This October, we’re celebrating some of the best horror films ever made. Look out for a new classic review daily across the month on The Film Blog, as well as more special treats along the way!
Day sixteen sees the living haunt the dead in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice.
Wacky, over-stuffed and a bit of a headache, Beetlejuice would rank up there with Hocus Pocus on a list of popular Halloween classics that are neither especially scary nor particularly great. Also like Hocus Pocus, however, Beetlejuice benefits from a larger than life central performance that raises the bar to eleven. In this case, Michael Keaton is Betelgeuse (Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse…)
This was the film that Keaton and director Tim Burton produced before Batman and was originally every bit as dark as one would expect from a director with Gotham City in sight. How the first draft’s reptilian demon wound up as a wisecracking con ghost is anyone’s guess but it’s the comedy people remember these days. As Betelgeuse, Keaton barely has more minutes than Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs but steals the show with equal panache. Utterly bonkers.
Indeed, it is only when recently deceased couple Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbra (Geena Davis) Maitland hit breaking point that they call upon the bouffant haired bio-exorcist. Having suffered a fatal crash en route to a weekend getaway in their Connecticut country home, the Maitlands are horrified to discover that not only are they doomed to haunt the site for 125 years but they also have to suffer the indignity of watching their home bought by a developer and transformed into a heinous modern art piece. A determination to spook the Deetz family – Charles (Jeffrey Jones), Delia (Catherine O’Hara) and Lydia (Winona Ryder) – into an early exit leads them to summon Betelgeuse and unleash hell on all within.
Adroitly aware that a one billion dollar budget would only take him so far, Burton opted in 1988 to embrace a shonky B-movie aesthetic rather than outreach his means. The attack of Saturn’s monstrous, extra-terrestrial sandworms was created through stop motion, while prosthetics play a big part and there’s a seventies-era Doctor Who aesthetic to some of the weird and wonderful creatures that pop up as the show rolls on. As Betelgeuse, meanwhile, Keaton is ripe for fan imitation in a costume that is distinct and iconic but relatively simple.
There is certainly a lot to be said for the fact that the most memorable – and most gloriously entertaining – scene of the film is the fabulously funny Day-o dinner table number, which is predominantly reliant on the performative energy of the cast over production jiggery pokery. Likewise, Keaton provides special effects here more radiantly outrageous than any of Burton’s wilful aesthetic lunacy.
Beetlejuice was an early showcase for Burton’s career – pre-dating the weirder but more wonderful likes of Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas, which he produced rather than directed – and serves as a flavour for some of his most potent themes. It’s all over the shop but will always have Keaton.