Study Guide

Beetlejuice

Beetlejuice Introduction


Release Year: 1988

Genre: Comedy, Fantasy, Horror

Director: Tim Burton

Writer: Michael McDowell and Warren Skaaren

Stars: Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Winona Ryder, Michael Keaton


Death. It's hilarious.

That's Beetlejuice in a nutshell.

Well, thanks for visiting Shmoop, and please be sure to check out our guide for The Federalist Papers #10 and 51 before you go.

What, you got something against James Madison? Okay, if you insist…

Tim Burton's 1988 dark comedy is about a young couple, Adam and Barbara Maitland, who meet a sudden, tragic end. But, uh, they aren't quite aware at first that they're dead. Kind of like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense…but more adorable. They're faced with a family of pretentious social climbers from New York City who buy their house and start "renovating" the beloved old country home into a postmodern disaster.

When their own first feeble attempts to haunt and scare off the New Yorkers (bedsheets and moaning) fail pathetically—they're new at this death thing, after all—they turn to a perverted, wise-cracking ghost from the Netherworld named Betelgeuse.

That's Beetlejuice to us.

The manic, lecherous Betelgeuse shows up and all hell breaks loose—literally. Of course, it's a funny kind of hell. This is a comedy about a haunted house, after all.

Tim Burton's a guy you might be familiar with from his work on classics like Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Corpse Bride. But back in 1988, Burton only had one other successful movie to his name: Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Who knew if he could pull off Beetlejuice, especially when he was describing it as a "burlesque version of The Exorcist" (source)?

Would it just be too creepy for audiences?

Nope.

People loved Beetlejuice. Even though the film was made on a budget of $15 million, it would go on to earn $73 million at the box office. That would make it the 10th highest grossing movie of 1988. It even won an Academy Award. For Best Makeup, but still. How many Oscars do your movies have? We rest our case.

Even the often-cranky critic Pauline Kael wrote in the New Yorker, "With crazy comedy, you settle for the spurts of inspiration, and Beetlejuice has them […] enough […] to make this spotty, dissonant movie a comedy classic" (source). And not much has changed. Today, Beetlejuice is still beloved by film buffs everywhere. Impressive, especially when we're talking about a movie that involves a depressingly bureaucratic afterlife and shrimp cocktails that assault the dinner guests.

So, yeah, life may be short and then you die… but it does feel pretty good to chuckle about it. Let's just hope the hereafter isn't as DMV-awful as Beetlejuice makes it out to be.

And please take a number.

  

What is Beetlejuice About and Why Should I Care?

Why should you care? Because today's celebs are yesterday's baristas.

Let us explain. When you watch Beetlejuice today, it looks like it's filled with famous faces. But back in 1988, not all those folks would have been recognizable to audiences. Being associated with the Ghost with the Most raised their profiles. Big time.

Think about it. Before he starred as Betelgeuse, Michael Keaton was best known for playing a stay-a-home dad in Mr. Mom. After Beetlejuice, the next movie he'd headline was Tim Burton's Batman, which would become the top-grossing movie of 1989. If Beetlejuice hadn't catapulted Michael Keaton onto the A-list, there's no way that Tim Burton could have convinced Warner Brothers to hand Keaton the Batsuit.

No matter how cute he looked in it.

We'd also like to point out that if Michael Keaton never starred in Batman, he probably would have never been offered a role in Birdman. The ironic casting just isn't as funny. That means he's never nominated for an Oscar and he dies sad and alone… and we assume has to fill out lots of paperwork before he can meet with his afterlife caseworker.

Okay, that's total speculation.

How about Alec Baldwin? Before Beetlejuice, he'd been appearing in mostly soap operas and TV movies. But two years after he played Adam Maitland, Baldwin was offered a starring role in The Hunt for Red October, which really raised his profile. Of course, it was his forceful "Always Be Closing" monologue in Glengarry Glen Ross that really cemented his status as the most talented Baldwin brother.

Who knows if the world would have been graced with Alec Baldwin's spot-on Donald Trump impression if his down-to-earth role as Adam Maitland didn't come first? Ditto Adam's better half, Geena Davis, a relative unknown before Beetlejuice set her up to become Thelma to Susan Sarandon's Louise, and ace catcher Dottie Hinson in A League of Their Own.

And then there's Winona Ryder. She was virtually anonymous before she burst into the mainstream as Lydia Deetz. Unless you happened to see her in the 1986 movie Lucas.

We didn't think so.

After Beetlejuice, she starred in a string of awesome movies: Heathers, Edward Scissorhands, Mermaids, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Reality Bites, and Little Women. Later, she'd play up the supernatural 80s nostalgia from her Beetlejuice days by starring as the mom in Stranger Things. Of all the celebs touched by Beetlejuice, Winona Ryder probably benefitted the most. No wonder she has a soft spot for Lydia to this day.

