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Fun macabre comedy.

  • May 23, 2012
*** out of ****

Here's a movie that goes big and attempts to re-write the rules of an age-old genre and emerges with delightfully mixed but exciting results. In "Beetlejuice", a nice young couple (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) plunges head-first to their watery deaths when a cute little dog causes their car to swerve off the path right when they're about to enter a covered bridge, into the cold stream below. Strangely enough, they return home safely but with no memory to how they got back. Confused, they look around them for answers. A book titled "Handbook for the Recently Deceased" tells all. The couple has died. They are now ghosts. They can move to and from both the afterlife and the world of the living at will. They would be perfectly fine if their house wasn't put up for sale again, and a particularly snobby family didn't decide to buy. And so they move all their fancy furniture into the house, with the initial couple of course having absolutely no say in any of this (since the living can't see the dead).

The new family is truly pathetic. There seems to be no chemistry or strong bonds going on between any two of them. Let's see. There's...the mom Delia (Catherine O'Hara)...the father Charles (Jeffrey Jones)...and their Goth daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder), who often dresses in a black veil and enjoys taking pictures. She happens to be the only one of the lot who can actually see the couple as physically apparent ghosts, and she's able to communicate with them; and act as a sort of vessel. But the ghosts want to reclaim the house for themselves, and to do so they must scare the current residents out. But how will they do this? As ghosts, they can shift their shapes in effectively grotesque ways, but it makes no difference since they cannot be seen. A chance encounter with a television ad (and a newspaper clipping) appears to be their salvation. The advertisement is for famed "exorcist of the living" Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), a crude and obnoxious little man who eats insects and lives in the graveyard of the town replica that the husband of the deceased couple has been working on (and still is).

The trouble with Betelgeuse is that he simply is not to be trusted. The couple's case worker Juno (a very wonderful Sylvia Sidney) warns them of this, but do they listen? No, obviously they do not. Out of curiosity and enthusiasm, they say his name three times, and soon, he's summoning giant demonic snakes and creating hands out of shrimp cocktail. Surely, this freaks them out - if only just a little - although the business investors that are always visiting the estate at the right times believe there is money to be made if these ghosts can be proved existent, Betelgeuse included. But with great power comes great responsibility and...yeah.

The director is Tim Burton, a master at blending the macabre with the comically inspired. In just about all of his films, Burton has been able to create fantastical and otherworldly images that would not be found in any other film from any other director. What Burton does in "Beetlejuice" is truly distinctive, and he creates a vision of the afterlife like no other. In a manner of speaking...this might just be one of his most surreal pictures yet, if only for the satirical yet dream-like scenes set in the afterlife itself, in which there is a green lady at the front desk and a waiting room consisting of people that were offed from the first world to the next in just about every way imaginable.

So essentially, Burton seems to be approaching death here; but not so much on a philosophical scale. For the most part, the film is a whimsy comedy; but a damn good one at that. It doesn't care so much about its story or its characters (at least not beyond their basic personas) but rather the visual experience that it offers up. And hey, look at that, there's even a good sense of humor thrown in to seal the deal. I've always admired Burton for his ability to create in a way that resonates with both children and adults alike, without appealing to one over the other. "Beetlejuice" is a solidly crafted family treat, in spite of the actions performed by Keaton, who owns the antagonist role and makes it his own. Winona Ryder is also excellent; if not mostly just beautiful (those were the days). But the atmosphere ultimately takes control here, and the film is kind of a sensory overload for the good part of its 90 minute running time, but it gave me a good feeling and it felt alive, which is good enough for me.

No, it's not the best Tim Burton film. No, it doesn't contain one of Danny Elfman's best musical scores for the man (although it's still worth checking out individually). But "Beetlejuice" has enough memorable moments to qualify as a minor but commendable classic and overall effort from the attached director. It's not a personal project for Burton but he understands the material and injects his vision into virtually every frame. There is great beauty, comedy, surrealism, and poetry. It certainly is Burton-esque. And because of this, it's a tricky little bastard and it's not going to appeal to everyone's liking. But it gives me good reason to continue on in regarding the word "ghastly" in a more positive light than most people.

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More Beetlejuice (movie) reviews
Quick Tip by . August 11, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
So fun and so campy - you don't see much originality like this in films anymore. I haven't seen it in years, but I remember watching it over and over, never tiring of the antics. Plus, I just adore Winona Ryder... or I did during that phase of her career anyway ; )
Quick Tip by . August 11, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
super funny, still one of my favorite movies to date. and it has inspired me to have a red wedding dress.
Quick Tip by . August 11, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
I am not a real Tim Burton fan; I find his work too dark, literally and metaphorically. However, I loved Beetlejuice. I could not stop laughing. I think it is Michael Keaton's best work. The sound track is great as well.
About the reviewer
Ryan J. Marshall ()
It's very likely that the only kind of reviews I'll ever post here are movie reviews. I'm very passionate about film; and at this point, it pretty much controls my life. Film gives us a purpose; … more
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