Thursday 5 October 2023

Animal house: "Beetlejuice"

Hallowe'en never used to be a thing in British cinemas, nor really on our streets in general. In recent years, however, we've started to see a handful of supernatural or paranormal-themed titles clustering around the October 31 weekend, hoping to snatch up that disposable income that hasn't already been blown on costume hire or supermarket novelty candy. In 2023, that's expanded to practically an entire month of horrors, and some element of diversity - or as much diversity as spare multiplex screens will allow. (No silent horror, of course, and nary a subtitle to be seen.) You don't get much more diverse than last week's The Exorcist followed by Tim Burton's Beetlejuice, which returns to our screens this weekend in its mid-thirties: a brisk and sprightly comedy, propelled by Danny Elfman's antic score, here to remind us of a time before the studios slipped into terminal cynicism (Saw X) or ran out of ideas altogether (The Nun 2, The Exorcist: Believer). This was Burton's snickering, mordant take on 1980s property porn, beating Joe Dante's The 'Burbs to the satiric punch with its vision of a rural all-American dream house that becomes a hangout space for ghouls and freaks after bland owners Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin (back in the day when he was being cast as milquetoasts) snuff it. Foremost among these weirdos: Michael Keaton's eponymous bug man, a lascivious huckster who does for prospective new owners what Rentokil do for termites and cockroaches, and in passing claims to have seen The Exorcist 167 times ("it keeps on getting funnier every time I see it").

Three decades on, and with a shiny new 12A certificate to show for itself, the film offers other reminders, too: of a time when studio doors were open to outsider sensibilities such as Burton, John Waters and David Lynch (Beetlejuice is Burton's Eraserhead), and when Burton in particular wasn't entirely drowning his films in CGI. There's a modicum of effects work here, certainly: the stripey sandworms bedevilling the house from without look like this director's response to Dune, and may have factored into the genesis of 1990's Tremors. But they're less well integrated than those tossed-off, doodly sightgags so essential to the fabric of certain 1980s comedies (I'm thinking Better Off Dead..., although I'm often thinking of Better Off Dead...): the leaflets tumbling out of Jeffrey Jones' copy of Practical Homeowner, the waiting room for the undead, complete with Man Half-Devoured By Shark and Tar-Blackened Victim of Fire, the human Test Your Strength machine that knocks a chuckle out of you amid the finale. Burton was at that stage where his sole aim was to make pages from his sketchbooks come to life, and if Beetlejuice barely seems to hang together as a narrative these days, it fair spills over with visual invention, gags that both do and don't pay off. Something (read: lots of things) went wrong after Burton gravitated towards Johnny Depp, with his blank-faced anomie, because here the director is still searching for eruptive displays of personality: he allows Keaton's horny hellbeast, all but repressed for the first 45 minutes, to gradually take over the whole show, livens up a dinner party with the help of Harry Belafonte (an enduring setpiece), and recalls Sylvia Sidney to snipe at Davis whenever the latter starts whining about how unhappy she is ("What did you expect? You're dead"). All this, and one genuine rarity for a 1980s motion picture: a scene where a character picks up binoculars with the intention of birdwatching, and somehow doesn't spy a comely neighbour in her bra and pants.

Beetlejuice is now playing in selected cinemas.

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