Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice”: A Classic Blend of Dark Humor and Whimsy

Tim Burton's Beetlejuice follows the Maitlands, deceased and trapped in their home, who hire chaotic Betelgeuse to rid intruding Deitzes, blending dark humor and whimsical visuals.

The Geffen Company presents

A Tim Burton Film

Story by Michael McDowell and Larry Wilson

Screenplay by Michael McDowell and Warren Skaaren

Director of Photography: Thomas Ackerman

Production Designer: Bo Welch

Art Director: Tom Duffield

Produced by Michael Bender, Larry Wilson and Richard Hasimoto

Casting by Jan Jenkins and Janet Hirshenson CSA

Music by Danny Elfman

Costume Designer: Affie Guerard Rodgers

Edited by Jane Kurson

Visual Effects Supervisor: Alan Munro

Visual Effects Consultant: Rick Heinrichs

Directed by Tim Burton

NOTE: On the posters and the DVD box the film is called Beetlejuice (one word) but on the credits of the movie itself it’s called Beetle Juice. On the shooting draft of the script (dated 4 August 1986) the title is given as one word. According to many in-camera props (the gravestone et al) Michael Keaton’s character is called Betelgeuse (spelled like the star) even though his name is spelled Beetle Juice on the opening credits. This has understandably caused some confusion in the past. For this chapter we’re going for Beetlejuice for the film’s title, and Betelgeuse for the character’s name. We just thought we’d clear that up.

CAST: Michael Keaton ( Betelgeuse), Alec Baldwin ( Maitland), Geena Davis (Barbara Maitland), Jeffrey Jones ( Deitz), Catherine O’Hara, (Delia Deitz), Winona Ryder (Lydia Deitz), Sylvia Sidney (Juno), Robert Goulet (Maxie Dean), Glenn Shadix (Otho), Dick Cavett (Bernard), Annie McEnroe (Jane Butterfield), Maurice Page (Ernie), Hugo Stanger (Old Bill), Rachel Mittleman (Little Jane), J Jay Saunders (Moving Man #1), Mark Ettlinger (Moving Man #2), Patrice Martinez (Receptionist), Cynthia Daily ( typist), Douglas Turner (Charred Man), Carmen Filip (Messenger), Simmy Bow (Janitor), Susan Kellerman (Grace), Adelle Lutz (Beryl), Gary Jochimsen ( Football Player), Bob Pettersen (Dumb Football Player), Duane Davis (Very Dumb Football Player), Marie Cheatham [Sarah Dean), Tony Cox (Preacher), Jack Angel (Voice of Preacher).

TAGLINE: ‘The name in laughter from the hereafter’ and ‘Guaranteed to put some life in your afterlife’.

TRAILER: A suitable scene-setter of a trailer – evocative of the movie’s tone without blowing its best jokes; unsurprisingly Keaton features prominently. The trailer’s voiceover tells us that the picture is ‘from the director of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’, but doesn’t tell us his name. A clear indication that Pee-wee was a big enough hit for Geffen/Warners to want to cash in on it, but that they were not confident of the brand-recognition factor of its director’s name. Not yet. (Although the film itself does have the credit ‘A Tim Burton Film’ for the first time.)

TITLE SEQUENCE: ‘Day-oh!’ – a faint, echoing variation of Harry Belafonte drifts over the Geffen Pictures logo, and then we’re into the title sequence proper. The camera races above a wood and over a small rural town, taking in the very little that the distinctly genteel environment has to show – we race up a dusty road towards a white house, and as we reach it an apparently huge spider crawls over the top of the building, only to be stopped by two human hands. It becomes clear that the town was a model.

Director Burton and FX guy Alan Munro had initially planned for the sequence to be more spectacular. The original concept was to show the camera progress over an upstate New York town (as happens in the finished film). The hope was that it would be possible to invisibly dissolve from helicopter shots taken on location (which incorporated shots of the frontage for the Maitlands’ house erected on location by Production Designer Bo Welch and his team) to a seventy-eighth scale model of the house. The spell that we were watching an uninterrupted stream of real footage was only to be broken by the introduction of the two out-of-scale elements, the spider and Adam Maitland’s hands. Unfortunately, spiders are not the easiest of beasts to train, Munro complaining that ‘We shot miles of footage – about 70 takes – trying to get the spider to crawl up the miniature house and move towards the actor’s hands.’ A usable take was finally obtained, but the shot of the model itself was deemed unacceptable. It had been filmed with a locked off camera, which rendered the invisible dissolve from the (moving) helicopter footage impossible. The solution was to build a larger model of the town and initiate the dissolve earlier. If the sequence was to be kept in, Munro was presented with several problems. How was he to achieve a long overhead shot of a model town on this incredibly small scale – without the audience realising that they were no longer looking at the real town – and then have the camera naturally come to rest on the house just as the spider crawled over the roof? Munro finally solved his problem. He got crew members Rick Kess, Jim Belohovek and Tom Conti to build a forty-eighth scale section of the town for the overhead part of the move to ensure maximum detail, and then did ‘a short, forced perspective blend from the forty-eighth scale miniature to the eighty-seventh scale house.’ The house of course still had to be forty-eighth scale because of the intervention of real human hands. The new models were then shot with a motion control camera at Peter Kuran’s Visual Concepts Engineering (VCE), based in Sylmar, California, a facility that ‘enabled us to have a camera move end at a point where we could then sit and shoot endless takes of spiders doing whatever they damn well pleased until we got a usable take.’1 After all this effort the sequence was completed, and whilst it goes some way to fulfilling Munro’s intentions the dissolves are both obvious, even if you don’t have an eye for such things. Nice try, though.

