I hate spiders. No matter how hard I try to get over them, I just can’t. I am frozen to the spot whenever I see one bigger than £1 coin. With this in mind, I remember clearly watching Beetlejuice for the first time when I was around 9 or 10 years old. I was mesmerised from the first second.
The hairs on my neck stood up when the opening music played. It was just breathtakingly creepy, as the camera danced across the rooftops of an idyllic village in New England. The unmistakable sound of Danny Elfman’s work; he really can bring a film to life. The fairground music seemed so out of place when you’re flying above this sleepy town, the film already getting under the skin, showing us that all is not what it seems. And with that, a gigantic spider crawls over the rooftop of a beautiful house, and after you’ve put your heart back in your chest, you realise this town was actually a model village.
This moment is a precursor of what is to come. It may look like the perfect place on Earth, but monsters lurk and bad things happen even here. Within the first few minutes, Burton establishes the strange and macabre universe of the film.
Meet Barbara (Geena Davis) and Adam Maitland (Alec Baldwin). Adam and Barbara are the perfect impassioned protagonists for this grim narrative landscape. They are desperately in love, and about to enjoy a glorious staycation spent fixing up their old house—their purity and good nature standing in stark contrast to the weird world of the film. They are the image of hopeful and optimistic youth, anxiously hoping for a baby and excited to renovate their home to make a beautiful and wholesome life for themselves.
As you can probably guess from the tone of the film, Burton has no regard for such a pure-hearted plight, and the cosy couple doesn’t live much longer. The scene of their death is treated humorously—in swerving their car to spare the life of a little dog, they plummet to their deaths when that very dog jumps off the floorboard holding their car up on a broken bridge. Unaware of their drownings, Adam and Barbara make their way back to their house as though nothing has happened.
With the realisation that Adam and Barbara are dead, the couple and we the viewer, are transported into a strange, macabre funhouse, a ghostly and outrageous domain, inhabited by the grotesque titular character, Betelgeuse. Adam and Barbara don’t seem too bothered about being dead. While they are mystified, the revelation appears confusing more than upsetting. Nonchalantly Adam says, “Barb, honey, we’re dead. I don’t think we have very much to worry about anymore.” He’s right. Little has changed other than that they cannot leave their house or communicate with the living. As a reclusive couple, this is more of a relief than anything. Death was all they needed to get some quality time alone.
There is, of course, a catch. The arrival of the Deetz family, yuppies from New York City, set on completely renovating the house and stripping it of its New England charm. They move in almost immediately and set to work dismantling the Maitland’s home right before their eyes. The Deetzes are a cartoonishly villainous couple, complete with the uptight and buffoonish patriarch, Charles (Jeffrey Jones), who tensely screams that he just came to the country to relax but does nothing of the sort; his icy, self-absorbed and vulgar wife, Delia (Catherine O’Hara); and their narcissistic interior decorator, Otho (Glenn Shadix).
Then there’s the daughter, Lydia (Winona Ryder). Oh Lydia, I cannot truly convey how much I loved you and wanted to be you as a child. Despite being only 9 or 10, I had grown up brothers who brought me up on a soundtrack of The Cure, Joy Division, The Cocteau Twins and The Jesus and Mary Chain. I would come home from school every day and watch The Cure’s Staring at the Sea video collection. I was a goth in spirit, especially because I believed I could see spirits (one of these days I’ll write about that). So when Lydia came on the screen, she absolutely became my idol. Beautiful, strange and unusual, pale skin, black hair—she was perfect.
The arrival of these unwelcome guests leaves Barbara and Adam feeling hopeless at first, forced into cohabitating with (read, haunting) a group of tasteless urban snobs. Their outlook changes as they realise that they are ghosts. Adam grins as he tells his wife of their newfound spirit status, and so a comical haunting begins. There is a great scene where Barbara and Adam think they are scaring the New Yorkers by pulling their faces into all sorts of contorted horrors, but in actual fact, they are just horrified by the quaint country design of the decor and furnishings in the house. They are so self-centred that they aren’t aware of the ghosts at all.
Perhaps even more horrifying for Barb and Adam than their home being taken over by these ghouls, is the world outside the house that awaits them when they try to leave. The outside world is a hellscape, the stuff of nightmares, and the strange snake-like beast (the “sandworm”) that attacks them is chilling. While the horror of the film has been in a kind of campy tone until now, the bizarre desert landscape of the outside world is genuinely unsettling, with stop-motion snake heads emerging from one another like stripy embodiments of decay.
