Why ‘Beetlejuice 2’ has much to live up to

Last week, an extremely cautious Winona Ryder confirmed on Late Night With Seth Myers that a sequel to Tim Burton’s beloved 1988 haunted house comedy Beetlejuice was finally in the works. Ryder will be reprising her role as Lydia Deetz, with Burton back behind the megaphone and Michael Keaton, fresh from a career-resurrecting turn in Birdman (2014), again starring as ‘the ghost with the most’.

Ryder’s announcement was met with the inevitable woops and cheers from Myers’ studio audience, but fans of Burton’s breakthrough feature will be seeking reassurances that the forthcoming follow-up will remain true to the spirit of its predecessor.

For those who’ve never seen it, Beetlejuice tells the story of Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis), a happily married couple living in a folksy California Gothic house high above the sleepy hamlet of Winter River, Connecticut. Adam runs the local hardware store and is busy building an exact replica of the town in his attic. One day, the couple are killed in a freak accident when their station wagon spins off a covered bridge. They return to their home as ghosts and struggle to come to terms with life after death.

To make matters worse, the property is then swiftly sold off to the Deetzes, a family of appalling New York yuppies. This brood comprises patriarch Charles (Jeffrey Jones), a suit keen to escape the city after a nervous breakdown, his wife Delia (Catherine O’Hara), a highly-strung snob, and Lydia, Charles’s morose Goth daughter from a previous marriage.

As Delia and her interior decorator henchman Otho (Glenn Shadix) set about renovating the house with ghastly good taste, the Maitlands try to frighten the Deetzes away — without success. Increasingly desperate, they turn to Beetlejuice (Keaton), a ‘freelance bio-exorcist’, who has taken up residence in Adam’s model town and promises to remove the interlopers, on the condition that he be granted his freedom to return to the land of the living. Reluctantly, Adam and Barbara agree. Big mistake.

Co-writer and producer Larry Wilson called Beetlejuice “lightning in a bottle” and it’s hard to imagine a Hollywood studio commissioning an original fantasy feature quite so authentically strange today (according to Wilson, they had plenty of reservations at the time). Burton may still be handed generous budgets with which to apply his trademark curlicue gothic aesthetic to blockbusters, but these are almost always well-known pre-existing properties like Planet Of The Apes (2001), Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (2005) or Alice In Wonderland (2010), all of which could be put before a multiplex audience with no introduction necessary and minimal risk. Beetlejuice was certainly a gamble, but it paid off handsomely and the decision still looks inspired 27 years on.

There are a number of factors that make the film special but I think the key to Beetlejuice’s morbid appeal is its total commitment to its own eccentricity, for which much of the credit must go to screenwriters Michael McDowell and Warren Skaaren, and Wilson for his original ideas.

Take the title character. A part originally intended for Sammy Davis Jr., Keaton’s performance is extraordinary, a living cartoon. His fast-talking djiin is lecherous, duplicitous and utterly gross — his skin gangrenous, his appetite for flies revolting. He frequents miniature whorehouses and regards the newspaper’s obituary pages as “the business section”. Beetlejuice’s striped clothing and polymorphous malevolence align him with Freddy Kreuger — he even comes close to killing Charles Deetz when he manifests as a snake and casts him down the stairs. However madcap, an antagonist this vicious and personally repellent surely belongs in a slasher film, not a family comedy. That this isn’t the case is wonderful.

The film’s visual invention is another of its attractions — hats off to production designer Bo Welch and special effects guru Rick Heinrichs. I’ve always been particularly entranced by Beetlejuice’s treatment of the afterlife as a giant Kafkaesque bureaucratic purgatory, a never-ending officeworld of checkerboard floors, winding expressionistic corridors and billowing paperwork, all lit in garish green.

These scenes are packed with detail: a file clerk has been runover and can thus himself be neatly filed away; smoke erupts from a gash in the throat of Sylvia Sidney’s gloriously jaded restart officer Juno as she puffs on a cigarette; the receptionist given the job as punishment for slashing her own wrists sports a sash that reads ‘Miss Argentina’. We are left to piece together how the other occupants of death’s waiting room met their respective ends for ourselves.

Similarly, the barren surrealist desert the Maitlands find themselves in whenever they try leaving the house — one of the moons of Saturn — is another impressive creation. Replacing Salvador Dali’s melting clocks with a levitating front door, this terrifyingly empty planetscape is patrolled by stop-motion Sandworms, writhing and burrowing like those in David Lynch’s Dune (1984).

Another peculiar but inspired touch is Beetlejuice’s insistence on satire. In narrative terms, we obviously need to dislike the Deetzes, but McDowell’s script (toned down by Warren Skaaren) is curiously specific in its targets.

Lydia, of course, provides the heart of the film — bonding with the Maitlands in their shared outsiderdom — and her father isn’t really so bad either. Yes Charles is corporate, complacent and more than a little bourgeois but, in the wake of his unspecified meltdown, the poor guy is just seeking a little peace and tranquillity, telling himself that he is “perfectly at ease” in his new surroundings and demonstrating an affinity for ornithology. He admires the house’s “good, sturdy country craftsmanship” and clearly objects to his wife’s modernising initiative, even if he does hope to make a killing buying up Winter River real estate.

Nevertheless, it’s Delia that’s the true menace. An obnoxious art world wannabe that only John Waters could love, Delia is a pseudo desperate to be taken seriously as a sculptor. Her own agent (Dick Cavett) hates her work and considers her “a flake” while her plans to turn the town into “the summer arts centre of New York” seem hopelessly deluded. O’Hara is a riot in the role, ably supported by Shadix as her odious consort Otho: tastemaker, faux-medium and professional bitch.

