Sunday, July 7, 2013

Beetlejuly: Beetlejuice

The time has come to review the namesake of this entire month, Beetlejuice. 1985's Pee Wee's Big Adventure put Tim Burton on the map, and although he was on the verge of bringing the brainchild of Bob Kane to the big screen, he still had some time to whip up a twisted, dark and humorous film of his own. He had been sent several scripts for several films and was disenchanted by most of them, until he received the script for Beetlejuice, written by Michael McDowell. McDowell had worked with Tim Burton on The Jar, an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents which Burton directed and when the two suffered creative differences, McDowell ultimately left the project and was replaced by Warren Skaaren. The water was boiling for what is often considered to be one of the funniest films ever put to celluloid, but when I first saw the film in my young years, it became a thorn in my flower bush. Michael Keaton's Beetlejuice character was a demonic, terrifying entity and the sand worms outside the Maitlands' house put chocolate in my pants! I also never liked the scene where Adam and Barbara look into the Room of Lost Souls (Death for the dead), a creepy place filled with exorcised souls with zombified faces and mouths of moaning. At about 5 or 6 years of age, you could see why I shivered at the very sight of this flick, but time would have me love this film the more and more I watched it. Today, Beetlejuice, like Pee Wee's Big Adventure is one of my all time favorite comedies and among my Top 30 Favorite Films of All Time. It's dark and demented (what Tim Burton film isn't), but when you get to the nitty gritty, it's just a highflying episode of fun and quirkiness that is highly enhanced at every viewing.

I like to think of this film as a version of Aladdin, only with zombies, gigantic multicolored sand worms, hunters with shrunken heads and people who dance to Harry Belafonte. Instead of a genie, we get the "Ghost with the Most' who loves to eat flies and hang out at zombie strip clubs. Michael Keaton is at his finest as Beetlejuice in this film and like Pee Wee before him, he's full of energy and comes off as a exotic, but likable chap with frizzy green hair and teeth as rotten as a decaying corpse. Originally, Tim Burton wanted Sammy Davis Jr. to portray Beetlejuice, but David Geffen, who gave Burton McDowell's original script suggested Michael Keaton. Like the role he would play in Burton's next film, this is by far one of Keaton's best and furthered cemented Keaton as a actor who could not only play calm and collective guys, but off the wall and exuberant fellows as well. Beetlejuice is a nut cluster who likes to cause as much trouble as possible, but we also sympathize with him and come to realize why he does the things he does. He's clunky and funny, but at the same time, he's determined and headstrong and he even swears a few times which are often censored when the film airs on television. I like him because he's just a funny and lovable character and the goof we'd like to learn a lot more about. He may not be no Charles Foster Kane, but he is a dignified man with a plan and for that, he's one of my all time favorite movie characters.

The other characters in the film are also superb. Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin are witty, clueless and at times DISGUSTING as Barbara and Adam Maitland and like Beetlejuice, we sympathize with them because they are just average, ordinary people who were unexpectedly killed and are trying to find their place in the afterlife. The Deetz family comes off as a bunch of pompous snobs at first, but we come to respect and admire them towards the end of the film and like the Maitlands and Beetlejuice, we can't help but sympathize with them as they are put through Beetlejuice's acts of torment. The ways the Maitlands try to scare the Deetz out of their home are very clever and once again DISGUSTING, falling into the category of dark humor. Charles and Delia Deetz are portrayed by Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O'Hara, two actors who would work with Burton many times in the near future and star in some of his later films. The Deetz' daughter, Lydia is portrayed by a young Winona Ryder, who plays a gothic, depressed, yet still curious and likable teenager who comes to discover the Maitlands, Beetlejuice and their true intentions as the film progresses. My favorite line of hers from the film is when she quotes the Handbook for the Recently Deceased.

Live people ignore the strange and unusual. I, myself, am, strange and unusual. 

That is brilliant scriptwriting.

Veteran actress Sylvia Sidney portrays Juno, the Maitlands' case worker who constantly scolds Barbara and Adam and warns them of the dangers of Beetlejuice. She is also associated with a group of football players who don't realize they are dead at first.

Football player: Couch, I don't think we survived that crash! 

Juno (sarcastically): How did you guess? 

It's funny quirks like that that really make the movie and there are enough to last a lifetime or two. Like I mentioned before, it's mostly dark humor but for a film involving a bunch of dead guys, it really hits home. Tim Burton has a gift for this kind of stuff and this is the prime example of how he can bring "laughability"  to the most dark and demented of things. My favorite scene out of the entire movie is when the Maitlands are sitting in a waiting room filled with wickedly grotesque abominations and creatures from the crypt. There's a charred dude as skinny as a toothpick who asks Adam if he wants a cigarette and a red faced guy who met his demise by a seafood allergy. There's also guy as flat as a flapjack and who could forget that hunter with the shrunken head?! Little did we know that Beetlejuice himself would receive a similar shrunken head by the end of the movie, but he comes to admire his instant taboo makeover (This could be a good look for me!). Anyway, the reason I like this scene is not only because of all the exotic beings involved in it, but because of the way the Maitlands act around them and try to blend in. After all, they are just plain old ghosts sitting in a waiting room full of creatures once thought to solely exist in nightmares! I lot of us wouldn't know how to act in a situation like that!

Danny Elfman returns from Pee Wee's Big Adventure and his score for this film raises it's awesomeness to a whole new level. From the opening score to the score that plays when the Maitlands are getting exorcised, you can really tell that Elfman knew how to make his music blend in with each scene of the film and make it match up perfectly. It can be dark, it can be upbeat, it can even be uplifting at times, which leaves you with a funny, yet good feeling in your bones. The stop motion effects Burton pioneered in Vincent and Pee Wee are also present in this film, particularly in the scenes involving the sand worms and the scene where Beetlejuice turns into a snake. I also love the scene where Beetlejuice reigns havoc on the Deetz/Maitland house and tries to get Lydia to marry him. It's one of the craziest, if not the craziest scene I have ever seen in a motion picture and leaves me chuckling at every millisecond. It's a great climax to a great movie that gives you chills, thrills and a few spills, spills that will no doubt leave an impression on you. It's by far one of Burton's finest and funniest works and it even spawned a cartoon series that lasted a few seasons on ABC. I grew up watching the series and if you want to see a highly exotic animated series from the early 90s, this might be your pot of gold.

From what I've heard, a second installment is in the works, which makes me wonder quite a bit. Beetlejuice was left with a shrunken head at the end of the first movie and the Maitlands and the Deetz made peace and lived happily ever after. How in the world are they going to follow up and top that, unless they make an unexpected detour and make a prequel, exploring Beetlejuice's mysterious origins. Either way you put it, the sequel, if it even gets made will have some huge shoes to fill and will be quite an experience, probably an unexpected experience. It might be better than the first or it might fall flat on it's face, but only you can decide if it's good or bad.

Anyway, tune in next time and we'll talk about that guy who dresses up like a bat.

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