The rap against most Hollywood comedies of recent vintage is that they’re visually dull. Their direction consists mostly of assembling a group of funny people and then merely pointing the camera at them until they’ve done their stuff. Regardless of how much truth there is to this blanket accusation, there’s always a special thrill about films that find laughs through composition, camera movement, editing, and special effects. Such a comedy is Beetlejuice, Tim Burton’s second feature film, from a time when his talents were still fresh. While the adept cast led by Michael Keaton had a huge impact on the success of Beetlej**** (hereafter), the importance of the sets, costumes, and Academy Award-winning makeup is hard to miss. The very plot revolves around interior design, after all. By taking the basic elements of supernatural horror and putting a funny twist on them — as distinct from spoofing them — Beetlej**** holds up as one of the most visually satisfying comedies of its decade.
The ingenuity begins with the opening credits. An apparent helicopter shot takes the camera over a forest to catch a bird’s-eye view of the Connecticut town where the film is set. Dissolves link a series of shots of the town’s streets, leading up to a house on a hill that, immediately after Burton’s credit graces the screen, proves to be a miniature model. The execution of these shots is so good, aided by the distracting effect of the credits, that I’m not entirely sure where the real buildings end and the models begin. In any case, the payoff to the sequence sets the mood perfectly, relying on arachnid comedic timing to transition from scene-setting to character development.
When the lives of Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) are cut short in unlikely fashion, they’ve hardly begun to understand the rules of the afterlife before a crisis emerges. Their lovingly outfitted country home is invaded by a family of New Yorkers with designs on remodeling. The house’s imposing Edward Hopper facade is obscured by bizarre geometric expansions. The inside, meanwhile, is gutted and thoroughly reimagined, now representing an obnoxious mishmash of contemporary styles that led the New York Times to share the pun “post-mortemism.” In its exploitation of cultural resentments to spur the plot, Beetlej**** takes an easy laugh and runs with it. But the commitment is what’s so impressive. Sure, there’s the old joke about abstract art (a sculpture, in this case) and how difficult it is to determine which side “should” be facing up. There’s also a patiently deployed jump scare gag involving another sculpture, a crane, and a kitchen window. Whatever opinions Burton has expressed about the post-mortemist interiors, his enthusiasm for filming them, along with all the other strange sights in this movie, is always evident.
Generally confined to the house they’re now haunting, Adam and Barbara also find their way to the land of the dead, envisioned here as a cross between a doctor’s office and the DMV, a merciless and pointedly unhelpful bureaucracy. The apparitions in the waiting room all bear the marks of what killed them, ostensibly forever (Adam and Barbara are lucky, in this sense, to have drowned). These sight gags range from the obvious (a flattened man with tire treads running up his body) to the subtle (Sylvia Sidney’s caseworker character, with a red slit along her throat that I’d never noticed until this viewing). The Maitlands walk down a dark corridor of surreal, Caligari dimensions until they finally learn what they should have always known: that scaring the interlopers away is entirely within their power. All they need to do is find the right technique.
The problem is that the new family doesn’t scare easily. The adults (Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones) are modern and jaded. Even when they’re ready to acknowledge the presence of ghosts, they’re excited, not scared, at the prospect of spooky entertainment. The daughter (Winona Ryder), on the other hand, is a dramatically melancholy outsider. She sympathizes with the Maitlands immediately, but there’s not much she can do to help. And so the temptation of a quick fix is introduced. Here, at last, we meet Keaton’s Beetlej****, taking up residence in the model town until someone chooses to release him for untold mischief via the threefold incantation of his name. Adam and Barbara meet with the sleazy “bio-exorcist” to find out how scary he can be. He obliges, and the way in which this moment is filmed is a canny inversion of the “Large Marge” scene in Burton’s first film, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. The camera is behind Beetlej****, so we mostly just see the back of his head as what appear to be slimy tendrils protrude from…somewhere. The appearance of his face at this moment is left to our imaginations. This is just old-fashioned horror showmanship, the suggestion of horror being regarded as more powerful than any terrible sight.
Everything snowballs as the film accelerates toward its conclusion: seances, coercive weddings, giant sandworms, you name it. Creepy cartoon logic starts to take over, not unlike in Who Framed Roger Rabbit from the same year. Beetlej**** turns his hands into hammers, zips up Barbara’s lips, and performs costume changes in the span of a cut. Even chattering teeth make an appearance. The weird sculptures come to life and attack their maker. People are frozen in place. Portals open. It all unfolds at such a frenetic pace that some of the comedic effect of earlier passages in the film is lost. Then again, it’s altogether easy to get swept up in the utterly sui generis dramatic stakes. This is partially attributable to the inventions of Michael McDowell and Warren Skaaren’s script, of course. But it was Burton’s highly effective vision, executed by a team of designers and craftspeople led by Bo Welch, Tom Duffield and Catherine Mann, that really allowed Beetlejuice to roam free.