BEETLEJUICE at 30

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Beetlejuice hit the big screen thirty years ago today. Three decades ago. That’s one decade for each time the recently deceased Maitlands had to say the titular ghoul’s name to summon him. Three was an important number in Beetlejuice: in addition to calling Betelgeuse’s name three times, the clock cuckooed three times when Adam and Barbara arrived home after their accident, admittance to the bureaucratic afterlife required three knocks, and the Maitlands had to yell “Home! Home! Home!” to escape the lecherous fiend in the graveyard... but I digress. I was eight years old when Beetlejuice came out and I knew I was seeing something that would stay with me.

On March 30, 1988, moviegoers got their first real glimpse into the often dark, sometimes surreal, and always imaginative mind of Tim Burton. Sure, Burton had directed Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in 1985 – its success afforded him the luxury of picking and choosing his next project – but Pee-wee was an existing Paul Reubens’ character and Burton was a hired filmmaker. Beetlejuice, from its unique production design and visionary art direction to its eccentric characters and quirky music, launched the Tim Burton brand.

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Beetlejuice recounts the story of Adam and Barbara Maitland, who, having recently died, contract out the haunting of their beloved home to the afterlife’s (mis)leading bio-exorcist, Betelgeuse (named for a star in the constellation Orion), after their meager ghostly attempts fail to scare away yuppie Charles Deetz, his shrill artist wife Delia, and his gothic daughter Lydia, the only one among the living who can see the Maitlands.

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Michael Keaton, who would go on to work with Burton on Batman in 1989 and Batman Returns in 1992, carries the cast as the man himself, though he’s only onscreen for 17 of the 92-minute movie. Beetlejuice also launched the career of a young Winona Ryder, who had only been in two previous films; she would also go on to work with Burton on Edward Scissorhands in 1990 and Frankenweenie in 2012. The cast of the living and the dead is rounded out with Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones, Glenn Shadix, and Sylvia Sidney as Juno, who was the only actor Burton had to actively convince to accept a role.

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My favorite character of the movie, though, is the Maitland house. Much like The Overlook Hotel in The Shining, the Maitland’s home is a character in its own right and it called to me. When I was eight, I had an inkling that I might want to pursue a career related to houses – an architect or interior designer, maybe – so, my grandmother sent me a dollhouse to assemble. After seeing Beetlejuice, how I wished my Victorian dollhouse was a funky late-80s art house with a model village in the attic. Every character in the movie wanted that damn house, whether to repair it, sell it, relax in it, redecorate it, or exorcise it, and so did I. In an alternate ending, every family would get their own version of the home: Adam and Barbara would live in a shrunken version in Adam’s model town and the Deetzes would live in the full size house before moving back to New York and leaving Lydia to be raised by the Maitlands.

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Beetlejuice was in good company in 1988 (from my then eight-year- old perspective) – it was released the same year as Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Big, Willow, Coming to America, Hairspray, and Naked Gun, among others I was too young to legally watch. And it made money! The film grossed more than four times its $15 million budget, making it the 10th highest grossing movie of the year. There was a fair mix of humor, fantasy, and eccentricity rolling out in 1988, but there was nothing that could really compare to Burton’s now-signature style. And this in a pre-digital age, where all the effects and illusions were just that – smart analog tricks the production crew implemented in camera. There was very little done post-production, so everything evolved organically under Burton’s simple, yet visualist, direction: costumes, makeup (Beetlejuice won the Oscar for Best Makeup in 1989), sets, lighting, color schemes, scale… everything.

Like other Burton movies following it, music plays an important role in Beetlejuice. Danny Elfman scored the film (he’s collaborated on a total of 16 Burton films) and his campy orchestration underlies most scenes, but the real music of Beetlejuice is Calypso. One of the most iconic scenes in the movie is the ill-fated Deetz dinner party. I will never not imagine this scene when I hear Harry Belafonte’s 1956 Banana Boat Song (Day O) and I suspect it’s what you picture, as well. I recently re-watched the movie and noticed just how often the highly rhythmic sounds were present, especially in Adam and Barbara scenes. As the movie opens, we learn the Maitlands have foregone a traditional vacation in order to stay home and work on projects (the original staycation?). Just before they crash, Adam asks Barbara if she wouldn’t have liked to have gone to Jamaica instead. Perhaps the island music the Maitlands prefer is an eerie nod to the vacation they should have taken. (Did you know that when Glenn Shadix, who played Otho, died, Day O was played at his funeral?)

Beetlejuice wasn’t just a flash in the pan. A few years after the movie, a cartoon series was developed and it was a Saturday morning staple for me (it actually won a Daytime Emmy in 1990). There have been rumors of a Beetlejuice 2 in the works and I’d be the first in line to see it, especially as Burton and some of the original cast members are rumored to be in negotiations. There was an attempt at a sequel entitled Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian (different type of island music there), but it never made it past the script stage. Even as recent as a few days ago, news of a Beetlejuice musical hit the internet, so I think it’s safe to say that Beetlejuice, strange and usual, will not be exorcised from pop culture any time soon.

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For further proof of the film’s enduring cultural relevance, here’s me in drag as Adam Maitland a few Halloweens ago (it’s a long story). But who did I meet at the Halloween parade?

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Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice!

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Posted on March 30, 2018 .