SUMMARY: Connecticut couple Adam and Barbara Maitland are killed in a road accident. Returning to their house as ghosts, they become trapped inside it – every time they try to leave they find themselves in a strange Technicolor desert populated by huge carnivorous worms. The Maitlands are informed by their afterlife counsellor, Juno, that they have been sentenced to a further 125 years on Earth as spirits, before they are allowed to pass through to eternity.

More horrifying than this revelation is the discovery that New Yorker Alan Deitz along with his ‘Goth’ daughter Lydia, and his second wife, Delia, have moved into their home. Delia is, with the assistance of her interior decorator Otho, in the process of refitting it to her own specifications.

Adam and Barbara try to scare the newcomers away, but the Manhattanites aren’t frightened. In fact they’re impressed by the fact that they have ghosts in their home, and invite several of their friends to come and develop business opportunities incorporating the late Maitlands.

Driven to distraction by the intruders, and having been given little help by the bureaucratic world of the afterlife, the Maitlands eventually stoop to employing ‘bio-exorcist’ Betelgeuse, who promises to rid them of their unwanted house guests. However, they soon realise they have made a terrible mistake, especially when Betelgeuse attempts to marry the Deitzes’ teenage daughter. Having disposed of Betelgeuse, and some of the Deitzes’ more exploitative friends, the Maitlands agree to see out the remainder of their century-long exile with the Deitzes in the same house, indulging in such wholesome activities as doing DIY and aiding Lydia with her schoolwork.

SOURCE MATERIAL: Unusually for a Tim Burton film, Beetlejuice was an original screenplay, and not based on any previously existing material. The main writer, novelist Michael McDowell, was at the time best known as an author of horror fiction (such as the Blackwater sequence, The Elementals and Cold Moon Over Babylon) but had recently shifted towards more comic material. McDowell always credited Producer Larry Wilson with the very basic idea for the movie, which he worked up into a full screen story and then later scripted.

The screenplay was offered to Burton to direct by Geffen Films, the company headed by mogul David Geffen (now the G in Dreamworks SKG). Burton said, ‘It was totally opposite from everything else I’d read. It had no structure, no plot – it just had a weird quality that I loved.’2

REFERENCES: The film’s plot shares some incidental similarities with Topper (Norman Z McLeod,1937) in which a couple who die in a car accident return to haunt a straight-laced friend, bank manager Mr Topper (Cary Grant).

The opening scene resembles that of The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980). The sequences on the sand planet owe more than a little to the Sea of Time section of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine (George Dunning, 1968). The sandworms were described in the screenplay as ‘out of Dune’, yet have a striped pattern that doesn’t come from either Frank Herbert’s novel or David Lynch’s compromised, yet intriguing, 1985 film adaptation.

The expressionistic corridors of the afterlife again reference M (Fritz Lang, 1930) and look more than a little like the nightmarish hallways of Pee-wee’s dreams in Burton’s first feature and some of the backgrounds in Vincent.

PRODUCTION: Beetlejuice‘s principal studio photography took place between March and early June 1987, primarily at Culver Studios in Culver City – the same lot, incidentally, as that used for Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1937). An additional ten days of location shooting in the town of East Corinth, Vermont, was also completed within this period. East Corinth was chosen even though the script specified Connecticut as the state the Maitlands resided in – Production Designer Bo Welch felt that East Corinth better represented the town of Winter River as described in the script than any of the Connecticut locations he had scouted.

It was, by all accounts, a very happy production for all concerned. Actor Glenn Shadix, who played the eye-rolling Otho, remembers that ‘the set of Beetlejuice – and I think anybody who was on that set would agree with me – was one of the most exciting and fun and hilarious sets that any of us had ever been on. There was a real chemistry between the actors – we all thoroughly enjoyed one another . .. For me it was just like going to the circus, I was just dropped down into an ideal situation, and so I had a lot of fun, as everyone else did too.’

Unusually for a film made in the late 80s, Burton and his crew were required to shoot a great deal more than just the actors during the principal photography stage. It had always been apparent from the script that a large number of special effects would be required of the production. One of Geffen’s then most recent productions was the tonally similar spoof horror musical remake of Little Shop of Horrors (Frank Oz, 1986) which had featured a wide variety of Night Live stars. It had overspent considerably, and the company were keen to avoid a similar situation occurring with Burton’s film. Beetlejuice‘s budget of $13 million was average for a movie at the time, but not for one with such a huge number of special effects. Bearing in mind both the recent overspend and the tight budget, a decision was made to avoid expensive post-production wherever possible, and produce effects live on set.

