Some people, myself included, might find it hard to believe that 20-years have passed since Director Tim Burton unleashed a pre-BATMAN Michael Keaton on the big screen and delivered the “ghost with the most” to movie theaters across the country. It’s almost even more difficult to fathom that at the time of the film’s release Burton had only directed one other feature film, PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE and that Keaton was known mostly for a series of lightweight 80’s comedies the likes of GUNG HO and MR. MOM. What Burton set free with this film is even that more impressive considering the new ground both the Director and Star were treading.
BEETLEJUICE has all the twisted surrealistic nightmare flourish of Burton’s later oeuvre laid bare in the first frames. It’s a virtual template for everything from THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS to SWEENEY TODD. The carnival freakshow score courtesy of former Onigo Boingo frontman Danny Elfman is amped up to cartoon levels of madness over the opening credit sequences. The stop-motion animation and claymation effects interspersed throughout the film, the gothic sensibilities, raven-haired protagonists and Burton’s enduring fascination with black and white striped costume design—all items that stand as the filmmaker’s most recognizable signatures are on display before the first 30-minutes of celluloid have unspooled. More so than perhaps any other film in Burton’s career, BEETLEJUICE feels most like the directors brain opened the floodgates of creativity and drowned the production with currents of inspiration.
Though the name implies that this film is about BEETLEJUICE, the movie is really a story about the Maitlands. Played by Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis, the Maitlands find themselves recently deceased after a tragic accident involving a stray dog, a bright red covered bridge and the river below. When the ghosts of the couple return to their home to live out a reaming 125-years on earth they soon discover that the peaceful bliss of death is about to be rudely interrupted by their homes new owners The Deitzes. Jeffrey Jones portrays Charles Deitz, a family patriarch who has uprooted his high-maintenance second wife Deila (Catherine O’Hara) and misanthropic daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder) from their home in New York City to this rural Connecticut hamlet in order to find a little peace as well. Unable to control his maddening wife and her bizarre guru/decorator Otho (Glenn Shadix) Charles agrees to a total modernist renovation of the grand country home…something the Maitlands refuse to accept. Unable to cope with the new living conditions, the Maitlands ultimately enlist the help of Betelgeuse—a self-described “bio-exorcist”—who promises to help get rid of the living but causes much more mayhem than The Maitlands could have ever imagined.
Now, I know I just said that the film was about The Maitlands and that is true. However, it’s also true that with less than 20-minutes of screen time, Michael Keaton’s performance as Betelgeuse is a revelation of comic genius. Its anarchy caught on film. A veritable cacophony of utter insanity that, at the time, rivaled Robin Williams’ lunatic performance as Airman Adrien Cronauer in GOOD MORNING VIETNAM as the most unhinged act to ever grace the silver screen. It set Keaton off on a rocket ship of bankability that lead directly to his casting as BATMAN. It also pushed the envelope and with one phrase, virtually destroyed what you could say in a film that earned a PG rating in 1988. It was a family movie in the sense that you could take your kids. But you might have some explaining to do when the credits rolled. They just don’t make films like that anymore.
If BEETLEJUICE is not the perfect film in the broadest cinematic sense of the word, it matters very little. One thing is clear after 20-years have passed. What survives on screen, in retrospect, surly demonstrates itself to be the quintessential Tim Burton film and the best comic performance of Michael Keaton’s career.
DVD SPECIAL FEATURES
What you hold in your hands with this Deluxe 20th Anniversary Edition is the second official release of BEETLEJUICE on DVD. A momentous occasion for celebration? Not in a (as Betelgeuse would say) “billennia”. What it is, in fact is the worst special edition DVD I have ever laid my eyes on.
The original release featured nothing more than a music only track designed to highlight Danny Elfman’s wonderfully weird score and Harry Belafonte’s legendary calypso soundtrack. That feature is back and while it’s amazing how watchable the film is—and a testament to Burton’s visual stylings—with no dialogue spoken at all, it’s just not that repeatable an experience.
The lone additional content provided on this “Deluxe” edition is the inclusion of 3 episodes of the BEETLEJUICE animated series which ran from 1989 to 1991 and which I can recall my little brother (who was 4 at the time) loved. The episodes included are “A-Ha”, “Skeletons in the Closet” and “Spooky Boo-Tique”. That’s it. 3 cartoon shorts and nothing else.
No retrospective documentary, no bonus footage, no outtakes, no make-up tests (the film won the Oscar for it’s make up effects). No audio commentary from Michael Keaton or anyone else involved with the production. No stories to tell, no praises to be sung. It’s the saddest “Deluxe” edition of a film I’ve ever seen and an insult to any who loved this film then and still loves it today.
Really the only thing to recommend about this release of BEETLEJUICE is that it offers DVD collectors a chance to upgrade their beat-up old cardboard and plastic “Snapper Case” (which happily Warner Brother’s lost money creating) for a crisp clean Amray case that will protect your film better and last longer.
4 Skulls for BEETLEJUICE and a big fat goose egg zero for Warner Brothers and their pathetic “Deluxe” edition.