When I was a teen, I used to love watching the Beetlejuice cartoon on Saturday afternoons. I wish I could remember why. (I have zero memory of a single moment I enjoyed in its entire history.) I’m not sure how I felt about the movie the show was based on and whether I ever saw it from start to finish back then. (I can only recall bits and pieces so probably not.) Having just screened it in its entirety 25 years after its original theatrical release, I can now say this about the film today. It has not aged particularly well.
Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are a happily married couple vacationing in an old house in a small American town. A real estate friend is desperate for them to sell the place but they’re not interested. For some weird reason, Baldwin has been building a complete replica of this small town in his attic. One afternoon, he drives with his housewife to the neighbourhood hardware store where apparently the owner has Grandpa Simpson disease and you can just go right in, grab what you need and not pay. (Baldwin, the bespectacled hobbyist, needs a model part to finish his project.)
On their way back, they nearly avoid running over a pesky little dog on a bridge and soon find themselves dangling over it precariously. One foolish move by the silly pup and they flip right over into the river below. When they return home, it takes them a bit to realize the obvious. They’re dead. (Apparently, no one was able to save them from drowning.) They have no reflection in the mirror and fire doesn’t hurt them.
They soon find a book that’s supposed to help them cope with their new existence, a handbook for the recently deceased, but it’s hard to understand. It doesn’t help matters that when either of them walk out their front door, they face the constant threat of giant sandworms in a desert netherworld. Essentially, they’re trapped in their own vacation home. Talk about yuppie hell!
The situation gets worse when a family of three arrives to move in. Catherine O’Hara plays a pretentious sculptor who wants the place completely renovated by her obnoxious decorator, Jeffrey Jones is her businessman husband who likes it the way it is and Wynona Ryder is his dour daughter from a previous marriage who agrees with him. (We never do find out what happened to his first wife.) She’s always dressed in black, is often taking photos and loathes O’Hara. One day while outside in the midst of all the renovating chaos, Ryder spots Baldwin and Davis looking out the attic window.
How is she able to see them? Unlike everybody else, she simply pays attention to “strange and unusual things” which kind of defeats the purpose of being a ghost. I mean if you can’t be invisible all the time, what’s the point, right? Anyway, she realizes she’d much rather hang out with the dead folks in the attic than her own drippy family. At one point, she even contemplates taking her own life to join them permanently.
Meanwhile, Baldwin and Davis soon find themselves in a waiting room for the dead where we meet the single funniest character in the film, a silent guy with a shrunken head. Every time I saw that horrified look on his face I could not stop laughing. Anyway, all of these unfortunate souls waiting to be called are hoping to meet with a death counsellor, if you will, who will help them with their difficulties adjusting to the afterlife.
Longtime character actor Sylvia Sidney (who is very good here in spite of witless material) gruffly advises the dead couple on how best to get rid of the new occupants of their vacation home. (The old moaning-under-a-sheet routine is a bust, even though it does inspire a couple of funny lines from Ryder.) She tells them to read the handbook in order to learn how to be really scary. And whatever you do, she warns, don’t consult the services of her former assistant, Betelguese (a shamelessly hammy Michael Keaton), who now works as a “bio-exorcist”, whatever that means. The way to avoid this is to never say his name three times.
This is pretty easy considering the odd spelling of his name. But eventually halfway through the picture Davis figures out the correct pronunciation and the couple immediately regrets ever meeting him. That makes three of us. Keaton’s a fine comic actor but not in this role. There’s almost nothing funny about this hideous, oversexed ghost with the charm of a used car salesman. He oozes humourless sleaze out of every ghoulish pore.
Thankfully, like Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare On Elm Street series, Betelgeuse is barely in the movie which is still too much. Despite his energetic, grovelly delivery, he barely registers on the funny scale. It’s astounding how few laughs there are when he appears on-screen. (I only liked one gag during the second waiting room scene at the end.) You can always tell he’s trying too hard as the screenplay constantly lets him down.
In the meantime, O’Hara throws a dinner party which gets sabotaged by Davis and Baldwin. They figure out how to manipulate the entire table to dance around and lip sync to Harry Belafonte’s most famous song against their will. (He must’ve had a great agent at the time. Several of his songs are on the soundtrack.) Instead of scaring them out of the house, though, everybody is exhilarated by the experience. (Even the shrimp bit didn’t perturb them.) Sensing a big business opportunity, Jones convinces a fellow crony from New York (Robert Goulet) to fly in to see him at the vacation house to hear his pitch for a paranormal museum/haunted amusement house amongst a broader real estate plan. (Jones thinks he can buy all the town’s properties cheap and turn them into other businesses because he believes the inhabitants don’t know the value of their own buildings.)
Beetlejuice was only the second movie Tim Burton directed before helming the re-launch of Batman, the first good movie he ever made. It’s very sad how dated this picture feels after a quarter century. The title character’s unamusing charmlessness aside, I never understood why Baldwin and Davis (who I didn’t buy as a couple) are so determined to continue to live in that vacation house. She’s just a housewife who washes dishes and dusts, and he’s solely into his model town deal. That’s all they do. It’s such a drab, routine existence for two dull spirits who, conceivably, could be doing anything slightly more exciting anywhere else.
As for the new inhabitants, Ryder is the only one remotely interesting and funny but she’s not given nearly enough decent one-liners to make us warm to her completely. It doesn’t help that she’s a bit too much of a downer at times. I didn’t really care about her attempts to bond with the dead couple who weren’t able to have children when they were alive. She only prefers their company by default.
It’s clear from the start that Betelgeuse is meant to be a comic villain but I never understood his purpose beyond being a gross, self-serving troublemaker. I also didn’t get why he has all these transformative powers and yet is dependent on other people and spirits to bring him into the world of the living in order to show them off in the first place (or in one scene, to satiate his sexual appetite). Clearly, it’s just a simple hook to inject the character into the story. But the say-my-name-three-times-gimmick lacks credibility (who in the spirit world imposed this strange boundary onto him?), even in a fantasy such as this. Shouldn’t a powerful figure like him be able to break through without any assistance?
Like the dead couple, Betelgeuse lives a solitary afterlife that doesn’t look very appealing. Apparently, when you die, so does your imagination.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, July 12, 2013