Storyboards put together by Burton and Special Effects Supervisor Alan Munro reflected this, detailing camera angles that could minimise overbuilding and therefore save money (e.g. the sequence where Betelgeuse demonstrates that he’s scary to the Maitlands by distorting his face is specified as being shot from behind). The first few weeks of production were spent shooting test footage ‘to show everybody that you really could do these shots using all sorts of cheap, stupid, easy methods’.3

Munro formed an immediate bond with the director. ‘Tim and I really hit it off,’ he says, adding that they were ‘of a single mind, always going for the straightforward, quick-and-dirty approach’.4 (‘I like effects that have a little humanity to them,’5 was the director’s comment.)

It sometimes wasn’t easy to convince the more traditionally minded principal photography crew that it was for the best to do so many of the movie’s effects during production, rather than in post-production.

Munro recalled that ‘The crew on principle photography was very uncomfortable a lot of times with our approach to certain shots and with what we’d show up with on the set. There weren’t a lot of believers when we were actually working on the film. The big advantage was that most of us came from that same school of low-low-budget filmmaking, so everybody had a lot of experience throwing stuff together on the fly.’ Burton, too, had had some experience creating low-budget effects whilst making Hansel and Gretel for Disney, as well as his intervening projects – especially Frankenweenie (with its $1 million budget) and Aladdin (with its ultra-short shooting time). ‘There are a lot of shots where the backgrounds are fiddled together with little shapes, little pieces of paper, a little spray-paint, a little cardboard, and a little glue,’ explained Munro. ‘We’d just stick it up and go with it. None of us had any fear, but occasionally people on the production would come over to where we were shooting and give us that “you-gotta-be-kidding” look when they’d see how unbelievably wanky some of this stuff looked on the set.’6 Visual Effects Consultant Rick Heinrichs, a veteran of all Burton’s previous productions, felt the same: ‘It was hair-raising, exhausting and frustrating. I remember the assistant cameraman telling me it was a gag-a-day script. There was loads of effects stuff and it worked fine. However, sometimes production seemed to screech to a halt and hold its breath because of an uncooperative cable mechanism or motor.’

Peter Kuran of VCE, who had been initially drafted in to assist with the opening fly-by sequence, understood the difficulties the production faced: ‘They needed somebody like me, who’s willing to figure out the most effective and least expensive way to do something to keep the price down … The movie could easily have turned into a $40 million picture. They needed people like us to do the work and not charge an arm and a leg.’7 Munro was impressed that ‘Some of the techniques we’ve used in the film have been used in motion pictures since the earliest days of moviemaking. For instance, there are a couple of scenes we shot using old-style mirror effects, rather than the more readily accepted and standard Blue Screen.’8

The makeup team were given three weeks preparation time for Michael Keaton’s elaborate Betelgeuse visage. Makeup artist Ve Neill claims credit for his look: ‘I came up with the idea of the moss and mould growing on his face and hands. We also did acrylic nails to make him look really nasty.’ Keaton had no problems with performing under such heavy makeup: ‘In fact, he actually loved it because he had never really done anything where he didn’t look like himself, so he was really excited about doing it.’9 On set, Glenn Shadix found that the opportunity of working under such heavy makeup ‘just gave [Keaton] licence to go anywhere. It was just so wonderfully perverse that it freed him to do things that Michael would not normally have been able to do as easily.’

One of many alterations made to the script during production concerned the landscape the Maitlands encountered each time they tried to leave their home. Originally Adam and Barbara encountered a different surreal environment every time they attempted to leave the house, until Burton objected, citing audience incomprehension: ‘I dislike the tendency of fantasy films to have so many story points that you can’t remember them all. I think we would have totally lost people if Adam and Barbara had been in a different place every time they walked out of the house. It would have been too much of a distraction.’10

Having decided that the single background to face Adam and Barbara as they emerged from the house would be the sand planet, director and team then had to achieve it. All the sand planet sequences were achieved without opticals, crewmember Steve Burg constructing a forced perspective set with a 40-foot blue skyscape and painted planets. At the front the set was fifteen feet wide, at the back twenty-two feet across, and it was twelve feet deep. Munro explained the technique: ‘all we did was build rocks in seven scales ranging from eight feet tall down to about an inch and a half and arrange them in diminishing perspective.’11 The set incorporated eight tonnes of yellow aquarium sand. The garish, almost psychedelic colour scheme was something insisted on by Burton. ‘It was like Walt Disney had thrown up on you,’12 is Munro’s fairly accurate description.

Burton also produced initial designs for the sand worm (described by Rick Heinrichs as a ‘scary shark with no eyes’13). Heinrichs built a maquette based on Burton’s design. Shots of the worm diving through the sand were achieved through live action. The model was six feet long with rods underneath, allowing it to be puppeteered from beneath the dunes. Also produced was a large-scale, five feet long, fully mechanised head, for close-ups. Controlled by cables, it had the ability to pull out of its outer shell, snap its jaws and roll its eyes. However, it was not quite up to the job, and some shots in the finished film were achieved by assistant Doug Beswick, who stop-motion animated a smaller puppet. (Interestingly, one effect that most viewers have identified as being stop-motion – the fly in the graveyard consumed by Keaton – was in fact a fibreglass rod and cable puppet shot at four frames per second to give it fast, jerky movement reminiscent of stop motion.)

