This week, Tim Burton‘s wild supernatural comedy “Beetlejuice” turns a whopping 25 years old. A funny/scary ode to both the potential liveliness of haunted houses and the deathly drudgery of everyday life, it stars Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis as the Maitlands, a pair of suburban Connecticut softies who, after their death in a tragi-comic automobile accident, have to try and spook the upper crust Manhattanites named the Deetzes who have taken up residence in their home (the all-star family consists of Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O’Hara as the parents and Winona Ryder as Lydia, their sullen daughter). Since they don’t have what it takes to scare away their new houseguests, they have to call on Betelgeuse (an unstoppable Michael Keaton), a self-styled “bio-exorcist,” to get rid of them. And all hell (quite literally) breaks loose.
“Beetlejuice” remains one of Tim Burton’s most fully realized, vibrantly stylized films – and one of his funniest, too. Released on March 30, 1988, the film proved to be a smash hit (the tenth biggest grossing of its year), won terrific reviews (no less than Pauline Kael called it “a comedy classic”), and helped Burton land the biggest job around, directing “Batman.” To commemorate the occasion, we’ve compiled a list of five things that you might not know about the endlessly quotable, wonderfully inventive “Beetlejuice.” And for more Tim Burton, here’s his “5 Essential Films,” 10 of His Unmade Movies and let’s not forget a reported sequel is on the way.
1. It Was Originally Meant To Be Way More Violent
While “Beetlejuice” is regularly trotted out as a successful example of the tonally tricky combination of horror and comedy, original versions of the story leaned much heavier on the former than the latter. Screenwriter Michael McDowell, who originally worked with Larry Wilson on the story (they were both replaced by Warren Skaaren at Burton’s behest – more on this in a minute) and who was a well-known and respected writer of paperback novels, originally conceived of the script as a much bleaker, more horror-driven piece. The original script featured a much more intense version of the Maitlands’ car crash (in this version Geena Davis‘ character’s arm gets smashed in graphic detail; subsequent drafts kept a reference to this), while the Betelgeuse character isn’t a charming (if skeezy) used car salesman of the undead; instead he was envisioned as leather-winged demon whose humanoid form is that of a squat Middle Eastern man (subsequent drafts had him talking in a kind of African American pidgin dialect).
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There are superficial details that changed, like the deletion of a younger Deetz sister, named Cathy, who had the ability to see the Maitlands, but the main difference between the initial McDowell drafts and what came after was the tone – Betelgeuse isn’t interested in merely scaring the Maitlands but is, instead, a homicidal maniac, hellbent on murder and rape. Imagine: instead of that great climactic wedding sequence, where Betelgeuse tries to tie the knot with Lydia, it was replaced with one in which Betelgeuse attempts to rape Winona Ryder. Not exactly a crowd pleaser.
At the wildly popular MoMA Tim Burton exhibit from a few years ago, there were original versions of the script on display, complete with Tim Burton’s handwritten notes, which even then indicated the shift away from gory bleakness to a more light-hearted celebration of the macabre. Skaaren (who would go on to heavily rewrite Sam Hamm‘s original “Batman” script for Burton) added playfulness to the original “Beetlejuice” screenplay’s more existential dread (instead of a moon of Jupiter, the Maitlands would open the door and see giant gears grinding up the fabric of time against a pitiless black void). It was still more violent than what the movie ended up being, but you can see where everyone was headed.
McDowell, for his part, co-wrote (with Wilson) “The Jar,” the 1986 episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” that helped put Burton on the map (watch it below). And before McDowell’s tragic death in 1999, at the age of 49, due to complications related to AIDS, the two would work together again. Burton would call upon McDowell to help with the script for an ambitious stop motion project for Disney that would end up being the beloved “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
2. Burton Wanted Sammy Davis, Jr. For The Title Role
As is stated above, the Betelgeuse character was drastically different than what ended up on screen. Originally conceived as a winged and demonic presence, taking human form as a small Middle Eastern man, subsequent drafts made him more African American, and he spoke in a kind of pidgin dialect that probably been downright Jar Jar Binks-ish.