I also adore the chemistry between Baldwin and Davis, who manage real intimacy in their scenes together. The Maitlands’ apparent inability to conceive adds a note of poignancy and explains the couple’s parental sympathy towards Lydia and her teenage melancholy.

There’s a well-earned sense of peril during the séance finale when Adam and Barbara are conjured by Otho and proceed to age and crumble away into dust — their near-demise terrible to behold. Like Keaton, Baldwin has enjoyed a surprise renaissance of late thanks to Tina Fey’s 30 Rock but, sadly, it seems unlikely that he and Davis will be returning for the sequel. I suppose those characters would anchor any new story in Connecticut again, given that the Maitlands are eternally housebound, but still… a shame.

So what do we know for sure about Beetlejuice 2? Well, other than the return of Burton, Keaton and Ryder, not a great deal at present. Larry Wilson told this very site in October 2014 that he had approached Warner Brothers in the intervening years to express his interest in writing a new Beetlejuice script, only to be rebuffed on the grounds that he was “too close to the material”.

Burton subsequently commissioned a screenplay from writer Seth Grahame-Smith in September 2011, whom he was then working with on Dark Shadows (2012). The latter told Collider in 2012 that his version would not be a remake or reboot but, “a true 26 or 27 years later sequel. What’s great is that for Beetlejuice, time means nothing in the afterlife, but the world outside is a different story.”

Speaking to Entertainment Weekly in January this year, Grahame-Smith confirmed that his draft was good to go: “I think we landed on the right idea, landed on the right approach”. The writer has repeatedly stressed the responsibility he feels towards the project, living in fear of becoming known as the guy who tarnished the memory of the cherished original. For now, everything else about Beetlejuice 2 remains hush hush, although shooting could apparently commence before the year is out (that said, Tim Burton is currently making Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, so he needs to finish with that first).

This isn’t the first time a follow-up has been mooted, however.

In 1990, Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian was a going concern. This incarnation, by writer Jonathan Gems, would have seen the Deetzes relocating to Hawaii where Charles is investing in a holiday resort, the construction of which disturbs a native burial ground. Beetlejuice would have been called in to banish the ghosts and, instead, attempt to dupe Lydia into marrying him (again). After taking part in a surfing contest, he would finally have sought to level the entire island in the guise of a giant monster named ‘Juicifer’. A rehash turned down for rewrites by Kevin Smith, Burton and Keaton were fortunately preoccupied with Batman Returns (1992) by the time anyone with a chequebook began to press them on the subject.

Beetlejuice nevertheless went on to have a relatively lively commercial afterlife all the same. There have been at least two video games, an Archie comics series, six books ghosted (ahem) by someone named ‘B.J. Spectre’ and a range of toys (I myself was once the proud owner of a Beetlejuice action figure with a maroon tuxedo and rotating head). The character has also compered a “Rock and Roll Graveyard Revue” at Universal Studios’ various theme parks for over 25 years, introducing Thriller-influenced musical productions featuring rapping werewolves and the Bride of Frankenstein butchering Aretha Franklin. Yikes.

And then of course there was a kids’ animated show created by ABC, which ran for four series between 1989 and 1991 and which may yield the biggest clue as to what approach Grahame-Smith’s sequel might take. The Beetlejuice cartoon, developed and executive produced by Burton, was defined by its lurid colour scheme, freewheelin’ design and taste for wordplay taken incredibly literally: the ghoul complains of goosebumps, whereupon geese-shaped pimples pop up on his skin and start honking.

This continuation of the story finds the Deetzes in residence in the same Connecticut house but the Maitlands gone, unmentioned. So much for compromise. Lydia is now friends with Beetlejuice, apparently having forgiven and forgotten his attempt to blackmail her into a wedding, summoning him whenever she’s bored. He duly appears and leads her off into the hereafter, presented differently in every episode and populated by tap-dancing spiders, talking skeletons (anticipating Burton’s Corpse Bride, 2005) and a hairy Texan creature resembling Gossamer from Looney Tunes.

The emphasis was firmly on gothic-inflected wackiness, with the occasional Poe parody or piece of consumer satire thrown in for good measure. What it did do well was open up the possibility that you can do anything with characters traversing the underworld: they can go to a warlocks’ ball, take a job at a beetle farm or even, god forbid, visit Hawaii. Perhaps Grahame-Smith will feel emboldened to follow this Burton-sanctioned example and relocate the action somewhere new entirely.

Beetlejuice 2 must surely take at least one leaf out of the cartoon’s playbook and place its eponymous anti-hero at the centre of the action, rather than serving as a Dionysian agent of chaos on the periphery of someone else’s story. Perhaps Lydia, at 44, will be dead and working as a functionary in the Netherworld. Sadly, Sylvia Sidney and Glenn Shadix are no longer around to reprise their roles as Juno and Otho and there’ll be no Charles Deetz since Jeffrey Jones’s grim fall from grace has rendered him a pariah. Catherine O’Hara, however, is still working in comedy, notably with Christopher Guest, and I for one would dearly like to see her back, ideally appearing at the gala opening of a Delia Deetz retrospective exhibition at MoMA.

Another sure thing will be the revival of Danny Elfman’s brilliant belching brass score — which played a huge part in the emotional draw of the first film — and, of course, Harry Belafonte’s iconic calypso tunes will no doubt figure.

Against my better judgement, I’m starting to feel optimistic: Beetlejuice. Beetlejuice. Beetlejuice!


Originally published at www.denofgeek.com.

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