The Burton Binge: “Beetlejuice”
Each Sunday with “The Burton Binge,” Sam Watermeier will look back at one of Tim Burton’s films, ultimately tracing the return to the auteur’s roots with the October 5 release of “Frankenweenie,” an animated adaptation of Burton’s first live-action short film.
Tim Burton has always related to fantasy worlds more than his own. They are his total reality. In fact, to him, going outside of a movie studio is the real fantasy.
“Picking up my laundry was probably the most mind-blowing experience of making a movie” (as Burton is quoted in “Gothic Fantasy: The Films of Tim Burton”).
It is with that outsider’s eye that he illustrates the world of Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) in 1988’s “Beetlejuice.”
Emphasized by the exaggerated Rockwellian aesthetic, the set-up is a parody of everything pleasant and ordinary. Adam and Barbara make the perfect couple, living in a constant state of giddy, childlike wonder and love. Their hometown is equally warm and chipper, an idyllic New England town where everybody knows everybody.
Then, the plot takes a sharp left turn, sending them off a bridge to meet their untimely demise (in a comically shallow river).
When they return home, the couple is oddly detached from the horror of death. Their mere state of confusion and semi-blasé reaction plays like a commentary on “normal” people’s dismissal of the macabre.
But when a snobby New York family moves in to their house, Adam and Barbara take advantage of their role as ghosts — an embrace of the dark side Burton aims to spotlight in all his films.
It’s here that the film finds its hook in the consideration of a haunting from the ghosts’ perspective. Adam and Barbara mean no harm; they just want their house back. But they do have some fun in the process of reclaiming it.
The situation gets messy, though, when they enlist the help of Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), a slobby “bio-exorcist.” In the role, Keaton is a comic force of nature — wild, unpredictable, nothing short of riveting.
While Pee-wee Herman announced Burton’s arrival with sweets and confetti, Betelgeuse breaks open doors for the visionary. Like Burton, he seduces people into walking on the wild side, making the familiar eventually seem strange and vice versa. And Baldwin and Davis’ characters mirror the hesitant moviegoers that stepped into Burton’s surreal world.
“Beetlejuice” establishes Burton’s style more distinctly than any of his other early efforts. From Winona Ryder’s pale face and perpetual bedhead to the ash-gray walls of the film’s setting, his signature is stamped across the entire production. And unlike his recent efforts, particularly “Alice in Wonderland,” the otherworldly setting is organic and tangible.
With this quirky comedy, Burton leaves an indelible impression, one deepened by his next effort — an intimate little drama about a costumed vigilante.