Beetlejuice is many things. It is a comedy from the late 80s about some nice ghosts that hire an evil ghost to help them haunt a living family's new house. It is also a showcase for Michael Keaton who plays the titular evil ghost as someone who is larger than life and twice as crass. It is also a charming collection of handmade effects, including giant claymation sandworms and wall to wall gross-out make up. (It actually won the Oscar for best make up the year before Driving Miss Daisy did, and if there is a weirder pair of back to back awards winners I can't think of it.) Above all else, however, it is a movie that functions as training wheels for future weirdos.
If that last description sounds like a bit of a back handed compliment... Well, it kind of is, because Beetlejuice is definitely offbeat, but it is also a fairly mainstream (and family-friendly) brand of offbeat. Now, I definitely want to explain what I mean by the oxymoronic phrase "mainstream offbeat", but before I get there I want to explain the ways it is offbeat-offbeat.
This movie opens by introducing us to our main characters Adam and Barbara Maitland, a suburban couple who are polite, quaint and very much in love. Before the first ten minutes of this movie is up we watch them drive their car into a river. The lovely couple then return to Earth as ghosts, and before they can settle into a comfortable afterlife they discover that their old home has been sold to a family of obnoxious New Yorkers. What follows is the rare ghost story that is told from the perspective of the dead instead of the living, as the audience roots for the Maitlands to oust the still-living Dietzes from their newly purchased real estate. We root for them even after it becomes clear that the Maitlands might have to make a deal with the devil if they are going to get their way, because they might be too nice to scare away sophisticated urbanites. (The devil in this case being Beetlejuice, a "bio-exorcist" who is definitely mean spirited enough to scare the Dietzes off - but he might also be a little too disruptive for the genial Maitlands, too.) All of that is an inversion of an average movie, since quaint main characters tend to survive to the end, the living are generally seen as being more relateable than the dead, and the undead are almost always automatically scary.
In addition to having a one of a kind plot Beetlejuie also has a lot of little details at the edges of the frame that are remarkably inventive. While most films depict the afterlife using Biblical imagery, Beetlejuice imagines that the afterlife is a bureaucratic hellhole where the newly dead have to wait and wait and wait for a case worker to explain to them how being dead works. There are also a number of scenes that still feel unexpected even after all these years, including the dinner party scene where all the guests begin to sing karaoke while levitating, and all of Beetlejuice's long stream of conscious monologues still pack a punch. And you can't talk about this movie without mentioning that it's visual flourishes are often amazing, whether they are depicting something otherworldly or something more earthbound.
However, despite those formal innovations and those little oddball touches Beetlejuice is definitely not too weird, because actually weird movies always have some alienating elements in them and Beetlejuice is exclusively interested in entertaining. It would have been very easy for this story about life and death to present us with challenging metaphors about the nature of mortality or legitimately disturbing imagery, but Beetlejuice shies away from anything that would make it's audience think. All of it's scenes that take place in the netherworld are played for laughs, but they aren't Kafka-esque dark laughs - they are jovial gags that give us sugar-sugar laughs and not sugar-to-cover-up-the-taste-of-medicine laughs.
Furthermore, all of the characters simply accept the film's metaphysical conceits without question, and I find their lack of curiosity to be kind of frustrating. Yes, their insistence on moving forward keeps the story from getting bogged down in unnecessary (and probably illogical details) but it also really hampers the film's attempts at world building. The Maitlands might not want to explore the ins and outs of the afterlife, but I kind of do, and I can't really do that since I don't really have enough information to fill in the blanks on my own. I get that it's funny that Adam is more worried about the Dietzes trashing the model town he was in the middle of building when he died than he is about being dead, but I do wish that Beetlejuice had focused a little less on goofy ideas like that and focused a little more on it's idea that the spiritual world is more about inconvenient obstacles than legitimate suffering, because that's an idea that has real potential.
And yes, it is true that a lot of the details at the edge of the frame feel inventive, but it's also true that a lot of them feel like missed opportunities. The pretentious New Yorkers that move into the Maitland's house pride themselves on being on cutting edge of modern art, but it's basically impossible to imagine those caricatures actually being involved with the 80's scene in New York. The Dietzes are funny characters, but they are played so broadly that even a small child would understand that they were silly people, since they are obviously pretentious and their tastes are blatantly tacky. I'm not saying that this movie has to give us characters that are obsessed with challenging graffiti-inspired artists like Basquiat, but that would be more accurate to what the New York art scene was actually like at that time, and having a hint of defiant art on the edge of the frame would go a long way towards giving this film a little bit of much needed grit without significantly darkening it's tone. The Dietze's tacky art-noveau sculptures are just further proof that every time Beetlejuice has an opportunity to do something challenging it takes the easier path, and thus it has nothing on, say, David Lynch or Alejandro Jodorowsky, since those are two auteurs who are quite ready to follow their muses down disturbing rabbit holes.
Don't get me wrong - Beetlejuice's general toothlessness is not a real problem; it's pleasures far outweigh it's drawbacks, and I can't deny that I was entertained the entire time I was watching it. It's just that I really loved this film as a child, and so rewatching it with adult eyes and having to admit that it isn't as weird in reality as it was in my memory was kind of a bummer. At the end of the day, however, I can't get too upset, because even if I can't fully commit to Beetlejuice now I can still totally see why I responded to this film when I was younger. That's why the phrase "training wheels for weirdos" is not entirely a negative in my mind - yes, Beetlejuice doesn't have the artistic cachet that a fully adult movie might have, but that's fine because not every film has to be aimed at adults. After all, if we don't get the little kids hooked on weird shit when they're young, where is the next generation of Eraserhead fans going to come from?