The Betelgeuse snake was also initially planned as a live effect. Short had built a full size prop to a design by Heinrichs even before Keaton was cast. It was, according to Heinrichs, ‘more reptilian, more snake-like, but still cartoony, with a big grin on its face and great big, dilating eyes. Its mouth opened and closed and its fangs snapped out like switchblades. It was one bad mother.’14 There were unexpected problems when the creature got on set, however, and it was dropped after two days’ shooting. Burton again opted for stop-motion, plus a redesign to make the creature look more like Michael Keaton.

The sequence in which Adam and Barbara stretch their faces was storyboarded by Rick Heinrichs, who did a rough 2-D pencil sketch, detailing the exact number of frames to be used in each sequence. The animation process took twenty weeks.

Rick Heinrichs remains quick to credit Burton with establishing the film’s distinctive visual feel, of turning someone else’s material into something so distinctly him: ‘Tim was the style setter. He’s the one who found his material in the script in the first place and it conjured up a lot of stuff for him.’11 Short agrees, ‘The movie really owes a great debt to Tim Burton for being the one who had the overall vision … to say, “Well, I have the vision of this film and now it’s up to you guys. Break the rules and make a film that nobody’s ever seen before”.’16

For his part, Burton was complimentary about the screenplay, and how easily it had become the kind of film he wanted to make. ‘I felt very in sync with this material. It had the kind of abstract and unusual imagery that I like to develop on my own. All of its strange images and characters and the way they float in and out of the story really clicked with me. I felt comfortable with them.’1

In the end the film’s total of nearly 300 effects was completed – with nearly every technique imaginable used except front-projection – and all for $1 million.

CASTING: Given that this was such an unusual project, with a relatively unknown director, the casting process was unsurprisingly difficult. According to Jeffrey Jones, initially he ‘turned it down … I don’t think Tim hired anybody who didn’t turn him down first.’18

Burton wanted to cast Sammy Davis Jr as Betelgeuse. After some studio resistance to utilising the undoubted talents of the then 62-year-old former Rat Packer, David Geffen recommended Michael Keaton. Although Burton had never seen Keaton in anything, after meeting him he realised that Keaton was perfect for the role.

Anjelica Huston was initially cast as Delia, but had to pull out due to illness. As a replacement Burton cast SCTV comedy troupe regular Catherine O’Hara (dubbed ‘the funniest woman in television’). Burton said of O’Hara, ‘Catherine’s so good, maybe too good. She works on levels that people don’t even know. I think she scares people because she operates at such high levels.’19

Glenn Shadix was the first of the cast to be selected, although as a relative newcomer to film work he was the last to receive his official contract. He was asked to play Otho after Burton saw him — on the recommendation of screenwriter Michael McDowell, a friend of the actor — in the play Dr Faustus Lights the Lights at the LA Ensemble Studio Theatre. Shadix was playing Gertrude Stein. (‘You’re going to corner the market in ageing expatriate lesbian writers but I’m trying to sell you as a character man!’ Shadix recalls his agent saying when he accepted the role.)

BURTON REGULARS: Beetlejuice began a number of ongoing relationships for its director: Michael Keaton, of course, worked with Burton twice more as Bruce Wayne/Batman. He left the series when Burton did. Winona Ryder would play the rather less ‘strange and unusual’ Kim in Edward Scissorhands. The next year she would star in Ed Wood Executive Producer Michael Lehmann’s Heathers, which was written by Batman Returns scribe Daniel Waters, and also featured Beetlejuice actor Glenn Shadix. Shadix voiced the Mayor in The Nightmare Before Christmas, as well as Sgt Glen Dale and others in Stainboy before appearing (almost unrecognisable) as Senator Nado in Planet of the Apes. Catherine O’Hara voiced both Sally and Shock in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Jeffrey Jones came back as Criswell in Ed Wood and as the Reverend Steenwyck in Sleepy Hollow. Sylvia Sidney rejoined Burton for Mars Attacks!, her last film, playing Grandma Florence Norris.

Production Designer Bo Welch, with his Art Director Tom Duffield, also designed Edward Scissorhands and Batman ; Duffield also acted as Production Designer on Ed Wood. Makeup Department Head Ve Neil, who had previously worked alongside Welch and Duffield on The Lost Boys (Joel Schumacher, 1987) also did makeup duties on Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Ed Wood and Mars Attacks! Co-Screenwriter Warren Skaaren, who had contributed to Beverley Hills Cop II (Tony Scott, 1987) and who had been a producer on Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986), would also co-write Burton’s Batman before succumbing to cancer in December 1989. Producer Richard Hashimoto co-produced Edward Scissorhands, as well as acting as Unit Production Manager on Cameron Crowe’s Singles (1992), in which Burton has a cameo role.

