Tim Burton had it down pat. Hair disheveled, pallid features, the director of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure surprised Hollywood with a goth-geek style that could only be described as quirky before everything became quirky. He was the animator from the shadows who brought macabre and heartbreaking life to his early animated shorts, toy box allure to his first feature film. While Pee-Wee's Big Adventure was a hit, it was only a brief glimpse of the sideshow theatricality Burton would employ on his second feature, the riotous and ghoulish Beetlejuice.
Beetlejuice is really a simple fairy tale. Two newly dead newly weds, Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara Maitland (Geena Davis), want to rid their rustic home of the gaudy yuppie transplants, the Dietz's, who've taken up residence. When old-fashioned ghost moves like rattling chains in the attic fails, they find they need the help of a "bio-exorcist," a grungy specter named Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), who will guarantee to rid the home of unwanted occupants. That is, for a price.
This is one of Keaton's finest roles. The actor best known for his smarmy smile and plunging eyebrows imbues the appalling Betelgeuse with an almost loveable charm. Belching, farting, and scratching his crotch with ferocious abandon, he's the disgusting kid that every 12-year-old boy wants to be. But Keaton doesn't let Beetlejuice become a simple parody; he also gives him soul, a self-assurance that electrifies the chalky face paint and mold. Keaton inhabits Betelgeuse. Nearly all of the ghoulish prankster's lines were improvised and though the character is only in the film for a mere 17 minutes, they are the film's most exhilarating and amusing minutes.
Beetlejuice is a vehicle perfectly tailored for Burton's peculiar eye. He delights in the small, Gorey-ian touches of the story. Every frame is filled with outlandish set design and candy-colored nightmares, from the bizarre post-apocalyptic world waiting just outside the front door to the decadent sculptures of the Dietz family. Much of this success is due to the collaborative nature of the film. The score, and in many ways the tone of the film, is set by composer Danny Elfman. Burton was a fan of Elfman's rock band Oingo Boingo and the carnival atmosphere of the Elfman's early work (particularly with the cabaret, Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo) invigorates the picture. The two would later go on to an even more collaborative effort, Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, which really should have been called Burton and Elfman's The Nightmare Before Christmas. Bo Welch's set design (he did design work on The Lost Boys) flawlessly captures Burton's goth-gone-fun park vision.
A sequel to Beetlejuice has been batted around for over a dozen years (I saw a print ad for Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian a decade ago and writer Warren Skaaren, who penned the first film, wrote a script called Beetlejuice in Love) but despite promises from every camp the world is simply left to wonder what would, or could, happen next. For those obsessed with the film, and desperate for a sequel, there is a healthy spattering of "fan fiction" on the net to flesh out every aspect of the pageant world of Beetlejuice.
Aka Beetle Juice.