We’re winding down into the last ten films of the month and that means there are some iconic holiday cult classic films coming your way, starting with Tim Burton’s famous Beetlejuice. Every year when Halloween comes around, the iconic characters and scenes from this film creep back onto the screens of laptops and phones and televisions until the season is over and they retreat to the loving arms of their cult following who cherish them all year around. This is only the second time I’ve watched this film and no matter how much I want to like it, I just can’t seem to get into it despite its many good aspects. Beetlejuice certainly does have its fair share of good things going for it like its concept, its characters (except for one, but we’ll talk about that later), and its aesthetic.
At its heart, Beetlejuice is a film about Adam and Barbara (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis), a recently deceased couple who are struggling with how to be a ghost. With their not quite so helpful Handbook for the Recently Deceased, they set about trying to scare the new family out of their house no matter what it takes. That’s a really good concept if I ever heard one. I mean, really, when was the last time you saw a story that was focused on how to teach ghosts to, well, be ghosts? Let me guess. Um, probably never. Unless you count those few scenes in Casper but even then that’s not what that film is about the way Beetlejuice is. In its original conception, the story by Michael McDowell Larry Wilson was much darker and more serious than the screenplay that was overhauled by Warren Skaaren for director Tim Burton. While I think this far more sinister story would have been right up my alley, that’s not the film we got.
Instead, we got a film that has a lot of heart, anchored by its relationship between Barbara and the human teenager who just moved into Adam and Barbara’s house with her family — the iconic, Lydia, played by Winona Ryder. One of the things I appreciate about this story is the family arc in the background of the story that sees Lydia move from this place of depression and isolation into a much more open and warm person by the end of the film because of the change in her environment and the change in the relationships with everyone around her, especially her parents. Though, really, you can argue that at the end of the film she has two sets of parents when you count Adam and Barbara. Adam, Barbara, and Lydia are easily the strongest characters in the film. Lydia brings us some of the best fashion and best one-liners from the film as a whole. Adam is a somewhat dopey guy but cares about Barbara and the work they’ve put into this house. He’s definitely not great at being a ghost but he’s fun to have around. Barbara though. Barbara is a gem in the film. I love how much she cares about everyone and everything. She wants to save her house and the hard work she put into it but she doesn’t want to kill the humans living there or hurt them or damage them psychologically and you see her really warm up to them.
Speaking of Barbara’s attempts to scare the people out of her former home, let’s talk about that last aspect of the film I find really compelling — the aesthetic. The overall look of the film is very early Tim Burton. It’s got great use of color. The designs have some great throwbacks to an old classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with its sharp diagonals and bold patterns in some scenes. What’s most impressive to me though is the creature design and the makeup work for the film. I think some of the more special effects type stuff looks really cheesy nowadays but the prosthetics and other practical effects still just look so great. The hands coming out of the bowls to grab the faces of the dinner party guests is incredible. The scary faces Adam and Barbara come up with when they meet with Juno look so wonderful. Adam and Barbara during the house cleansing look so great.
What just kills the movie for me is Beetlejuice himself. I am so disinterested in his character. His jokes never land with me. He’s a total creep and barely contributes to the overall narrative. I would have enjoyed the film a lot more had he just not been in it at all. Sure, it would need a title change but if it saved me from to deal with him then it’s definitely worth it. Don’t get me wrong, as a character he’s well constructed and well acted, but I just can’t relate or root for him. He’s an antagonist of a sort and a catalyst for the whole film but he’s really just….the worst. And he’s not even that great at being an antagonist since he barely does anything. He brings in this really uneven storytelling that also disinterests me because it feels like two different films that don’t coexist together well.
Still, it’s a Halloween classic and I’m not sorry I watched it this year. It just may not make an appearance on most of my Halloween viewings. There’s a couple of other films coming up that I’d much rather watch in place of this one.