From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Films of High Adventure: Beetle Juice

Well…this is it, folks. Our last column for Fantasy. It’s been a fun gig, but with the imminent relaunch of the magazine on March 7th, 2011, Films of High Adventure will be going back to our blogs. Eventually. Thanks for all your support during these months—it’s been great reading your comments and thoughts and even sometimes taking your suggestions (we’ve learned our local video store got in a new copy of Flight of Dragons, so try to not get too excited for the day that review goes up on our respective blogs). We’ve genuinely enjoyed your feedback just as much as writing these, so yeah. We’ll miss you.

Anyways! No time for tears. We’ve decided to end our tenure here with a film that was important for both of us, and was dear, we suspect, to many of you, as well. Enjoy!

Film: Beetle Juice (1988) AKA Beetlejuice

WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Direction by Tim Burton, back before he OD’ed on CGI and developed a pathological need to cast Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in everything regardless of their appropriateness. The original script by Michael McDowell (The Nightmare Before Christmas, a bunch of old Tales from the Darkside episodes + the movie) was straight horror, with Beetlejuice himself conceived as a winged demon who frequently transforms into a “short Middle Eastern man,” and whose dialogue was primarily in “African American Vernacular English.” Indeed. Apparently, instead of trying to marry Lydia at the end, this not-at-all-potentially-problematic jive-talking Arab tries to rape her…and also at some point transforms into a rabid squirrel in order to mutilate Lydia’s nine year old sister. For some reason Burton thought this wouldn’t be a good follow-up to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and brought in Larry Wilson (a bunch of Tales from the Crypt episodes, the Addams Family movie) to help McDowell rewrite it into a comedy. Apparently there followed what must have been some pretty amazing “creative differences,” and as a result Wilson and McDowell were replaced by Warren Skaaren (Burton’s Batman), who finished the script. Soundtrack by Danny Elfman (back before he fell into a Burton rut) and Harry Belafonte—Skaaren’s version of the script called for Motown instead of Belafonte, but that’s Hollywood for you. Acting by Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones, Robert Goulet, Gary Shadix, and, in the role of countless lifetimes, Michael Keaton. Tim Burton allegedly initially wanted Sammy Davis, Jr. for the part, but “settled” for Keaton—we can only imagine what the movie would have been like had he insisted.

Quote: “It’s SHOWTIME!”

Alternate quote: “Sandworms—you hate’em, right? I hate’em myself!”’

Alternate alternate quote: “So come on down and I’ll chew on a dog!”

First viewing by Molly: I have no idea. After it came out on video, and while still young enough for me to think Lydia was awesome and not at all ridiculous and someone whose fashion advice I should most certainly take.

First viewing by Jesse: Young—shortly after it came out on video. I remember a friend of my parents’ was at the house when I returned from the tin storage center that housed the video store in our quaint central Pennsylvania village, and this friend tried to guess what I might have rented. After his unsuccessfully rattling off some Disney titles, I seem to recall shouting in that not-at-all-obnoxious fashion very young men adopt when they’re excited about something gross “BEETLE JUICE!!!”

Most recent viewing by both: Last week.

Impact on Molly’s childhood development: Enormous. Beetle Juice was, for me, a sort of gateway drug into Tim Burton-worship…or at least mild obsession with Edward Scissorhands (so tragic!), The Nightmare Before Christmas (so spooky!), and Batman (so… everything) during my adolescence. Indeed, I think after seeing Nightmare in the theatre about ten million billion times, I went back to Beetlejuice, and rented Scissorhands for the first time. As a result I spent many years swathed in black and wearing layers of ridiculous eye shadow. Additionally, my sentiments regarding the above led to my mild obsession with Danny Elfman’s music, including his work with Oingo Boingo. I have few reprimands for my young self’s sense of taste where such things are concerned, but if they ever invent a time machine, I will have some serious words with Tween Tanz about that Phantom t-shirt I wore ragged, and the poster of Brandon Lee from The Crow I had hanging over my bed (Jesse says: judging from this video, I bet the Elf Man wouldn’t have changed a thing aboutcha!) [I have no riposte to this. You guys will just have to imagine my sense of extreme discomfort posting that link]). Anyways, this film. Macabre humor, goth nonsense, stop-motion monsters, mild sexual menacing of The Heroine. I liked it unreservedly. I still like it unreservedly. Even after seeing the Alice in Wonderland movie. How Burton went from so perfectly synthesizing so many weird aspects of the film, like the amazing bureaucracy of the world of the dead, Michael Keaton grabbing his crotch and eating flies, and, um, Harry Belafonte to… “Underland” (ahem) we’ll never know, but I won’t let the future contaminate the past. I’ve seen too many films about the dangers inherent in that sort of thing to risk it, so Beetle Juice is still what I think of when I think about Tim Burton movies, and I’m OK with that.

Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: Pretty huge. Monsters, weird sets, silliness, more monsters, gross-outs, goofy dancing, Winona Ryder—we’re talking solid-gold for young blood Jesse. Pee-Wee Herman was popular in all his incarnations in our house, and I remember seeing Edward Scissorhands in the theatre and digging it, and obviously Batman, well, Batman has been discussed by us before, but for me a certain bio-exorcist remained the Ghost with the Most throughout my childhood. Come to think of it, I can’t think of many individual film-makers who had such a large yet varied impact on me as a kid as Burton, either, though I don’t know when I realized so many of my favorite films were made by the same pasty weirdo. As for the Beetle Juice cartoon, I have almost zero recollection of it, other than it existed—one of those cases where something that should by all rights have appealed to me in a big way was barely a blip on the radar. Perhaps as a young cuss  I was already developing my snobby aversion to remakes, or maybe its airing time conflicted with the Ghostbusters cartoon or something, who knows? (Molly says: you were just jealous that Beetlejuice got to be Lydia’s boyfriend in the cartoon—admit it.[Jesse says: one thing I’ll really miss about this column is your publicly accusing me of leching over young actresses who—in a point of fact—are actually older than I am])

Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:

Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: FUCK YES

Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Let’s turn on the juice and see what shakes loose!

Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: God, it’s so good. It’s so, so good. The whole movie just works, in this beautiful, ugly, unwieldy, strange, sensible, perfectly nonsensical way that makes me all awe-filled and, if possible, even unhappier about having watched Burton’s truly uninspired Alice and Chocolate Factory reboots all the way through. It has everything that made him a true visionary—beautiful practical effects (I fucking love those shrimp-bowl puppet hands at the end of the Day-O haunting sequence, they make me squeal every time in delight), excellent direction for the actors, overarching cohesiveness that isn’t pandering, but rather, intelligent and silly at the same time. I love this goddamn movie.

Beetle Juice really does have everything that made me swoon as a kid—and as a grownup, as well, even one who is just a hair shy of thirty years old. Seriously, the movie reduces me to a more innocent age, where I profoundly understand Lydia’s eye-rolling angst, her frustration with her terrible parents, her dramatic suicide note-writing, omg. But as an adult, I appreciate even more the throwaway moments like, for example, when Lydia’s father scolds her for putting holes in $300 designer sheets, or when Alec Baldwin proclaims that the Handbook for the Recently Deceased “reads like stereo instructions,” or the confused football team (“coach…I don’t think we survived that crash”). The harried undead social worker tickles me far more as an adult than a kid, too.

In the end, I think what really makes Beetle Juice work is the amount of fun everyone seems to be having. There’s such unbridled creative joy bursting through every moment of the film, in the design (I love love love how Tim Burton works with his budget instead of fighting it, using a motif of models within models to make the sets resonate with one another), in Elfman’s soundtrack, in the bizarre breakaway directorial moments (like Jeffrey Jones getting all grossed out watching a crow eat some creature’s entrails), and in the performances of the actors themselves. Winona’s take on the archetypical maladjusted teen is sweetly earnest while still being self-aware, a balance she struck in Heathers, as well; the over-the-top support villainy of Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O’Hara is relentlessly and appropriately loathsome. Oh and gosh, Glen Shadix hamming the fuck out in his second-best role (the way he says “Eskimo” in Heathers trumps all of his truly excellent work in Beetle Juice). And then, of course, there’s Michael Keaton. Holy hell. He’s so perfect in the role, his take on the character gleefully terrifying and icky and appealing and grotesque and…OK, just about everything that is right with the universe. He really is the ghost with the most.

Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: So yeah, this movie is awesome. It holds up. You’ve gotta accept from the get-go that it only operates according to its own non-logic, but so long as you do that you’ll be fine. I honestly have no idea how it might comes across to an adult who never watched it as a kid—pretty goddamn weird, I imagine.

The art of making films that will appeal to kids and adults alike is a rare one, and really where Burton excelled during the first half of his career—the key, it would seem, is to avoid pandering or dumbing down the material (and yeah, OK, having Vincent Price references—or even appearances—for the grown-ups). Kids don’t need idiot plots to avoid becoming confused; on the contrary, they will follow the most insane stories imaginable so long as they are fun and fast-paced. Scary isn’t just ok, scary is good, so long as it’s in a certain context, and Burton, like Terry Gilliam, not only understands but capitalizes on all this (Molly says. . . never mind, it would take too long. I’ll let it slide because I think the closest Gilliam parallels to Beetle Juice would really be Brazil and Fear and Loathing, both of which I liked [Jesse says: whoa, you’d be a way edgier babysitter than me—I was talking about Time Bandits and Baron Munchausen!] [Molly says: I know you were. My point stands, because Beetle Juice is (1) good, and (2) doesn’t have Robin William’s decapitated head speaking in a “hilarious” Italian accent]). The result is non-stop strangeness both in terms of the story and the visuals, which makes for an immensely satisfying cocktail. Re-watching Beetle Juice is akin to sampling some favorite childhood treat after a long absence from one’s palate—not only is it enjoyable on a visceral, nostalgic level, but as an adult you pick up on and appreciate how the elements come together to make an irresistible whole.

Fine and good as the sequences involving Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin are, obviously it’s Michael Keaton’s appearance halfway through that kicks things into a higher level. I’d forgotten just how filthy his character is, which goes a long way to explaining why I loved this so much as a kid. The “nice model” bit remains one of the most memorable moments in Mr. Clean and Sober’s oeuvre. Strange as it is to see Michael Keaton transform into a one-liner spewing undead pervert, the real eyebrow-raising performance, at least for contemporary viewers, is Alec Baldwin as a milquetoast ghost. Baldwin’s role as conservative silver fox Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock has become so iconic that seeing him play anything else is equally spooky as any horror of the Afterlife—I shudder to think of his less-doughy, bespectacled face.

Bottom line—say yes to the juice. Barely a wrong note in picture, other than that bit with the Witch Doctor at the end. Silly stuff, sure, and not the brainiest of pictures, but a really sweet, fun, cool picture that explains why we keep giving Burton just-one-more-chance after shelling out money for yet another interminable, CGI-clogged train wreck of a film—hope springs eternal that he’ll find his old mojo. Maybe he should put on some Harry Belafonte and see if his old muses Keaton and Ryder might be willing to fill in for Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter on his reinterpretation of Return to Oz or whatever the fuck unwanted remake he’s doing these days (Molly says: you forget…it’s going to be him likely ruining his previous good work with some sort of Frankenweenie reboot…and then Dark Shadows).

High Points: Michael Keaton. Michael Keaton. And—say it three times—Michael Keaton. The gags, which are more effective than they have any right to be. The bureaucratic hell of the Afterlife. The spectacular make-up and effects—on a modest budget and without the CGI he’s come to over-rely on. The costumes. The dancing. The genuine creep of Beetlejuice’s attempt to blackmail Lydia into marrying him (with her in a dress that might even rival the dress sported by Mia Sara in Legend). Mr. Burton: For you, who used to rock, we salute you.

Final Verdict: Shake, shake, shake, Señora!

Next Time: Sniff!

Jesse Bullington is the author of the novels The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart and the upcoming The Enterprise of Death, and his short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in ChiZine, Brain Harvest, Jabberwocky, and several anthologies, including Running with the Pack and The Best of All Flesh. He lives in Colorado and can be found online at www.jessebullington.com.

Molly Tanzer is the Managing Editor of Fantasy Magazine and Lightspeed. Her fiction appears in Running with the Pack and Palimpsest, and is forthcoming in Historical Lovecraft and Crossed Genres. The account of her playing minigolf with zombie band The Widow’s Bane can be found at Strange Horizons. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and a very bad cat. You are welcome to visit her any time over at her blog.