CRITICS: The reviews of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, both positive and negative, had largely ignored the director’s contribution, with writer/star Paul Reubens being identified as the main creative force behind the film. With Beetlejuice however, Burton’s name and approach finally became noticed by the critics, with some seeking to compensate for what they saw as their earlier error. ‘It becomes apparent that much of what was admirable in [Pee-wee] was down to the director rather than the star,’ wrote British critic Kim Newman, himself a novelist in something close to the McDowell mode. ‘The director doesn’t yet have the discipline to structure a movie as more than a series of individual skits .. . And yet, the film keeps pulling itself together.’ Newman concluded that ‘ confirms Burton’s promise as a combination Frank Tashlin and David Lynch, and establishes McDowell as a screenwriter to watch.’20

Most critics mentioned ‘talented young director Tim Burton’21 in their reactions, with some reviewers both going out of their way to praise the picture, and seeing the director as the main man behind it all: ‘some of the funniest moments and most inspired visual humour and design we may expect to experience at the movies all year … a dazzling display of director Tim Burton’s unique pop culture sensibility .. . There’s a distinctive feel to Beetlejuice … a deliberate Brecht-Weill jerkiness that allows satire and just plain silliness to play off each other most successfully.’22 Another review which laid all their praise for the picture at the director’s feet appeared in the Washington Post: ‘Tim Burton … is the mind behind this stylish screwball blend of Capraesque fantasy, Marx Brothers anarchy and horror parody. And Michael Keaton is the juice that makes it go.’23

Others damned with the kind of faint praise which indicates that, whilst they can find nothing in particular to dislike about the film, they can find little to actually like about it either: ‘technically sophisticated and so amiable and well meaning that it seems rude to point out that, like some of our public figures, it is more of a bore to watch than to describe.’24 Some saw little of interest in the picture at all, arguing that Burton ‘shows a keen grasp of preadolescent tastes in special effects (the weirder the better), pacing (illogical but busy) and comic constructs (only something incongruous … is funnier than something rude).’ The same critic also felt that ‘there really isn’t much plot here, only a parade of arbitrary visual tricks to hold the film together . .. [Burton] only occasionally manages something marginally funny … His actors, not surprisingly, are limited by the stupidity of their material.’25

In the final analysis, Beetlejuice got more good reviews than bad, and did such business that Burton’s future as a director of distinctive, A-list pictures was assured. ‘The thing that Beetlejuice did for me was, it made me feel really great about audiences,’ said Burton later. ‘I felt great that people could get into seeing something that random. Anything that fucks up the system and doesn’t prove itself part of their plan, I think is positive.’26

MUSIC: Danny Elfman’s occasionally riotous score bears more resemblance to Pee-wee than it does to his more ‘signature’ work like the later Batman theme. Although, at moments of tension, there are rumbles of the strong chords of his next Burton project, more frequently Elfman’s pacing is fast and frantic, with rumbling cymbals and parping brass, sometimes slipping into gentler variations or the occasional Bernard Herrmann-style stabbing of violins, all the while maintaining a slightly sinister air. In amongst this, Harry Belafonte is jarringly different, yet remains largely unnoticeable while the Maitlands are alive, ensuring that its later introduction at the dinner party is even more unexpected and amusing.

CINEMATOGRAPHY: Much as with Pee-Wee, the cinematography here is, for the most part, functional, adding to the air of normality of the Maitlands’ lives to begin with, and managing to remain unobtrusive once the effects kick in. In fact, due to the large number of effects shots in the film, Director of Photography Thomas Ackerman was rather constrained by the necessity of framing many shots so that they would disguise the mechanics of the visual tricks. As such, his work here seems somewhat less adventurous than that he did for Burton on Frartkenweenie a few years earlier.

Having said that, the afterlife sequences are frequently shot at slightly skewed angles, with unusual lighting schemes of harsh primary colours, casting strong shadows that successfully add to the general sense of weirdness. This use of jutting shadows also begins to cross over into the real world as the film progresses. Added to Otho’s redesign of the house, this successfully increases the hideous similarity between life and death (hence the Maitlands’ inability to recognise their own home for a moment on first meeting Juno). However, this appears to have been more down to the designs of Burton and Welch than to Ackerman, Tom Duffield explaining that part of the thinking behind the film was that ‘at the beginning it was two different worlds .. . they sort of became one … it got more ethereal as it went on.’

PLOT PROBLEMS: At several points in the film it is confirmed that when you die, you enter the afterlife looking as you did on your death (hence all the grotesques in the waiting room). If the Maitlands died when their car plunged off the bridge, presumably they drowned. So, how come their corpses aren’t bloated?

Betelgeuse at one point states that he is already dead, and yet after he is eaten by the sandworm he goes to the waiting room for the dead. Does this mean he’s now twice dead? Surely as somebody already deceased he’s been processed once before? As it has been established that ‘death for the dead’ has an entirely different effect, what precisely is going on here?

The Maitlands never find out how to pronounce ‘Betelgeuse’ yet still manage to call him up.

After being asked by Juno how they’re going to scare the Deitzes, the Maitlands contort their faces and Juno seems to approve of the tactic, yet it has already been made clear (and is later confirmed) that the Deitzes can’t actually see them … so how is this scaring thing going to work, exactly?

