Viking Night: Beetlejuice
By Bruce Hall
November 8, 2011
Halloween was last week, and I was on sabbatical. But if you thought I was gonna leave you high and dry without a good story, think again. Gather round all, and enter with me an alternate universe, the likes of which you can scarcely imagine. In it, you’ll experience a journey of wonder and nostalgia and when you emerge from the other side - if you do - you’ll never look at the Connecticut real estate market the same way again. So come, and imagine a world where Alec Baldwin has a jawline, Geena Davis is still adorable and Michael Keaton is once again a real Hollywood star. Your next stop, the signpost up ahead - you are about to enter a very special post Halloween Viking Night, courtesy of Tim Burton and Beetlejuice.
It’s hard to believe, but in Burton’s filmography this movie bridges Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and some movie about a guy who dresses up like a rodent. One, of course, was an unlikely comedy classic and the other was one of the biggest commercial hits of all time. That goes to show you the diverse range of Burton’s many talents. He’s a director with an animator’s eye, so he excels at creating discrete universes for each film he makes. Each one is a surrealist snow globe, a fantasy vacuum that could only exist in one given place and time in the universe. I’m not saying that’s unique; Brett Ratner and Michael Bay do it too. But the Bay- and Ratner-verses come off an assembly line, much the way you can get a cheap, greasy hamburger just about anywhere.
But Burton’s films tend to have individual character, and it’s hard not to perceive each as an individually wrapped confection, created especially for you. But it’s not just the difference between a Big Mac and the Rib-Eye burger at the Skybox in Las Vegas. It’s the difference between a PC and a Mac. One is a functional but indifferent product designed to appeal to the widest base possible. The other is meant to appeal to needs that everyone has, yet is held to standards that few people have enough taste to demand. Some people make popular films that get forgotten about on the way to the restroom after the credits. Others fill their catalogue with beloved classics; benchmarks by which other films are often measured. Can you guess which one Tim Burton is?
And yet while I admire him, I’m not a homer. To prove it, I want to be up front about something right now. Beetlejuice is one of those films that will shock you because it isn’t quite the way you remember it. Burton isn’t immune to failure (I’m looking at you, Mars Attacks. Don’t try and leave the room, Planet of the Apes), but the vast majority of his films are sure to become classics, and many of them already are. Beetlejuice remains a distant memory for most people, and time has not been especially kind to it. But the fundamental aspects of what makes most of Burton’s work easy to love are still here. And for the most part, this overcomes deficiencies that would male lesser films seem even more obsolete. And to be fair, I should point out that the movie’s crudeness is said to be intentional. On the other hand, Beetlejuice also didn’t have a large effects budget, so maybe that’s a little bit of revisionist history. Either way, it adds to the charm and plays to Burton’s defining strength - he understands the power of imagination.