The works of Tim Burton are ripe for Halloween viewings. Their gothic design and dark comedic writing lend themselves to late autumnal nights or even, in the case of Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns, late winter nights. One of the most entertaining is 1988’s technologically astounding Beetlejuice.
The story sees recently deceased Barbara and Adam Maitland unwillingly sharing their house with the eccentric Dietz family. As they contemplate asking for help from self-proclaimed “bio-exorcist” Betelgeuse, so too does the youngest member of the Dietz family Lydia who is desperate to leave home. Every single one of these characters is well fleshed out and likable. Barbara and Adam Maitland are clearly in love, despite never having to really say it. Their journey is comedically unfortunate but their upbeat attitudes keep them sympathetic. They are the straight people in this bizarre landscape but they are very rarely serious, instead attempting to find small moments of joy wherever they can. Meanwhile, Charles and Delia Dietz are quirky from the moment they enter the frame. Delia is an artist, in the most bizarre sense of the word, who is prone to anxiety and shrieking. Charles is dull in comparison as a former real estate agent who has lost his edge and simply wants to enjoy some peace and quiet. The comedy lies in how determined he is to enjoy that peace and how exasperated he is by his wife’s antics.
The story is equally centered on all of the main characters, but the true protagonists seems to be Lydia Dietz and Betelgeuse. Lydia is iconic, as one of the earliest pop culture goth icons. Mourning the loss of her mother and frustrated by Delia’s antics, she is fascinated by the world around her. She is able to see the strange and unusual because she herself is strange and unusual, and thus becomes torn between the world of the dead and the world of the living. She is sympathetic yet strong, which makes her a great intellectual match for Betelguese. The man himself is both morally and physically disgusting. Many words that describe him best are not suitable for children, given his infatuation with women- Lydia in particular. Betelgeuse has been dead for centuries but can return to the land of the living if he marries a mortal, so he chooses the desperate-to-escape Lydia. Having become trapped by this deal, he becomes the main villain of the 3rd act, having only been mischievous for the previous 2.
The brilliant characters are matched by stunning visual effects. A mixture of green screens, physical effects and stop motion animation create some of cinema’s most memorable visuals. The model work is wonderful. Adam Maitland’s model of the town where he lives is particularly wonderful as a prop and a plot point. Its use in the opening flyover is a beautiful send-up to other horror openings like The Shining and perfectly sets the tone of the film. The giant black and white Sandworm is particularly notable as a stop motion creature on a green screen. This not-so-subtle nod to Dune makes a couple of appearances throughout before helping to save the day in the finale (Chekov’s Worm, if you will) which isn’t just good writing but an excellent use of comedy’s Rule of 3. The practical effects used for the dead are outstanding. Each design is unique and conveys to the audience how this character died without ever having to say it. The Maitlands case manager has a slit in her neck that emits the smoke of her cigarette, whilst a member of the filing team is flattened with tire marks across his body. The latter of these characters is unable to work so is suspended from the ceiling and moves through a pulley system which is a great comedic gag and an amazing feat of engineering. Of course, it’s not just the characters that are well designed but the world that they live in. Tim Burton’s work is always unmistakably his and Beetlejuice is no exception. It’s full of angles and small pops of colour with a large palette of blacks, whites, and greys.
The film’s success inspired the animated television Beetlejuice: The Series, which aired on ABC from September 9, 1989, to October 26, 1991, with the final series airing on Fox from September 9, 1991, to December 6, 1991. Composer Danny Elfman returned to write the theme song while director Tim Burton returned as Executive Producer. The series doesn’t seem directly connected to the film, with The Maitlands being completely absent. It follows Lydia and Beetlejuice as they partake in supernatural adventures, with Beetlejuice often trying to scam inhabitants of both the mortal and non-mortal worlds. Their relationship is vastly different from the film, with them being friends instead of enemies. The whole series is very child-friendly and contains many vibrant colours but it is not commercially available outside of the United States.
The film also inspired a Broadway musical, which opened on April 25, 2019, and released the soundtrack on June 7, 2019, before taking a break due to The Pandemic. It’s closer in tone to the film but is a mixture of the film and series when it comes to plot. Following the loss of her mother, Lydia Dietz moves into a new house with her father and his new girlfriend where they are haunted by The Maitlands with a little help from Betelgeuse. Having been fired by The Maitlands, Betelgeuse then attempts to use Lydia for his nefarious deeds with her finally giving in and reveling in the darkness. Having realised that she could see her mother in the afterlife, Lydia follows the Maitlands, only for them to begin plotting a plan to keep Betelgeuse dead, which is pulled off during the finale. As in the series, the musical gives Beetlejuice and Lydia a more friendly, almost romantic relationship whilst Delia is portrayed as more of an airhead instead of an erratic artist. Meanwhile, the Maitlands are simply “unready” to have children before they die and their caseworker Juno only makes an appearance during the finale. It’s vastly different from both the film and the series – as it should be. Adaptation is pointless if everything remains the same. Eddie Perfect’s songs are an absolute delight and suit the materiel excellently. The Whole Being Dead Thing and Say My Name are good picks for the best song but, personally, I’m very fond of That Beautiful Sound which is a duet between Lydia and Beetlejuice as they revel in their mischief.
In all its forms, Beetlejuice is an absolute delight. It varies in darkness without ever straying too far to the light and excels at the absurd. Each is a feat of effects, whether practical or animation and the music always embodies the tone of the story. Tim Burton has created an outstanding and creative franchise that is brilliant all year round but is perfect at this time of year.