DEATH: Death, in Beetlejuice, is a huge inconvenience – something that gets in the way of whatever you’re planning. Although your personality, and indeed your appearance (see PLOT PROBLEMS) survive the final curtain unchanged, your problems don’t go away. Death is not so much a release, or an ending, as a changing of state from one irritatingly petty level of existence to another. ‘When Adam and Barbara die things only change marginally for them,’ says Burton. ‘After death, they simply have to deal with a more extreme version of what they would encounter in . . . life.’27

CHILDREN AND FAMILIES: Lydia, the only character under 30 in the film, is the beginning of an ongoing Burton archetype, the ‘Goth’ girl. Although consistently portrayed as less irritating than the adults on show (including the absurdly twee Adam and Barbara Maitland) she is rather self-indulgent, as adolescents are wont to be, and her decision to throw herself out of the window to join the Maitlands in death is rather strange. She also seems to believe that by wearing black and sighing a lot she’s rebelling against her father and stepmother, when surely the most accurate and complete way to rebel against the ridiculously baroque Delia is to be as strait-laced as possible?

By the end of the picture Lydia has abandoned her pretensions, started wearing her school uniform and worrying about her grades. In many ways she has become a picture of teenage conformity – it probably annoys the hell out of her stepmother.

CLOWNS AND THE CIRCUS: Betelgeuse’s fairground costume, prefiguring one of the Joker’s less traditional suits. This outfit was originally going to be an octopus-like carnival-ride, with seats mounted on the end of each tentacle. However, after Burton viewed Bandits (Terry Gilliam, 1985), where David Warner’s ‘Evil’ spins a bunch of cowboys around on ropes, it was decided that the effect would be too similar.

In addition to this, Charles Deitz makes a brief reference to a popular ‘talking Marcel Marceau statue’. Marceau, of course, is one of the best-known mime artists of all time, and mimes are a type of (mute) clown.

DOGS: The dog who causes the Maitlands’ fatal crash is really the only example. Furthermore, it actually features a lot less in the finished film than it did in the screenplay, where it was to be seen wandering around the town more extensively before causing the crash, and walking off with Juno at the very end.

CHECKS, STRIPES, DOTS: In approximate order, there’s Adam’s shirt (which Betelgeuse later imitates), a cushion on a chair by the front door before the house is redecorated, the sandworms (including their tongues), Delia’s dress at the first Deitz family meal, black and white stripes on the house itself after its redesign by Otho, the chequered floor of the waiting-room and corridor in the afterlife, Betelgeuse’s suit (on the poster/cover and when Lydia calls him to save the Maitlands), one of the little beasties dangling from Betelgeuse’s rotating hat, and the snakes given to Charles as ‘dowry’.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY?: Some critics have suggested that Lydia is the Burton figure here, with Ken Hanke asserting that, ‘There can be no doubt that she is Burton’s on-screen self – she dresses all in black . .. and her black hair is pulled upward in a version of Burton’s own unruly mop.’ However, she is a decidedly reactive figure, and clearly based on the stereotypical death-obsessed teenagers that can be seen hanging around, dressed in black, in almost any small town. (Furthermore, Burton’s hairstyle at the time of Beetlejuice’s filming was not the ‘unruly mop’ that he later adopted, but a much neater cut). Hanke also mentions her photographic hobby, likening it to Burton’s adolescent interests, and goes as far as to claim that she is ‘more a portrait of Burton than any offered so far’28 onscreen – apparently even more so than Vincent Molloy. However, unlike Vincent, Lydia is ultimately persuaded to come out of her interiorised world and act more like a regular child by the exceptionally ‘normal’ (if dead) Maitlands, and it is clear that the audience is supposed to feel pleased that she does so. Added to this is Hanke’s assumption that Lydia’s aversion to hearing her parents having sex relates to Burton’s own discomfort with the subject – it apparently has little to do with the fact that, as she puts it, ‘I’m a child!’, or that the scene was included in McDowell’s original screenplay, as were all her other character traits.

JUST PLAIN WEIRD: Perhaps the film’s most striking concept, both personally and visually, is the waiting room – a place where the recently deceased sit and await smug counter service from the bureaucratic dead – filled with the grotesque, ghostly forms of people calmly sitting around in the physical state in which they died. In designing both the waiting room and the other areas of the world of the dead, Bo Welch set out to create ‘something vague and evasive enough to defy categorising and invite disorientation, yet specific enough to invoke the fear that the afterlife might not be much different than real life.’29 The afterlife is a Brazil-style (Terry Gilliam, 1985) bureaucratic nightmare, based (according to Tom Duffield) on the Johnson’s Wax building, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright as the ultimate office space. ‘We took that and gave it a really hard, hard take,’ Duffield explained. ‘Those little columns that are like tornados were basically a variation on a theme of Frank Lloyd Wright – he has these columns that go straight up and then they umbrella at the top. And also because the afterlife may not be on the same plane as the human one we gave it an angled floor. We just took the Frank Lloyd Wright thing and just gave it the Tim Burton punch to it, and made it weird, with mountains of paper – the vast number of people going through the afterlife, the total chaos.’

