Beetljuice. 1988. Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by Michael McDowell & Warren Skaaren, from a story by McDowell & Larry Wilson.
Starring Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton, Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones, Winona Ryder, & Glenn Shadix.
The Geffen Company
Rated PG / 92 minutes
Comedy / Fantasy / Horror
Tim Burton, until recent years, has made a string of marvellous, engrossing films that suck you into an alternate universe. While lots of directors are auteurs and have distinctive styles, Burton is one of those filmmakers whose work you immediately recognise because even in his more serious-minded work there’s always a surreal, exaggerated, campy element that announces itself.
Beetlejuice was only Burton’s second feature film, and it was so visually impressive his auteur tendencies were obvious then. What’s even better is Beetlejuice has so much symbolism in it, right on its face, that viewers can take a fun allegorical ride through all the imagery and the many themes in the screenplay. The film is a horror-comedy critique about the effects capitalism and consumerism have had on our lives, to the extent bureaucracy follows us beyond death.
The Maitlands—Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis)—are a married couple taking a two week vacation. One day, Adam and Barbara are driving home when they swerve and go off a bridge in their car, crashing into the river. Later, they get home, but they can’t remember driving there, neither do they remember their accident. When Adam tries to leave the house he tumbles into a strange desert where massive, sharklike worms are swimming through the sand. He and Barbara then stumble onto a book they’ve never seen: Handbook for the Recently Deceased. They realise they died in a car crash, and now they’re spirits trapped in their own home.
Things get worse when the Deetz family—businessman Charles (Jeffrey Jones), his artist wife Delia (Catherine O’Hara), and his Goth daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder)—move in. The Maitlands do their best to scare the new family away, but nothing works. So they enlist the help of a dangerous, volatile entity called Betelgeuse a.k.a Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) to exorcise the living from their home. Then everything goes to shit.In Beetlejuice, death equals being stuck in the home where you last lived before your death; the middle class hell of home ownership, the nightmarish psychogeography of private property. When the Maitlands complain about the Deetz family, Juno tells them: “Get ‘em out yourselves, it‘s your house.” Not only do you have to spiritually live in the house you owned past death, home ownership and all its responsibilities extend into the afterlife, too.
But were the Maitlands ever really alive?
Adam and Barbara were spending a vacation at home, which is fine, but his plan was to renovate the house while simultaneously building a miniature version of a town, like the perfect consumerist dream. Charles displays the same consumerist tendencies, like in one scene where he pivots from birdwatching to building-watching, when he spots “good parking.”
Something else the film does to touch further on its prominent themes is depict the artifice involved in capitalism and consumerism. One of the big set-pieces in Beetlejuice is the miniature model town Adam’s been building, which comes to life in certain sequences such as the ones involving Beetlejuice, and the model’s literal artificiality shows a town as a giant game or a toy, including its economy: Beetlejuice actually conjures up a strip joint for the fake town.
Consumerism is satirised a lot in Burton’s film, in a number of ways, though none better than through Delia and her sculptures. There’s a later scene where the sculptures get used by Beetlejuice, but it’s early on when the Deetz family are moving into the house that one of Delia’s sculptures gets mistaken for furniture, showing the malleability of objects in a consumer capitalist world. There’s something delightfully hilarious in the fact that Delia’s art is so banal and abstract people can’t tell if it’s art or just another everyday commodity.Capitalism and consumerism depend on a division, and specificity, of genders, in that it’s easier to sell people things if they’re divided into marketable categories (i.e. man, woman, child). Beetlejuice portrays the heteronormative culture in America that helps prop up capitalism and consumerism. Early in the film, Barbara’s real estate agent cousin tells her that their house is meant for “a couple with a family” and not a married couple without children. The scene reflecting heteronormativity most clearly is when Otho’s conjuring the dead Maitlands and the couple’s wedding dress-tux combo’s used to resurrect them; any number of items in the home left behind by Adam and Barbara could’ve been used, so it’s significant the plot makes use of the couple’s wedding clothes, making hetero norms foundational in processes of life and death.
Creepier is how Beetlejuice’s (paedophilic) attraction to Lydia is also marked by an adherence to hetero norms. He tries to marry Lydia so he’s no longer an “illegal alien” in the world of the living, forcing her to go through the whole ceremony and manipulating her, via his ghostly magic, into saying/doing all the necessary things. The striking image of Beetlejuice with long arms and a circus tent on his head makes him out as the patriarchal ringmaster of the film’s events, the piece on his head spinning around, appearing both carnivalesque and like an eerie baby’s mobile.
Beetlejuice is so vivid and memorable because of the way it portrays the bureaucracy of life and death through Burton’s twisted vision of camp. The first inkling the Maitlands have of eternal bureaucracy is the fact the afterlife has literature, the Handbook for the Recently Deceased. The actual afterlife, outside the Maitlands’ home, is depicted in the Burtonverse as offices and a waiting room with endless hallways leading to endless doors in endless departments. Otho’s “civil servants” line in a later scene is reflected in the offices/waiting room of the afterlife. In the offices and waiting room we hear about “help vouchers” and case workers in the afterlife, all the language of bureaucracy. There’s no relief in death from the mind-numbing minutia of life in a capitalist system, not even when your spirit’s exorcised, judging by the “Lost Souls Room.”
Beetlejuice alone is a beacon of American capitalism. He’s a rugged individualist who’s branched out on his own, a rogue in the afterlife as we hear from Juno, and he comes bearing all sorts of capitalist/consumerist symbols. Beetlejuice considers the newspaper obituaries as the “business section” as we see him looking for new marks, finding the Maitlands. He’s also got business cards, urging people to say his name and conjure him. Even The Juice’s grave has a neon sign above it, like a shop on the Vegas Strip. Best of all, his TV commercial was based on Cal Worthington, a car dealer who amassed a ridiculous personal fortune; the quintessential American capitalist, just like Beetlejuice.Beetlejuice is my favourite Burton film, next only to Batman. It’s creepy and it’s expert satire, which always makes a comedic film more endearing to me. There’s no way to imagine anybody other than Michael Keaton playing the role of Beetlejuice, and if it were anybody else who’d been cast instead there’s no telling if the character would remain so iconic today. Everyone in the cast is in top form, but Keaton’s in another stratosphere here, somehow making a hideous ghost-demon who preys on underage girls into one of the Mount Rushmore horror-comedy characters in cinema.
Adam and Barbara end up following along with American heteronormativity, accepting their slice of the American Dream when they get to form a kind of ghostly family together with Lydia. At the same time, the Maitlands also have to live with the Deetz family as a whole, which makes the group like an extended family, going against the traditional American heteronormative, nuclear family unit. That doesn’t change the fact Juno and all the other case workers in the afterlife will go on working in their offices, filing their paperwork, and keeping a close, watchful, micromanaging eye on the other dead folk still lingering in the living world.
Beetlejuice makes painfully clear that the modern world we’ve constructed has wound up reflected in the place where we go when we die—the choices we make not only as individuals but as a society carry on into eternity, they follow us, like debt and bad credit.