When Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was such a surprise hit in the summer of 1985, credit for its success went mainly in the direction of its nutty star. Somewhat lost in the phenomenon was the director of the movie, a first-time feature filmmaker named Tim Burton.
It was his first feature, but Burton wasn’t exactly unknown. He had a cult reputation already, based on two remarkable short films he had made for Disney: Vincent, an animated film about a morbid little boy who imagines himself as Vincent Price; and Frankenweenie, a bizarre live-action piece about a dead dog brought back to life. Those familiar with the shorts could see a lot Burton’s visual imagination at loose in Pee-wee’s movie.
Burton has now made his first post-Pee-wee film. Beetlejuice is very much in his wild, cartoony tradition, a real romp for an utterly original filmmaker. Not enough of it works as well as it should, and it may be a bit too anarchic, but it certainly doesn’t look quite like anything else to be found in a movie theater today.
As the film opens, a young couple (Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis) drive into town from their storybook house on a hill above a small Connecticut village. Just as we’ve gotten to know and like them, they drive their car through the side of a covered bridge, plunge into the river, and die.
Dead, they return to their house and pick up a copy of The Handbook for the Recently Deceased. Turns out they have to inhabit their old house for 125 years before passing on to the next phase. They’ve reconciled themselves to this idea when an obnoxious couple (Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara) buy the house and move in. In order to get these people to move out, the dead must haunt the place, and for that, they need the help of a professional “bio-exorcist,” Betelguise (Michael Keaton, in rotting-corpse makeup).
So Burton turns the film into an amusement ride of goofy thrills. It’s full of his macabre humor, from the sudden outpouring of “Day-O” at a sophisticated dinner party, to the Charles Addams daughter (nicely played by Winona Ryder) who likes the ghost couple better than her own geeky parents, to the mind-boggling casting of Robert Goulet (as Jones’ business partner) and Dick Cavett (as one of O’Hara’s pretentious art-world friends), both of whom are eventually assaulted by crazed shrimp salads.
But Burton’s masterpiece is the waiting room of the dead, an office where newly deceased people await the next step in the afterlife bureaucracy. The people here look like what they looked like at the moment of death, so there’s a surfer with a shark chewing his leg, and a steamroller victim who confesses he feels “a little flat” today.
What a strange movie. For some reason I have a funny feeling that 11-year-olds are going to like it a lot—not a bad recommendation, at that.
First published in the Herald, March 1988
The movie seemed like a fun mess when it came out, destined for certain cult status, and then somehow it became a huge hit. That’s great, although I still don’t quite get the vault from little cult weirdie to multiplex sensation, but good for Burton—he’s had kind of a charmed career that way.