The ‘waiting room’ was one area that the script did little to specify. Burton did sketches of the woman who had been sawn-in-half, and the cigarette-smoking burns victim, which set the tone for the piece. The director had a brainstorming session with Munro and Heinrichs in order to decide what else would be trapped in the room, awaiting service. Munro and Heinrichs had the idea of a phone booth stuffed full of college students with their faces, feet and hands squashed against the glass and the muffled sound of the phone ringing. Other unused ideas from this session included a scientist holding two vials of liquid who had had his head blown clean off, an actor in a Godzilla suit with a miniature plane stuck through his head. Munro lamented their absence: ‘There were tons of others … A lot of it just got dumped by the wayside for a pared-down, spare version. It’s ironic, too, because a lot of people have singled it out as one of the highlights of the film.’30

The dinner party scene, with its shrimp-shaped fists and floating ventriloquist karaoke, is probably the strangest thing in the picture. Glenn Shadix recalls the genesis of this celebrated sequence: ‘With the dinner party scene we were all given an hour after lunch for several days to work with the choreographer, and we gathered up a lot of our own props, and just began to play. Originally we were going to dance to an old Ink Spots song but Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones suggested something calypso might be more fun. We had a little cassette of “Day-O” [“The Banana Boat Song”], the Harry Belafonte song, and we just laughed ourselves silly after lunch for a few days, and then showed it to Tim, and he and his producer were quick to agree. Our shrimp dinners were really just hand puppets controlled by a group of puppeteers who were all under the dinner table – they worked them through holes in the table’s surface. It was a bit crowded under there and we all got very familiar with the people pretending to be our dinners.’

Let’s face it, everything about the film is pretty strange: the colours, the design, some of the performances. The great thing about Beetlejuice is that the whole film is utterly unlike anything that mainstream Hollywood was producing at the time, as if from some parallel movie-making universe.


Lydia: ‘I myself am strange and unusual.’

Barbara: ‘You look like a regular girl to me.’

Delia: ‘They’re dead – it’s a little late to be neurotic.’

Otho: ‘Don’t worry about her. She’s still upset because somebody dropped a house on her sister.’ (This line was suggested by Shadix, who felt his character should respond to being insulted.)

AFTERLIFE: The film, as originally shot, was to end with Betelgeuse, who had become trapped in the Maitlands’ house after being eaten by the sand worm, trying to escape from the sand planet and failing. But Burton was never happy with this as a conclusion for either the picture or the character: ‘I wasn’t sure until the end of the project how we were going to end the film. I had felt that the original ending was not very strong.’31 When preview screenings suggested that audiences reacted very positively to Keaton’s performance, money and time were made available to shoot extra scenes with the character (Keaton had worked for just two weeks of the movie’s original shoot). Burton took the opportunity offered by this to alter the ending, as well as add the character’s first scene where he’s reading the paper looking for work. In addition to the ‘shrunken head’ ending used on the released film, another alternative version was shot. This featured Betelgeuse being incessantly talked to by Old Bill until his head leapt two feet above his body, screaming as his hair flailed around. Both versions were tested out on preview audiences, with the shrunken head finale being judged to be the more effective.

The previews also offered some less welcome opportunities to change the film, or more precisely, to change its title. As Burton remembers it the studio held a meeting to tell him, ‘ “See, Beetlejuice doesn’t test, but House Ghosts here is going through the roof.” I remember going, “House Ghosts?” Then I said, as a joke, “Why don’t we call it Scared Sheetless?” And they considered it, until I threatened to jump out of a window.’32

The picture was well marketed by Warners, earning over $33 million in the US and Canada alone. The grosses from Beetlejuice finally gave Warner Bros the confidence they needed to give the go ahead to the (potentially extraordinarily expensive) Batman, which, by 1988, had been in development for nearly a decade.

The waiting room character with the shrunken head became so popular he began making guest appearances on Entertainment Tonight, amongst other TV shows. Operated by puppeteer Mark Wilson, the Warners Publicity Department dubbed him ‘Harry the Haunted Hunter’.

Beetlejuice’s Rockin’ Graveyard Revue, a combination of live stage show and theme park attraction was, for several years, a popular part of the tour at Universal Studios, Hollywood. The Hollywood Revue has now closed, although the equivalent show at Universal Studios, Florida, is still going strong. Universal Studios, Japan has the similar Beetlejuice’s Rockin’ Midnight Monsterfest.

AWARDS: The first Oscars for a Burton film were justifiably given out to makeup artists Ve Neill, Steve LaPorte and Bob Short. The visual effects work was down to the last four films to be considered for Oscar nomination, but didn’t make it to the final three nominees.

TRIVIA: Well, not trivial for those involved. Having been introduced by Glenn Shadix on the set, Catherine O’Hara and Production Designer Bo Welch eventually married. They are still happily together, and have two children.

Geffen Pictures, as a fairly small production company, did not have the resources to handle the distribution of their own pictures. Instead they had arranged a long-term deal with Warner Brothers that gave Warners distribution rights to the film both theatrically and on video, whilst Geffen retained ownership of the film. This is why the DVD and Video releases are on Warners’ own label. Ownership of Geffen passed to Universal some years ago, hence the attractions being at Universal’s theme parks.

In the background when Juno is berating the Maitlands after Betelgeuse first attacks the Deitzes, there is a pair of skeletons, one red, one green – like those left behind by the Martian rayguns in Attacks! Also, the skull on top of Betelgeuse’s hat as he rises out of the model looks very much like Jack Skellington’s. Betelgeuse also has bat wings for ears, and his merry-go-round hat is much like one of the Penguin’s umbrellas in Batman Returns. The skull and bat wings at least may have been deliberate, as the idea of The Nightmare Before Christmas had first come about in the late 70s, and as Burton had begun developing Batman for Warners even before making Beetlejuice.

