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Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice
Image: Warner Brothers

Film

Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice: Celebrating 35 Years of the Tim Burton Classic

A poltergeist so full of vice, they named him thrice.

Beetlejuice Retrospective

Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice turns 35 this month. The horror-comedy flick, released in 1988, tells the tale of the recently deceased Maitland couple (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) who find their house taken over by an awful family. When Adam (Baldwin) and Barbara’s (Davis) attempts to scare Charles (Jeffrey Jones) and Delia Deetz (Catherine O’Hara) out of their home fail, they resort to calling upon the talents of repulsive poltergeist, Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton). Betelgeuse wrecks havoc and hilarity on humans and ghosts alike. When Betelgeuse sets his sights on the Deetzes’ teenage daughter, Lydia (Winona Ryder), the Maitlands band together to banish him once and for all. 

Beetlejuice was a hit at the box office and with critics, grossing $74.7 million. Its success spurred Burton to helm other box office smashes, like Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and The Corpse Bride. Beetlejuice still resonates with fans today as a classic example of Burton’s directorial style and tone. It’s such a beloved film, that plans for Beetlejuice 2 are on the way, with rumors of original actors returning for the production

Burton is known for his brilliance in creating an immersive visual aesthetic. His talent for atmospheric and tonal direction creates a stunning visual experience. Burton has a formula that serves his career and audiences well. Beetlejuice has hallmarks of a classic Burton film. It successfully turns the horror genre on its head and makes audiences think differently about matters of life and death. 

The dark, macabre elements contrast with the bright aesthetic.

Burton’s films have morbid elements and characters that contrast sharply against a sunny aesthetic. Set in the fictional, rural town of Winter River, Connecticut, the setting is a pastoral paradise. A bright blue sky, rolling hills, and quaint center of town round out the village’s quiet charm. The quintessential countryside setting balances the movie’s gruesome tone.  

The dark tone of the film is magnified through the lens of death. Audiences meet the happily married Maitlands, only to watch them die minutes into the film. In the afterlife, the Maitlands wander past terrifying creatures, frozen in their last moments of life. Betelgeuse forces an unwilling Lydia into a wedding ceremony. Themes of suicide and murder are also prevalent. These parts are less terrifying because the picturesque scenery counterbalances the morbid thematic elements.   

Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin in Beetlejuice
Image: Warner Brothers/IMDB

Burton knows how to walk the line between humor and horror.

Much of the film’s comedy lies in the B-list horror flick special effects. Burton exaggerated the special effects for comedic effect. The afterlife sequences show the dead as they were in their last moments of life, no matter how grotesque those moments were. There’s a cartoonish quality to the special effects that allow the audience to appreciate the script for its brilliance in storytelling, rather than its special effects budget. Burton’s team won an Oscar for Best Makeup at the Academy Awards in 1989, for their creative innovations in crafting their ghoulish characters.  

Adding layers of humor to the script widened Beetlejuice’s audience to include younger generations, which helped push it to cult-classic status. The scene where the Maitlands use their ghostly powers to puppeteer the Deetzes and their guests into a song and dance rendition of Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O” is a comical interlude.

O’Hara’s portrayal of eccentric, out-of-touch Delia was a worthy warm-up for her later iconic role as Moira on Schitt’s Creek. Keaton’s over-the-top performance as the titular antagonist is clownish enough to compensate for some of his villainous misdeeds. His performance as Betelgeuse is so memorable that it’s hard to believe he spends fewer than 20 minutes on screen.  

Also notable is Sylvia Sidney’s performance as Juno. As the caseworker of the underworld, Sidney’s brusque manner with the Maitlands and prickly interactions with a dead football team provide necessary comic relief amidst the morbid matters of life and death. 

Michael Keaton & Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice
Image: Warner Brothers

One of the main characters is a moody, misunderstood outsider.

Burton’s films often feature an outcast protagonist, who teaches the audience about empathy and compassion. Lydia Deetz (Winona Ryder) describes herself as strange and unusual. She sticks out against the bright backdrop of Winter River, Connecticut and doesn’t fit in with her ambitious family. 

Ryder portrays the gothic teenager with reverence. Lydia swathes herself in black veils, dresses, and combat boots in defiance of social norms. However, Lydia is the most empathic human character in the film. While lonely and misunderstood, Lydia’s capacity for love and connection drives her relationship with the Maitlands. Burton has an uncanny sense of how to portray those who society might overlook, and show their value and capacity for compassion. 

Typical horror tropes are twisted.

Burton is a compelling storyteller because he inverts tropes commonly seen in horror films. He portrays the humans as the antagonists instead of the ghosts. Adam and Barbara want to spend a peaceful afterlife in the home they built. Delia Deetz, with the help of her obnoxious decorator Otho (Glenn Shadix), seeks to destroy the Maitlands’ restful afterlife by redecorating their home in an appallingly tacky manner. Once Delia and Charles notice Adam and Barbara’s otherworldly existence, they scheme to use the ghosts for profit. 

Burton delivers an emotionally resonant ending.

There is an underpinning of love at the heart of each Burton tale. In Beetlejuice, Lydia attempts to sacrifice herself in marriage to Betelgeuse in exchange for his help with saving Adam and Barbara. Barbara reciprocates this act of love, as she enlists a demonic worm to banish Betelgeuse once and for all.  

Lydia’s relationship with the Maitlands gives the film emotional resonance and raises the stakes from a typical horror film. At the beginning of the film, the audience learns the Maitlands never fulfilled their dream of becoming parents. By the end of the movie, Adam and Barbara are surrogate parents to Lydia, happily helping her study for her math test and celebrating her good grades. The happily ever after ending is a trademark of Burton’s, leaving audiences with closure and satisfaction rarely felt after seeing a horror movie. 

Written By

Danielle Cappolla is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher based in New Jersey. She has a B.A. in English from Fordham University and an M.S. in Education and Special Education from Touro College. When she’s not writing, you can find her swapping TV theories with her family and friends over dinner. You can follow her work at https://daniellecappolla.contently.com/.

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