Judge Clark Douglas can't stand them sand worms either.
Our reviews of Beetlejuice (published November 13th, 2000), Beetlejuice: 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (published October 2nd, 2008), and Best of Warner Brothers: 20-Film Comedy Collection (published July 14th, 2013) are also available.
Say it once. Say it twice. But we dare you to say it THREE times!
"I'm the ghost with the most, babe."
Facts of the Case
Adam (Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock) and Barbara (Geena Davis, A League of Their Own) are a very happy married couple. They're looking forward to taking a nice vacation and getting away from it all for a while. Unfortunately for them, things take a troublesome turn. Actually, their car takes a troublesome turn, and they are both killed. Because this is a Tim Burton film, this development by no means pushes our dear couple out of the picture. They have become ghosts, and are now at home reading "Handbook for the Recently Deceased" and trying to figure out what to do next.
A family of New Yorkers (played by Catherine O'Hara, Jeffrey Jones, and Winona Ryder) has moved into the house, which makes Adam and Barbara very upset. They have to find a way to get these people out of their home. Enter the creepy Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton, Multiplicity), an ill-mannered "bio-exorcist" who specializes in frightening living humans. However, this strange fellow may be more trouble than he is worth…
Tim Burton always provides such terrific main title sequences. This time around, we hear the ominous voice of Harry Belafonte over the opening logo, followed by the deliriously entertaining Danny Elfman theme over a sweeping camera shot of a lovely American town. Then the camera pulls back, and we realize that the small town is just a tiny model. A comparatively giant spider crawls over the roof of a teeny-tiny house, and we realize we are stuck firmly in Tim Burton territory. That's before all of the creepy ghosts and supernatural beings start turning up.
Burton may be just a hair or two ahead of his prime here (I think he stepped up to the next level with Batman and Edward Scissorhands), so the film is a little rougher and less well-constructed than some of his better work. Still, this is without a doubt very much a Tim Burton film. The director had already found his own voice, even if he hadn't fine-tuned his skills yet. In almost all of his films, Burton has shown a deep level of sympathy for the strange, bizarre, weird, and ghoulish. Burton loves the freaks and outsiders: Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sweeney Todd, Jack Skellington, The Corpse Bride, and even (God help us) Pee-Wee Herman. He takes images that we had previously seen as threatening and gives them a level of sweetness. It's a simple concept, but Burton always manages to turn it into something both touching and funny on a regular basis. We've seen plenty of films where some sweet couple is trying to fight off evil ghosts. Burton responds by making a movie in which some sweet ghosts are trying to fight off annoying living people.
Beetlejuice is perhaps a bit less sentimental than the average Burton film, and focuses more on dark comedy. It works quite well on that level and is blessed with a very enjoyable cast. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis make an appealing yuppie couple, and they have nice comic timing together. Catherine O'Hara and Jeffrey Jones are as appalling as Baldwin and Davis are appealing, creating a couple that we genuinely want to see taken down by the ghosts as soon as possible. Winona Ryder is an actress who has occasionally misfired badly (Alien: Resurrection, anyone?), but here she is perfectly suited to her role as a moody gothic teen. Keep an eye out for Robert Goulet and Dick Cavett, too.
Still, the film is best remembered for the title character, the perverted and disgustingly funny Betelgeuse. That's a bit surprising, because Michael Keaton has a pretty small amount of screen time in the title role. Like Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, Keaton makes such a big impression in his handful of scenes that his performance defines our memories of the movie. Keaton has typically been an actor with a subtle brand of comedy defined by little pauses and facial tics. That is most assuredly not the case here. This is a broad, wacky, noisy, and deliriously dirty performance that is a whole ton of fun. In some ways, it's like the sort of thing Robin Williams does all the time. However, it's actually funny when Keaton does it, perhaps because it's not the sort of thing Keaton typically does. I wish he had more scenes here, but he absolutely makes the most of everything he has given.
Burton has a lot of fun with the special effects here. They are often incredibly cheesy and fake-looking, but they have a charm that can't be captured in something more "realistic" such as, oh, Ghost Rider. Many of the effects have a very cool Ray Harryhausen look, and the steady trickle of outlandish sights adds some fun intrigue to the viewing experience.
The transfer is solid enough for a film that is 20 years old. The print is clean and scratch-free, though minor grain does appear from time to time. Blacks are pretty deep, though a few of the darker scenes are just a tad murkier than I would prefer. The audio is really exceptional here, with Danny Elfman's very engaging score never sounding better. The movie is jam-packed with visual treats, and the Blu-ray format really does give viewers an additional level of appreciation for Burton's production design.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This 20th anniversary release is something of a disappointment. I would have loved a retrospective documentary on the making of the film, or maybe a commentary with Burton and Keaton. Instead, all we get are three episodes of the animated television show and a soundtrack sampler CD that runs about 10 minutes (these in addition to the theatrical trailer and music-only audio track that appeared on the previous release). That's all well and good, but there's nothing that reveals information about the film's production. This movie deserves better.
Also, a note for parents on the PG rating: Beetlejuice isn't appropriate for younger kids. Creepy and violent images, crass behavior, and even an f-bomb make this a film that most assuredly should have received a PG-13 (it was released four years after the rating was created; I have no idea why it wasn't employed here).
Though Beetlejuice comes across as a bit less substantial than many of the films on Burton's resumé, it's still a dark slice of fun that viewers will undoubtedly enjoy revisiting in hi-def. Too bad the supplements are so thin, though.
The film is not guilty. Warner Brothers is sentenced to 30 days of community service for failing to put much effort into making this release special. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Soundtrack CD Sampler
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