DVD - Image A- Sound B+ Extras C-
BD - Image A- Sound A- Extras C-
starring Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Jeffrey Jones, Michael Keaton
screenplay by Michael McDowell and Warren Skaaren
directed by Tim Burton
by Alex Jackson SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Give Tim Burton's 1988 horror-comedy Beetle Juice credit for this: it's genuinely horrifying and genuinely hilarious. Sometimes both at once. The centrepiece of the film is a dinner party where new homeowners Delia (Catherine O'Hara) and Charles Deetz (Jeffrey Jones) and their guests uncontrollably lip-synch to Harry Belafonte's "Day-O." Seeing Jones struggle to protect himself through two outstretched hands as he growls the line "Hide thee deadly black tarantula" never fails to squeeze a chuckle out of me. At the end of the sequence, the partygoers' shrimp cocktails become large pink demonic hands that grab their faces and pull them down into their bowls. This final image is startling and very creepy in the way that it transforms a familiar object into something distinctly and unmistakably otherworldly.
This set-piece is a testament to how the absurd is the common thread between great comedy and great horror. What's scarier or funnier than the idea that life doesn't make any sense? The ghosts carrying out this prank are Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis), a married couple who drove into a lake in dodging a dog and drowned. There was absolutely no reason that this happened to them; they didn't deserve it and fate didn't have it out for them. It just happened. Every one of us essentially dodges catastrophe after catastrophe, mostly out of sheer luck--and this is, at its very core, the comedy and the horror of human existence.
The film is decidedly murky when it comes to the metaphysical details of the afterlife. To what extent do the ghosts share the same plane as the living? The fact that the living can't see Adam and Barbara is supposed to be a major plot point, but then why can everybody see Betelgeuse, a.k.a. Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton), the mischievous demon the Maitlands recruit to scare off the Deetzes? The ghosts have the ability to manipulate objects and Adam is able to lock his attic door--but how exactly did they perform that calypso routine at the dinner party? They couldn't simply manhandle them or possess them, because there were seven people there and that would mean more than three people to a ghost. At the film's climax, Barbara renders Beetlejuice powerless by repeating his name three times. At first he tries to shut her up with a zipper-mouth, then he teleports her to a desert overrun with hungry sandworms. Why not send her to the desert in the first place? Beetle Juice cannily avoids answering these questions with a running gag involving the Handbook for the Recently Deceased, a manual that reportedly "reads like stereo instructions." The explanations are all there in the book, we can safely surmise, but you must have some incredible patience to decipher them.
There's a sense in which Beetle Juice is essentially a superficial picture. The storyline is just an excuse for the inventive special effects and macabre imagery and the filmmakers aren't going to let something like internal logic get in the way of a great sight gag. But this superficiality stems organically from an underlying absurdist worldview. It's unlikely that these sight gags would be as wonderful as they are if they actually made some kind of narrative sense. Their randomness is precisely why they're so scary and/or funny. And the film's entire philosophical orientation is inherently anti-logic. Its vision of the afterlife is one of decay and endless layers of bureaucracy. Not only does Beetle Juice refuse to answer the God question, it doesn't even bother to ask it. There is no purpose to our existence here on Earth. Our lives are entirely without greater meaning. Life and death are a mere roll of the dice, and we're deluding ourselves if we confuse chance with fate.
And yet Beetle Juice is not a nihilistic or depressing film. There is a strong humanist strain in its depiction of the Maitlands and the Deetzes. Theoretically, our sympathies lie with the Maitlands, an infectiously cute couple so thoroughly enmeshed with one another that they seem to be sharing the same thoughts. Presumably because of the obvious dramatic possibilities, the "meet cute" stage of a relationship tends to be the only one regularly explored by Hollywood and as such is the only stage that's thoroughly idealized. Still, there's something undeniably romantic about being with somebody for so long that you combine to become the same person. The Maitlands represent "happily ever after" in its purest form and we're meant to cheer for them to exorcise the Deetzes in order to facilitate their "happily ever after."
The film goes on to tarnish our image of the Maitlands, though. Barbara tells her caseworker Juno (Sylvia Sidney), "We wouldn't mind sharing the house with people who were more..." "Like you?" Juno suggests. The Maitlands' hatred for the Deetzes isn't exactly irrational, but it has its basis in a dysfunctional isolationism. Adam and Barbara don't want to be with anybody who isn't like them. Hell, they didn't want to leave their house when they were alive. Being stuck there doesn't really register as damnation. At the beginning of the film, we learn that this is their vacation, which they're spending at home. They aren't willing to understand or extend themselves to anybody else; and after dying and meeting the Deetzes, they're unable to maintain their comfortable isolation.