Yet, worse than the double-mouthed snake shark waiting for Barb and Adam outside is the fussy family of nouveau riche at the dining table. Delia complains about the lack of Szechuan Chinese food available in the quaint town. This snobbery extends into Delia’s obsession with her art, even when she is trapped against the house by one of her horrible sculptures that has fallen from a massive crane. She screams at the workmen to be more careful: “This is my art, and it is dangerous!”
Lydia is the only member of the Deetz clan who can see the Maitlands. She is a sensitive girl, attuned to the world of the strange and the uncanny, and is able to understand almost immediately what’s going on and communicate with the other side. The problem is that no one is interested in hearing her observations or in fact, notices her at all. It’s a familiar story for teenagers, the poor hormonal half-adults who struggle to be taken seriously.
In Beetlejuice, multiple dimensions exist layered on top of each other. Ghosts live alongside humans, a chalk outline of a door becomes a real door, and the world of the dead is just a warped version of the world of the living. Burton creates a world that follows an internal logic, but is erratic to his audience, like a Halloween fairground ride that shocks and disturbs, and is totally unique.
The central conflict of the film is encapsulated when Barbara says, “We probably wouldn’t mind sharing the house if the people were more like…” and Juno (the Maitlands Afterlife Caseworker, played by Sylvia Sidney) finishes her thought, “You used to be.” So it’s not that Barbara and Adam are dead, that their dreams were taken from them too soon or that they’ve become cut off from society; it’s that they must haunt their own house, which has been taken over by ghoulish people with pretentious attitudes and poor taste. The conflict is less about ghosts versus humans and more about down-to-earth homemakers against vulgar consumers. The battle is between the country and the city, the humble and the flashy. This take on the traditional ghost story lends the film an irreverent sense of humour and a refreshing absurdity.
Like an old-fashioned acting coach, Juno puffs on a cigarette, urging them, “Do what you know. Use your talents. Practice.” Yet, time and time again, Adam and Barbara prove themselves to be bad at ghosting (if only guys were like that, eh?). They don’t look any different since dying—they are still an attractive, wholesome young couple—and so they must resort to feeble dramatics with sheets over their heads. When they first try to scare Charles, he mistakes them for Lydia playing a prank on him. When they try to spook Delia, she has taken a Valium and is virtually catatonic; she passes out as she points the TV remote at them. And when they approach Lydia, she is hardly surprised to see them, and even less surprised to learn that they are ghosts.
Because of her curiosity and interest in the couple, Lydia becomes Barbara and Adam’s main ally in the house. Having ghosts in the house excites Lydia, as she is always looking for a good way to torment her shallow and nasty stepmother. Lydia is a depressive teenager so who better to strike up a friendship with the reluctant ghosts than her? Barbara and Adam give Lydia some direction in her life, becoming better and fully present parents to her. They help her as she struggles to get used to country living and getting along with her new stepmother. Lydia is the bridge between the world of the dead and the world of the living, and she enjoys this because it gives her a reason to be alive, though she wishes she was dead.
Now marks the arrival of the eponymous character, Betelgeuse. Desperate to rid the Deetzes from their home, Barbara and Adam decide to conjure the strange “Freelance Bio-Exorcist” (even though Juno warned them against it), and he arrives in wholly grotesque style to help them. Fantasy and reality are merged throughout the film, especially so when Betelgeuse is introduced. He’s actually only on screen for 18 minutes of the film, but boy does he make an impact.
Betelgeuse is himself a strange combination of the worldly and the unworldly, at one moment exhibiting magical powers and the next behaving like a grotesque barfly, delivering one-liners, planting nonconsensual kisses on Barbara, and pulling rats out of his pocket. He is a comic villain, an antiheroic demon who might be able to help Barbara and Adam get their house back, but is off-putting and disgusting all the while. His character mirrors the uncanny contrasts of the film.
Adam and Barbara keep trying to get rid of the Deetzes, including the brilliant scene where they possess the dinner guests and make them dance to Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song”, but instead of scaring them away, it only enlivens the party and improves their social standing amongst friends, which makes them want to stay.