It's like each movie creates its own little butterfly effect. Because you liked it, the actors were able to make other movies you liked and so on for infinity. Just think of all the movies we missed out on because Tim Burton never made that Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian sequel.

Then again, maybe some realities are best left on the cutting room floor.

Trivia

Tim Burton originally considered several other actors for the role of Betelgeuse including Sammy Davis Jr., Sam Kinison, and Dudley Moore. We can't imagine anyone but Michael Keaton as the Ghost with the Most, though. (Source)

"Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)" almost didn't appear in Beetlejuice. Though the cast and crew spent five days filming the highly-choreographed scene, the movie studio thought it was weird and asked that it be dropped from the film. Tim Burton almost agreed, until he and composer Danny Elfman decided to put the dance number back in at that last minute. It would go on to be one of the most memorable sequences from the entire film. (Source)

After the success of Beetlejuice, Tim Burton thought about doing a sequel. The working title was Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian. It would be part surf movie, part German Expressionism and involve the Deetzes developing a hotel complex on an ancient burial ground. Note to Hollywood: sometimes it's okay to leave well enough alone. (Source)

Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis would both go on to portray American presidents on TV. Davis starred as President Mackenzie Allen on the 2005 TV show Commander in Chief, while Alec Baldwin would satirize the 45th president of the United States—Donald Trump—on Saturday Night Live. (Source)

Ready for a little spelling trivia? Throughout the movie, the title character's name is spelled Betelgeuse. But on in the opening credits it's written as Beetle Juice. On the front of the DVD case (and on IMDb), the title appears as Beetlejuice. So what exactly is this guy's name? It's clear that Tim Burton wanted to go with Betelgeuse, but the movie studio was worried that people wouldn't be able to pronounce the word. They went with the simpler spelling instead. (Source)

Beetlejuice Resources

Websites

Beetlejuice Website
Warner Brothers' official Beetlejuice page. There's not much to it, but it's a place to start.

Beetlejuice Wiki
If you want a really deep dive, check out the Beetlejuice Wiki with detailed articles written by fans of the film.

Tim Burton
And you can always find any Beetlejuice news at Tim Burton's official website, too.

Book or TV Adaptations

Beetlejuice: The Animated Series
This cartoon ran from 1989 to 1991 and centered on Lydia's adventures with her pal Betelgeuse. Sometimes you've gotta make compromises for the kids.

Beetlejuice's Rock & Roll Graveyard Revue
The show is no more, but if you visited Universal Studios prior to 2016, you could see Betelgeuse rocking out with some of his undead pals in this ghoulish variety show.

Articles and Interviews

Michael Keaton on Creating Betelgeuse
He may be an Oscar-nominated actor today, but back in the 1980s, Michael Keaton didn't really get Tim Burton's whole Betelgeuse deal.

Will There Be a Beetlejuice 2?
Winona Ryder says it will be so. All she has to do is say his name three times…

Fashion Victims
Clothes make the man—or woman, or ghoul.

Two Stars?
Some people felt that the late great film critic Roger Ebert missed the point of the movie in his Beetlejuice review. The first half got a thumbs up; when the title character shows up, the thumbs went down.

Deranged Brew
That's what Rolling Stone called the film. They chatted with the director and stars to figure out how on earth this film came to be.

Coming to a Theater Near You
Maybe. If you live in Manhattan.

Video

Beetlejuice Trailer
The original 1988 trailer featuring the Ghost with the Most.

Before They Were Famous
Check out these vintage interviews with a young Alec Baldwin and Jeffrey Jones on the set of Beetlejuice.

Beetlejuice Wins an Academy Award
Watch Beetlejuice score an Oscar for Best Makeup. That's 17 years before Martin Scorsese won his own statute, for those keeping track at home.

Beetlejuice Makeup Tribute
See all the work that goes into turning an actor into Betelgeuse. Spoiler alert: it's a lot.

Audio

Beetlejuice Soundtrack
Enjoy the zany, yet creepy sounds of Danny Elfman and Harry Belafonte.

Images

Beetlejuice Movie Poster
The original film poster featuring the everyone's favorite ghoul.

Beetlejuice Cast
The whole group poses in front of Dante's Inferno Room.

An Animated Bunch of Ghouls
All the characters from the cartoon version of Beetlejuice.

Beetlejuice Fan Art
In case you were considering a Beetlejuice tattoo. Might we suggest getting this on your back?

More Beetlejuice Fan Art
Creepy sandworms lurk around every corner in this dark fan-created design.

Even More Fan Art
Lydia celebrates an A on the math test while Betelgeuse looks on.

Yet Another Piece of Fan Art
The Maitlands aren't looking so good.

Get Ready for the Sequel
What might a possible Beetlejuice sequel look like? Maybe like this fan-produced movie poster? We kind of dig it.