The director and all-round weirdo Tim Burton has a lot in common with the musician and all-round weirdo Marilyn Manson. Both men have looked to the darker side of life for inspiration, and a love of all things Gothic and romantically sinister permeates their respective works. However, in recent years both have suffered from ever increasing levels of irrelevancy. Tim Burton was once a respected movie-maker who was given the monumental task of creating a decent screen image for Batman, a job he did so well that the film he made back in 1989 still exerts massive influence on comic book movies to this day particularly in terms of atmospherics, costume design, musical style, and so on. Marilyn Manson’s music and stage shows were considered so shocking that he was accused of all sorts of terrible things from devil worship to inspiring the Columbine shootings. In recent years, Manson’s music has struggled to shock and his shows have struggled to fill the venues and surprise the audiences in the way they used to. Despite this, there is still a place in my heart for Marilyn Manson, but the same cannot be said for Tim Burton.
Burton’s career includes the magnificent 80’s reboot of Batman, the excellent Sleepy Hollow, and the downright weird Edward Scissorhands, but whenever I think of him lately all I can focus on is Sweeney Todd, and the love triangle of Tim Burton, Jonny Depp, and Helena Bonham-Carter. This makes it hard to remember the unbridled joy that came from my first viewing of the subtly-edgy (if there can be such a thing) Beetlejuice all those years ago.
The new (living) occupants of the house are Charles Deetz (Jeffrey Jones), who is a reasonably sane though greedy property developer who’s had some sort of nervous breakdown and needs to escape to the country for a while to get his mojo back, and his missus, Delia Deetz (Catherine O’Hara), who is on the other hand fully bat shit crazy in the way that only wannabe artists from New York can be. Charles has a daughter from a previous marriage (though we never find out what happened to the previous Mrs. Deetz) Lydia (played by the notoriously light-fingered Wynona Ryder) who is going through the darkly moody, goth period of her teenage years, wearing lots of black and thinking about funerals all the time. The Deetz’s soon begin to make the house into their home which involves Delia and her friend Otto demolishing half the place and fitting out the remainder with what passes for their idea of contemporary art. This extensive remodelling disturbs the Maitland’s quite a bit so they set about trying to scare the Deetz’s out.
Due to Lydia’s predisposition towards death and such things, she is the only one who can see the Maitlands and she develops a friendship of sorts with them as they go about trying to get their home back. However, despite their best efforts, including the use of sheets and much moaning, the ghostly Maitland’s are unable to get their way and finally turn to the last resort for those in their situation, a sleezy bio-exorcist by the name of Betelegeuse…
The main plot of the film, about the dead Maitland’s wanting to get the living Deetz’s out of their house, is a fun reversal of the traditional haunted house story where the details of the haunting are viewed from the perspective of the ghosts. The next level down looks at relationships; the almost perfect love between Adam and Barbara (almost perfect except for her shoddy driving having killed them), the less then perfect, worn down relationship between Charles and Deelia, and the substitute parental relationship the Maitland’s wish they could have with Lydia. This aspect of Beetlejuice puts a little flesh on the bones of the film but is nowhere near as interesting as how the film looks at death.
One of the principal jokes of the film is the one where people who have committed suicide end up as civil servants in the afterlife. This is a deliciously insensitive concept and a major part of the film in some ways and pretty risky when you think of someone watching the film who may have lost a loved one that way now confronted with the idea that in the next world their dearly departed are barely working 20 hours a week and spend a lot of time bitching about their pension. On the other side of that coin, image if you were a civil servant (or if you are a civil servant, don’t) and you see Beetlejuice and you realise that on the other side your job is some kind of purgatorial punishment.
And there’s the rub.
In a Tim Burton comedy, much loved and enjoyed, and eventually turned into a cartoon series for children, people who commit suicide are punished for it.
Now, I’m not entirely sure who or what Burton was digging at with that joke but it does indicate that there could have been a lot more depth to Beetlejuice and I wonder if there was a more biting version of the script that got toned down before the finished story made it to the cinema, thus leaving a few unanswered questions. A couple of other Beetlejuice moments reinforce this idea for me, including the scene where a model satanic whorehouse appears to keep the little bugger busy for a while (something I don’t remember seeing referenced in the cartoon) as well as the name of the character being Betelegeuse (like the real life star) while the movie is called Beetlejuice (like the pronunciation of said star); things that hint at another layer of humour that must have been left on the cutting room floor.
Beetlejuice focuses a lot on death, which it kinda had to do seeing as how the majority of the characters are ghosts, but it wrapped quite a morbid theme in some decent comedy, with good jokes and well delivered performances. Because of the comedy, and some of the other undertones, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that, at its heart, Beetlejuice is a sweet movie that’s mostly about love, the kind of love that transcends death and gobshites from New York.