter Cinema Raises Blythe Spirits with BEETLEJUICE at the Plaza Theatre!

Posted on: Aug 12th, 2013 By:

Splatter Cinema Presents BEETLEJUICE (1988); Dir. Tim Burton; Starring Michael Keaton, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O’Hara; Tuesday, August 19 @ 9:30 p.m.; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

This month, Splatter Cinema goes a little off the beaten path at the Plaza Theatre. This month’s showing is not the typical gore-soaked exploitation fare you’re likely to see them serve up. But the way that BEETLEJUICE enthusiastically revels in horror and delights in depicting twisted flesh makes it a good choice for those of the Splatter Cinema mindset.

It’s hard to believe that there was a time when Tim Burton wasn’t a “thing.” That there wasn’t an identifiable “Tim Burton” style. And that there was a time when BEETLEJUICE was a sudden and surprising leap into the dark comic realm that would eventually come to define that style.

Burton had exploded onto the film world with his previous film, 1985’s PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. While that movie contains themes that he would revisit many times in the future (particularly “childlike protagonist exists in a fanciful universe seemingly of his/her own creation until a shock tosses them into the outside world”), it also contains the off-kilter and baroque visual sensibility that is a hallmark of his films to this day. But aside from the “Large Marge” and “clown hospital” scenes, there’s little of the horror-steeped atmosphere that saturates so much of his work.

BEETLEJUICE is where (aside from his earlier short films, which were largely unseen by the public at that point) Burton first seamlessly blended equal parts horror and quirky comedy into the recognizable whole that would come to identify the director.

The film focuses on a young couple, Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis), who find themselves unexpectedly deceased and forced to haunt their New England home. When the Deetzes (Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones and Winona Rider) move in, the Maitlands are forced to circumvent the bureaucracy of the afterlife and engage “bio-exorcist” Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton, pronounced and also known as “Beetlejuice”) to force the new residents out. As to be expected, wacky antics ensue.

In collaboration with production designer Bo Welch, Burton used the foundation of the screenplay to paint his comic sensibilities in a luridly-colored, high-contrast gothic horror sheen. His scenes in the afterlife and during Beetlejuice’s reign of terror in the Maitlands’/Deetzes’ home look like Charles Addams’ cartoons filmed in the style of SUSPIRIA. Grotestqueries bathed in candy-colored lighting schemes. Welch and Burton would develop this aesthetic even further in collaboration on 1990’s EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and 1992’s BATMAN RETURNS, firmly establishing this as the “Tim Burton” trademark style.

It would have been all too easy for the screenplay to serve simply as a hook from which Burton could hang a number of ghoulish setpieces. It’s to the credit of writers Michael McDowell, Larry Wilson and Warren Skaaren that the film is as engaging as it is. By keeping the “ghosts” of the movie benign and well-meaning—and the new residents not malevolent but incredibly selfish and irritating—Beetlejuice’s diabolical motives put both families in a sympathetic light.

And the cast’s performances can’t be overlooked in helping create the rounded characters of the movie. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are both amiable and sweetly romantic as the ghostly Maitlands, while Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones are their polar opposites: antagonistic and back-bitingly snarky. Where Baldwin and Davis are convincingly laid-back and plain, the performances of O’Hara and Jones are deftly high-strung and pretentious. Winona Ryder as young Goth daughter Lydia Deetz bridges both worlds—not only figuratively in the temperament of the clashing couples, but literally within the story as she is the only person able to see and converse with the Maitlands—and delivers a performance in turns dryly sardonic, cooly detatched and warmly engaging.

Winona Ryder in BEETLEJUICE.

But the movie truly belongs to Michael Keaton. As Betelgeuse/Beetlejuice, his performance clashes perfectly with everyone else’s. No matter how engaging or off-putting the Maitlands and Deetzes may be, the performances of Baldwin, Davis, Jones, O’Hara and Ryder are tightly restrained and controlled. Keaton, on the other hand, is entirely explosive and cartoonishly over-the-top; issuing forth a rapid-fire patter of one-liners, non-sequiturs, mumbled asides and mad proclamations delivered at the top of his voice. He’s physically manic as well, leaping about and flailing around wildly, as if Burton was randomly jolting Keaton with a live electric wire just off-screen. He turns Beetlejuice from a simple, evil prankster into something larger than life. If, you know, he were alive rather than a moldering corpse.

And if the movie belongs to anyone else, it’s Burton. This is where the Tim Burton we now know was born: the bright colors washing over stark black-and-white-patterned spookiness of THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, the stylized locations and set design of EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, the dark humor of FRANKENWEENIE. They all spring from here. But few mesh these elements together with as much effortless skill as BEETLEJUICE.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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