The Deetzes are more conventionally, obviously unlikeable. Successful contractor Charles Deetz claims to have bought the house so his family could "relax and cut coupons" out in the country away from the hassle of New York City. But not really. He's more interested in the idea of the countryside, and it's not long before he calls his old boss to discuss purchasing the entire town and reselling it for profit, apparently to other New Yorkers looking for an escape from it all. He seems completely oblivious as to how this colonization effort would defeat the purpose of leaving New York in the first place. Charles's wife Delia is the more dominant personality in the family. She's an aspiring sculptor who absolutely despises this new home and brings in her personal interior designer Otho (Glenn Shadix) to help re-decorate it. Her sculpting is not so much a means of expression as a way to ingratiate herself with the art world and gain acceptance. Their continual rejection of her and her work has rendered Delia a complete neurotic.
Charles's biological daughter and Delia's stepdaughter Lydia (Winona Ryder) is a Goth teenager who thinks the house is perfect just the way it is. She sees the Maitlands when nobody else can because, she believes, she is more attuned to the "strange and unusual." Lydia's "authenticity" as a Goth is highly suspect, however. It's a little peculiar that she is so deeply attached to the Maitlands, who, on a supernatural level, are pretty amazingly boring. After the "Day-O" haunting, the Deetzes and their friends are ecstatic that they live in a haunted house and talk about charging admission. While snooping around in the attic, Otho happens on the Handbook for the Recently Deceased and learns how to perform a séance. The Deetzes invite their friends over and they conduct one, forcing the Maitlands to materialize. Upon re-entering the world of the living Adam and Barbara begin to rapidly decay, and Lydia, who probably should be morbidly fascinated, is horrified. She's ignoring the fashionably dark and concentrating on the people hurt by it. Her misfit status ultimately irrelevant, Lydia appears to have been seeking a surrogate mother and father all along. Her own parents are too ambivalent and self-absorbed to show her the attention she needs. (They barely ever share the same frame.)
Of the many ways for Lydia to rebel, becoming a Goth is surely the laziest. Lydia claims to despise her stepmother, yet Delia is steeped in something akin to Lydia's "Goth" aesthetic. She's an artist whose sculptures look like props in a Tim Burton movie. More than a parody of the art world, her work seems integrated with Burton's visualization of the afterlife. Also, Delia is not frightened by the ghosts but delighted by them. Of course, she doesn't care as much about the art and judges success in material terms, but she is far more attuned to the bizarre and out-of-the-ordinary than Lydia gives her credit for.
Lydia's adoption of the Goth lifestyle may be an appropriation of Delia's identity born of competition for the affection of her father. This is implied by the way she calls her father "Daddy" and corrects the Maitlands when they refer to Delia as her mother. That said, Lydia's relationship with Charles is only marginally warmer than her relationship with Delia. He's so wilfully ignorant of what's happening in his family that this plot thread never quite jells. Purely on movie terms, the similarity between Lydia and Delia is important in that it not only shows Lydia's Goth identity to be a pretty superficial attempt towards differentiation, but also humanizes Delia and keeps her from becoming a total caricature. We assume that if she is an artist, particularly this artist, Burton can't completely despise her.
The film ends with the Maitlands rewarding Lydia for good grades on her final exams by raising her up in the air and having her lip-synch another Belafonte tune, "Jump in the Line." From the attic, Charles surmises that she must have gotten an "A" on her math final. The Maitlands and the Deetzes have decided to peacefully co-exist. It's worth wondering if the Deetzes will someday regret losing their relationship with their daughter through this de facto adoption by the Maitlands, but regardless, this ending is surprisingly moving. The only villains in the film are Beetlejuice and probably the sycophants attached to the Deetzes. These are the only characters who are truly punished. The Deetzes and the Maitlands aren't depicted as consciously malevolent as much as emotionally insecure.
Beetle Juice is simultaneously irreverently atheistic and unfashionably religious. It's saying that there is no light at the end of the tunnel and that life after death is filled with all the same pain and confusion that characterizes life before it. (When Lydia wants to commit suicide and join the Maitlands, Barbara tells her that dying doesn't make things any easier.) What's more, we as human beings are, at the very end, simply ignoble chunks of flesh and fluid. The worms go in, the worms go out, the worms play pinochle on your snout. We all grow old, decay, and die. Rather than despair about this, we have to reflect that the only answer is to not waste our energy on hate. The purpose of life is simply to get through it as painlessly as possible. There doesn't need to be any greater purpose than that.