EXPERT WITNESS: Glenn Shadix: ‘there was very much a spirit of openness, and the welcoming of improvisation when we wanted to try to experiment a little bit. And Tim’s always open to what he likes to call the “happy accident” – you know in other words you don’t want to be too rigid. He has an instinctive respect and feel for actors, and was amazingly easy going and calm. He doesn’t make your choices for you; I mean some directors will tell you almost too specifically what they want. He knew what he wanted and brought everyone else into line with his vision. I never saw him lose his temper. Not ever. Though he was certainly frustrated at times. He always managed to work his way through any delays and accomplish his goal somehow. He would be set on getting the precise effect he wanted, and was not inclined to settle for anything less than magic. I was really impressed . .. What he does, and still does, is try and make you as comfortable as possible, give you some parameters, but then let you go at it, and then he shapes, through rehearsal, and with his cinematographer, they choose what they really like about a performance, and then when we set it, of course, it’s Tim’s ball-game what he shoots.’

Alan Munro: ‘Tim was a perfectionist in every way and he definitely had a strong sense of how he wanted things to look and move. It always helps to have that sense of collaboration on a film. Some of the best ideas came from people who had what you would otherwise consider small, peripheral involvement. That air of “Everybody’s suggestion is welcome” was always there. It was really amazing.’

ANALYSIS: Beetlejuice is a scattershot comedy of manners, continually riffing on the subject of death in any way it can come up with. It mocks everyone and everything in it and whilst no one is evil (not even Betelgeuse) there aren’t any genuinely sympathetic characters either. The Maitlands are twee, the Deitzes are ghastly, and Lydia is just a pompous adolescent obsessed with her own ‘depth’. Like Frankenweenie, and unlike Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice seems to believe in compromise as a solution to people’s problems. The Deitzes are made to come round to something closer to the Maitlands’ way of thinking, Lydia becomes more ‘normal’ but without having to give up her individuality, and the Maitlands get to make their afterlives as much like their earthly existence as possible. Everything works out in the end.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Episodic, but both effortlessly funny and continually visually inventive, Beetlejuice is like an absurdist sketch show that only pretends to have an ongoing plot. Michael Keaton’s performance is brilliant, but Jeffrey Jones’ deadpan Charles Deitz and Glenn Shadix’s eyebrow-raising polymath Otho give him a run for his money. We’re not sure if Beetlejuice was ever meant to have any genuine frights in it, but frankly the scariest thing in the entire movie is Geena Davis’ hair.

* * *


1. Munro quoted in Jody Duncan Shannon ‘Beetlejuice’ Cinefex n.34 (May 1988).

2. Burton quoted in Frank Rose, ‘Tim Cuts Up’ in Premier, vol.4, n.5 (January 1991).

3. Munro quoted in Taylor L White, ‘The making of Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice & his other bizarre gems’ in Cinefantastique, vol.20, n.1/2 (November 1989).

4. Munro quoted in Jody Duncan Shannon, ‘Beetlejuice’ in Cinefex, n.34 (May 1988).

5. Burton quoted in ibid.

6. Munro quoted in Taylor L White, op cit.

7. Kuran quoted in Dennis Fischer, ‘Special Visual Effects’ in Cinefantastique, vol.20, n.1/2 (November 1989).

8. Munro quoted in ibid.

9. Neil quoted in Taylor L White, op cit.

10. Burton quoted in Jody Duncan Shannon, ‘Beetlejuice’ in Cinefex, n.34 (May 1988).

11. Munro quoted in ibid.

12. Munro quoted in Taylor L White, op cit.

13. Heinrichs quoted in Taylor L White, op cit.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Short quoted in ibid.

17. Burton quoted in Jody Duncan Shannon, op cit.

18. Jones on the A&E Tim Burton: Trick or Treat documentary, 31 July 2001.

19. Burton quoted in Patrick Goldstein, ‘Comic O’Hara Gets “Beetlejuice” Going’ in the Los Angeles Times, 18 April 1988.

20. Kim Newman, ‘Beetle Juice’ in Monthly Film Bulletin, vol.55, n.655 (August 1988).

21. Patrick Goldstein, op cit.

22. Kevin Thomas, ‘Gleeful Grand Guignol of “Beetlejuice” ’ in the Los Angeles Times, 30 March 1988.

23. Rita Kempley, ‘Great Goblins! It’s “Beetlejuice”!’ in the Washington Post, 30 March 1988.

24. Vincent Canby, ‘ “Beetlejuice” Is Pap For Eyes’ in the New York Times, 8 May 1988.

25. Janet Maslin, ‘Ghosts and Extra Eyeballs’ in the New York Times, 30 March 1988.

26. Burton quoted in Frank Rose, op cit.

27. Burton quoted in the Beetlejuice production notes.

28. Ken Hanke, Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker (Renaissance Books; Los Angeles, 1999) p.72.

29. Welch quoted in the Beetlejuice production Notes

30. Munro quoted in Taylor L White, op cit.

31. Burton quoted in Jody Duncan Shannon, op cit.

32. Burton quoted in Frank Rose, op cit.

33. Munro quoted in Taylor L White, op cit.

Jim Smith and J Clive Matthews, Tim Burton, Virgin Books, 2002


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