Let Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice Be Scary Again

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There is a scene late in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice where Michael Keaton emerges from beneath the floor of a Connecticut farmhouse with batwings attached to his ears and a carousel riding around his forehead. Even as a child, I knew it was spectacular. With a disarmingly crass accent and pallid makeup design in the shade of rot, Keaton’s titular Beetlejuice (or “Beatleguese” as it’s actually spelled within the film) is nothing if not the most amusing of carnival hucksters. He promises rides and surprises to his marks, which include Robert Goulet, and even sprinkles in some twinkling neon lights. It’s all a distraction, of course. Some razzle dazzle as he goes in for the kill—literally as he uses inflatable arms to send Goulet and his onscreen wife through the ceiling and into the afterlife.

To this day, I’ve wondered if their ghosts might be condemned to share that house with the Maitlands and Deetzes. It’d be a fitting hell for the pair, although when I was a kid that wasn’t funny; it was actually kind of terrifying since Beetlejuice just murdered two people at the behest of alt-teenager Lydia (Winona Ryder). And as compensation, he now wanted to take her as his child bride.

But therein lies the macabre humor of Keaton’s schtick as the demon in the pinstriped suit: he really is a demon who can scare his target movie audience, even while still getting laughs. This often forgotten quality of the original 1988 film seems worth remembering right now since Burton, Keaton, and Ryder are all locked in for a fast-tracked Beetlejuice 2.

Despite some insider trepidation on the film rolling before cameras due to the current WGA strike, Burton and Warner Bros. appear confident in the script already turned in by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, who created Netflix’s pop culture sensation Wednesday, a series Burton directed the first four episodes of and cast Jenna Ortega in. It would seem the collaboration was a fruitful one since the Wednesday breakout star is also appearing in Beetlejuice 2 as the daughter of Lydia Deetz (a returning Ryder). Undoubtedly, Lydia’s daughter won’t fall too far from the tree as she gets entangled in a grimly bureaucratic afterlife.

The idea of doing a legacy sequel or requel to Beetlejuice has obvious appeal to Warner Bros. Pictures and Burton. For many fans, the director’s eccentric ’88 comedy remains one of his most beloved films, and certainly one of the most original laughers of the ‘80s. Yet while inviting all the other risks that comes with revisiting a beloved story decades later, one danger that appears particularly ominous for Beetlejuice 2 is the temptation to, like all other Beetlejuice media in the last 35 years, make Beetlejuice a good guy.

Beetlejuice as a hero is how many millennials remember the character, particularly if they’re old enough to recall the Beetlejuice cartoon series, which ran from 1989 to 1991 on ABC and then in syndication on family-friendly networks for about a decade. In that series, Beetlejuice is softened and reimagined. He’s now something of a goofy uncle with a penchant for Halloween decorations, always ready to party with Lydia as her secret magical BFF. The world of the dead also becomes less ominous; the “Neitherworld” is a playground, not a DMV made yet more interminable.

I never particularly cared for the series for that exact reason. It robbed Beetlejuice of his menace and turned a movie that felt both scary and like a small taste of adult humor into sanguine kids stuff. Even so, its impact on what is now deemed an intellectual property is immense, as seen in WarnerMedia’s recently short-lived musical adaptation, Beetlejuice the Musical.

I was lucky enough to see the show during its original run in the Winter Garden Theatre in 2019, and as a theatrical spectacle it is fantastic. Giant snakes, black and white, and green color schemes, and a handful of genuinely clever songs, particularly the opener “The Whole Being Dead Thing.” That number also showcased the musical’s strongest asset, Alex Brightman as the ghostest with the mostest. In a performance exceedingly worthy of its Tony nomination, Brightman turns Beetlejuice into a fourth-wall breaking smartass who can ad-lib on the fly night to night, and provide a giddy overdose of hyper-snark. If you haven’t seen the show, the best way to describe it might be as a morbid, singing version of Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool.

It worked very well for what that show wanted to be. But what that show wanted was to not particularly be like the Beetlejuice film beyond general aesthetics. Beetlejuice was at times an antagonistic narrator of the other characters in the musical, but also a pleasantly untrustworthy sidekick, accomplice, and foil. The stage’s Lydia grew in importance while the Maitlands (who were the main characters of the ’88 film) became obligatory archetypes to set up the plot of the show and vanish. The musical ultimately became just a gag-fest where audiences cheered on Brightman’s scenery-chewing.

It succeeded on its own terms, but if you’re going to do a Beetlejuice 2 with Keaton and Burton, let them at least return to the original well that proved so satisfying in the first place.

Keaton’s Beetlejuice is not Lydia’s chum, nor was he the protagonist who needed to push the Maitlands to the side as soon as possible while cracking wise with the audience. He’s the afterlife’s leading bio-exorcist who can boast that he “lived through the Black Plague and had a pretty good time during that.”

He’s a scuzzy creep, a degenerate that the film’s heroes with actual character arcs describe as “a pervert.” And Beetlejuice’s actions do not dispute this assessment. The first time he’s unleashed on the world of the living, he turns into a giant snake and attempts to murder Lydia’s father while taunting, “We’ve come for your daughter, Chuck.” Later, after pulling an Elvis Presley and blowing the image of Robert Goulet away, he sends the soul of Barbara Maitland (Geena Davis) to the moons of Saturn where he hopes she’ll be devoured by Dune-like sandworms. Meanwhile he tries to force Lydia to marry him, even as he reveals he’s pulled this trick before (probably more than once) and the wedding ring from his last marriage is still attached to the bride’s finger… while the rest of her is missing.

Keaton’s performance as Beetlejuice is iconic for a reason. He’s an over-caffeinated scuzz-bucket who is always moving and screaming. He’s a ghoulish Harold Hill trying to swindle and entertain you at the same time. But that’s his act; he overwhelms the suckers so they let him unleash his true malevolence. As soon as the genie is out of the bottle, he is out to get his kicks by murder and carnage. This is a villain through and through, and one whose unapologetic insidiousness makes him so thrilling to watch.

Consider that one of the few times Keaton’s Beetlejuice lowers his voice and holds still is when he gets exactly what he wants. Lydia agrees to wed him if he’ll save the Maitlands from an exorcism. She says the name three times, and Keaton, as still as a corpse, just smiles into the camera and promises, “It’s showtime.” Minutes later people are dead and the hideous artwork of Delia Deetz (Catherine O’Hara) is trying to bury her alive!

Beetlejuice 2 will undoubtedly give Keaton more screen time than he had in the original (where he appeared for only 15 minutes of the film’s succinct 92 minute running time). Yet that economy of that presence is one of the reasons his performance was such a violent force of nature when he did appear. Still, even if Beetlejuice appears onscreen more in the sequel, he should remain ever the villain, a trickster for Ortega’s next generation of Deetz Goth-ing to outsmart, as opposed to pal around with.

… Also keeping the antiquated (even in 1988!) stop-motion effects instead of using CGI would go a long way to making a sequel work.

Beetlejuice 2 opens Sept. 6, 2024.

The post Let Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice Be Scary Again appeared first on Den of Geek.

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