The film doesn't lend itself to allegory, exactly, but I think that Beetlejuice himself is a broad manifestation of the sort of divisive hatred we sometimes indulge in under the mistaken assumption that it will somehow lighten the burden of existence. I have mixed feelings about the character. Michael Keaton is fantastic in the role. It's a very physical, joyous performance and we share in the liberation Keaton must have felt in getting to be so unabashedly rude and disgusting. (He has claimed that this is his favourite of his own performances.) Alas, where everybody else in the film is engaged in the actual narrative, Beetlejuice (and, by extension, Keaton) attacks it from the outside. He seems to be the only character who understands that he's inhabiting a movie. Everything he does in the picture is ironic and insincere. When he crosses over to the world of the living, he coerces Lydia into marrying him. This doesn't register as a "real" plot point and Beetlejuice doesn't harbour any palpable lust towards Lydia. It's more that he's consciously satirizing the conventions of melodrama.
Warner has seen fit to remaster Beetle Juice for a "20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition" DVD, whose 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer sports crisper definition and brighter colours than the comparatively electronic-looking 1998 platter. The attendant Dolby Digital 5.1 remix is potent and well-balanced, while a DD 5.1 music-only track is an even stronger platform for Danny Elfman's terrific score. Extras were evidently an afterthought and consist of three short cartoons (more on these below), the isolated music, and trailers for Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Beetle Juice. There's distressingly no audio commentary or making-of documentary; what I wouldn't give for some details of the aborted sequel, Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian.
Within the context of the film, Beetlejuice works well enough, but this depends on us seeing him as a villain and not as an anti-hero. Predictably, by adopting Beetlejuice as a central character for the 1989-1991 animated series "Beetlejuice", this material flies off the rails. The Tim Burton-executive-produced show streamlines the character and the film by reducing Lydia's age and making Beetlejuice (voiced by Stephen Ouimette) her strange imaginary friend. (He's more Drop Dead Fred than Beetlejuice.) The Maitlands have been written out and Lydia's parents have become more oblivious, if also more well-meaning. "Beetlejuice" isn't great animation, yet it's appealing in spots. I liked how television in this world is depicted through cutout animation, and I liked the French skeleton Jacques, who has the two-dimensional quality of a quickly-sketched doodle. Moreover, the variety of funny accents--French, Texan, Yiddish, and Valley Girl, to name a few--struck me as a genuine celebration of funny accents in general as opposed to a derivative dependence on tried-and-true stereotypes.
But "Beetlejuice" is too fast-paced and too dependent on bad puns. Your standard Saturday-morning time-waster, in other words. And while I'm not trying to claim that the original film was high art, I'm bothered by how the cartoon over-simplified Beetle Juice for a younger audience. Though my childhood memories on this subject are a little foggy, I remember demanding to see the movie a second time when it played in theatres only to be re-conditioned by several episodes of the series, to the point where I felt confused and underwhelmed revisiting the film on video. Instead of expanding on the Beetle Juice universe, the show replaces it with something considerably less interesting.
Of the three episodes included on the new DVD and Blu-ray of Beetle Juice, "A-Ha!" is the most rudderless and gag-heavy. Lydia and Beetlejuice search for their anthropomorphic car and eventually find it at a drive-in movie. At the end of the episode, Lydia goads Beetlejuice into admitting he was worried about his friend all along, further neutering the character for a child audience. "Skeletons in the Closet," the third episode of "Beetlejuice" proper, imparts the lesson that you shouldn't keep secrets/should always tell the truth. Finally, "Spooky Boo-tique" has Beetlejuice creating a store at the mall where Lydia can sell her fashion designs. Business is slow, so Beetlejuice goes on television to hypnotize the townspeople into visiting the store, with disastrous results. There is no real satirical point being made about television or consumerism and I'm confused as to why Beetlejuice is motivated by greed. What is he going to do with money? He's dead. All the episodes are about 12 minutes long, suggesting they were originally broadcast with 18 minutes' worth of commercials.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Warner's Blu-ray release of Beetle Juice improves on the concurrent 20th Anniversary DVD most significantly in the area of fine detail, in a strange way enhancing the appeal of the synthetic turf the characters so often find themselves standing on. Colours are more nuanced than they are in standard-def (if similarly prone to oversaturating), but the drop-off into black is a bit steep in shadowy areas of the image, and the 1.78:1, 1080p transfer is ultimately shackled by a certain flatness endemic to the sitcom style of DP Thomas Ackerman, late of Balls of Fury and Superhero Movie. (At least they resisted any temptation to make it look better through revisionism.) The accompanying 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track is playfully and sometimes aggressively discrete but again never quite transcends its original '80s flavour. While the BD and DVD are identical in terms of supplementary material, the Blu-ray keepcase includes the foldout booklet "The Beginner's Guide to Seeing Ghosts" (mainly a primer on the film's cartoonish creatures targeted at young viewers) and a crisp-sounding CD sampler containing four cues from Danny Elfman's iconic score. Originally published: November 4, 2008.
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