'Beetlejuice' at 30: Tim Burton's Classic Film, Reviewed by Newsweek

When Beetlejuice was first released 30 years ago, in the spring of 1988, longtime Newsweek critic David Ansen wasn't entirely impressed. "Beetlejuice has no real dramatic arc; it substitutes visual surprise for internal tension," Ansen complained. Now, Tim Burton's imaginative ghost comedy is a cult classic, and a stage musical adaptation is soon headed to Broadway. Here's our original review of the flick, published in the April 4, 1988, issue of Newsweek.

For sheer off-the-wall audacity, Tim Burton's demented Beetlejuice certainly demands respect, even if it's more enjoyable in concept than in execution. Burton is the comic-book surrealist who directed Pee Wee's Big Adventure, and if there were any doubt about his contributions to that one-of-a-kind comedy, this hallucinatory jape should erase them. Beetlejuice is like a haunted-house TV sitcom with the D.T.'s. The heroes are the recently deceased young couple Adam and Barbara (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis), whose spirits return to their Connecticut hilltop home only to find it occupied by new and unwanted tenants—a grotesque New York family presided over by a pretentiously trendy sculptress (Catherine O'Hara), her milquetoast husband (Jeffrey Jones) and her morbid stepdaughter (Winona Ryder). Novice ghosts, Adam and Barbara attempt to scare the family away, but they are so ineffectual they must rely upon the powers of the dread "Beetlejuice" (Michael Keaton), a coarse, lecherous redneck from the spirit world who comes on like a used-car salesman from hell.

No plot synopsis can convey Burton's wildly playful visual effects: His grotesque Tinkertoy universe is like a 12-year-old boy's playroom fantasy come to life. But even as you marvel at his imagination you wish he'd found a story worthy of it. Beetlejuice has no real dramatic arc; it substitutes visual surprise for internal tension. Keaton does a virtuoso scuzzhound turn, but much of the comedy falls flat. Still, any movie in which Robert Goulet and Dick Cavett are possessed by spirits and forced to dance to Harry Belafonte's "Day-O" can't be easily dismissed. Of such moments are cults made.

This story originally appeared in the April 4, 1988, issue of Newsweek, with the headline "Coke, Ghosts and Paranoia."