Think about what you know of Hollywood and the process by which movies get made. Now try to figure out how the hell Beetlejuice ever got made.
Sure, this was the 1980s, when everything wasn’t as corporate-synergy-esque as it is today, but it’s not like these were the days where auteurs ran wild either. So how in the world did Tim Burton walk into a movie executive’s office, pitch the idea of a crude exorcist who is, himself, a ghost (demon?), who is hired by a deceased couple to scare away the weird living people who recently moved into their country home?
And did he mention the extended dance sequence? Or the sand snakes?
It’s hard to imagine anyone in 2018 every signing off on a big budget for something like this, except perhaps if we were talking about a Beetlejuice remake or sequel, neither of which sounds like good times (which also invariably means it will happen sooner or later).
Celebrating its 30th anniversary, this 1988 comedy is arguably the perfect distillation of Tim Burton’s oeuvre, cranking the surreal zaniness of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure up to 11. Burton’s aesthetic evolved over time and is still inescapable in films like Edward Scissorhands, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Sweeney Todd, but he never quite hit the hands-off-the-reigns manic energy that comes through in Beetlejuice.
Put this script in the hands of any other director and it’s impossible to imagine what the final product looks like. It certainly doesn’t look anything like this.
It’s also a testament to the kind of vision Burton had as a director that many people might assume he also wrote the script. In fact, the story and its titular character were originated by Michael McDowell, along with Larry Wilson, Michael Bender and Warren Skaaren. Originally known as House Ghost (seriously), the initial take on the character was conceived as “Groucho Marx from hell,” something you can still see in the patchwork of Michael Keaton’s performance.
Perhaps the two biggest changes from the screenplay to the screen include the deletion of Lydia’s sister and a change to the original ending in which Lydia dies in a fire and joins the Maitlands in the afterlife (both probably for the best).
At some point, however, Burton’s vision usurped whatever the screenwriters might have intended and it became its own, unique thing. Michael Keaton is at his most Keaton-y here as a crude, selfish, strange-looking Beetlejuice in question. He is manic, negative energy personified, but in the most palatable packaging possible (at least at first). It might be surprising to know he’s not actually in the movie that much, maybe about one-third of the running time, but any time he shows up he creates a wonderfully strange counterbalance to whoever else is there with him.
The straight-laced Maitlands (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis), the nouveau-riche Deetzs (Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones), the avant-garde Otho (Glenn Shadix), and Lydia (Winona Ryder, a.k.a. the face that launched 1,000 Hot Topic stores) all bring such different worldviews and archetypes with them that each one remains fascinating as they bounce off Beetlejuice and one another.
Trying to list out the iconic or absurd scenes from the film doesn’t leave much left over, given that most scenes either involve something surreal, beautiful, or absurdly silly. Imagine trying to explain to someone who has never seen the film that it involves an afterlife that involves more bureaucracy than the local DMV, a desert world full of giant sand snakes, someone who describes themselves as a freelance bio-exorcist, a song-and-dance number around Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song that ends with shrimp cocktails forming into hands that attack people, and another song-and-dance bit involving Belafonte’s “Jump in the Line” that includes a chorus line of dead football players.
All of which makes it the more surprising to remember that Beetlejuice was a critical and commercial hit. It grossed $74 million in the U.S. on a $15 million budget, a big hit by 1988 standards. It even won an Academy Award for Best Makeup, which means you should have been referring to it as “Academy Award-winner Beetlejuice” this whole time.
Naturally, you would have assumed that a sequel would follow the film in the years after. Even if you could get most of the cast or even Tim Burton back, all you ever really needed was Michael Keaton. So long as you could secure your star, you could just send him off on a new bio-exorcist adventure and reap the (theoretical) profits.
That never happened, and thank goodness for that. The much-maligned sequel idea that Burton himself pitched was Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian. According to Jonathan Gems, who had been hired to pen the script, “Tim thought it would be funny to match the surfing backdrop of a beach movie with some sort of German Expressionism, because they’re totally wrong together.” The story would have apparently followed the Deetz family to Hawaii where they would realize a resort Charles was building was located on top of ancient burial grounds. Beetlejuice is summoned to help and he ends up winning a surfing contest along the way.
Crazy as that sounds, it almost happened. Both Keaton and Ryder agreed to make the movie on the condition that Burton directed it, but he and Keaton were so focused on making Batman Returns that the idea was shelved. Over the years, it popped up a few more times with Kevin Smith famously telling the story of how he was approached in 1996 to rewrite the script. (He declined because “didn’t we say all we needed to say with the first Beetlejuice?”) At that point, given how much time had passed, the idea was basically scrapped.
The idea of a Beetlejuice sequel was resurrected in 2011, however. Warner Bros. hired Burton-collaborator Seth Grahame-Smith, who said at the time it would be “a story that is worthy of us actually doing this for real, something that is not just about cashing in, is not just about forcing a remake or a reboot down someone’s throat.” The idea was apparently going to pick up 26 or 27 years later because while our world has changed, the afterlife hasn’t, so it wasn’t necessary to recreate the world of the original film.
In the years since, that script and the idea of doing a sequel reappears every few months. Grahame-Smith told Entertainment Weekly in 2015 that the script was done and that the plan was to start filming by the end of the year. In 2016, Burton reiterated that he’d love to work with Keaton once more and return to the character, but was waiting for the stars to align.
The fact that it’s been such a hard road to recreate the magic of Beetlejuice should be a sign to everyone involved that it shouldn’t happen. Because the truth is, it just won’t be the same. Even if you bring the holy trinity of Burton, Keaton, and Ryder back together, it’ll still be a late-career cash-grab from a time so far removed from where all these artists were in 1988 that it couldn’t possibly be the same.
Not to mention that you’ll have to work around plenty of cast members who have already moved on to the afterlife (Sylvia Sidney, Glenn Shadix), to say nothing of the problematic issue of bringing back Jeffrey Jones. You also couldn’t bring back Baldwin or Davis because how could you explain how dead people age?
Of course, you could just drop Beetlejuice in an entirely new situation with entirely new characters, but that’s doomed to fail. Those new characters will invariably be echoes of the (better) versions in the original film. There will inevitably be a new song-and-dance number that will try too hard and be half-as-effective as the original. Even Beetlejuice will be measured against the nostalgic memories of his initial appearance. Will his quips and one-liners still fit? Does that kind of humor still work? Will they feel a need to dig into his past (bad idea) or introduce us to other characters like him (probably also a bad idea)?
We’re in a strange place right now with nostalgia and pop culture. The apparent success of Ready Player One and the Roseanne revival show that there is a large well of interest for nostalgic programming and reboots. But for every successful foray into that world, the path is littered with failed experiments that either didn’t live up to the original or ended up damaging the way we viewed the property or characters.
Beetlejuice is a fine film that is very much its own strange thing, but also very much something that existed in 1988 where Tim Burton was still experimenting, Michael Keaton was young and exciting, and Hollywood was willing to let something as strange as this movie get made. The chance to potentially build on that world has come and gone. Better to let it go and let the weird legacy live on intact.