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‘Beetlejuice’ At 35: Why It’s Still So Special

"Beetlejuice" album from the Original Broadway Cast of Beetlejuice
"Beetlejuice" album from the Original Broadway Cast of Beetlejuice By Courtesy of Original Broadway Cast of Beetlejuice
By Avery Britt, Crimson Staff Writer

In an ’80s horror movie landscape filled with demonic frights and masked, chainsaw-wielding villains, there was a need for something brighter, a film where gruesome death joined with jovial overtones. ’80s horror stands out as perhaps the prime decade for the genre, featuring campy horror brilliance from beginning to end. However, while most of these famed pieces of the Halloween pantheon find that camp in their famously gory and creepy slasher aura, Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice”(1988) stood apart as a loner in the crowd — a work that had a soft edge to its scary content. Its chief possession sequence does not indulge in the frightening tones of a John William’s horror score, but instead utilizes the jaunty, disarming Harry Belafonte classic, “Banana Boat.” The ghosts in the film lean more towards “Casper” than “Poltergeist” — but don’t forget that even Casper was capable of possession. The bumbling ghost trope further sanitizes the film’s horror, which means no one is sitting at the edge of their seat worrying that the killer will suddenly emerge from the shadows. Therefore, more energy can be devoted to the characters and relationships in the story.

At the start of the decade, audiences are spooked by Stanley Kubrick's foray into horror with the unsettling Jack Torrence of “The Shining,” and then in 1984 we’re introduced to the unforgettable, menacing talons of “Nightmare on Elm Street”’s Freddy Krueger. Even murderous dolls got their moment in the spotlight in the ’80s with Chucky in “Child’s Play.” However, Beetlejuice differed from those other protagonists in the horror genre. Michael Keaton as the title character has an innate charm that does not hide, machinize, or center evil as the defining factor of his character, but, instead, embraces it in a fun way that allows for Beetlejuice to develop as a comedic force, with quippy dialogue and memorable one-liners that are still quoted today.

The rest of the cast rules the screen as well. Famous names like Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Catherine O’Hara, and, of course, Winona Ryder fill the marquee, and all of their characters pop off the screen with their idiosyncrasies. From the vapid mother consumed in her bad art to a daughter relishing in everything morbid and goth, the characters themselves have become icons in the horror genre. Particularly, the “strange and unusual” Lydia has inspired the credo of goth girls everywhere. Perhaps this, coupled with its gorgeous construction, is even why “Beetlejuice” endures well into the present.

The film is a masterclass on visually stunning camp. While the practical effects are a bit hokey and clearly outdated, they fit perfectly into the current cultural atmosphere — an obsession with everything nostalgic from storylines to props. Additionally, the film is so bright the majority of the time that it easily invites an audience member into its fold. This movie is certainly not a member of the growing pantheon of painfully dark horror films, and that makes the story feel more vivid. A more vivid story means a stronger group of characters that both come from and shape the narrative.

While its flippant depictions of suicide and predatory behavior do not necessarily stand the modern test of time, Beetlejuice has created a new brand of characters in the horror genre that were different from the typical villains who chase the high school heroes around campgrounds. The audience can enjoy fully-fleshed out relationships where audiences not only feel invested in whether or not the characters live but rather how they will survive. Of course, this is typical in other genres, but with horror at the time the norm was to make a clear delineation between the good and the evil. This blurring of moral lines for the sake of heart is characteristic of the rest of Tim Burton’s — arguably the king of the Horror movie’s work. Beetlejuice was only his second feature film and the model of adding heart in the midst of horror has become one of the foundational aspects of his filmography. This heart is the reason why his films resonate with an audience after 35 years, making a future sequel and even a recent musical tantalizing prospects for viewers everywhere.

—Staff writer Avery Britt can be reached at avery.britt@thecrimson.com

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