“Never trust the living”Juno
As Halloween approaches, who better to turn to than the gothic, unusual and incredibly influential filmmaker that is Tim Burton, and his iconic cult classic ‘Beetlejuice.’
Beetlejuice is a quirky comedy/horror set in small-town America where, following the death of the previous tenants, a modern family fresh out of New York arrive to take over their charming hill-top house. Yet it seems that the dearly departed are in fact not departed at all, with deceased newly-weds Barbara (Geena Davis) and Adam Maitland (Alec Baldwin) condemned to behold as their quaint home is transformed into a tacky, modernised rendering of high-strung artist Delia Deetz’s (Catherine O’Hara) idea of sophistication. Determined to hold on to their beloved home, Barbara and Adam set out to rid their house of these pesky inhabitants, and with the help of Delia’s gothic step-daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder) and the almost indecipherable ‘Handbook for the Recently Deceased’, the couple embark on a mission to expel the Deetz family from their home. While their attempts to frighten Delia and her passive husband Charles (Jeffrey Jones) are futile due to being invisible to all but Lydia, the Maitland’s become targeted by a self-proclaimed Bio-Exorcist ‘Betelgeuse’ or ‘Beetlejuice’ (Michael Keaton), who pledges to aid them in their plight, but with an agenda to liberate himself of a curse that only allows him freedom when his name is spoken three times, the eponymous character from beyond the grave seeks only to cause chaos.
Most unique is the visual aesthetic of Beetlejuice, and particularly its lack of computer-generated effects. The film is truly a prime example of what can be achieved without the use of CGI, with its heavy reliance on special effects makeup, intentionally fake-looking sets and use of slow motion enhancing its kooky plot. The incredibly imaginative use of prosthetic makeup within the film is certainly noteworthy, as particularly reflected in Barbara and Adam’s horrifying- yet somehow still kid friendly- transformation in their attempt to horrify the Deetz household.
While the Maitland’s efforts continue to be ineffective, their desperation leads them to call upon the outlandish and irreverent Beetlejuice for assistance. As Beetlejuice is summoned, the eccentricities of his world beyond the grave spill into the world of the living, making the two realms indistinguishable. This blurring of boundaries makes it increasingly difficult to differentiate scenes within the model village in which Beetlejuice resides and those within the actual house, further exaggerated through the camera work, with close ups of the model house cutting to scenes with the Deetz family within. Similarly, the colour palettes of the scenes increase in their vibrancy, changing from the dark blues and minimalist shades of the Delia’s decor to vivid greens and sinful reds. As much is prominent in the wedding scene, in which the living room wall cracks opens, and an otherworldly officiant enters through a vibrant green fog. Following this, Lydia’s dark clothing is replaced with a bright red dress and matching veil, with the vibrant colours conveying the carnivalesque unorthodox of the afterlife, the antithesis of the drab and dulled colourings of the house under Delia’s authority.
The use of wardrobe is similarly used as a means through which the personalities of each character is reflected. Lydia’s gothic clothing consisting of all-black-everything distinguishes her from the more modern attire of her parents, and highlights both the lack of commonality between the two, along with the depressed state in which she resides as a result of her feelings of estrangement. Likewise, the humble flower dress worn by Barbara and the flannel shirt, gold-rimmed glasses and Khaki trousers worn by Adam convey the simple and modest nature of the Maitlands characters. This is in stark contrast to the gaudy pin stripe suit and wild green hair of Beetlejuice, with Michael Keaton’s makeup transforming him into a living corpse with exaggerated dark circles and muddied pale face, making the crazed character’s wacky persona evident from the first glance.
Yet, beyond its distinctive mise-en-scène, it is the extraordinary plot that make Beetlejuice so unforgettable. Whether it be Adam and Barbara’s visits to Saturn, where colossal multi-coloured Sandworms reign, or the incredibly iconic dinner party scene, in which Barbara and Adam manipulate the actions and words of the Deetz’s and their upper-class guests, subsequently compelling them to interrupt their civilized dinner to perform the entirety of Belafonte’s ‘Day-O’ with accompanying choreography- it is the unexpected and bizarre occurrences that portray the gifted imagination of Burton, creating something truly unique and irrefutably entertaining.
While it can be mused that the film explores the gentrification of small-town America, with Barbara and Adam’s quaint and charming house being transformed into something that closer resembles an evil villain’s lair littered with Delia’s modernist art – of which only she is cultured enough to ‘get’- it similarly explores the complexities of the family dynamic, particularly the neglectful nature of Delia and Charles and their offhand parenting style. With her mild addiction to Valium and narcissism derived from her once-successful career, Delia Deetz is far from the stable parent figure Lydia desires, as is her passive father. It is therefore no surprise that Lydia’s relationship quickly blossoms with Barbara and Adam, having always wanted a child themselves, and she spends the majority of her time in the attic, the only room left untouched by her step-mother. The denouement of the film ends in resolution to cohabitate, with compromises made to somewhat revert the home back to its original charm. Yet, whether Delia and Charles’ willingness to accept the Maitland’s presence is due to genuine character development is uncertain, with the film concluding with the Maitland’s and Lydia celebrating her academic success while Delia and Charles remain unbothered in their separate rooms.
With its completely unique plot and Tim Burton’s passion for the unorthodox, Beetlejuice is both frightening and comical in its execution, with the presence of ghosts and creatures from beyond the grave balanced with the comforting personalities of the Maitlands and the dark humour of Beetlejuice. Burton takes the cliqued storyline of haunting ghosts and completely inverts expectations, with the living becoming the unwanted, unfriendly presence, while the dead become more of a supportive and positive influence for daughter Lydia than her passive parents ever were. The imaginative use of prosthetic makeup, colour palette and the originality create a both aesthetically appealing and enjoyable horror for all.