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Beetlejuice (1998)

by on 2011/10/16

“Deliver me from L.L. Bean.”

* * * *

Question: When does calypso music and Alec Baldwin in a flannel shirt combine to make a gothic classic?

Answer: When it is Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice.

Beetlejuice is another of my annual Halloween rituals.

I have to, have to, have to see it every year around this time.

During my first screening of this 1998 movie, there were several early counter-indicators to the fact that this film would later become something I adored. The first bad sign was the permed and giggly Geena Davis (Fletch) as Barbara Maitland, dressed in a shapeless floral dress. Then there was Alec Baldwin as her bland husband Adam – a bespectacled, flannel-clad model enthusiast.

Sure, the sprawling white farm house on the hill was pretty cool, and the couple, however bland and preppy, did spend most of their time in the attic.

Happily, things got interesting pretty quickly after the couple plunged from a covered bridge swerving to miss an idiot dog. When the Bridges of Madison County attack.

Despite finding a 50’s-styled instructional manual Handbook for the Recently Deceased, the dead couple find death confusing and inconvenient. Enter Lydia (Winona Ryder), a gothic vision of teenage angst, all lace veils, sunken eyes and black hair. Her urban family buys the farm house in pursuit of rural relaxation.

As soon as Lydia walked on the screen, I was hooked.

Equally compelling was Lydia’s evil stepmother (are there any other kind?) played by Catherine O’Hara. A self-absorbed, narcissistic wannabe artist, Delia sets about ripping out the guts of the quaint country home and transforming into a modern art nightmare. Lydia’s father Charlies is sympathetically portrayed as a man who just wants rustic peace and quiet. Charles is played by the great Jeffrey Jones (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) – I can’t help liking this guy.

Now I’m not big on gross-out humour. Bugs and rotting teeth scare me. So the fact the action centres around a particularly uncouth and decayed “bio-exorcist,” an undead demon something something who specializes in terrorizing the living named Beetlejuice (Micheal Keaton) probably should have bothered me. But there’s something about Michael Keaton (Batman).

He’s twitchy, quirky and hilarious.

The production and art design in this movie is like no other. There’s campy, stop-motion beasties, there’s the undead space junk of Delia’s terrifying sculpture and there’s the Dali-esque world of sandworms where the dead fear to tread.

This Tim Burton movie is clever, it is fun, it is definitely not preppy. I think I’ve watched the scene where Lydia levitates to the sounds of Jump In Line (Shake, Shake Senora) by the incomparable Harry Belafonte at least 20 times.

It is the kind of film I would have love to have made.

I love Beetlejuice, flannel, farmhouses, Alec Baldwin and all.

* * * *

92 minutes

Rated PG for lots and lots of amusing dead people, the brothel in the model town and Delia sleeping with “Prince Valium”

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