Thirty years changes a lot. But one thing it hasn’t changed is just how shocking, wonderful, and funny Tim Burton’s cult classic film Beetlejuice is.
The film opened March 30, 1988, to mostly positive reviews and noteworthy financial success. But the real reason it has endured in the three decades since its release is that the movie somehow manages to feel as original today as it must have then. It would feel original in any era, really, because the imaginative story it tells about a gross, weird, scary, yet oddly optimistic afterlife doesn’t mesh with anything audiences had seen before or have seen since. The insanity and surprises are truly timeless.
Beetlejuice stars Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis as Adam and Barbara Maitland, two low-key rural Connecticut residents who die in a car accident and wake up as ghosts back in their house. Soon after, a high-strung New York couple, the Deetzs (Jeffrey Jones and Catharine O’Hara) and their goth daughter (Winona Ryder) move in. The Maitlands want the Deetzs out, though, so they mistakenly employ a very unpleasant ghost named Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) to scare them away. However, Beetlejuice ends up being much more than any of them can handle.
Right off the bat, the whole premise is fucking weird, and it just gets weirder with each subsequent single scene. People pull their faces off, heads are shrunk, sculptures come to life, eyeballs become fingers, massive worms eat people—it really is a nonstop barrage of “what the hell?” How someone sat down and gave Tim Burton millions of dollars to make this is almost incomprehensible.
Out of every wacky thing we see in Beetlejuice, though, obviously Keaton’s title character still stands out. He’s unforgettable—the wild hair, the green corrosion all over his face, and his crudely offensive humor, jaw-dropping undead powers, and selfish sensibilities. He’s part-funny, part-scary, all-evil, and darkly hilarious in a way that wears out its welcome very fast. He’s exhausting, but in a film where he’s supposed to be exhausting, and it makes him scarier despite his zaniness, simply because he cannot be stopped.
While Beetlejuice himself is unforgettable, you might not remember how little he’s actually in the movie. He’s basically on screen for a third of it, if that. It’s almost like Burton knew the character was grating and hard to watch. He’s such a huge, huge, presence that anytime he’s on screen, it’s the only thing the movie can be about at that time—but the movie isn’t about him, ultimately. It’s about this world, these characters, and the relationship between the living and the dead.
It just so happens that Beetlejuice is a great go-between and catalyst for all the plates the movie is spinning. There are the conflicts between life and death, rural and urban sensibilities and, of course, trying to explain this highly-stylized vision of the afterlife. In this world, the Maitlands find themselves in a kind of purgatory where they’re forced to stay in their house for 125 years until God knows what happens. If they go outside, they end up on Saturn with sandworms out to kill them. If they draw a door on a wall, they enter an office setting where caseworkers help them through the transition into death—and all of it is explained in a handy handbook for the “Recently Deceased.” The whole movie feels like the writers, Michael McDowell and Warren Skaaren, just continually tried to one-up themselves in the most unbelievable way possible.
It’s the only explanation for how we got this:
The now legendary scene is kind of a microcosm of the whole movie. At first, the characters are confused as they’re forced to perform a dance number to Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O,” then scared, but as it gets more and more outrageous, ecstasy intermittently washes over their faces as they buy into the experience The audience is supposed to react the same way. Anything is possible in Beetlejuice. I mean, the film casts legendary singer Robert Goulet and iconic talk show host Dick Cavett as supporting characters for virtually no reason whatsoever. They’re just there to up the ante of unexpected things happening at all moments.
Beetlejuice wouldn’t work, though, if it was only about surprising its audience with audaciousness. Along with the out-there story and incredible visuals, the film anchors itself to Ryder’s character, Lydia. It’s Lydia who can see the Maitlands, who can interact with them, whom Beetlejuice wants, and who ends up bridging the gap between not just the rural and urban but, ultimately, life and death. Through her strength and courage, the film ends on a positive note—that anyone can be happy if you’re good and kind and accepting of others. It’s a surprisingly positive message for such a bonkers film, especially when it’s conveyed through Lydia singing Belafonte’s “Jump in the Line” while floating in the air with a bunch of dead football players backing her up.
If Beetlejuice came out today, I don’t know how the world would react. Would people watch it and be amazed? Or would they just be shocked by Beetlejuice’s offensive behavior? Would they be baffled at the Belafonte songs? Or would they still enjoy it? It’s impossible to say, which is why, unfortunately, it’s the kind of movie that could never get made today. It’s too weird, too risky, and very over the top.
If I ran a studio, I’m not sure I would have had the guts to put this thing out there. But 30 years ago, Warner Bros. took a gamble that paid off—and made a wholly unique movie. Beetlejuice may be weird, but, like the ghost with the most himself, it’s also utterly unforgettable.