Tim Burton’s iconic comedy horror film Beetlejuice celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. With a powerhouse lineup of a leading cast, including Michael Keaton as the titular character, Catherine O’Hara, and Winona Ryder, Beetlejuice has become a staple in pop culture over the last years, remaining an ever present force in pop culture for over three decades.
The film follows all-American couple Barbra and Adam Maitland (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin), who, following a car crash, discover they have actually died and are now living in their prized country home as ghosts. When the Deetz family moves in shortly after the Maitlands’ deaths, Barbra and Adam must fight to keep their home from its new inhabitants, who plan to turn the charming country home into a modern art piece. When they attempt to scare the Maitlands away, they enlist the help of Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton), a “bio-exorcist” demon who is not above using beyond extreme scare tactics. Ultimately, the Maitlands find friendship in the Deetz’s daughter, Lydia (Winona Ryder), who is the only member of the family who can see the Maitlands, as she is more open-minded to the “strange and unusual.” When Beetlejuice’s scare tactics start to become a bit too much, the Maitlands partner with Lydia to rid the house of Beetlejuice, and the ghosts learn to live in harmony with their mortal roommates.
Beetlejuice serves as the sophomore credit for Tim Burton, who at the time of Beetlejuice’s release, could only tout Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) as his only other directorial credit. Beetlejuice arguably launched Burton into mainstream success and opened the gates for some of his other iconic films of the late 80s and early 90s, such as Batman (1989), Edward Scissorhands (1990), and Sleepy Hollow (1999). But most importantly, Beetlejuice set the tone for what we now associate with Tim Burton. The film spares no expense on the cartoonish gothic stylings that have become synonymous with the Burton name.
And furthermore, the casting of this film is spot on. While Keaton gives an iconic performance as the bio-exorcist from Hell, the supporting cast really shines here. With Beetlejuice being just her third feature film credit, Ryder gives an impressionable performance as Lydia Deetz, who remains an icon for goth girls everywhere. Baldwin and Davis also give stand out performances as the Maitlands, balancing out a sense of normalcy amongst all the larger than life characters, without once sacrificing the comedic timing. However, the true star of this film is Catherine O’Hara, who gives an arguably career-defining performance as Delia Deetz (which, coming from a woman who gave us the legend that is Moira Rose, that is quite a testament). O’Hara pulls off comedic mastery that only she could display, and despite the outlandishness of her character, she manages to keep a level of endearment throughout.
While the production and special effects design of the film does show its age a little after 35 years, it remains impressive and visually appealing, particularly for the technology available at the time. And the makeup design is Oscar-worthy, as the film took home an Academy Award for Best Makeup at the 1989 Academy Awards.
Despite the fact that Tim Burton has had many successful films over the years, it could be argued that Beetlejuice has demonstrated the most staying power among the films he has directed. The film ultimately inspired a spin-off cartoon series that aired from 1989-1991, a series of video games, and a recent Broadway musical that was nominated for eight Tony Awards.
What exactly makes this film so iconic after close to four decades? While the case could certainly be made that outlandish and macabre films tend to fare well with “cult classic” audiences (see: The Rocky Horror Picture Show), I feel like Beetlejuice’s message shouldn’t be overlooked amongst the insanity. Touting themes that range from mortality to self-acceptance, the characters in Beetlejuice strike a chord in a world where conformity has always been, and likely will always be, the norm. Beetlejuice celebrates the strange and unusual, the outsiders, and the uniqueness in us all. Any embrace of individuality, be it from a goth teen or a demon, deserves to be celebrated.
Whatever the reason for the classic status, the ongoing success of the film and its cult-classic status has proven that after 35 years, audiences still crave the strange and unusual world that was introduced all those years ago.
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