80s Movie Challenge Week 30: Beetlejuice (1988)

Welcome back you spooky bunch of 80s fans! It’s time to jump in the line for our latest guest poster to bring us this week’s #80sMC film all the way from the Land of Oz (not that one, the other one), to talk about her favourite film, 1988’s Beetlejuice.

Dare you say her name three times? We do – because it’s Gotham City Times‘ very own…

CJ Dee, CJ Dee, CJ Dee!

Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice!

The ghost with the most. The underworld’s leading bio-exorcist. Harvard Business School graduate and Juilliard alumni. You know his name, but nobody says the B-word. Let’s turn on the juice and see what shakes loose from this classic 1988 horror-comedy!

If I may give a bit of personal backstory… I’m known as the Queen of Horror amongst my friends because I love the creepy, the kooky, the mysterious and the spooky. I would much rather watch an okay horror film than an amazing comedy or romance, or the Frankensteination (Great word, Ed.) of the two — the rom-com.

But horror-comedy is this delightfully macabre grey area and I love it. However, it is a difficult thing to successfully (and intentionally) merge horror and comedy into something that delights and disgusts. In Beetlejuice Tim Burton, the stellar cast and talented crew not only achieve this feat but excel at it.

I wasn’t always this way though. The first time I watched Beetlejuice, I was about four years old and it gave me nightmares. (This and finding me watching Carrie led my mum to put green stars on the VHS tapes I wasn’t allowed to watch.)

Zoom forward 30 years and Beetlejuice is now a much-beloved film that I will, and do, watch repeatedly. ‘Why?’ you may ask. Aside from the aforementioned about horror comedy being reeeally difficult? Okay, you want more… I get it!

Let’s start with the first thing that gets your attention as the Geffen ball spins around into a G. The music. That eerie rendition of The Banana Boat Song entwined beautifully with the opening number. Danny Elfman is a musical master and I don’t blame Tim Burton for employing his genius in many of his films. The score is the perfect balance of fun circus music, creepy overtones and dramatic flourishes.

Then our opening sequence is a GIANT SPIDER CRAWLING ON THEIR HOUSE. Oh, wait, no, it’s just a regular-sized spider crawling on a model. But this is the perfect opening to the film because it gives you a skewed perspective and, really, isn’t that what we have all come to know and love about Tim Burton movies? And while this happens, the music in the background is Harry Belafonte’s Sweetheart from Venezuela.

The mixture of Harry Belafonte’s pure, upbeat tunes throughout the darkness of Beetlejuice is part of what makes the movie brilliant and highlights why that opening credits number so special. From even before the movie has officially started, you are being given hints as to what’s in store.

The way characters are introduced in Beetlejuice is a great example of how to show the audience who these characters are without forcing dialogue. The old “show don’t tell” method. Within the first seven minutes, we find out that Adam and Barbara are very happily married, genuinely enjoy each other’s company, have been unsuccessful in their attempts to have children, and that they own the town hardware store. In the moments we are introduced to Beetlejuice from the back, we can tell he is a giant skeeze. When Delia slinks in, scowling at the workmen, we already have her pegged as highly strung. As soon as Otho crawls through the window, you know he’s going to be a huge douchebag. None of these moments really feel forced but they all introduce the characters to who they will be for most, if not all, of their time on screen.

Let’s move along and talk about the guy who brought the titular character to life — Michael Keaton. I don’t think of Michael Keaton as a brilliant actor. I enjoy a lot of his work and he’s good at what he does, but there’s not a lot that really makes me go WOW. However, I do feel like his performance as Beetlejuice is one of his most brilliant. How the rest of the cast managed to get through their scenes without gagging or laughing or both is beyond me.

Tim Burton is a divisive director. I know people who love his style, including myself (while acknowledging what a blessing it is that he’s never EVER remade a beloved children’s movie let alone two and a sequel — what a disaster that could have been!), and I know people who loathe it with a passion. He is the patron saint of goths and emos and anyone else who appreciates those aesthetics. This is the best starting point in his film career to showcase the signature aesthetics and the ability to merge the kooky with the norm that would be his trademarks for so many years. The intentionally b-grade stop motion animation and visual effects that, rather than detracting from the movie, give it a unique and otherworldly quality. The quirky characterisations and outlandish costumes. All brilliantly pulled together with the aforementioned Danny Elfman score. If I were at a theatre right now, this is where I would get up and applaud.

Now, all of my fangirling over this film aside, it does have a couple of plot holes that I would have loved them to expand on in the same “show don’t tell” way that made the rest of the film great. I had to Google how Jane, the realtor, is “family” with Adam and Barbara — she’s apparently Barbara’s cousin. I would have liked a little bit more time on who Otho is to the family as he mentions Delia is a client but never says what she is a client for and is credited as just a friend elsewhere online. Little things like that are my only criticism of the film and only if I am being super nit-picky because, honestly, it’s still a great film despite those things.

I personally think Beetlejuice remains one of the most delightful romps through the afterlife in cinematic history. If you have missed this one in the last 30 years, please pick up your Handbook for the Recently Deceased on your way in and watch out for those sandworms.

CJ Dee is a pop culture devotee who is happiest watching any incarnation of Star Trek, reading Stephen King or Joe Hill novels, viewing great (and terrible) horror movies, obsessing over Disney or flipping through a DC comic. The rest of CJ’s pop culture adventures can be viewed at Gotham City Times. You can find her on Twitter under the handle @Kinestra.

Join us again next week for more #80sMC antics as Rebecca Aulburn, fresh from her adventures off the Shoulder of Orion, shares her recollections (Memories! You’re talking about memories, Ed.) of a classic 1982 sci-fi drama so that those moments won’t be lost like tears in the rain.

It’s 1982’s Blade Runner!

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