Old Friends

35 Years Ago, The Greatest Horror-Comedy Movie Ever Almost Didn’t Happen

Let’s get nuts and talk some Beetlejuice.

Michael Keaton in 'Beetlejuice.'
Warner Bros

Sometimes, you see a movie and wonder how it ever got made. Beetlejuice is a film where nearly everyone involved asked the same question, but still agreed to make it happen. This year marks the 35th anniversary of Tim Burton’s game-changing film on March 30, 1988. It’s a movie that barely fits a genre or audience type. Beetlejuice disrupted cinematic expectations, puzzled actors and execs, and opened the door for more movies to scare people silly. Grab your “Handbook for the Recently Deceased” and say his name three times, because it’s showtime!

Tim Burton had his first big box-office success in 1985 with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and was toiling on Batman when he suddenly became disillusioned with the Hollywood formula. When the script for Beetlejuice came into his hands, Burton said “It was the exact opposite of everything I had gotten”, and fell in love with this macabre concept. After extensive retooling of that initial story, a horror comedy was born that became a signature piece for the director and an influential film for generations of moviegoers and moviemakers alike.

Despite being the titular character, Beetlejuice appears on-screen for less than 20 minutes. Michael Keaton proved he was “The Ghost With The Most” by being the sleaziest, grubbiest, and crustiest spook with that scant screentime. Keaton initially turned down the role, confused by the character, but Burton’s passion excited him enough to keep the project into consideration. After several face-to-face meetings, Keaton began to latch onto the idea, working with the SFX team to create the characters' hair, makeup, and wardrobe. Suddenly, it clicked into place and Keaton deciphered who this bizarre bio-exorcist was! The majority of his lines were ad-libbed, making it the performance of a lifetime - or maybe an afterlife.

Keaton wasn’t the only actor hesitant to join the cast, but once everything aligned, movie magic happened. Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin were each stars on the rise, and Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O’Hara were already notable character actors, but Winona Ryder was a relative newcomer. Lydia in Beetlejuice was Ryder’s first big break, and one of the first mainstream movie characters to sport a look that we’d now call “goth.” Between this and Heathers, 1988 proved to be the year of Winona Ryder.

Burton’s penchant for the odd and eerie was not completely known yet, but Beetlejuice was the first major glimpse into the darker parts of his mind. From the pinstripes on Beetlejuice’s infamous suit and the frightening carnival imagery to the simultaneously grotesque and hilarious monster makeup on Davis and Baldwin, the limits of Burton’s imagination were stretched as far as his production budget allowed. None of that would have mattered if not for Danny Elfman’s score, a composer so in synch, with Burton, you’d think they were separated at birth, possibly from parents who worked in the circus. The opening theme remains one of the best movie songs ever made in the ‘80s! How could a song be this ominous and cheery at the same time?

Despite the outlandish horror-comedy elements, the stakes of Beetlejuice are less supernatural than you might remember. If you navigate past the undead, the story is more grounded than Beetlejuice’s casket. The Maitlands were a married couple unable to have kids of their own – made more complicated by dying. Through Lydia, the pair find a second life as surrogate parents in their nuclear family with the Deetzs. It may not be the most fully explored metaphor, but in a movie filled with sandworms and the paranormal, a little realism goes a long way – even as far as six feet under.

35 years later, a sequel is nearing production, with Keaton and Ryder reportedly on board, and rumors swirling about Jenna Ortega joining as Lydia’s daughter. Burton has tried for some time to get this one out of the ground, but with no success. A second film was proposed in 1990 that would have seen Beetlejuice surf-battling the ghost of an ancient Hawaiian Chief. That film never caught on, but if we see Beetlejuice hanging ten in the new movie, you’ll know where the idea came from.

Even without a sequel, the legacy of Beetlejuice lives on in the 1990s animated series, multiple merchandise lines spanning the decades, and even a hit Broadway musical (that is legitimately excellent!). Only Tim Burton could make a family movie out of the whole being dead thing*, a rotten rip-roaring trip through the afterlife and back that stays fresh no matter how many times you watch it.

Beetlejuice is currently streaming on HBO Max, or you can rent it on Amazon.