“I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” –Woody Allen, filmmaker
Ghost stories around the campfire precede filmmaking by thousands of years. From The Sixth Sense to The Exorcist, humanity’s fascination with the supernatural has continued through the movies. Usually, these visual ghost stories fall into the genre of thriller or horror; however, when stories take audiences behind the curtain of the physical world and tell a story from the ghost’s perspective, it’s a recipe for comedy. Especially when Tim Burton is involved. Case in point: Beetlejuice.
Danny Elfman’s musical hybrid of hoedown twang and spooky strings in the opening title sequence of Beetlejuice sets the tone for what to expect in the next 90 minutes. A recently deceased couple, the Maitlands, attempt to scare new homeowners out of the house so they can have their old residence all to themselves again. As Katherine Fowkes writes in the book Cinematic Ghosts, “…A good portion of the humor in Beetlejuice is the result of the Maitland’s failure to successfully haunt.” Perhaps this concept inspired Pixar when creating some of their hilariously un-scary characters in Monsters, Inc.
Like the Maitlands’ scare tactics, some of the visual effects in this 1988 film are a bit rusty. But you know what? Even at age 23, I fell for them hook, line, and sinker. (This was my first time watching Beetlejuice…don’t stone me.) Michael Keaton plays the title character who promises he can exorcise the Maitland’s house of all unwanted living creatures. He is rambunctious, crass, wound up, and unpredictable, just like the effects Tim Burton employs in this movie. I would go so far as to say that Keaton’s zany performance is the glue that holds the weirdness together. After Beetlejuice came into the picture, I said, “Ah. Everything makes sense now.” I also thought, “I would never want to meet this guy in real life.”
When I directed my own 30-minute adaption of Beowulf in 2009, I expected it to be the project where I crossed the threshold into making “scary stuff,” a necessity for any Spielberg wannabe. But after the addition of many unscripted moments, ketchup blood, and middle school actors attempting to deliver lines that were written in the early 11th century, it quickly turned into a comedy. I did attain a certain level of gristly violence in the movie; to this day I am still proud and impressed by the scene where Grendel’s arm is ripped off. That project taught me, though, that it’s just as gratifying to make the audience laugh as it is to disturb them. In many of Tim Burton’s movies, including this one, he opts for both.
I’ve never been a fan of haunted house attractions, but while watching Beetlejuice I thought about how fun it would be to visit a haunted house designed by Tim Burton. While many haunted houses are demonic and dark, Burton’s creations are colorful and relentlessly weird. I would love to spend a few hours walking around in one of his universes…but thank goodness I have reservations to spend my afterlife somewhere else.