Beetlejuice at 30: the ghoulish comedy-horror that had us laughing behind the sofa

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 21 March, 2018, 14:10

Tim Burton's terrifically ghoulish 1988 film Beetlejuice turns 30 next week. And the anniversary is likely to bring back both happy and nerve-jangling memories for those growing up at the time.

The comedy-horror hails from a distinctly pre-12A certificate era, when the likes of Gremlins and Poltergeist delighted adults and children alike - but were a scary prospect for kids.

Beetlejuice definitely falls into that honoured company. Rated '15' by the BBFC on its release, but enjoyed by whole families on home video, it remains an inventive, spooky and amusing treat.

Cartoonish humour meets eye-popping body-horror

The plot revolves around happily married couple Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis), who are drowned when their car careens off a bridge and into a river.

Arriving instantly back at their beloved house on the hill, they find a Handbook For The Recently Deceased on their coffee table - and something very nasty lurking outside of their front door should they attempt to leave.

Michael Keaton stars as Betelgeuse - the freelance poltergeist

They struggle to come to terms with this newfound state of post-mortality. But things go from bad to worse when ghastly couple Charles and Delia Deetz - along with their socially withdrawn daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder) - move into the house.

Early attempts to scare off these unwanted interlopers fail (only the sensitive Lydia can see their admittedly disgusting transformations).

In desperation they decide to approach Michael Keaton's Betelgeuse, a freelance poltergeist who - in an inspired concept - is so gloriously grotesque and despicable he can be hired to "exorcise the living" from houses.

What follows is a heady mix of cartoonish humour and (literal) eye-popping body horror.

Something for everybody

For every slapstick gag or piece of energetic clowning from the game and enthusiastic Keaton, there is a moment where hapless victims are ensnared in hideously mutating sculptures, or the soul-swallowing Sand Worm is shown.

The uncanny, old-school stop-motion effects only add to the sense of unease.

At one point, a dinner party are made to dance and mime to the Banana Boat Song in hilarious fashion - before their starters morph into terrifying hands, grab their faces, and drag them downwards to the table.

This neat blend of comedy and horror is perfectly summed-up by the opening to Danny Elfman's wonderful score. There's a brilliantly creepy ominousness to the low, brooding tones that start things off, before quirky, oompah style piano and brass kicks in.

Beetlejuice has elements both grown-ups and younger viewers can latch onto.

Lydia's melodramatic goth persona seems tailor-made to appeal to parents whose own teenagers may be going through a similar phase. The eternal waiting room, where the dead take a numbered ticket and wait endlessly to see their case-workers, is the kind of reference those who've visited dentists and doctors over the years can relate to.

The original trailer marketed the movie as a bawdy comedy

The movie deals with death and tragedy - and there's lashings of rather adult humour too. Keaton's character is seen hopping over to a brothel, and memorably yells "nice f***ing model!" at one point.

Contrast that, however, with goofy family-friendly touches such as Adam racing through said model in a toy car, and it's fascinating to see how seamlessly the film marries these elements.

If there were any doubt that Burton's movie was intended to have a younger following, a Beetlejuice cartoon series, aimed squarely at kids, hit TV screens shortly after the film's release.

Goofy and tragic

The balance is maintained by Burton to a tee.

There's the scene where a chalk outline is drawn to open a glowing door in the brick-work, mixing fantasy and freakery to neat effect.

The assorted denizens of the between-worlds offices - from zombie football players to a flattened paper clerk - are simultaneously goofy, gross and tragic.

Viewers both laugh and cringe when Adam's jaw drops off as he attempts to banish Betelgeuse in the climactic showdown.

That entire sequence is quite haunting (if you'll excuse the pun), as Adam and Barbara gradually age and wither. But the visual comedy comes thick and fast too.

When the Deetz's friend Otho gets instantly stripped down to his long-johns, it's pure pantomime.

Even the film's costumes, set design and cinematography reflect the intended cross-over. Here, the graveyards are brightly lit, complete with flashing neon signs. Colourful outfits cut through the gloomier backdrops. And even when Betelgeuse transforms into a giant, grinning snake, he retains his crop of startling green hair.

Throughout the entire running time, Keaton's exuberance, the two leads' relatability, and the genuinely touching relationship they form with Lydia, bring it all together.

The whole thing even ends on a song and dance number.

A splendid curiosity

The 80s was a time for children's films that challenged and frightened younger viewers, from The Dark Crystal to Labyrinth.

In much the same manner, Beetlejuice serves up imaginatively designed abominations for its characters to content with. And darker subject-matter alongside its fantasy atmosphere.

Occupying a grey area between family-friendly and adults-only, Beetlejuice is likely to have introduced plenty of that youthful generation to their first jump scare or proper, on-screen monster. Kids might not have been technically allowed to watch, but they absolutely loved it.

Thirty years on, it remains a splendid curiosity. A comedy-horror movie all ages could enjoy and latch onto - but which had some 80s kids chuckling from behind the sofa.