So, the story is: One day Adam and Barbara Maitland died and things sort of went downhill from there. The end result is a movie showcasing director Tim Burton at the top of his game. It also helped launch the careers of both Alec Baldwin and Winona Ryder (and introducing me to Winona Ryder is more than enough for me to forgive Burton for that Planet of the Apes remake).
The film is set in a picturesque New England where attractive young newlyweds Adam (Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis) have spent their honeymoon renovating an equally picturesque farmhouse. Unfortunately, their wedded bliss is short lived when they drive their Volvo off of covered bridge and die. This is death by Normal Rockwell.
They return to their home, where they find themselves trapped for eternity (or 125 years, whichever comes first). It probably wouldn’t be so bad except that their beloved farmhouse is sold to the Deetzes, a family of obnoxious New Yorkers featuring the artsy but shallow Delia (Catherine O’Hara) and her boorish architect, Otho (Glenn Shadix). Delia has been unwillingly uprooted from the city by her long-suffering husband (Jeffrey Jones) and desperately needs to transform the house into an expression of her unfortunate artistic sensibilities.
Also along for the ride is the Deetz’s perpetually black-clad daughter, proto-goth Lydia (Ryder), who would have to cheer up considerably just to be considered suicidal.
The Maitlands are horrified that their beloved home is about to gutted to make room for Delia’s Soho kitsch. When the bureaucracy of the afterlife proves to be no help, they take it on themselves to try to scare the Deetzes out of the house. Unfortunately, Adam and Barbara are comically ineffective as ghosts and, being from New York City, the Deetzes don’t scare very easily.
At wit’s end, the Maitland’s are forced to turn to a “bio-exorcist” known as Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), which is pronounced “Beetle Juice” for the astronomically disinclined. He’s an abrasive, vulgar supernatural prankster who specializes in driving the still-breathing out of their homes. Unfortunately, he’s also completely uncontrollable and an even bigger threat to the Maitland’s than the Dietz’s questionable taste in home decorations.
This film catches several notable actors during the ascendancy of their careers. Davis and Keaton had been around for a few years already (and Davis already had a recent hit in The Fly) but Baldwin and Ryder were just starting in film. Beetlejuice depends on their charm (or lack thereof) and this film was particularly fortunate in the casting department. Baldwin and Davis are especially effective, first as the happy couple and then as the “innocents abroad” in the afterlife. Winona Ryder is winningly vulnerable in a role that could have been an annoying teenaged cliché.
Sometimes Michael Keaton seems like he’s a completely different movie from everyone else but I think that’s quite intentional and entirely the point. He’s certainly more effective here than he was a year later as Batman.
The real star of Beetlejuice, however, is the imaginative art direction which is a perfect compliment for director Burton’s off-center sensibilities. The film walks the fine line between horror and whimsy, especially in the design of the afterlife. When you find yourself laughing at a magician’s assistant who has been cut in half, looking bored as both parts of her sit in a waiting room, you know a movie has achieved a unique form of comic balance.