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A beloved genre-bending dark comedy classic, “Beetlejuice” delivered the ghost with the most we still can’t get enough of 35 years later.

Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice is an unforgettable film. Like most of Burton’s work, it defies genre classification. He uses horror themes and images to tell an entertaining tale from the perspective of two protagonists who are dead.

With Beetlejuice, Burton crafted a clever dark comedy that left an indelible mark on cinematic history.

Barbara and Adam Maitland (Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin) die tragically in a car accident. Charles Deetz (Jeffrey Jones) buys the Maitland’s home. He moves in with his second wife, Delia (Catherine O’Hara), and his daughter from his first wife, Lydia (Winona Ryder). 

Barbara and Adam personify old-time suburban America — conventional and content with their small-town existence. Charles Deetz is ready to embrace the quiet serenity of country life. However, his wife, Delia, is an unconventional, eccentric, and quirky artist. She’s determined to remake the Maitland’s quaint country home in her own image.

When the Maitlands return and see what she’s done, they’re horrified and want to be rid of the Deetzes. 

The Maitlands discover that death isn’t all it’s cracked up to be as they try to scare the Deetzes out of their home unsuccessfully. However, they learn that help is available. So, what do the dead do when they want the living out of their home? Hire a bio-exorcist!

They cross paths with the “ghost with the most,” infamous bio-exorcist Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton). Once Beetlejuice arrives on the scene, chaos ensues.

Beetlejuice is an award-winning film that received both critical and commercial success.

Burton’s quirky and original dark comedy grossed $74.7 million from a budget of $15 million.

Beetlejuice also won four awards: one Academy Award for Best Makeup and three Saturn Awards for Best Horror Film, Best Makeup, and Best Supporting Actress for Sylvia Sydney. It was also adapted into a Saturday morning cartoon, video games, and a 2018 stage musical. There’s also been talk of a sequel for years.

Burton told Rolling Stone in 1988:

“The things that interest me the most are the things that potentially won’t work. On BEETLEJUICE, I could tell every day what was gonna work and what wasn’t. And that was very invigorating. Especially when you’re doing something this extreme.”

“A lot of people have ragged on the story of BEETLEJUICE, but when I read it, I thought, ‘Wow! This is sort of interesting. It’s very random. It doesn’t follow what I would consider the Spielberg story structure.’ I guess I have to watch it more because I’m intrigued by things that are perverse. Like, I was intrigued that there was no story.”

After Burton’s successful directorial debut with Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Burton sifted through many scripts. Beetlejuice was the only script to catch his eye. Screenwriter Michael McDowell’s original story was a dark horror tale that the studio wanted Wes Craven to direct.

Betelgeuse was initially conceived as a black-winged blood-thirsty demon who wanted to sexually assault Lydia – not marry her.

Burton is credited with making the film into a dark comedy.

From there, the story evolved into several versions.

In one version, Lydia dies in a fire to join the Maitlands in the afterlife. In another, she has a younger sister named Cathy, who’s very mainstream in contrast to Lydia’s goth persona. During pre-production, producers wanted the title to be House Ghosts. Burton joked that it should be called Scared Sheetless. When producers liked the idea, Burton refused to change the title. 

Michael Keaton was not originally under consideration to play Betelgeuse. Burton’s first choice was Sammy Davis Jr. because Burton had been a big fan of Davis Jr. since childhood. However, the studio’s original list of possible Betelgeuses was: Bill Murray, Jack Nicholson, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Tim Curry, Christopher Lloyd, Dudley Moore, and comedian Sam Kinison.

Beetlejuice was before Batman. So, Keaton had no prior experience working with Burton when he was approached about Beetlejuice.

Keaton told Rolling Stone that at first, “I turned down the role because I didn’t quite get it, and I wasn’t looking to work.” Keaton also told Charlie Rose that when Burton first pitched the project to him, he didn’t understand the concept.

What changed his mind is when Burton described Betelgeuse as existing “across space and time.”

In the years since its release, Keaton has said that Betelgeuse is his favorite role.

Keaton said he figured out his approach to playing the character as he and Oscar-winning makeup artist Ve Neill started putting his look together.

He told Rolling Stone, “I started thinkin’ about my hair: I wanted my hair to stand out like I was wired and plugged in, and once I started gettin’ that, I actually made myself laugh. And I thought, ‘Well, this is a good sign; this is kind of funny.’ Then I got the attitude. And once I got the basic attitude, it really started to roll.”

He also improvised much of his dialogue.

Even though Keaton is onscreen for 17 minutes, his performance is brilliant and unforgettable.

“At some point, you show up on the set and just go f*ckin’ nuts. It was rave acting,” Keaton said, “You rage for 12 or 14 hours; then you go home tired and beat and exhausted. It was pretty damned cathartic. It was rave and purge acting.”

Winona Ryder delivers a memorable performance as Lydia Deetz, the misunderstood goth girl who eventually bonds with the Maitlands.

Producers wanted Jennifer Connelly or Sarah Jessica Parker cast in the role. Burton got his heart set on Ryder after seeing her in Lucas

Before she started acting, Ryder told Marie Claire that she was a target for bullies at school. She thought being in a hit movie would change that; it didn’t. “ I remember thinking, ‘Ooh, it’s like the number-one movie,’ Ryder said. ‘This is going to make things great at school.’ But it made things worse. They called me a witch.”

Part of what makes Beetlejuice a fun movie is its B-movie-style special effects.

While this was partially done intentionally to achieve a specific aesthetic, it was also practical budget-wise. Burton was given a $1 million budget to work with for visual effects. The only scenes that were done post-production were sandworm scenes and some of the scenes in the afterlife. The rest of the effects needed to be done in-camera.

Burton created something special with Beetlejuice on many levels.

This was the beginning of a trend that is unique to Burton. He has always used horror imagery in a unique and fun way. His background as an animator and his love for classic horror is evident in the aesthetics of every film he’s made. He blends all of these elements to create films that defy genre.

Beetlejuice was just the beginning, and it has since become a contemporary classic.

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