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The Test of Time: Beetlejuice (1988)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

DIRECTED BY TIM BURTON

STARRING MICHAEL KEATON, WINONA RYDER, CATHERINE O'HARA, JEFFREY JONES, ALEC BALDWIN, GEENA DAVIS

“Hey Adam, Nice F*cking Model!” Honk Honk. Anyone else quote and play out that line ad nauseam when they were oh, I don’t know, ten years old or so? Don’t lie, it’s okay, we’re all friends around here. Anyway, get ready to feel old guys and gals, because, believe or don’t, the inimitable BEETLEJUICE turns 30 years old on March 30th. All together now, Happy-Birth-After-Death Day to our favorite Ghost with the Most, the preeminent Bio-Exorcist of our day, Mr. Juice. And let’s be honest, the foul-mouthed ghoul still looks great, the rotting fetor of his splotchy greenish skin hasn’t aged a damn day over the past three decades. Those bug-eyed houseflies and nasty Zagnuts have worked ever-loving wonders…Beetlejuice is one beautiful beast indeed!

But what of Tim Burton’s brazenly bizarre sophomore feature as a whole? Does it still tower as tall today – in 2018 – as it did when released in 1988? The fact that a long-gestating sequel to the film is still on the minds of demanding fans would seemingly indicate the affirmative, particularly since Burton and star Michael Keaton have expressed interest in returning the material as well. More pressing still, does the brilliant blend of morbidly dark humor and cartoonish horror in BEETLEJUICE still jive today? Is it still funny? Is it still scary? Is the entirety still has inviolably entertaining as we all remember it? If so, how come? If not, why not? Let’s see just how well BEETLEJUICE does against The Test of Time below!

THE STORY: Not to skip ahead, but the story is one of the sturdiest aspects of the film, as it offers a refreshingly original spin on the haunted house ghost story. You know the set up. Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis), two handsome lovebirds who are instantly established as fun, playful, happy, LIKEABLE people – accidentally drown to death when their car careens off of a bridge. Upon returning to their quaint little country abode, they soon realize they did not survive the crash, that they are indeed ghosts stuck in a strange purgatorial afterlife. Which would be bad enough, no?

But then, giving a sitcom feel to the proceedings, the ghostly Maitlands are mortified by the arrival of the even ghastlier Deetzs, a trendy New York family who’ve bought their house with intentions of tearing it down and decorating anew. Unable to scare off the Deetzs by themselves, Adam and Babs enlist the help of Beetlejuice – a repugnant letch who traffics in undead malfeasance – to crank up the creep factor and kick the f*ckers out. Of course, emo-Goth teen Lydia Deetz sides more with the Maitlands than her own family, which serves as a curious conduit between the dead and the living. In the end, we’re given a compromise of coexistence!

WHAT HOLDS-UP: At a jaunty 92 minutes, not much about BEETLEJUICE feels stale or superfluous today. Nor does it feel too dated. Much of this has to do with the aforementioned story strengths and wonderfully written script by Burton himself, but there’s more to it as well. By having us identify with and sympathize for the Maitlands – benevolent ghosts – who oppose ugly, malevolent, materialistic human beings that are quirkily comedic and offbeat in their own right – Burton makes us complicit in a totally subverted haunted house story. We side far more with the deceased than the living, save for the suicidal Lydia (who wants to be dead), which goes a long way in establishing a pitch-perfect tonal balance between humor and horror in the film. That to me is the single strongest suit BEETLEJUICE has up its sleeve, its magical mélange of the funny and the frightful.

Not just in the situational comedy the plotline presents, but in the characters themselves and the dialogue the spout as well. How f*cking funny is it the first time we see Beetlejuice on the Maitland’s TV set, giving his ham-fisted advertisement about being the most venerable bio-exorcist in the land? “I’LL CHEW ON THE DOG!” F*cking hysterical! Then we get introduced to the Deetzs, satirical bastions of the trendy NYC crowd, who provide just as many fish-out-of-water laughs as the rest. Catherine O’hara in particular, who I actually found shrill and grating as a kid, is absolutely hilarious as a pretentious artist who takes herself and work way too seriously. “I don’t want to die like this!” as she’s pinned by her own morbid sculpture. Her dopey hubby Charles is just as funny, as all he wants to do is relax, but every time he’s just about to, some macabre interruption takes hold. Even when he watches birds, he finds one chewing on a freshly pulled worm. The guy can’t win, especially when a sordid serpentine Beetlejuice shows up and threatens “We’ve come for your daughter, Chuck! Hahaha!”

