“Beetlejuice” (citywide), an uproarious ghost comedy, kills off its likable stars after eight minutes, but that’s just the first of the chances it takes. By the time this irresistible treat is over, it has created some of the funniest moments and most inspired visual humor and design we may expect to experience at the movies all year.
The film is a dazzling display of director Tim Burton’s unique pop culture sensibility. There hasn’t been anything remotely like it since “Ghostbusters” or, closer still, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Talk about economy. Within those first eight minutes we’re completely charmed by Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis), an attractive homespun young couple who live in an exceptionally tall, strikingly plain old white house with a tower overlooking a Norman Rockwell New England village.
Abruptly, Burton and his writers kill off the Maitlands, a move as shocking as it is darkly amusing, since the lethal accident is also a beautifully staged sight gag, which sets the tone for the gleeful Grand Guignol to come.
But that’s not the end of the Maitlands, who materialize in their home, invisible to everyone except each other and to Lydia (Winona Ryder), the teen-age daughter of their home’s new owners, Charles and Delia Deetz (Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O’Hara), relentlessly upscale refugees from Manhattan.
Almost too bright and aware for her own good, Lydia, who has a penchant for dressing in elaborate mourning, possesses the necessary sensitivity to be able to see the Maitlands. They’ve taken refuge in their attic while Delia and her awful decorator Otho (Glenn Shadix) proceed to turn their warm, lovely, antique-filled home into a post-modern parody inside and out, complete with spray-speckled interiors, faux marble paneling and Delia’s monstrous sculptures.
“Beetlejuice” reverses the usual haunted house plot. This time it’s the ghosts who want to get rid of the living. (The Maitlands have been told by their “afterlife caseworker,” Sylvia Sidney, that they will be stuck in their home for the next 125 years.) But the Maitlands find it isn’t as easy to scare people off as it once was. They secure the dubious services of a self-proclaimed “bio-exorcist” (Michael Keaton), whose name just happens to be Betelgeuse but who’s called Beetlejuice. Sex-crazed, wild-haired, his eyes encircled in black, Beetlejuice has a TV commercial that’s like a Cal Worthington spoof and is “dying” to be raised from the dead.
Even more than in his debut film, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” Burton draws upon his background as a Disney animator for the engagingly bizarre look and humor of “Beetlejuice.” (You do wonder why it didn’t end up a Touchstone production.) When the Maitlands take a journey to the Other Side to seek help, they encounter a waiting room filled with other supplicants preserved in the exact state of their moment of death: a sexy show girl, doubtless an ill-fated magician’s assistant, who’s sawed in half; a hunter with a shrunken head; a scuba diver with a leg still down the throat of a shark, and a chain-smoker who apparently had turned himself into a cinder while smoking in bed.
Because of that darkly comic tone set at the beginning, the effect of these characters and others is hilarious rather than morbid or tasteless.
Burton and his colleagues, who include most importantly production designer Bo Welch and composer Danny Elfman, whose score is as witty and robust as Welch’s designs, have no less fun with the pretensions of the Deetzes and their pals.
Exuberant scene-stealer Keaton gets some strong competition this time, especially from Ryder, Sidney (who after 60 years as a stellar dramatic actress proves to be sharp comedian) and, above all, O’Hara, who shows us that Delia is so funny because she is absolutely humorless.
The set piece of the film is Delia’s dinner party, whose guests have all graced the pages of Vanity Fair. Others in the film’s faultless cast include Robert Goulet as a slick promoter, Dick Cavett as Delia’s fed-up agent and Annie McEnroe as a comically pushy real estate agent who’d be a hit in West L.A.
There’s a distinctive feel to “Beetlejuice” (rated PG because its subject of death may be too intense for the very young), a deliberate Brecht-Weill jerkiness that allows satire and just plain silliness to play off each other most successfully. Indeed, the film seems to be crying out to be a musical; one wishes it were. One thing’s for sure: “Topper” was never like this.
A Warner Bros. release of a Geffen Company production. Producers Michael Bender, Larry Wilson, Richard Hashimoto. Director Tim Burton. Screenplay Michael McDowell, Warren Skaaren; based on a story by McDowell and Wilson. Camera Thomas Ackerman. Music Danny Elfman. Production designer Bo Welch. Costumes Aggie Guerard Rodgers. Visual effects supervisor Alan Munro. Visual effects consultant Rick Heinrichs. Creatures and makeup effects Robert Short. Visual effects by VCE Inc./Peter Kuran. Film editor Jane Kurson. With Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton, Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara, Winona Ryder, Sylvia Sidney, Robert Goulet, Glenn Shadix, Dick Cavett, Annie McEnroe.
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
MPAA-rated: PG (parental guidance suggested).