Monday, November 12, 2007

Tim Burton: Beetlejuice (1988)

After the commercial, if not critical, success of "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" Tim Burton's next choice of project was a ghoulish comedy that would, for the first time, introduce audiences to the menagerie of illustrative and macabre Burton-ania that has come to be his trademark.  The film, of course, is "Beetlejuice"; Burton's most successfully comic feature.  The movie seems so tied to Burton's sensibility that it's hard to imagine that it's witty screenplay was written by someone else. Two someones in fact: Michael McDowelll and Warren Skaaren.
Beetlejuice is the story about two ghosts (A game Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) who unsuccessfully attempt to haunt the interlopers living at their former house. Finding their efforts at Poltergeisting feeble, they call upon the services of the titular character, a professional "bio-exorcist" who also happens to be a wise-cracking jack-ass. While the story was a ghostly flight-of-fancy (and about as scary as Blithe Spirit) it was the eye-popping visuals and delicious production design that made the film a hit.  The casting of a utterly committed and fearless Michael Keaton also proved invaluable. He plays Beetlejuice as a hedonistic redneck car salesman of the hereafter; Randle McMurphy possessed by a demon.  The other supporting cast, particularly the hilarious Catherine O'Hara and Jeffrey Jones, do their part to keep the proceedings as light-hearted as a graveyard comedy can be.  But it was the one-of a kind imagery that cemented Tim Burton as a unique voice in cinema.  It's all here, for the first time in a motion picture: the Gorey-like Gothic lines, the turn-of-the-century carnival-esque aesthetic and sideshow bew-ha-ha, the fascination with miniatures and doll houses. And then there is the virtual parade of grostequerie: all misshapen faces and comically deformed features. It's a ghoulish gallery of nightmarish creatures that nevertheless delight more than they terrorize.   In the future Burton would use his visual calling cards to different effects, but in "Bettlejuice," laughter is the order of the day.  The sight of ludicrously pretentious and unpleasant modern sculptures (as only Burton could imagine them) attacking their maker is riff on Modern Art worthy of a New Yorker cartoon.
   "Beetlejuice" was my favorite film growing up as child.  Not only did I dress up as Beetlejuice for Halloween in 1988 (at the ripe old age of 6) but I had memorized most of Michael Keaton's dialogue as well. Most importantly, even at such a young age, I had recognized that the director of the movie was a special talent, one with a unique insight into my (and a lot of other people's) imagination. Some would describe "Beetlejuice" as a black comedy, but this is inaccurate. A true black comedy is one where the comedy is a venner on a subject matter which is actually very serious and bleak. A spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, as it were. Not so here. "Beetlejuice" is a coventional comedy plot that uses a macabre sensibility to breathe new life into a potentialy tired storyline.  As such, Beetlejuice is probably not a great film; it has little to say about anything other than it's own internal silliness.  Some satirical ribbing of bourgeois city slickers aside, the film is mostly a prolonged excuse for visual wit and wizardry.  Winona Ryder's character Lydia, however, hints at developments to come.  As a dark, moody, "strange and unusual," adolescent, Lydia is the only one with power to see the ghosts that populate her home.  She is this movie's stand-in for Burton, the outsider with a dark demeanor who nevertheless is gifted by her very alienation and otherness.  Though not plumbed for depth here, it is the first appearance of a motif which runs through all of Burton's best films and reaches it apotheosis in Edward Scissorhands.
The scene for the ages is a glorious comic dinner party in which the guests find themselves possessed by none other than voice of Harry Belafonte. Indeed the movie opens with a musical hint at the hilarity to come; though what "Day-O" was doing at the beginning of the film must have seemed utterly perplexing until this, now legendary, comic scene:

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