Monday, October 18, 2010

Beetlejuice: Death at its Funniest

There's only one genre of film that I don't really like - the slasher-horror genre.  I'm sorry but having the bejeezus scared out of me, almost making me pee in my theater seat, is not fun to me.  I need laughs more than I need adrenalin almost making my heart explode.  If I like a horror-type movie, it's more of a death comedy.  So, since it's almost Halloween, I'm talking about my favorite of them all - "Beetlejuice"!

I hope everyone reading this has already seen this movie.  If not, it's a must! This is Tim Burton at the beginning of his feature-directing career.  Though he didn't write the original script (or even the rewrites), you can still see those Gothic, dark, Burton-esque qualities that Gen X has come to love and cherish.  The film tells the tale of a young married couple living out in the countryside who get into an accident and die.  Their ghostly afterlife is confined to the house they once called home, unable to leave.  When a city couple and their daughter buy the house and start transforming the home they worked so hard to build, they get the help of a bio-exorcist named Betelgeuse (pronounced "Beetlejuice") to scare the family away.  But Betelgeuse proves to be more harmful than helpful, so the newly-dead couple must now save the family they first wanted to scare.  It's a hilarious comedic ride through the world of the afterlife, and stars Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin, Winona Ryder, Catherine O'Hara, Jeffery Jones and Michael Keaton as the titular character.

Released back in 1988, "Beetlejuice" was the second feature film directing project for Tim Burton.  The first feature Burton directed, "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" (1985), was such a huge success, he was being bombarded by scripts for his next project.  None of them had the imagination and creativity he was looking for, and Burton was becoming disheartened...until producer David Geffen handed him "Beetlejuice" by Michael McDowell.  McDowell's original screenplay was much more of a horror film than a comedy though, with Betelgeuse as a hellish winged demon who could transform into many different people.  The climax of this version had Betelgeuse raping one daughter (there were two originally) and mutilating the second by transforming himself into a ravenous squirrel.  Luckily, Burton and the studio hired writers to lighten up the story...a lot!

With only a $13 million budget, Burton relied heavily on his love of old B-movies, wanting the sets and effects to look cheap and fake.  He first tried to get art director Anton Furst for "Beetlejuice" but unfortunately, Furst was already committed to "High Spirits" (1988).  (Furst would later work with Burton to create a whole new look for Gotham City in "Batman" (1989).)  Burton hired Bo Welch instead, which started a working partnership that continued with "Edward Scissorhands" (1990) and "Batman Returns" (1992).  Welch also managed to start another great partnership during "Beetlejuice."  He met Catherine O'Hara and fell in love, marrying in 1992 (and still together today).

Michael Keaton was not Burton's first choice to play Betelgeuse.  Originally, he wanted his childhood idol Sammy Davis Jr. in the part.  Yes, that Sammy Davis Jr., the song and dance man!  Geffen suggested the comedic Keaton instead to Burton, who was unfamiliar with any of his work.  However, after Burton saw a tape, he agreed with Geffen and hired Keaton.  Even though Betelgeuse is the title character (in phonetic form, at least), he has only about 17 minutes of screen time out of the full 92-minute running.  Keaton only had to work on "Beetlejuice" for two weeks.  However, it led to his biggest and best role ever when Burton cast him in the lead of his next project - "Batman"!

"Beetlejuice" was a big break for young Winona Ryder as well.  17 years old at the time, Ryder had been in only two films before this, "Lucas" (1986) and "Square Dance" (1987).  It was her performance in "Lucas" that impressed Burton and led to her winning the role of odd, goth teen Lydia.  She won it over young actresses like Diane Lane, Jennifer Connolly, Sarah Jessica Parker, even already odd Juliette Lewis.  This then led to her next big role, in the teen dark comedy "Heathers" (1989), solidifying her as a role model for alienated teens everywhere.  She also made a mark with Burton, who cast her again alongside Johnny Depp in "Edward Scissorhands."

"Beetlejuice" went on to earn $73 million at the box office and an Oscar for Best Makeup.  Thanks to his second success, Warner Bros. was more inclined to grant him the large budget he needed for "Batman," which went on to earn $411 million at the box office and proved Burton was (and still is) a solid bet in Hollywood.  So, get your Halloween groove on this week and drown yourself in laughter with "Beetlejuice."  It's currently an instant streamer on Netflix and is always available on DVD.  Have a great week, everyone!

(Post-tidbit:  A sequel was written back in 1990 at Burton's request, titled "Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian."  However, other commitments kept causing Burton to put the project aside.  Many people have been asked over the years to do some rewrites on the script, including Daniel Waters ("Heathers"), Pamela Norris ("Troop Beverly Hills" (1989)), even Kevin Smith.  Yet, everyone passed and it still sits untouched at The Geffen Film Company.)

Video treat: Part 1 of Episode 1 of the "Beetlejuice" cartoon series, produced by Burton:

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