My Shame List: Beetlejuice (1988)

If you want to make a lot of people gasp and bulge their eyes out -- and why wouldn't you, really? -- tell them you've never seen Beetlejuice. It works on obsessive movie geeks because the film was made by Tim Burton, who holds a distinct place in the annals of modern Hollywood. And it works on regular moviegoers because, well, who hasn't seen Beetlejuice?! Everyone has seen Beetlejuice! It's Beetlejuice, for crying out loud!

And now I've seen it, too, so shut up.

My Shame List #4: Beetlejuice (1988)

The shaming.

(This week's guest scolder: John Gholson, of!)

"I can only guess that Snider hasn't seen Beetlejuice because he walks around in life with his fingers in his ears and his eyes closed tightly, singing, 'LA LA LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU LA LA LA LA LA!' I assume he's easily scared; that just knowing that Beetlejuice concerns ghosts is cause enough for Snider to pull his trademark floppy raver hat down over his eyes and make pee-pee in his pantaloons. I sat next to the man during Sinister, so this scenario is not totally out of the question. Beetlejuice is the second best ghost comedy of the 1980's (after Ghostbusters, natch), full of weird ideas and one of the last truly iconic cinematic characters of that decade (thanks to an enthusiastic Michael Keaton). Consider this -- Eric Snider made time for Standing Ovation, but can't make time for the movie that defined what makes a Tim Burton movie a Tim Burton movie?"

Why hadn't I seen it before?

This is a bit of a puzzler. Beetlejuice came out on March 30, 1988, when I was a lad of not quite 14 -- pretty much the target audience. But one of several peculiar facts about my youth is that I didn't go to the movies very often until I was old enough to pay for my own ticket and drive myself (or go with friends who were of driving age), because the nearest movie theater was a couple towns away. So until about 1990, actual trips to the movies were fairly uncommon for me. My family didn't have HBO, either, so I missed out on a lot of movies that my peers saw that way. As for why I never got around to watching Beetlejuice after that, on video or DVD, the answer is: I dunno. It just never felt like a priority.

cumming in pants

How much of it had I seen?

Nothing substantial, though I do remember what must have been clips from TV commercials: Beetlejuice saying, "I'm the ghost with the most"; the part where he makes a scary face but we only see the back of his head; probably a few other images of Beetlejuice being Beetlejuice. I knew enough that when it was pointed out to me that Alan Cumming was wearing "Beetlejuice pants" at the Tribeca Film Festival a couple weeks ago, I knew exactly what was meant.

What did I already know about it before I watched it?

- Michael Keaton plays a ghost named Beetlejuice. You have to say his name three times to make him show up, I guess because he's a diva. Beetlejuice doesn't get out of bed for less than three utterances of his name.

- Harry Belafonte's "Day-O," which I happen to know is actually called "The Banana Boat Song," figures into it somehow.

- It was directed by Tim Burton but did not feature Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter because they had not yet emerged from their whimsy cocoons.

- Michael Keaton was so good at playing a ghost that Tim Burton was like, "Hey, you should also play Batman!"

- There is a star called Betelgeuse, which could conceivably be pronounced "Beetlejuice," which maybe has something to do with this movie.

The watching.

Right off the bat you can tell it's a Tim Burton film because of the Danny Elfman score. It's unmistakable. Of all the Danny Elfman scores, this might be the Danny Elfmannest. Which reminds me, I used to have a CD called Music for a Darkened Theatre that was a compilation of Elfman's movie and TV themes, and this one was included. My favorite, however, is still Pee-wee's Big Adventure. But all of that is beside the point. I will probably delete most of this paragraph.


Why, look who it is! It's a thin, young, very mid-to-late-1980s Alec Baldwin! He is noticeably shorter than Geena Davis, playing his wife, who is 6'9".

Speaking of Geena Davis, why is she dressed like a pioneer girl's doll?

The movie is half over before the title character is summoned by the main characters. All we see of him before that is his TV commercial, which made me think: Hmm. Beetlejuice is kind of annoying. When he arrives in all his splendor, my earlier suspicions are confirmed. I don't find him funny. I almost can't stand him. With his frenetic delivery and all-over-the-place pop-culture references, he's like a less amusing version of the Genie in Aladdin.

Good grief, this movie is whimsical. This movie is ten pounds of whimsy in a five-pound bag.

I have a serious hang-up with the plot, inasmuch as it is random and doesn't make any sense. Barbara and Adam are ghosts who can't leave their house, nor can they make the new residents see them. OK, I'm on board with that. But then they can be seen, at least by the daughter (Winona Ryder), but they don't seem to have any control over it. But then they start being able to do it on purpose. Oh, and they can possess people. But possessing the new family at the dinner party produces merriment and delight rather than fear. And they don't want to hire Beetlejuice to get rid of them because ... well, because the woman at the ghost DMV (or whatever it is) says they shouldn't. And Beetlejuice lives in a tiny cemetery in the model town that Adam built, for some reason. And Jeffrey Jones is a stressed-out businessman seeking relaxation while Catherine O'Hara is an artsy-fartsy type, and so what?

What are the rules here? What can ghosts do? What effect can they have on the world of the living? Is Beetlejuice a ghost or a demon? Why does he have powers that Barbara and Adam don't? So many of the film's details seem tossed together willy-nilly -- pell-mell, even -- without regard for cohesion. I enjoy a good bit of whimsy as much as the next person, but it ought to have a purpose. So much of this just makes me say, "What? Why?" There was a lot of "What? Why"-ing happening at my house.

And that goth daughter, Lydia -- how old is she supposed to be? Barbara keeps referring to her as "that little girl," but Beetlejuice keeps talking about wanting to have sex with her, and even tries to marry her. Whatever her age is, I feel like we should find Beetlejuice's sexual advances toward her a little more creepy than we generally do.

Yeah, I'm sorry, but Beetlejuice is not for me. Not my bag. I like some of the inventive special effects, and the "Day-O" dinner scene is funny, and clearly everyone is having a fine time inhabiting Tim Burton's weird world. But overall: no thank you. Me want to go home even before daylight come.