The substance of Betelgeuse’s evil ways is left somewhat ambiguous at the start of the film. We know that he is a disgusting demon-like figure, but his character seems comical and not too threatening. But as the story progresses he proves to be far more nefarious than we initially thought, equipped with the kind of scare tactics that Barbara and Adam could only dream of. While his most horrifying behaviour early on was his predatory advances towards Barbara, he later emerges as a terrifying poltergeist, violently knocking people down the stairs and transforming himself into a malevolent snake-like creature.
Barbara and Adam reject Betelgeuse’s services; he turns his interest onto schoolgirl Lydia. I doubt very much that if Beetlejuice released today that this preying on a vulnerable young girl would be included in the film, or if it was, it would be Rated R and certainly not done for comic effect. As adults, we understand that this behaviour is evil, but when I was young and watched this, I just thought it was creepy and naughty, not realising the enormity of his bad behaviour or truly realising Betelgeuses’ intentions for the girl.
All of this leaves Lydia even more depressed than she was originally. She melodramatically writes in her diary as sad music plays, planning her suicide. While having a haunted house initially excited her, she now finds herself overwhelmed and lonely in the world of the living. She has a lot going on to be fair. Barbara and Adam have disappeared, she has a crazy, creepy demon wanting to do unimaginable things to her and her parents are idiots. Death is a constant theme in the film, of course. At times it is treated playfully, sometimes mournfully, and now Lydia longs to be among the dead, imagining it to be a welcome respite from the world of the living.
Barbara and Adam assure Lydia, “being dead really doesn’t make things any easier.” In Burton’s strange world, Lydia perceives death as a kind of relief from the pain of living, as depressed people often do. Lydia does not wish for the sweet relief of death because she is full of teenage angst, but because she has firsthand experience with the world of the dead, and feels that it would be preferable to the difficulties she faces with her family. Barbara and Adam know that death is not the better alternative; in fact, death proves to have more bureaucracy and rules to abide by than the world of the living. While you would expect a film with themes of teenage suicide to take the approach that a teenager should not commit suicide because it ends their lives prematurely, Beetlejuice asserts that the reason not to commit suicide is because death isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Unfortunately, The Handbook for the Recently Deceased falls into Otho’s hands, and Adam and Barbara’s fate hangs in the balance. Not knowing what to do, Lydia regretfully seeks the help of Betelgeuse. The intervention of the Deetzes has only complicated matters and made Barbara and Adam’s afterlife experience much worse. Driven by greed and desire for profit, the Deetzes try to control Adam and Barbara, rather than peacefully live alongside them.
The problem is, Betelgeuse is no help at all. He never helps anyone without there being something in it for himself. So in return for his help, he forces Lydia into marrying him against her will. Betelgeuse may be a joker, which makes him seem less threatening, but his quips mask a perverse evil, a violent streak and a destructive impulse. Yes, he disbands the meeting that threatens to destroy Adam and Barbara, but in exchange, he tries to pull Lydia into his chaotic world.
In the climactic moment of the film, all of the supernatural elements of the world of the dead come together to help Adam and Barbara to get rid of Betelgeuse. Not only do they save Lydia from Betelgeuse’s clutches, but they save themselves and improve Lydia’s relationship with her parents, who now understand her a little better and feel proud of their daughter.
Lydia is happy in her new town once she reconciles her relationship between life and death. She does well in school, swaps her mourning clothes for school uniform, and begins to enjoy life with the help of both her dead and living parents.
It has been long talked about that there will be a sequel to Beetlejuice, but could really this happen? While there is no doubt that special effects have improved immensely since 1988, and Tim Burton could make something even more spectacular, I am not sure that Betelgeuse himself would be so welcome. It wouldn’t be the same without him being a foul creep with crass jokes. But his predatory behaviour and actions which amount to sexual assault would be somewhat below the belt and not funny at all. If they could get around this then I would be eager to watch.
Tim Burton is a director whose work truly stands out from the crowd. His singular style—at once macabre, funny, weird, and heartfelt—has become his signature. He is known for his creativity in telling fantasy stories, and in bringing to life the unimaginable. Burton’s expertise is clearly on display in Beetlejuice, which was just his second full-length feature. It rightly catapulted him to another level of success.
The performances that Burton garnered from the actors—most notably Michael Keaton’s mile-a-minute manic performance as the titular character—make the film all the more magical and kooky. The cast he assembled and his abilities as a storyteller elevate the movie beyond the visual and into the narrative. The result is a film unlike any other before or since—a truly unique work of fantasy filmmaking.