Much like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987), Bettlejuice’s manic revelling in comedy horror was quite the marvel.
The 1988 film by Tim Burton is the stuff of legend, mixing fantasy with funny things to delight, and horrify, everyone who saw the thing.
And we remember it fondly! Thanks to Michael Keaton’s wacky antics, the dark humour, and some seriously impressive practical effects.
Beetlejuice and the Nature of Innocence and Death
If you were a kid in the ’80s and ’90s, there’s a set of films you just sort of watched as a rites of passage.
Many more, of course, but we always ended up watching disturbingly dark films that taught us important life lessons.
We’re not sure what Beetlejuice taught us, but we sure as hell remember the film!
The plot is about a recently deceased couple who begin haunting their former home, this is to scare away an obnoxious family who move in.
Set in Winter River, Connecticut, meet the Maitland couple. That’s Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis).
They’re spending a lovely holiday decorating their home! However, after a trip into town they accidentally plunge off a bridge and into a river whilst avoiding an errant dog.
The couple return home, but notice they no longer have reflections. Plus, they find the Handbook for the Recently Deceased.
Adam tries to leave the home, but finds himself in a nightmarish world of giant sand monsters and other beings. After escaping there, he and Barbara realise they didn’t survive the car crash.
Then the wealthy and obnoxious Deetz family move into the property. One of them is their gothic daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder in an early role).
The Maitland couple try to scare the family off, but their efforts fail disastrously. Lydia is the only one able to see them and they actually become friends.
The Maitland couple consult the Handbook for the Recently Deceased and travel to the afterlife, which is enormously bureaucratic in a seeming nod to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985).
They visit a waiting room, which is a famous scene from the movie and shows off the film’s great practical effects. Especially the legendary Shrunken Head Guy.
They get a caseworker, Juno, who tells them they have to stay in their house for the next 125 years.
If they want to get rid of the annoying Deetz family, it’s up to them to scare them off.
As they failed hard at that, they enlist Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) into the bargain. This is an anarchic demon type character who’s a freelance bio-exorcist.
Keaton was on great fun comedic form here, putting in a performance reminiscent of Vaudeville and Buster Keaton.
Apparently, he ad-libbed 90% of his lines.
Despite the film being legendary thanks to his performance, his character only appears for just under 15 minutes. That’s similar to The Silence of the Lambs (1991), where Anthony Hopkins is barely onscreen most of the time (although his presence looms large).
Beetlejuice’s anarchic presence triggers all sorts of carnage, with the guy trying to marry Lydia and all sorts of other gubbins.
Ultimately, the Maitland couple is forced to do away with him and Barbara rides a giant sandworm into the home to eat the crazy bastard.
The couple then decides to live at peace with the Deetz family in their home, whilst they count down the 125 years before they can enter the afterlife proper.
Meanwhile, Beetlejuice is stuck back in the afterlife waiting room and has his head shrunken by a witch doctor. Despite this development, he warms to his tiny head and views himself as more attractive than before.
And that’s it! The film ends and, by Jove, is it a charmingly bizarre affair.
The special effects still stand up to this day, with all sorts of inventive stuff going on. In the ’80s, practical effects were really reaching a great level. Think of The Fly (1986) and such works.
Watching Beetlejuice now, those eye-catching effects make the whole experience a lot of fun.
But it’s also Michael Keaton as the titular character who continues to impress.
It’s a daft film, sure, but one that has livened many a childhood. And we its accessible creepiness is surely a great laugh for modern kids (as well as man babies such as ourselves yet to truly grow up).
The Production of Beetlejuice
Handed a $15 million budget, the film was a small hit and went on the rake in $74.2 million worldwide.
Only $1 million of the budget went to special effects, so the team did a fantastic job getting everything out of that.
Beetlejuice was a critical darling, taking an Oscar for Academy Award for Best Makeup (as you’d expect given the quality on show here).
The screenplay was written by novelist and screenwriter Michael McDowell (1950-1999), plus Warren Skaaren (1946-1990). Sadly, as you can see, both died when they were still young. Skaaren shortly after the film was released.
McDowell’s first script was extremely dark and lacked much of the comedy later added to the film. It was Skaaren’s adaptations that mightily changed the tone of the film.
The name Beetlejuice, by the way, is a nod to the star Betelgeuse.
It’s the 10th brightest star in the night’s sky. A red supergiant, it’s 642.5 light years away from Earth. So, yeah, plenty of opportunities for at least one well-placed, “Are we nearly there yet?!”
That aside, filming took place in the town of Corinth in Vermont. You can spot some of the state’s iconic wooden hut structures throughout.
Although interior shots were set in Culver City of California. Shooting began on 11th March, 1987 (everyone was young back then).
Despite the film being bizarre and deeply macabre, Tim Burton managed to tread the line between perfectly and provide a film that’s kind of wholesome family fun.
Kids will like all the creepy special effects, rather than be terrified by them, and adults can enjoy the wit involved.
That combination has worked wonders for the film over the years and its reputation remains as a creepy comedy cult classic.
It clearly inspired the likes of Drop Dead Fred (1991), too, and many other imitators. But Beetlejuice remains the go-to gothic comedy horror film for creepy fun and games.
Beetlejuice’s Upcoming Sequel
On a final note, there’s a sequel to Beetlejuice in the works!
After a lull in his career, Michael Keaton managed a resurgence in form around a decade ago and continues on his way.
Reprising one of his most iconic roles will further add to his legacy.
Unless the sequel is pants. Let’s hope they go all out with practical effects over CGI, otherwise we could have another The Thing prequel (2011) on our hands.
That’s where studio interference led to dodgy CGI over practical effects, which the 1982 outing remains legendary for.
Well, we’re going to be positive and say we’re looking forward to the sequel. Beetlejuice 2 is set for 2025. Bring it on!