It was March 30, 1988 when the word Betelgeuse, better known as Beetlejuice, was heard (3 times in a row actually)!
This is in fact the date on which the film, directed by our beloved Tim Burton (already treated several times in Christmas Explained or Miss Peregrine, for example) made its debut in American cinemas.
The film generated enormous success, becoming part of international popular culture. So let’s celebrate this spirit by telling you about the plot of the film, its production and its legacy!
Beetlejuice, the plot
Barbara and Adam Maitland are taking a vacation to their beautiful New England home. The two come under severe pressure from Jane, a real estate agent. In fact, the woman emphasizes how much the house is too big for two and tries to convince them to put it back on the market.
However, the Maitlands are not convinced and head to town to avoid her. On the way home they swerve to avoid hitting a dog. The sudden swerve pushes the car into the river and the couple dies.
And here the fun begins. Neither seems to realize they are dead. They return home, but Adam is confused as to how they got there. He then decides to trace their footsteps. Instead of familiar landmarks, he finds himself in a peculiar landscape, all desert except for giant striped sandworms.
When Adam returns, his wife Barbara tells him that not only has he been gone for two hours but she tells him she found The Handbook For The Recently Deceased on the coffee table.
The two then realize they are dead, exiled to their home.
The Maitlands home quickly returns on the market (thanks to Jane) and is bought by New Yorkers Delia and Charles Deetz, who move in with their daughter Lydia.
They try to liven up the house by hiring their decorator, Otho, to redecorate. This does not go well with the tastes of the previous owners, the Maitlands, who hate to see their house occupied by status-conscious city people. They try to scare the Deetzes into leaving, but without success. The Maitlands hide in the attic and Adam closes the door, but Lydia discovers a key in the shape of a skeleton and goes into the attic to find them, having already seen them at the window.
Here comes Beetlejuice
As Adam and Barbara hold the door closed, a television in the attic turns on, broadcasting an advertisement for a “bioexorcist” specializing in scaring the living, called “Betelgeuse“.
Adam consults the “Handbook of the Deceased” and creates a door that leads him and Barbara to a waiting room in the afterlife. They are introduced to Juno, a sort of social worker, who berates them for their inability to haunt the house. She also warns them not to recruit Beetlejuice.
The Maitlands try again, dressing up in bedsheets to try to scare the Deetzes. But they can’t. Lydia is the least scared person of all and she claims to have found their manual, explaining that “living people ignore the strange and the unusual”. And since “strange and unusual” is exactly how Lydia describes herself, she agrees to help them.
However, her parents refuse to believe in the ghostly couple. Barbara Maitland is perplexed by all this. She finds a model of a city that features a tiny plaque engraved with the name “Betelgeuse”. Mispronouncing the name, when she says “Beetlejuice” three times, she and Adam are sucked into the model, where they exhume Beetlejuice’s body. They immediately regret it. Beetlejuice looks crazy and has a very strange personality. Which is the key to the film’s success. The pair continue to try to scare the Deetzes, but always without success.
A pandemonium happens
In reality, the ghosts have only amused and entertained the Deetz family and various guests.
The Deetzes search the attic and the decorator Otho finds the Manual. Betelgeuse manifests himself as a monstrous snake and attacks them until the Maitlands order him to stop. Juno, the social worker, summons the Maitlands and berates them for calling Betelgeuse and providing afterlife evidence to the living.
She therefore insists that they get rid of the Deetzes but it all seems difficult, also because Lydia really likes the Maitlands. In one episode, Lydia goes to the attic to greet Barbara and Adam, but she instead runs into Beetlejuice. The spirit tries to get her to say the latter’s name three times to help her find the Maitlands.
Beetlejuice’s trick is about to work but Lydia realizes in an instant that Beetlejuice was the attic snake and she realizes that she probably won’t help. The Maitlands appear and Lydia says she wants to be dead like them. The couple try to dissuade her and tell her they will no longer scare her family, instead trying to share the house peacefully.
Charles Deetz, after all the hustle and bustle, has the idea of turning the city into a supernaturally themed tourist trap and convinces his former boss Maxie Dean to visit him. Maxie asks Charles for proof of the supernatural.
Using the Handbook, Otho invokes the spirits of Adam and Barbara, but they begin to dissolve. What was thought to be a séance is actually an exorcism. Lydia then asks Betelgeuse for help and he accepts, on the condition that she marries him so that he can be freed to enter the world of the living; she accepts and invokes him.
Betelgeuse stops the exorcism and gets rid of Maxie, his wife and Otho. The Maitlands step in before the ceremony is complete, with Barbara riding a sandworm across the house to devour Betelgeuse. Adam and Barbara struggle to stop him, managing to defeat him.
