Tim Burton is a filmmaker I want to like more than I actually do. I appreciate his particular brand of weirdness, but I feel like sometimes it gets applied to projects that don’t really warrant it (Batman, Batman Returns, and Planet of the Apes, I’m looking at you). But paired with the right subject matter, Burton is just a slice of fried gold (Nightmare Before Christmas, anyone?). And for me, one of the high water marks for Burton was his wonky-as-hell sophomore effort, Beetlejuice.
The story is about Barbara and Adam Maitland, a newlywed couple played by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin who die shortly after moving into their charming New England home, only to discover that they are stuck in this world as ghosts. What’s worse, the obnoxious Deetz family from New York City moves in and immediately redecorates the Maitland’s dream home with dreadful modern décor. And since this is the mid 1980s we’re talking about, you can just imagine how awful it really is. Since the Maitlands are the afterlife’s worst ghosts and prove incapable of scaring anybody, they are left with two choices: They can either stick around the home for 125 years, or they can find somebody who can come in and scare the Deetzs so bad that they leave. Against their better judgement, the Maitlands go for the second option and call upon Betelgeuse the bio-exorcist, a deranged, foul-mouthed dickhead of a ghost played with delightful intensity by Michael Keaton. Betelgeuse (pronounced “Beetlejuice”) scares the Deetzes but not badly enough, setting up a major showdown that involves a botched ghost summoning exercise, a plan to turn the house into a supernatural tourist attraction, and Betelgeuse getting hitched to the Deetze’s death-obsessed daughter Lydia (played by Winona Ryder) so he can enter the mortal world properly and wreak havoc there. Oh, there is also a Harry Belafonte dance number, a technicolor desert world, and enormous striped sandworms in there, because Tim Burton.
This movie isn’t just vintage Burton oddity, it’s Burton on full blast with both barrels, and if you’re up for it, it’s a hell of a ride. Keaton’s turn as Betelgeuse is hilarious in how over the top it is, and he has you simultaneously rooting for him and wanting to wash your hands. The guy is just skeevy in a way that really makes you rethink the wisdom of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
The thing is, though, Betelgeuse isn’t actually my favorite part of the movie. It’s a bit earlier, when the Maitlands are trying to figure out life as ghosts, and seek help for evicting the Deetzes. They come across a Handbook for the Recently Deceased, a kind of instruction manual for new ghosts that more than one character notes, reads like stereo instructions. The Handbook is where the Deetzes learn that they can appeal their case to a kind of spiritual DMV where they are assigned a case worker, who is another, much older ghost. The Maitlands get Juno, an elderly burnout who still smokes and lets the exhale depart through the gaping wound on her neck. She warns them about Betelgeuse, and is only too glad to tell them they’re on their own once they go back to her for help after the whole Betelgeuse thing starts going sideways.
I loved this whole subplot with the bureaucracy of the afterlife, where people have to take a number and wait, presumably for years, while somebody listens to their gripes about dealing with the living. And I also found the idea of a manual for life as a ghost both amusing and fascinating. I don’t think Burton was trying to make any grand statement about the afterlife here, other than no matter where you are, there’s always some kind of line to wait through. The moment of truth, for me, comes at the very end when Betelgeuse finds himself stuck in the same lobby the Maitlands waited through, waiting for his own case worker. But because he’s a jerk and waiting is for suckers, he jumps ahead of every other ghost in the room. The punishment he gets is the kind of retribution that totally works in Burton’s vision of the ghostly hereafter, and if waiting in line is a universal condition, then so is the fact that cutting ahead is going to get you in serious trouble with everybody suddenly standing behind you.
A final note: There have been efforts to make a sequel to this movie ever since it came out. Last I heard, the original plans for it have been scotched in part because Winona Ryder is too old to play Lydia Deetz, but man, if Stranger Things has taught us anything, it’s that the only thing better than Ryder’s turn as a teenaged Lydia would be her turn as Lydia dealing with whatever nonsense her own teenage daughter has to offer up. Keaton’s up for it. You know Burton is. Geena Davis isn’t doing anything, and explaining how a ghost can gain so much weight is reason enough for bringing back Alec Baldwin. So, can somebody please make this happen? There’s a free Zagnut in it for you.