The Elfman Cometh: Beetlejuice

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

35 years ago, macabre maestro Tim Burton directed his second feature and what would still remain one of the finest achievements of his career. The horror comedy Beetlejuice set up many motifs that Burton would continue to explore for years to come: gothic imagery, creepy visual effects, spooky setpieces and the sending-up of all things “normal”. The film also continued Burton’s collaboration with composer Danny Elfman, with whom he had teamed up three years prior for his feature debut Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. It was the first time Elfman, who led new wave band Oingo Boingo at the time, had written music specifically for a movie but he seemingly got a hang of things quite quickly. Since then, he’s gone on to score nearly every project in Burton’s filmography and Elfman’s music has become a significant part of the director’s idiosyncratic brand.

Beetlejuice begins with lovebirds Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara Maitland (Geena Davis) on a two-week vacation at their home in the New England countryside. Things take a turn when their car swerves off a bridge during a trip back from town and neither of them end up making it. Slowly coming to terms with their transition into the afterlife, the Maitlands watch in horror as their residence is overtaken by New York yuppies Charles (Jeffrey Jones) and Delia Deetz (Catherine O’Hara). Though they aren’t able to see the phantom Maitlands, their daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder) is somehow able to confer with the apparitions and wants to help them adjust to their altered state. Along the way, the Maitlands get in touch with Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), a boorish “bio-exorcist” who offers to scare the Deetzes away from Adam and Barbara’s earthly abode.

From the first frame — the production logo for The Geffen Company — Elfman is front and center as one of Beetlejuice‘s brightest stars. As Burton and cinematographer Thomas E. Ackerman take us through a bird’s-eye tour over the fictional town of Winter River, the score undulates with a busy tuba bass line and a manic trumpet melody to match. The half-time percussion along with the bouncing piano figures recall the exhibitionist novelty of a carnival barker, a prelude of kookiness with promises of the freakish delights to come. It’s off the wall and triumphant at the same time, a ghoulish amuse-bouche that also serves as one of Elfman’s most iconic pieces of movie music. “Main Titles” is a perfect sonic introduction to this strange and singular world but Elfman doesn’t stop there.

The upbeat “Travel Music” makes for a peppy counterpoint to the deadly car crash that ends our protagonists’ mortal lives early in the film. The lopsided tango of “Obituaries” suggests that the Maitlands’ dance with death has only begun, while “Enter…’The Family'” underlines the buffoonish nature by which Burton regards the new well-to-do homeowners. Composer Michael Andrews must have had “Lydia Discovers?” in mind when he wrote “Liquid Spear Waltz” for Donnie Darko, another film about a troubled teen communing with the dead. “The Incantation” coincides with the film’s climax and appropriately pulls out all the stops, weaving together haunting harp lines and wondrous trombone fills with a creepy organ under all of it.

Of course, Beetlejuice fans will also note the indelible mark that the music of the recently-departed Harry Belafonte have on the movie as well. We hear Adam listening to two of Belafonte’s calypso classics when he’s working on his model city in the attic, which sets up how two more of his songs will be used later on. During a dinner after they’ve completely transformed the house, the Deetzes and their snobby guests become supernaturally possessed to sing and dance along with “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”. Originally, the forlorn “If I Didn’t Care” was selected for the scene but the rowdy “Day-O” is clearly a much better pick. “Jump In The Line (Shake, Señora)” was eventually selected as the song that Lydia would dance along to during the film’s conclusion, wisely replacing the Percy Sledge serenade “When a Man Loves a Woman”.

Beetlejuice is such a bizarre concoction of lavish morbidity and offbeat humor that it’s somewhat surprising the movie found a big audience. Grossing just under $75 million in the US alone, its box office take puts it in the top ten of 1988’s highest grossing films. It also has the distinct honor of being the first disc shipped via Netflix’s soon-to-be-defunct DVD-by-mail service when it launched 25 years ago. Naturally, talks of a sequel have been circulating since the film’s initial success but have just recently begun to pick back up again. Warner Bros. has announced that a follow-up is officially underway, with Burton and Keaton set to return along with Elfman as well. In fact, the iconic composer even quelled fears regarding Keaton’s age difference between the two movies. “That’s the beauty of the Beetlejuice makeup,” Elfman opined. “He already looked like he was 150 in the first one!”