And who can forget “Not so fast Round Boy, we’re gonna have some laughs!” Beetlejuice needles Otho (the late Glenn Shadix), the foppish interior decorator that also provides memorable laughs from the moment he comes crashing through the window in the beginning. There are so many well drawn characters, so many quotable lines, all of which combine to blur the boundaries between who is good, what is evil, who is redeemable and what is detestable. This is a surefire formula for unadulterated fun!

Really though, Michael Keaton’s performance as Beetlejuice is what truly holds up as an all time classic comedic character. Keaton’s so damn good that, despite only having 17 minutes of actual screen time, he utterly steals the show at every single turn. It’s an inspired casting choice by Burton, knowing full well of Keaton’s comedic chops in stuff like NIGHT SHIFT and MR. MOM. But here he takes the manic energy, comedic timing and slapstick physical comedy to the next level. The scene where he meets the Maitlands for the first time inside Adam’s model is too damn funny to parrot. “I’ve seen THE EXORCIST 167 times and it keeps getting funnier every time I see it!” Many of Keaton’s lines were improvised, which is probably (and rightly) why BEETLEJUICE is Keaton’s favorite movie of his own.

It’s such a funny and original character that it’s easy to overlook the horror in the film. Honestly, there are a few gnarly stints in BEETLEJUICE that brilliantly balances the humor. The dinner table scene and the séance finale are obvious examples, both instances requisitely frightening in a way that is equally comedic. But recall the sandworm scenes, the giant snake sequence, the stints of graphic violence where Babs rips her own face off in the closet or stands with Adam’s decapitated head in hand, bloody butcher knife in the other. Sure some if it is cartoonish, but like the all time best horror-comedies, its terror also hits as hard as the side-splitters.

And not for nothing, but we’d be remiss to assess a Burton flick and not talk about the music and art direction. Straight up, Oingo Boingo front-man Danny Elfman turned in one of his all time best scores in BEETLEJUICE. It sets the tone perfectly and punctuates the humor and horror in equal measure. It’s eerie, Gothic, operatic, and still plays a major part in keeping the movie as successful now as it was in 1988. Same goes for the use of Harry Belafonte calypso music. Day-O and Jump in the Line accompany the action of the movie in a way that perfectly echoes its light, playful tone. Further plaudits must be extended to the colorful set-designs and macabre art direction, a staple we’d come to know and love in most to all of Burton’s work since. Whether it’s the imaginative monstrous designs – eyes rolled back into Babs’ tongue, Adam’s disfigured face, etc. – or some of the sinister set-pieces (it’s death for the dead), the starkly unique look of BEETLEJUICE still remains one of its high-water marks!

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Yeah, I got nothing. I thought, having watched the film again for the 300th time the other day, that maybe some of the FX would start to show their age. Not the case. Because Burton employed the claymation technique, a sort of timeless medium, the movie has less of an aged quality than a distinct directorial one. We know Burton would go on to work with clay-animation a lot in the future, and while it might be the most dated aspect of BEETLEJUICE, it’s nowhere near too stale to make much of a difference. It’s actually a bit charming in its rudiments.

THE VERDICT: Far be it from me to impugn the (dead) man, the myth, the legend on his 30th birthday. No, BEETLEJUICE is still as entertaining as ever, thanks to the wicked imagination of Tim Burton, the cast of characters he drew up on the page and chose to play onscreen, none more important than the iconic turn yielded by Michael Keaton as the titular Ghost with the Most. The pitch-perfect tonal reverberation of horror and humor, the memorable music and typical stylistic Burton flourishes – they all keep BEETLEJUICE fresher than embalming fluid. This has always been one of my favorite movies, but when I learned it was released the same day my beautiful bride was born, an even more meaningful kinship has taken hold.  And s one of the final scenes in the film shows us ("I got a shoot for GQ in about an hour and half," the Test of Time is hardly a match for BEETLEJUICE!

STREAM BEETLEJUICE HERE

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GET BEETLEJUICE ON BLU-RAY HERE

Extra Tidbit: Alternate titles for BEETLEJUICE included HOUSE GHOSTS and SCARED SHEETLESS.
Source: AITH.com

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