Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Film Appreciation - 30 Years of the Strange and Unusual

Cody Hamman celebrates 30 years of Beetlejuice with some Film Appreciation.

For years, I had myself convinced that the Arnold Schwarzenegger / Danny DeVito comedy Twins was the first movie I ever saw in a theatre. It wasn't until recently that I realized Twins was released in 1989, and I have memory of going to see director Tim Burton's supernatural comedy Beetlejuice when it was released in 1988. Looking over lists of mid-'80s releases, I don't (yet) have any memories of going to see anything that came before Beetlejuice, so this film may well have been the first one I ever saw on the big screen. If that's the case, it's very fitting that this would have been my gateway into the world of cinema, because it's a great representation of the sort of entertainment I have dedicated most of my time to. It's a gleeful celebration of the strange and macabre, packed with incredible, practical special effects that were used to bring some ghastly sights to the screen.

Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis star as Adam and Barbara Maitland, a young couple who live in a large old farmhouse in the quaint little town of Winter River, Connecticut. After the Maitlands die in a car accident, they learn that their spirits have to spend the next 125 years lingering in their home. If they try to step outside, they drop into an otherworldly desert filled with giant, man-eating (and stop-motion) sandworms. Staying in their house wouldn't be so bad, if not for the living people who move into the place two months after their deaths.

Sharing the house with the Maitlands now are insufferable city folk Charles and Delia Deetz (Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O'Hara), who are as different from the Maitlands as you can get. The Maitlands loved their old fashioned home; Delia quickly gets to work turning the house into a modern art nightmare with the help of her decorator, former paranormal researcher Otho (Glenn Shadix). Adam loved Winter River so much that he has crafted a model replication of the entire place. Charles wants to buy out the whole town with land developer Maxie Dean (Robert Goulet) and turn it into a theme park.

The only Deetz Adam and Barbara can tolerate, and the only person who can even see them as they lurk around in the house, is the teenage Lydia (Winona Ryder) - and when I first saw this movie when I was 4, who could have predicted that I would turn out to be a teenager who wasn't far off from being a male Lydia. She's brooding but caring, she has dark sensibilities, considers herself strange and unusual, she feels utterly alone and wants to plummet off the local bridge. Yeah, Lydia and teenage Cody definitely could have been friends. The Maitlands are able to make a connection with Lydia, deepened by the fact that they hadn't been able to have children of their own.

But Charles and Delia have got to go. With the help of the Handbook for the Recently Deceased, which apparently we all get when we die, Adam and Barbara go over their options with an afterlife caseworker, do what they can to scare off the Deetzes themselves, and even contact a ghostly "bio-exorcist" who specializes in scaring people away, setting up demonic possessions, and eating / swallowing anything you might want him to eat / swallow. That fellow is called Betelgeuse, and contacting him turns out to be a big mistake.

If the Deetzes were more normal, the Maitlands wouldn't need Betelgeuse's help to scare them, because who would want to stay in a house after the spirits of the dead have taken control of their body and made them perform a Harry Belafonte tune, a performance that ends with the shrimp in their bowls turning into fingers on monstrous hands that grab them by the face and knock them to the ground? Once I'm grabbed by a shrimp monster, I'm leaving town. Not the Deetzes, though. That event just makes them want to capture the Maitlands and exploit them.

So we have Betelgeuse hanging around, and this guy isn't exactly helpful, because he has his own perverted agenda. He wants to marry the underage Lydia. He's a major creep, but as played by Michael Keaton he is also hilarious, bouncing across the screen with manic energy, acting inappropriately and letting loose with angry outbursts. I've hardly watched Beetlejuice in the last twenty-five years, but many of Betelgeuse's scenes remained in my mind as clearly as if I had watched them the day before. The moment when hocks a loogie inside his coat to save it for later, his claim that he has watched The Exorcist 167 times (and finds it funnier every time). Betelgeuse takes up residence in Adam's Winter River model for much of the film, and there's a scene where he kicks over a tree and yells up at Adam, "Nice f--kin' model!" He then squeezes his crotch, which lets out a honking sound... It's a funny moment now, and it's a moment I loved even when I was 4.

Burton and I have kind of parted ways as his career has gone out, but Beetlejuice was him at peak brilliance. He brought this wacky story to the screen with unique, jaw-dropping style, achieving a look that's simultaneously low rent and amazing. No other director in the world would have made this film in the way Burton made it. Aiding him in achieving greatness with this one was the awesome cast he assembled, and composer Danny Elfman, who allowed Burton to pair his imagery with one of the most memorable scores of all time.

Beetlejuice originated as a very dark idea from Larry Wilson and Michael McDowell, but once rewritten by Warren Skaaren and filtered through Burton's vision, it reached the screen in a state of perfection, even if the finished film is much lighter than Wilson and McDowell intended. Keaton's Betelgeuse just seems a lot more entertaining to me than a homicidal rapist winged demon. I can tell you that 4-year-old Cody wouldn't have enjoyed the movie nearly as much if that had been the Betelgeuse on the screen in front of him instead of the undead used car salesman the character ended up being.

Monsters, ghouls, old school special effects, a mixture of darkness and humor - this is the sort of thing I love, so I hope Beetlejuice was the first movie I ever saw in a theatre.

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