Tim Burton’s imagination jumped into the saddle and held onto the bridle with Beetlejuice, and no other movie in his entire filmography stands as successfully on the precipice of mundane surrealism and candy-coated gothic whimsy. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure may have a more believable devotion to infantile overtures and Ed Wood may be a more respectable ode to the spirit of the eternal outcast, but Beetlejuice is a universe unto itself. Sure, you could say, so are most of Burton’s fusspot fantasies. But Beetlejuice’s strength is that Burton’s navel-gazing artistic sensibilities were still emerging at the time, and thus appeared to be commingling with some semblance of reality rather than trying, as he has been predominately doing since Mars Attacks, to shelter himself away from it. Maybe some credit needs to go toward Michael McDowall’s steady-building scenario, which establishes humdrum existence before gradually peeling away layers of reality one after the other until we end up in a shape-shifting house and the unholy marriage between life and death happening therein.
The movie begins in a small New England town where Barbara and Adam (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin), a childless-but-trying young couple, celebrate their vacation at home by giving each other wallpaper and adhesive as gifts. Nope, no misfits here. Not, at least, until they plunge off a covered bridge, return home soaking wet and slowly come to the realization that there’s a sinister and very final reason why they can’t see their reflections in the mirror. Oddly, they don’t seem too terribly burdened with the idea of spending eternity trapped in their idyllic countryside mansion until the arrival of the next inhabitants, a yuppie/artsy New York City family with their sights set on turning the entire town into a gentrified countryside summer getaway for their scummy city friends.
McDowall deftly keeps one foot in the here and the other in the hereafter, which allows Burton a unique opportunity to juggle two sets of funhouse effects. It’s difficult to tell which world—Barbara and Adam’s afterlife, the Dietz family’s urban buffoonery—is more touched in the head. And this is all established before Michael Keaton’s unhinged, undead id shows up, spinning his head, chewing on dogs and honking his crotch as the film’s title character, a bio-exorcist who suckers a desperate Barbara and Adam into hiring him to clean house (think of it as a reverse Poltergeist).
Keaton isn’t alone in chewing the photogenic scenery. Burton and McDowall’s alternately domestic and bizarro depiction of life after death matches the more overt hideousness of the couple’s face-pulling, decapitating attempts at scaring their new housemates with the subtle horror of negotiating health care plans in the afterworld. But the entire high-concept comedy wouldn’t float if it weren’t for the eye-popping efforts of stalwart character actors like Sylvia Sidney, who exhales cigarette smoke out the suicidal slit in her throat; Robert Goulet, whose reliable slithering makes for a handy third-act shortcut; and especially Catherine O’Hara, an electric bundle of neuroses who, early on, comes up with Beetlejuice’s own best auto-critique: “I will go insane and take you with me!”