After seeing Catherine O’Hara in so many of my favorite mockumentaries, and the Home Alone films, I began thinking about where else I had seen her. It was not long before my memory alighted on Beetlejuice (1988). She is by no means the star of this late 1980s classic. It is also the film that probably gave rise to director Tim Burton’s style. Known for bizarre, neo-Gothic settings and characters, you might be surprised to know that his only feature length directing credit before today’s film is Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985). It has been years since I last saw the film about the gray suited, er, funny guy(?) with the strange laugh and big red bike, but what I recall does not evince, say, Edward Scissorhands (1990). Or at least not like Beetlejuice does. It set the tone for much of what Burton did later, and perhaps this review will demonstrate this fact.
Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara Maitland (Geena Davis) start Beetlejuice by commencing a long awaited, stay-at-home vacation in their idyllic, rural Connecticut home. Their white clapboard home sits atop a hill overlooking an equally idyllic small town, and they go down to it in order to get supplies for their upcoming respite. On the way back, unfortunately, a small dog crosses their path and in avoiding the canine their car careens off a bridge and into the water below. Without knowing how, they are back in their house. Everything seems as they left it, but they begin to recognize signs that they did not survive the crash. The time of day is different, they cannot see their reflections in the mirror, and when Adam attempts to leave the house he is thrust into a barren sandscape with giant worms trying to eat him. In short, they are ghosts. How do two newly expired people navigate the afterlife? The answers are supplied by a book they find conveniently titled Handbook for the Recently Departed. Unfortunately, just as they are settling into their new reality, there is a new family moving into their abode, the Deetzes. They are everything the Maitlands are not. Where Adam and Barbara prefer rustic charm, Delia Deetz (Catherine O’Hara) brings her modern artistic flair. Her husband Charles (Jeffrey Jones) wants to preserve the country style as a welcome get away from his high-paced New York real estate job, but Delia’s persistence wins every argument, except the office. Seeing their dream home being ruined, Adam and Barbara decide to do what ghosts have always done: haunt the Deetz family. Their handbook contains guidelines for doing do, but their attempts to frighten their unwanted guests go unnoticed. Puzzled, they turn to what can only be called the afterlife bureaucracy, and are given what is essentially a case worker named Juno (Sylvia Sidney). She gives them some advice, particularly warning them against a strange creature they have been noticing in their attic refuge going by Beetlegeuse (Michael Keaton). He is a self-styled “bio-exorcist,” meaning he claims to be able to get rid of the living, and he is completely bonkers. With Juno’s pep talk and admonishment in mind, the Maitlands return to their house with a renewed determination to scare off the Deetz family. Unfortunately, the only idea they come up with is to put sheets over their heads and make wailing noises. These, again, do nothing to move Charles or Delia, but they are seen by their melancholy teenaged daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder). She sees her life as a tragedy, dresses all in black, and wants to die. So, naturally, when she discovers the Maitlands, she is thrilled. She agrees to help the Maitlands to get the Deetzes to move away, but her pleas on the behalf of the deceased fall on deaf ears. In desperation, Adam and Barbara turn to Beetlegeuse. His tactics, though, go too far in the eyes of the Maitlands and they banish the bio-exorcist to his place the same way he came: by saying his name three times. Rather than frightening Charles and Delia, they found the experience exhilarating, and now see an economic opportunity in supernatural tourism. Charles invites an investor and co-worker to the house to show off his plans, and to offer proof of ghosts in order to seal the deal. This is helped by Delia’s assistant interior designer Otho (Glenn Shadix), who got his hands on the Handbook for the Recently Deceased and plans to use it to summon Adam and Barbara. Placing the Maitlands’ wedding garments on their dining room table, the dead couple are summoned before the gathered party. Unfortunately, the process appears to turn them into rotting corpses. Seeing that they are in pain, Lydia runs over to the model of the Connecticut home where Beetlegeuse resides and begs for his help. He agrees to do so only on the condition that she marry him. She hastily accepts, and once summoned, is able to reverse the process for the Maitlands. Beetlegeuse is attempting to get the ceremony completed before Adam and/or Barbara can recover, but he has to use some of his powers to keep them at bay. It is ended when Barbara rides a sand worm into the living room that eats Beetlegeuse. Now the Deetzes can see the Maitlands, and they agree to peacefully co-exist in the house. They also become surrogate parents for Lydia, rewarding her when she does well in school with levitating her to the tune of “Jump in the Line (Shake, Senora)” by Harry Belafonte.
It will come as no surprise that there is nothing about Beetlejuice that jives with the Catholic conception of the afterlife. At the same time, the Church has never said anything completely definitive about ghosts. Clearly there have been departed souls that have appeared to the living in some way, and such events make up a large part of the process for sainthood. They are always something that points the way to God because ultimately that is the reason for Faith. There is nothing about that in the film. Instead, there is talk of more morbid topics like suicide, on which Lydia is keen. When she tells the Maitlands that she wants to be dead too, they wisely advise her that it does not make anything easier. Ultimately, they end up teaming up in order to defeat the evil that is Beetlegeuse. Here is a character that, for instance, thinks The Exorcist (1973) is funny. I have not reviewed that film yet for The Legionnaire, and I do not think I ever will, unless asked. At any rate, it is one that I am pretty familiar with, having used it in my conclusion for my dissertation. There is nothing funny about it. Poor Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is possessed by a demon and the Church is portrayed as being powerless to stop it. In the process of performing the title rite, the entity inside Regan says and does the most heinous things you can imagine, which I will not repeat. Hence, by saving Lydia in Beetlejuice, Adam and Barbara save the young girl from potentially a similar fate. In either case, whether you are talking about ghosts or possessions, they are matters with which not to trifle.
Of course, this all makes Beetlejuice sound a lot more serious than it is intended. Some of Beetlegeuse’s hijinks, when they are not praising evil, can be humorous. The film’s theme is to make light of a serious subject, and it accomplishes this goal. It is not a film for everyone, and there are some truly terrifying images. Regardless, I think it is a pretty safe movie, despite the subject matter, for most mature audiences.