“It’s showtime.” In the past, when I thought of Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, the first image that popped into my mind was the eponymous character’s toothy smile, prison-esque striped suit, and that green hair that’s as frazzled as someone who’s just been struck by the electric touch of Mother Nature on a stormy day. Betelgeuse's iconic appearance and quirky personality have been embedded in my brain for decades, but when I revisited Burton’s film for Daily Dead’s Class of 88 retrospective series, I discovered a different side of the “ghost with the most,” as well as a newfound appreciation for the people who summon him.
From their first moments on screen, married couple Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara Maitland (Geena Davis) are shown as being likeable and intriguing people. Everything about their relationship is infectiously earnest and fresh, as if they just started dating. Sharing a playful, knowing banter, they seem to glide (like ghosts!) rather than walk through the sun-splashed rooms of their charming white clapboard house, an apple pie sweet slice of Americana overlooking their quaint, tidy, and tiny Connecticut town (replicated in Adam’s impeccably detailed model in their attic). No activity in their lives is mundane. Adam and Barbara even race down the steps like children trying to see who can reach the car first. They are deeply innocent and almost impossibly happy, but they yearn to expand their family and fill their home with a child they can share their love with. But until that day comes, they are content with each other, and they intend to enjoy that contentment during their “staycation” from the hardware store they run in town.
Little do they know that their staycation will last longer than expected, as a car accident spills them from the land of the living to the realm of the dead… forcing them to stay in their home for 125 years. For some, this containment could be hell, but for Adam and Barbara, it might just be heaven (something Adam even suggests once their phantasmal forms return home). This supernatural paradise is both threatened and sweetened by the arrival of the Deetz family, including the lonely teenager Lydia (Winona Ryder), her stressed-out father, and her mother (played by the always great Catherine O'Hara), who is more interested in the condition of her sculptures than the emotional state of her daughter.
In Lydia, the Maitlands see the daughter they always wanted, but in her parents, they see the type of people they never wanted to become: self-absorbed, worrisome, and utterly unhappy. As the only person who can see the ghostly Maitlands, Lydia finds the parents she wishes she had. Herein lies the real message of the film: the desire to belong and truly be loved. Family is the beating heart that pulsates beneath Burton’s quirky tone and Danny Elfman’s bouncy score—it’s cherished by characters on both sides of the grave, making it the thing most threatened by the arrival of Betelgeuse (Keaton).
The character most synonymous with Burton’s 1988 film, Betelgeuse’s striking appearance—green hair, pinstriped suit, and deathly pale skin—combined with Keaton’s relentless, manic performance push the character to the forefront of the movie, despite only appearing in the film for a little over 17 minutes. Once the Maitlands and the Deetzes are established in the fairy tale-esque plot, the exiled “bio-exorcist” Betelgeuse slams into the story with the grace of a sandworm diving at its latest meal. The self-serving character brings chaos to the lives of everyone around him when he looks to make a deal with the Maitlands to scare off the Deetzes, all while Adam and Barbara try to figure out a way to keep Lydia in their lives.
Growing up in the ’90s, Keaton’s iconic character was emblazoned on pop culture. Fans of the film quoted Betelgeuse endlessly, he was merchandised in multiple mediums, and he was even featured in a Beetlejuice animated series (in which he was voiced by Stephen Ouimette) that ran from 1989–1991. As a child, I always thought of Betelgeuse as this slightly spooky and mostly mischievous ghost. He seemed like a fun guy to be around, the life of the afterlife party. But rewatching Beetlejuice in 2018 as an adult, and being less distracted by the bio-exorcist’s zany antics (although I’m still easily distracted by shiny objects and the occasional squirrel), I was less delighted and more disturbed with the titular character’s behavior.
When he first meets Barbara, Betelgeuse forcefully kisses and gropes her before looking under her dress. Like all of Betelgeuse’s mannerisms, these invasive moves are made in lightning-quick fashion amidst a flurry of jokes and off-kilter commentary, so they can be easy to forget if you’re more focused on the movie’s amazing practical effects and fast-paced story (like I have been in the past), but if you look for them, the damaging effects the bio-exorcist’s actions have on Barbara are evident (she even calls him a “pervert” following their first encounter), only adding to the horror of Betelgeuse’s eventual attempt to force the underage Lydia to marry him.
I’m not saying that Betelgeuse should have been written or performed differently (he was actually intended to be a much more twisted character in Michael McDowell’s original screenplay), it’s just that now I see him as a much more slimy and creepy character than I did as a kid. Betelgeuse is more on par with Freddy Krueger—they both have a sense of humor and they’re remembered for their one-liners and wisecracks, but each character’s real intentions are depraved and even perverted.
Looking back, the movie’s version of Betelgeuse is a big contrast to the animated series, in which Beetlejuice (as his name is spelled in the cartoon) and Lydia are close friends—the opposite of their manipulative encounters in the movie. It’s like if they made a Nightmare on Elm Street cartoon featuring Freddy and Nancy as best pals who go on dream adventures. Don’t’ get me wrong, I’m glad the animated series (executive produced by Burton himself) exists and I don’t mind the alternate take on the characters populating Burton’s film, but it’s kind of wild to think that a generation of kids (myself included) grew up with a drastically different version of Beetlejuice on the small screen.
Animated Beetlejuice aside, Keaton’s version of the character is a legitimately creepy addition to the Maitlands’ otherwise family friendly afterlife. He’s a real threat to Adam and Barbara’s second chance at having the child they always wanted, which brings a new sense of urgency and danger to the film’s third act, as Betelgeuse aims his aggressive nature at Lydia. Sure, he’s using Lydia as a conduit to escape his purgatory-like imprisonment, but his previous interactions with Barbara suggest that Betelgeuse has more on his mind than just using her for his great escape, making his potential matrimony with Lydia less humorous and far more horrifying.
Looking back thirty years after its initial release, Beetlejuice as a whole is still as imaginative and infectiously giddy as I remember (it’s difficult to keep from dancing during the film’s "Jump in the Line" floating finale). Burton’s exploration of the afterlife is a dreamlike fairy tale, but all fairy tales need a villain to drive its cautionary tale home, and this movie has one hell of a villain to do its dirty work—quite literally in some cases.
Betelgeuse is more boogeyman than comedian, and I can safely say that my kid-friendly (or at the very least, more innocent) view of the character—seen through the vibrant lens of a ’90s upbringing—is safely washed away. What remains is a supremely creepy character brought to life (or afterlife, depending on how you look at it) by Keaton, who expertly masks Betelgeuse’s sinister undertones with a wacky sense of humor. Revisiting Beetlejuice as part of Daily Dead's Class of 88 retrospective series, I’m more charmed by the Maitlands, more disturbed by Betelgeuse, and even more blown away by the complexity of what is still one of Burton’s most memorable—and multilayered—movies to date.
Be sure to check here all month long for more special features celebrating the Class of 1988!