Beetlejuice 30th Anniversary

It’s been too long, painfully so, since Michael Keaton got to be even remotely as funny and wild on screen as he is as the title character of Beetlejuice. Keaton has mercifully had a bit of a career revival in the last handful of years, having starred in two of the last four Best Picture winners (remember Birdman and Spotlight?) as well as getting to play the villainous Vulture in last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. Though that movie represented a nice reversal of the days when Keaton played the Caped Crusader, Homecoming leaned more into the longtime actor’s darker side.

So watching Beetlejuice 30 years (it hit theaters on March 30, 1988) later feels all the more shocking because it’s a bracing reminder that, even when he was playing a darker-than-life character, Michael Keaton could be as funny as he was scary.

In general, it’s a true blast from the past to watch Beetlejuice three decades down the line. Keaton, a year after this film, would work with director Tim Burton again on his first of two Batman movies. But while Batman and Batman Returns are radically different from Beetlejuice, many of Burton’s recognizable choices as an auteur are present in the strange and quirky comedy, portending his further use of stop-motion, old-fashioned practical effects, and his requisite ability to blend the macabre and the madcap. When, for example, we see Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) try to escape their lofty old house after their death in a simultaneously funny and tragic car accident, they are beset upon in a creepy, sandy desert by a massive, striped snake-like sandworm that recalls the same kind of monsters audiences would see in The Nightmare Before Christmas a few years later.

Although the Maitlands are the protagonists and ostensible heroes of Beetlejuice, the star attractions are the film’s quirky designs and sets and the manic performance from Keaton as the eponymous “bio-exorcist.” Though Beetlejuice is initially hired by the Maitlands, he quickly becomes the film’s scene-stealing villain. When we first meet Adam and Barbara, they live a fairly content life as a young married couple in a small New England town; all they want for is a child, but they’re unfortunately robbed of that when they die unceremoniously when trying to avoid a dog near a rickety bridge. Upon realizing that they’re now ghosts in their own house, they’re disturbed to learn that they’re too nice to scare off the next family that wants to move in, the snobbish Deetzes (Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O’Hara) and their kindly Goth daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder). No matter how hard the Maitlands try, the yuppie Deetz parents are too self-involved to notice things like a ghost tearing off her husband’s head, and Lydia is too disaffected to be freaked out.

Enter Betelgeuse, as his tombstone states. Though the Maitlands are warned off from using the bio-exorcist by their chain-smoking case worker, they eventually are reduced to digging up his grave in the model town that Adam had built in his spare time after uttering his name three times. The wildness of Keaton’s performance is heightened by the use of cartoon sound effects in these early moments; it’s akin to an adult version of the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin, as Beetlejuice jumps into and out of voices, costumes, and more in his attempts to impress, cajole, and weasel his way into the Maitlands’ lives without ever leaving. (Granted, the Genie never said anything quite as profane as “Nice fucking model!” to Aladdin or Princess Jasmine.) The film ends with as happy an ending as possible: the Maitlands are able to triumph over Beetlejuice after he tries to marry the young Lydia, they and the Deetzes co-exist in the house, and Beetlejuice is stuck in a purgatorial waiting room next to other goblins and ghouls.

Though Beetlejuice has a pretty stacked cast, and is generally a funny film, it shares one important strand of DNA with Aladdin: both films only truly come alive with the arrival of a larger-than-life character who basically dwarfs everyone else in the film in terms of energy, wit, and more. Michael Keaton’s performance here is unquestionably broad and outsized, but it’s all the remarkable after three decades because there are so few other examples of that kind of fast-paced charm in his filmography. (Batman, predictably, offers a much different and more muted Keaton, except in that one brief moment when he faces off against the Joker and, in a very Beetlejuice-esque voice, aggressively asks, “You want to get nuts? Come on! Let’s get nuts!”) There’s his supporting role in Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, where his Dogberry feels at least as icky a character as Beetlejuice. Otherwise, to find a brashly funny Michael Keaton, you have to look to, perhaps fittingly, the world of animation.

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