In keeping with this characterization, and continuing his trend of casting his movies like he’s assembling a list of interesting guests for a 1970s variety show, Burton expressed interest in casting original Rat Pack member Sammy Davis, Jr. in the title role. While this makes a certain amount of sense (anything does when refracted through the gonzo Burton lens), it would have resulted in a completely different Betelgeuse – loungy, laid back, and probably a little more lascivious. Thankfully, producer David Geffen, who had been developing the script under his shingle at Warner Bros, stepped in and suggested Michael Keaton. Burton, unsurprisingly, was impressed from the beginning, with the actor’s live wire performance still among this best. Keaton also wound up in the title role of Burton’s next movie, “Batman,” a decision that would cause an outcry in fans, since Keaton was primarily known as a comic actor (“Mr. Mom” had been a big hit a number of years earlier). But the rest, as they say, is history.
3. Warner Bros. Hated The Title
The title for “Beetlejuice” is a play on the character Betelgeuse’s name, which in turn based on the Betelgeuse star, which is housed in the infinite blackness of space but in the same constellation as the more famous star Orion. (Screenwriter McDowell was surprised anyone picked up on the reference.) Warner Bros, however, didn’t think there was anything clever or funny or interesting about the movie’s title, and begged Tim Burton to allow them to change it. He refused.
The alternate title the studio had come up with was “House Ghosts,” which, at the very least, beats out “Anonymous Haunted House Story 39480,” which more or less conveys the same general mood and aura. Burton, the story goes, suggested “Scared Sheetless” as a joke (a reference to the scene where the Maitlands attempt to scare the Deetzes out of the house by wearing bed sheets – something they consider spooky but comes off as utterly laughable). Much to Burton’s horror, the studio actually liked his idea, and tried to rename the movie. Burton finally put his foot down and said that the movie would be called “Beetlejuice.” Once and for all.
4. There Was A Hugely Popular Animated Spin-Off
Some might remember that “Beetlejuice” inspired an animated spin-off series that was snappily (if somewhat crudely) illustrated in the style of the movie, complete with Danny Elfman music serving as the series’ theme. In the show, Betelgeuse (who Lydia referred to as BJ) and Lydia would travel between the real world and “The Netherworld” and get into all sorts of creepy/cuddly adventures. What you might not remember is how phenomenally popular the series was.
It ran from 1989 to 1992 and amassed almost a hundred episodes. At one point, new episodes were airing on ABC‘s Saturday Morning line-up while additional episodes ran during the week on Fox. (Historically, only a handful of shows have aired at the same time on two different broadcast networks.) In other words: it was huge. The show still airs on the AOL channel Toontopia TV, and in May, the entire series will be released on DVD courtesy of Shout Factory. Expect a lot of twenty-somethings to buy the set and say something along the lines of, “Well this was weirder than I remembered it being.”
5. A Tropical-Set Sequel Was Planned
On one of his endless live talks, Kevin Smith recounts his fruitless experiences being wooed by the big studios, post-“Chasing Amy.” At one point he was brought to Warner Bros. and given a choice of projects to work on and potentially develop. One, he says, was “Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian.” (“Must we go tropical?” Smith wondered in the stand-up special.) The other project was another Tim Burton joint, one that would lead to a long and particularly painful development process for Smith and pretty much everyone involved, millions of dollars being spent on cast members, costumes, and pre-production work that would ultimately never see the light of day. That film was “Superman Lives.”
Anyway, back to the “Beetlejuice” sequel. Warner Bros. was pressuring Burton for a sequel to the hit film, and Burton shot back with the idea of letting Betelgeuse unleash his mischief on the Hawaiian islands. They even hired a screenwriter, Jonathan Gems (with “Heathers” scribe Daniel Waters brought on for a polish later on), and formally announced the project for the summer of 1990. Gems later described the thought process as such: “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.”
Everything stayed pretty quiet on the sequel front, with a longstanding legal wrangle going on between Warner Bros. and Geffen over who, exactly, owns the rights to the character. In 2011, it was announced that Seth Grahame-Smith, who wrote “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and who had just worked with Burton on an adaptation of his own “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” and a big screen revamp of “Dark Shadows” for the director, was working on a “Beetlejuice” sequel (last year he said it was still on). It is assumed that the script he’s developing is not set in Hawaii.
So, if you haven’t watched “Beetlejuice” in a while or this piece has nudged you to revisit it, please leave your thoughts below. Or say Beetlejuice Beetlejuice Beetlejuice and we’ll just appear.