Tuesday, October 2, 2012

30 Days of Fright - 01: Beetlejuice

The director and all-round weirdo Tim Burton has a lot in common with the musician and all-round weirdo Marilyn Manson. Both men have looked to the darker side of life for inspiration, and a love of all things Gothic and romantically sinister permeates their respective works. However, in recent years both have suffered from ever increasing levels of irrelevancy. Tim Burton was once a respected movie-maker who was given the monumental task of creating a decent screen image for Batman, a job he did so well that the film he made back in 1989 still exerts massive influence on comic book movies to this day particularly in terms of atmospherics, costume design, musical style, and so on. Marilyn Manson's music and stage shows were considered so shocking that he was accused of all sorts of terrible things from devil worship to inspiring the Columbine shootings. In recent years, Manson's music has struggled to shock and his shows have struggled to fill the venues and surprise the audiences in the way they used to. Despite this, there is still a place in my heart for Marilyn Manson, but the same cannot be said for Tim Burton.

Burton's career includes the magnificent 80's reboot of Batman, the excellent Sleepy Hollow, and the downright weird Edward Scissorhands, but whenever I think of him lately all I can focus on is Sweeney Todd, and the love triangle of Tim Burton, Jonny Depp, and Helena Bonham-Carter. This makes it hard to remember the unbridled joy that came from my first viewing of the subtly-edgy (if there can be such a thing) Beetlejuice all those years ago.

 Tim Burton and Marilyn Manson

Set in the idyllic slice of Americana that is rural Connecticut, Beetlejuice (1988) tells the tragic tale of Adam and Barbara Maitland (performed by Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis respectively) who are forced into a terrifying round of DIY as they stay at home for their two-week summer vacation. One morning, as they set about their evil task, they are visited by their friend and local real estate agent Jane, who tells them they have yet another over-the-odds offer on their sprawling colonial style home from some wealthy mucky muck in New York City. Jane, ever the sensitive type, manages to say the absolute wrong thing to Barbara by mentioning that the house is far too large for a couple without children, like Babs and Adam.

Deciding to put Jane’s rather callous remarks behind them, the Maitland’s head into town to pick up some material for a model of the town that Adam is building in the attic. On the way home from town and while struggling to avoid a dog on a bridge, the Maitland’s car swerves off the road and into the river, killing Adam and Barbara (though with her at the wheel it’s surprising that they survived as long as they did).

Being killed in a car accident doesn’t actually stop the couple from getting home where, after a couple of odd events, they quickly come to the conclusion that they’re dead and are now ghosts haunting their own home. Adam and Barbara struggle to adapt to their new afterlife and things take another bad turn when their house is sold and a family from New York moves in.

The new (living) occupants of the house are Charles Deetz (Jeffrey Jones), who is a reasonably sane though greedy property developer who’s had some sort of nervous breakdown and needs to escape to the country for a while to get his mojo back, and his missus, Delia Deetz (Catherine O’Hara), who is on the other hand fully bat shit crazy in the way that only wannabe artists from New York can be. Charles has a daughter from a previous marriage (though we never find out what happened to the previous Mrs. Deetz) Lydia (played by the notoriously light-fingered Wynona Ryder) who is going through the darkly moody, goth period of her teenage years, wearing lots of black and thinking about funerals all the time. The Deetz's soon begin to make the house into their home which involves Delia and her friend Otto demolishing half the place and fitting out the remainder with what passes for their idea of contemporary art. This extensive remodelling disturbs the Maitland's quite a bit so they set about trying to scare the Deetz's out.

Due to Lydia’s predisposition towards death and such things, she is the only one who can see the Maitlands and she develops a friendship of sorts with them as they go about trying to get their home back. However, despite their best efforts, including the use of sheets and much moaning, the ghostly Maitland's are unable to get their way and finally turn to the last resort for those in their situation, a sleezy bio-exorcist by the name of Betelegeuse...

Coming Soon to Channel 4 - My Big Fat Gypsy Funeral

Beetlejuice is a film from the time when Tim Burton actually had something to say with his work other than "I'm creepy, where's my cheque?". As one of those "artist" types who dwelt a lot on the afterlife he actually had a few things to say about current life (or pre-after-life if you will) and he was prepared to take some risks with his films in order to say what was on his mind. As a result, on the surface Beetlejuice is a fine late-eighties comedy, complete with decent actors, a great soundtrack, and a brilliant central character. But dig a little deeper and there's more to be gained from this film, or rather, there should have been.

The main plot of the film, about the dead Maitland's wanting to get the living Deetz's out of their house, is a fun reversal of the traditional haunted house story where the details of the haunting are viewed from the perspective of the ghosts. The next level down looks at relationships; the almost perfect love between Adam and Barbara (almost perfect except for her shoddy driving having killed them), the less then perfect, worn down relationship between Charles and Deelia, and the substitute parental relationship the Maitland's wish they could have with Lydia. This aspect of Beetlejuice puts a little flesh on the bones of the film but is nowhere near as interesting as how the film looks at death.

One of the principal jokes of the film is the one where people who have committed suicide end up as civil servants in the afterlife. This is a deliciously insensitive concept and a major part of the film in some ways and pretty risky when you think of someone watching the film who may have lost a loved one that way now confronted with the idea that in the next world their dearly departed are barely working 20 hours a week and spend a lot of time bitching about their pension. On the other side of that coin, image if you were a civil servant (or if you are a civil servant, don't) and you see Beetlejuice and you realise that on the other side your job is some kind of purgatorial punishment.

And there's the rub.

In a Tim Burton comedy, much loved and enjoyed, and eventually turned into a cartoon series for children, people who commit suicide are punished for it.

Making death fun for all the family... Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! Beeltejuice!

Now, I'm not entirely sure who or what Burton was digging at with that joke but it does indicate that there could have been a lot more depth to Beetlejuice and I wonder if there was a more biting version of the script that got toned down before the finished story made it to the cinema, thus leaving a few unanswered questions. A couple of  other Beetlejuice moments reinforce this idea for me, including the scene where a model satanic whorehouse appears to keep the little bugger busy for a while (something I don't remember seeing referenced in the cartoon) as well as the name of the character being Betelegeuse (like the real life star) while the movie is called Beetlejuice (like the pronunciation of said star); things that hint at another layer of humour that must have been left on the cutting room floor.

Technically, the movie is well made and very well acted. Before he became obsessed with Jonny Depp, Burton was in love with Michael Keaton which shows how good an eye for acting talent Burton may once have had. Keaton is utterly brilliant in the title role and somehow manages to dominate the film, over act beyond belief in every scene, and at the same time create a great example of an iconic film character who proves that less is more, as despite his seriously outlandish antics, it’s surprising how little screen time Betelegeuse actually gets in the film.

There are one or two scenes where either the editing or directing slipped slightly in terms of timing; I can think of one scene in particular where Deelia Deetz suddenly says something that seems to have come out of nowhere and it feels like a few seconds of dialogue were cut out for some reason (I wonder why), but on the surface this didn't take from the enjoyment of the film. Neither does the quality of the effects which merely reflect what could be done at the time with the type of budget available to the production. 

Beetlejuice focuses a lot on death, which it kinda had to do seeing as how the majority of the characters are ghosts, but it wrapped quite a morbid theme in some decent comedy, with good jokes and well delivered performances. Because of the comedy, and some of the other undertones, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that, at its heart, Beetlejuice is a sweet movie that's mostly about love, the kind of love that transcends death and gobshites from New York.

Two Thumbs Up for Beetlejuice.


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