At the end of the story, the Deetz and the Maitlands occupy the house together in harmony, having successfully destroyed Beetlejuice. The “strange and unusual” Lydia is finally happy and at peace with herself.
The success of Beetlejuice
Since its release date, March 30, 1988, Beetlejuice has received positive reviews and enormous financial success. Also an Academy Award for the best makeup in 1989! But how come?
The main reason is that this film manages to look original even today, over 30 years after it was made. This imaginative story about a gross, strange, frightening, but strangely optimistic afterlife is something that has never been seen before. In fact, it would still be original today.
The cast of the film, perfect from every point of view, contributed to its success. We have Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis as Adam and Barbara Maitland who, as mentioned earlier, in the film die in a car accident and wake up as ghosts in their home. This alone would suffice as a premise!
And then there are the neurasthenics and citizens Deetz (Jeffrey Jones and Catharine O’Hara) and their goth daughter (Winona Ryder). And we want to talk about Michael Keaton, who gave birth to the unpleasant but unforgettable Beetlejuice?
The wild hair, that kind of corroded green drool on the face, the clothing that looks almost designed by Alexander McQueen in the middle of the 80s and the crudely offensive humor of him, make the character partly funny, partly scary, but darkly hilarious. Beetlejuice appears on screen for a third of the film, perhaps less. But his presence is so huge, so all-encompassing, that we don’t realize that the film isn’t about him. In fact it speaks of this world, of the people and characters who live it, and of the relationship between the living and the dead.
There are the conflicts between life and death, rural and urban sensitivities and, of course, the attempt to explain this highly stylized view of the afterlife. Beetlejuice tells of a microcosm where everything is possible.
In fact, the film would not have worked if it were just to amaze the audience. There is something more that has led producers to give Tim Burton millions of dollars to make this happen. And the spectators got it right.
In addition to the aforementioned themes, insane story and incredible visuals, viewers bond with Winona Ryder’s character, Lydia. It is Lydia who has the ability to see the Maitlands and interact with them. And it is she who ends up bridging the gap between not only rural and urban but, ultimately, between life and death.
Thanks to her strength and her courage, the film ends on a positive note: anyone can be happy if you are good, kind and accept others, regardless of how they appear. The themes of acceptance of the different are as dear to Burton as they are to his admirers. And kindness is such a positive and almost dissonant message for such a crazy film that, in the end, we appreciate it for that very reason. The beauty hides behind what does not appear beautiful.
Very shortly after the release date of the film, which we celebrate today, an animated television series also called Beetlejuice. The show ran from September 1989 to December 1991, with director Burton serving as executive producer.
The year after the show, in 1992, the stage play version was brought to Universal Studios, both in the United States and in Japan. It originally featured a cast that included Universal Classic monsters such as Dracula,Frankenstein and wife the Wolf Man and the Phantom of the Opera, performing a mix of songs from the seventies to the nineties. It looks like an Alice Cooper concert to be honest!
After these shows, Beetlejuice also was used in video games (Lego Dimension) and various other representations.
Traveling back to the 2000s, we recall that in 2013 Tim Burton and Warner Bros. returned to the Beetlejuice 2 project. In January 2014, the director confirmed the sequel to the film, but the release date was not confirmed. Only a few years ago the project was definitively canceled.
Looking at all of Burton’s films, there has never been a sequel to one of his works. However, since these are strange times, and nothing is stranger than Beetlejuice, why not hoping for it?
We conclude this post today with some curiosities about Beetlejuice, starting with the sequels. It looked like a “Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian” was about to come out. Here is the accredited plot and its poster.
Now college student Lydia is visiting a tropical Hawaiian island, Kanooka, where her eternally hateful parents are planning to open a luxury hotel, “The Deetz Paradise”. A group of locals are upset that the hotel spoils the island’s ambiance, but their complaints about Deetz fall on deaf ears. Other than the locals, a gang of ancient Hawaiian ghosts aren’t happy with the hotel at all; they try to recruit Beetlejuice to scare Deetz and the investors, but he refuses because his license to scare has been revoked.
And if that doesn’t seem strange enough, let’s think about the name Beetlejuice, which is strange in all respects! If the Italian translation is “worm juice”, the original name seems to derive from the star Betelgeuse which is found in the constellation of Orion. Maybe it sounded good because, apparently, there is no other explanation!
Lastly, just to understand how much Beetlejuice may have influenced popular culture, I just tell you that if you are looking for your “Handbook for the Recently Deceased”, check Etsy!