It’s easy—really easy at this point—to forget how brilliant Tim Burton was once upon a time. And, at the time, it was kind of easy to take him for granted, because his style was so fresh and delightful that everything seemed so easy. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was way better than it had any right to be. Beetlejuice gave us the most delightful dead couple since Topper. Even the Batman movies, which were ultimately disappointing, at least had set design worth the price of admission. And even the stuff he produced, like Nightmare Before Christmas was touched with magic.
So you can also see how one might be nervous, given the spottiness of his recent output, going back to re-view this movie. Even as it was a staple for some of the kids growing up, nobody had watched it in a while, and none of them had seen it in the theater. With the incredible datedness of the ’80s, and the Tim Burton style, it might be that some of the glamour would wear off.
Well, no worries after all, like quite a few of these ’80s movies. It really does hold up well.
The beautiful Geena Davis (who was at my mother’s engagement party, as I am required by family law to point out) and the remarkably slim, handsome and personable Alec Baldwin play a charming young couple who meet their fate when they swerve to miss a little dog who runs out in the road. For reasons never explained, except presumably in the densely dry tome, Handbook for the Recently Deceased, they must haunt their house for 100 years or so, which would probably fly by except for the new tenants.
It’s fair to say that teenage Winona Ryder was never better cast than as Lydia, the goth teen whose sensitivity is real but also over-dramatized. And Jeffrey Jones (never look these people up, is the Flower’s rule) is also perfect as the city boy who sorta thinks he wants to relax but is inherently predatorial and entrepreneurial. But the show is powered by the immortal Catherine O’Hara, as the unstable matriarch whose very skin crawls with the corny decor and homeliness of the deceased’s house. Her destructive disrespect for everything not Greenwich village/Westside/Warhol-esque drives Adam and Barbara (Baldwin and Davis, respectively) to take steps to get the unwanted family out.
In classic ’80s “high concept” fashion, we have our story: The Exorcist, except instead of the dead haunting the living, it’s the living who need to be exorcised.
The problem is that the kind-hearted couple aren’t really up to snuff, haunting-wise. At first they can’t get anyone’s attention but Lydia, and then their efforts backfire as the pretentious urbane witnesses to their haunting are more thrilled than scared, and want the two to perform like circus monkeys.
Enter Beetlejuice, of course perfectly played by Michael Keaton. He’s got the goods, but he’s a bad dude, and his motivation is to enter the world of the living again, which he can do if he marries Lydia. Adam and Barbara don’t want to summon him, but the incompetent paranormal actions of Otho (played delightfully catty by the late, versatile Glenn Shadix) end up backfiring on everyone and only Beetlejuice can save the day. And only Adam and Barbara can stop him from destroying everything one he does.
It’s got a good rhythm. The jokes range from merely cute to laugh-out-loud funny, but which ones are which will vary from person to person and viewing to viewing, and the movie doesn’t need to be funny. It is, but it’s also decent entertainment from the standpoint of the characters. The resolution basically has the good, corny, parental Adam and Barbara raising Lydia while the more driven, artsy Delia and Charles (O’Hara and Jones, respectively) take her in the small doses that all parties can tolerate. This is a little strange, but the whole movie is, in that good ’80s way.
The supporting cast is terrific from Anne McEnroe as the intrusive real estate agent, real life smarmy guy Dick Cavett, Robert Goulet, to silent movie siren Sylvia Sydney (as Barbara and Adam’s case worker in the afterlife). The rhythm is light, the family issues play naturally into the story (unlike perhaps later Burton efforts), the Danny Elfman score is archetypal, and the whole thing is tonally perfect, treading that delicate balance between absurd comedy, morbidity and genuine emotion.
Sometimes you see amazingly timeless stuff like this and look at recent efforts—not just from Burton but from other film luminaries—and you wonder: What does Hollywood do to people?