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.

Happy Halloween!

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Batman Returns

Whilst Batman ’89 could almost be considered a dark comedy, its 1992 follow up Batman Returns proves to be more of a tragedy. The first focused on the clown-like escapades of The Joker, who clearly has a love for his craft, but when The Penguin commits similar crimes it seems more sinister. This sinister tone was dulled down by Warner Brothers for 1989 audiences, but they took a step back in 1992, allowing director Tim Burton to have complete control over his project. Ultimately, this decision proved to be for the worse, as audiences decried that Batman Returns was far too ‘dark and twisted’. It never quite received the notoriety of its predecessor, or of the Joel Schumacher Bat-films that followed, but it has gained a respectable following over the years. It would seem that the film was dead on arrival, with only a mild resuscitation being possible, and I’d like to figure out why.

The film focuses on Oswald Cobblepot, better known as The Penguin, as he returns to the streets of Gotham city from the sewers below in an attempt to find his parents and, eventually, become the mayor. Along the way he is assisted by shrewd businessman Max Shreck and makes the acquaintance of Selina Kyle, better known as Catwoman. The prime similarity between Batman ’89 and Batman Returns is the distinct lack of Batman, which is not a bad thing. Bruce Wayne is a complex character, and some of that shines through here, but I think he might be at his best when we only see him through the villains’ eyes. It turns him into this mysterious and intimidating force while allowing us to spend more time with his villains, who are just as complex as he is, if not more so. There are 3 villains in this piece and many see claim that this is a flaw of the movie and others like it. Spider-Man 3, Iron Man 2, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Green Lantern all supposedly failed, in part, due to the surplus of villains. I would argue that this is a case of correlation not equalling causation. With Batman Returns specifically, the villains all work well off each other as well as furthering each others character arcs. Max Shreck is directly responsible for the birth of Catwoman, and attempts to use The Penguin to gain as much power in Gotham as he can. Catwoman is baying for Shreck’s head after the way he treated her and ends up conspiring with The Penguin because she cannot take down The Bat alone. The Penguin believes Shreck to be his ally while Catwoman may be his prize for reigning victorious over Gotham. The 3 of them exist in a perfect balance which is proved by Batman spending the majority of this film on the defence instead of the offence. This leads to tragic climax where these 3 ultimately prove to be each others downfalls.

Unlike some of the Bat-films that would follow, there is nothing triumphant about Batman Returns in theme or plot, choosing to be more about survival. Batman doesn’t win the climactic battle, he simply survives it, and you feel like those who do end up dying didn’t totally deserve it. The Penguin is constantly leering at women and even attempts to kill Catwoman for not giving in to his desires. Catwoman is determined to bring down the patriarchy, but also chastises other women for allowing it to be this way in the first place. Shreck is just a straight-up power-hungry sleaze-bag… but all 3 of them have a certain amount of charm and humanity to them. The performances from all involved are flawless, and the film around them is just as impressive. I find that Tim Burton’s early work when he was still figuring out his style is his most interesting, and Batman Returns is only his fifth film, with Batman ’89 being his third. The backgrounds paint a picture of a crime-ridden, smog-covered city without distracting from the main set pieces. Those set pieces are gorgeous in their own right, always keeping us in the realm that Burton has created without seeming too ridiculous. It all comes to a head with that beautiful Danny Elfman score, which builds upon compositions from Batman ’89. There is no denying that Burton and Elfman work excellently together, and their relationship is best shown through these early collaborations. I feel that they both found their zone as artists fairly early and that as the years went by, they failed to progress any further, but I absolutely relish that early work. There is genuinely a chord progression in Batman Returns that Elfman lifts for The Nightmare Before Christmas. They may no longer be the edgy, daring visionaries that they once were, but Batman Returns remains a masterpiece in my eyes. I can see why some viewers might be put off by the vulgarity that it features, and I can see how it may be a disappointment if you were expecting another Batman ’89 but Batman Returns remains depressingly, tonally, unapologetically Batman.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer