a critiQal film review Beetlejuice (1988)

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Plot: After Barbara (Davis) and Adam Maitland (Baldwin) die in a car accident, they find themselves stuck haunting their country residence, unable to leave the house. When the unbearable Deetzes and teen daughter Lydia (Ryder) buy the home, the Maitlands attempt to scare them away without success. Their efforts attract Beetlejuice (Keaton), a rambunctious spirit whose "help" quickly becomes dangerous for the Maitlands and innocent Lydia.

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For this week’s Saturday Retro Review, we went looking for an 80’s comedy. We quickly stumbled across a classic om Vudu®: Beetlejuice. Since we hadn’t seen this one in ages, it was a perfect fit. But, would this Tim Burton classic have lost it’s shine since it’s debut nearly 30 years ago? Or is quirky comedy timeless?

Much of the cast of this film is a nostalgic throwback to the 80’s/90’s as well. Winona Ryder, known these days for her role in 80’s and 90’s films Heathers (1989), Edward Scissorhands and Reality Bites as much as her surprise turns in later films Alien: Resurrection and Star Trek (2009), is a hit in Beetlejuice. Her goth character is the main focus of the film, with everyone from her family to the ghosts to Beetlejuice himself centering their attention on her.

The ghosts themselves, Alec Baldwin (The Hunt for Red October (1990), “30 Rock” (TV)) and Geena Davis (Cutthroat Island (1995)), play out nicely as well. While Geena Davis seems to be playing the “before” of her The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) role, Alec Baldwin is nearly unrecognizable in his L.L. Bean style. Still, they make a good couple in Beetlejuice, and viewers should easily be able to see things from their point of view.

Michael Keaton is the title character, and right before he faces off against the Joker in Batman (1989), does a great job of showing off his versatility with Beetlejuice. He was on a role, and his gleefully crazy Beetlejuice shows why. He’s a highlight of a pic full of nostalgic stars, and viewers will find him both repulsing and irresistible. Sure, not all of his jokes hit their mark, but his wackiness will keep viewers coming back for more.

The dysfunctional family that moves into the house against our ghost couple’s wishes are also recognizable, with both husband Jeffrey Jones (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)) and wife Catherine O’Hara (Home Alone (1990)) being recognizable in their own right. While Catherine O’Hara strays a bit from the forgetful mom viewers will later know her as – in fact, being a bit of a loon here – the manic part of her character is very similar. Jeffrey Jones – who was already giving Paul Gleason (of The Breakfast Club (1985)) competition as most iconic high school principal of the 80’s – is much more toned down here, and he quickly becomes the calm in the O’Hara storm.

With Beetlejuice, Tim Burton takes all of these recognizable characters, adds in the quirkiness he later would be known for in films like Corpse Bride (2005) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), and mixes it together to bring an offbeat comedy that hits more times than it misses. Sure, it’s not perfect, but there are enough elements of comedy and straight-up oddness that the death of the two main characters right near the beginning of the film doesn’t even bring it down.

Sadly, the special effects have been hit pretty hard by the passage of time. With such fantasy-like elements as giant worms (seemingly ripped straight from Dune), and some of Beetlejuice’s crazy stunts, viewers will definitely notice a muppet-like feel to some of the creature effects. While some films are able to make these effects work, Beetlejuice isn’t one of those films. Still, even cheesy effects at the end of the sequence can’t hamper the hilarity of the classic “Day-O” scene.

Even with it’s flaws, however, Beetlejuice is an offbeat comedy that works. While other directors could have easily run this into the ground – thanks to sequences that include the aforementioned death of two of the main characters, a child bride sequence, and several other oddities – this film has rightfully become a classic under Burton’s direction. While Michael Keaton, Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Winona Ryder, Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O’Hara all do a good job, Burton crafts the film around them into something viewers have revisited time and again.

There have been rumors of Beetlejuice 2 in the works, and while it may be fun to see Winona Ryder and Michael Keaton back together again, it’s kind of hard to see this working again. But with Tim Burton at the helm once again – and armed with better special effects – it’s possible that viewers will get another look at this house of oddities. And just maybe, they might be able to again walk away from the experience smiling.

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