October is Halloween movie month! Having been completely deprived of any kind of Halloween experience growing up, I now spend 31 days celebrating with film and TV. I like to shoot for a mix of old and new, horror and comedy, from the slightly spooky to the totally terrifying to the just plain weird. Each day of October I’ll reviewing one of these ventures in the realm of the creepy and supernatural. Some will be high quality cinema and some will require large amounts of alcohol to survive. Stock up on seasonal beer and Fireball-apple jello shots and join me! A warning, though – unless the review is of a very recent release, HERE BE SPOILERS.
Starring: Michael Keaton, Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, and Winona Ryder
Synopsis: A completely charming and lovely couple, Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin at his handsomest and Geena Davis at her most-permed) who want nothing more than live quietly in their dream house together are killed while on an errand and wake up to find themselves now ghosts, confined to their house. They’d be totally cool with this if a new family hadn’t moved in a set about redecorating the house like a bad 80s nightmare. Mr. Deetz just wants country style peace and quiet, but his wife Delia is an odious nature-hater who creates ghastly modernist sculptures. Despite creative attempts on the Maitlands’ part to drive the new family out, the Deetzes lack the imagination to notice, except for their goth darling daughter Lydia who cannot only see the couple, but befriends them. The Maitlands consult their Handbook for The Recently Deceased and visit the DMV-like help center, but nothing works to rid them of the new family. Despite being warned against it, they call on Betelgeuse, a disgraced former dead-world bureaucrat who’s set himself up as a “bio-exorcist” ,to help them. Predictably this back fires wildly, with the Maitlands finding his methods too distasteful and the revelation of the Maitlands existence causing the Deetzes to attempt an exorcism which puts Barbara and Adam in danger of disintegrating. Lydia comes to their rescue by promising Betelguese she’ll marry him if he helps. The Maitlands are restored and manage to defeat Betelguese before he can do too much damage and both families are shown to be living in the house peacefully in the aftermath.
Growing up I was not only forbidden from celebrating Halloween in any way, but also forbidden from watch anything featuring magic, ghosts, the undead, or the paranormal. For some reason, aliens were fine. As result I came late to a lot of the classic movies of my generation’s formative years. I remember other kids asking me to play Beetlejuice or Ghostbusters and having no idea what they were talking about. I didn’t see Beetlejuice until my mid-twenties but I instantly adored it and still do.
Beetlejuice is everything I love in a Halloween movie. Creepy and macabre, but not sinister. It presents a view of the afterlife and the supernatural which is both frightening and irresistible. This is Tim Burton at his best. Beetlejuice is off-beat, funny, sometimes disgusting but sweet and sentimental at its heart. Movies like Beetlejuice let us explore our fascination with the darker side of life and death, giving us thrills and shocks and letting us indulge our morbid sides without guilt or any real danger. Beetlejuice delights in the weird and mildly upsetting, and invites us to delight in it as well (a serious change from the original script which is less blackly whimsical and more cower-in-the-corner-and-hug-your-children).
The character of Betelguese (one of the many astronomy jokes in this movie), a role Michael Keaton was born to play, is a lawless, distasteful pervert, but largely harmless. Sure he’s got power and it would probably be bad to unleash him upon an unwary world, but really how scary can an opponent who is controlled by saying his name three times be, when you get right down to it? At worst, he’s a cautionary example of what happens when the moral try to use the amoral to their advantage. He’s chaotic and repulsive but we never really believe he’ll succeed as more than a troublemaker.
The movie really has more to say about the jaded, rampant consumerism of our culture than it does about the fundamental nature of life and death. Barbara and Adam attempt to scare the Deetzes out of their home during a dinner party via Calypso dance possession in one of the most charmingly bizarre scenes I’ve seen in any movie, period. The Deetzes and friends’ reaction to the revelation of the haunting is not fear, but profit motive. They are too modern and worldly to be frightened of ghosts and instead see only dollar signs and potential for an amusement park-type attraction. Burton’s work, though often dark and twisted on the surface, is at its heart about a sense of wonder in the world and what lies beyond. His deepest levels of disdain are consistently reserved not for those characters who are actively villainous but those who refuse to experience awe or appreciate the unique and unusual.
Beetlejuice could easily have been the kind of movie that was left to molder in the decade it was created, with very dated characterizations as well as the kind upsetting plot point of a sixteen year old being forced into marriage with an undead horndog. But the winning personalities of the Maitlands and Lydia, as well as the sweet relationship between them, more than make up for the cartoonish, two dimensional supporting characters (who, while entertaining, could never carry the movie). The Maitlands embrace their roles as poltergeists with gusto, but never actually want to harm anyone, particularly Lydia who represents the child they never had. Lydia is hilariously goth on the outside and gets some of the best lines, but is really a fiercely loyal and intelligent young girl underneath the black lace and mascara.
The other thing that lets Beetlejuice stand the test of time is the style and effects. The special effects budget was tiny on this film, and Burton made the conscious choice to embrace it and create make-up, monsters, and supernatural scenes in homage to the B-movies of his childhood instead of attempting slick modern effects that the budget couldn’t have pulled of and which would have looked hokey in a few years even if it had. Not that effects don’t look hokey, but they are a particular, intentional kind of hokey that is timeless and, to the initiated, comfortingly familiar. The low-fi effects and make-up also help cut the scenes the could have otherwise been deeply disturbing, keeping the movie in the realm of fun where it otherwise could have devolved in to true horror.
The ending of the movie is deeply satisfying, with Betelgeuse being vanquished by Barbara’s impressive and absurd attack via Saturian sandworm, Lydia becoming a happy surrogate child to the Maitlands who get to redecorate their home and entertain her with their ghost powers, and even Delia learning to live happily with them and using the events of the movie to inspire her sculptures. The Maitland-Deetz residence ultimately becomes the loving but weird home I think many of the movie’s fans wish they’d grown up in, where anything is possible and everyone is allowed to be what they are. Even if what they are is dead.
Bonus Treehouse of Horror Review: Treehouse of Horror IV
This year’s Treehouse of Horror goes more for the direct, one-to-one parody than the past years with sends ups of “The Devil and Daniel Webster“, classic William Shatner infested Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet“, and “Bram Stoker’s Dracula“. The show does put a very definitive twist on each of the homages so they never lapse into tedium. The framing story is a parody of Rod Sterling’s short-lived and nearly forgotten anthology series “Night Gallery“.
The first sketch is by far the strongest, marking the first appearance of Devil Flanders as Homer sells his soul for just one more doughnut and is only saved by Marge proving that she already owns his soul. Homer is so perfectly in character throughout, from being unable to resist finishing his soul-doughnut to continually picking as his own doughnut head. In the second sketch, Bart sees little gremlins damaging the bus on the way to school but no one believes him. This one hews very closely to the original and the gremlins are funny, but has few memorable moments outside of one of them holding Flanders severed head at the end. The final sketch, featuring Mr. Burns as a vampire preying on the Simpsons and the revelation that Marge was the head vampire all along finishes strong, with a completely random but funny hat tip to a Charlie Brown Christmas.
Kang and Kodos Watch: Fielding an attack from one of Bart’s gremlins