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5 Things You Might Not Know About Tim Burton's 'Beetlejuice'

by Drew Taylor
March 29, 2013 11:00 AM
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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

Beetlejuice Wedding
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).

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.

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  • Corey | August 24, 2014 12:17 AMReply

    Other than "Pee Wee's Big Adventure" Tim Burton has made one POS after another. His movies are not interesting and funny. It's just one boring POS after another. And the biggest POS was Planet of the Apes.
    Timmy, take notes from Chris Nolan.
    YOU SUCK!!!!!!

  • Janvier Li | June 16, 2014 6:37 PMReply

    Yes Mr. Author, you called it. This show is a lot weirder than I remembered. Lydia and Beetlejuice's relationship certainly borders on the creepy side. Then again, Edgar Allan Poe married his 13-year-old cousin when he was in his mid 20's. I guess horror lords like to blur the lines a little bit...

    Still an amazing movie and delightful TV show.

  • Laiken | June 12, 2014 12:29 AMReply

    If the movie is to come out please Tim Burton you have to use Micheal Keaton with his crazy personality because personally if you are going to release this new one I beg you to get Micheal Keaton to be in it a new Beetlejuice in my opinion is no Beetlejuice at all now I understand the characters like Juno the Case Worker and other old people will not be in this one because most would be "gone" but that is okay I still have faith in this newer movie but even if its good or bad I will always support Micheal Keaton, Winona Rider, Tim Burton, Geffen ,Warner Bros. , and any other wonderful people who made this classic one of a kind movie.;

  • Laiken | June 12, 2014 12:21 AMReply

    I know they are to say that "Beetlejuice 2" is being made which I hope is because I for a fact love the film and adore the cartoon I started watching the cartoon last year and I'm in love with it ,it has good humor and fun turns of events and to be honest with everyone I have a HUGE crush on Beetlejuice I can't figure out why on earth I do, it just happened I guess haha. So Tim Burton Micheal Keaton and to any of the other characters that may be in this new one make me proud because I for one would love to see "the ghost with the most" make a come back and maybe if we get luck Stephen Quimette and Alyson Court will start the cartoon back up but hey we can only wait and see what Tim Burton has to come!

  • calvin | March 17, 2014 6:13 PMReply

    Could you imagine all the stop motion animation being done in CGI? Waaaugh, that is scary!

  • tingmosing | March 17, 2014 3:15 PMReply

    I always had the biggest crush on Lydia! So hot.
    Anon-Works dot Com

  • James | March 17, 2014 1:56 PMReply

    "in the same constellation as the more famous star Orion. (Screenwriter McDowell was surprised anyone picked up on the reference.) "

    I'm pretty sure Orion is a constellation...not a star? Also why would nobody get the reference to one of the most famous stars in the night sky?

  • Lee Morgan | March 2, 2014 11:52 AMReply

    Please... Don't release a Beetlejuice 2...the original is a classic. I hope that you can allow this to remain so. After a quarter century, this film remains, in my opinion, the best comedy/horror in living memory. Michael Keaton's role as Beetlejuice CANNOT be beaten.

  • ClaudiusValentine | February 16, 2014 8:11 PMReply

    BeetleJuice 2 is on his way. its now in 2014 i been keeping tabs on this for awhile and from all the news i get its gonna happen theres a script being written and because everyone loved doing the first its looking like burton will direct and the hole idea for the new 2nd when the first Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian would of sucked even WB saw this,

    this hole idea is being written with michael keaton in mind burton himself said he wont even think of it unless keaton reprises (one of the best characters ever made) burton wants it the fans want it and shockingly keaton himself have said he has been wanting to get back into beetlejuice since after the two batman movies so he's been waiting for over 20 years now so im sure hes in just show him a script already lol

    when it comes to beetlejuice, the character has become a anti hero of sorts since the animation picked up where the movie left off everyone loves this guy because they now see him as a cool anti hero that basically does what he wants, come on the B-man and lydia were both weird they were going to end up together and you know it so dont complain, the character does not need to go back to the 80's scaring out of the house routine again its been done move onto a bigger story with him.

    what the 2nd movie needs is more beetlejuice i mean he did steal every scene he was in so add more of that, sure he doesnt need to be in every single scene would be too much but adding to the characters legend that has been growing (beetlejuice character has become a legend)
    people want to see his past what he did when he was alive not just read very little about it online,

    the neitherworld needs to be shown more take a page out of the animated show which was made by burton himself the animation show is great it still holds up after all these years the character has become larger then life because of the show not the movie

    the movie has become boring to watch when you have seen it a million times over the jokes in the movie has become stale when the show kept the jokes coming in beetlejuice style , so people that dont like the show dont have a funny bone in their body.

    so to get anyone interested besides the stubborn long time fans of the movie which is just a few people that are already calling it a bad move when everyone involved said its not a remake or reboot its a straight continuation the story is gonna be 27 years from the original,

    we all know the original fans are gonna walk away they always do so what this sequel needs is new fans and what better way then pitching it as a continuation of the tv show but live action i mean the neitherworld with todays graphics is gonna look outstanding.

    its a different time now then the 80's what kind of people are gonna watch this time is family and kids from 18 - late 20's i myself is 28 keep in mind the idea of lydia and B-man being friends will probably be that way in the sequel they were both weird and deserved each other get over it already.

    they need to go the rout of the tv show then another scaring out of the house again or otherwise this sequel will bomb big time trust me the people that will see this now is families and young adults with very few older long time fans mixed in so beetlejuice may end up being a anti hero this time around as long as the main character is all their with keaton in the role then who the heck cares if the B-man is a anti hero or not people are gonna pay to see keaton they could care less of what the story is gonna be.

    plus any story with beeltejuice in todays graphics is enough to reboot the entire franchise making any fan very happy in the end.

  • Kris | October 28, 2013 11:02 PMReply

    Tim Burton, I beg of you, do not remake this movie. It is perfection. I think you won't but just wanted to put out out there. And if you do, I'll drag you out by the ropes you hanged yourself with. Because you must have given the them upper hand Lydia. <3

  • Josh | October 22, 2013 1:55 AMReply

    Nobody does weird/crazy like Michael Keaton. Tim needs to give it a rest with all the Depp films that haven't been interesting in years. Beetlejuice II! Now we just need Ivan Reitman & co. to come up with a Ghostbusters III!

  • jimmiescoffee | March 31, 2013 12:38 AMReply

    beetlejuice cartoon was awesome. 2nd golden age of animation classic.

  • Rob | March 30, 2013 11:55 PMReply

    I had a VHS copy of this movie as a kid and I would watch it, rewind it, and watch it again over and over. I'm 24 and I still love this movie.

  • libco | March 30, 2013 12:17 PMReply

    I would imagine that the people who watch the Beetlejuice Cartoon are 30 plus now rather than 20 something.

  • AMD | March 1, 2014 7:47 PM

    I'm barely 23 and I remember how much I loved watching it.

  • Josh | October 22, 2013 1:50 AM


  • Mer | March 31, 2013 5:58 PM

    I'm 25 and I was and am obsessed with Beetlejuice the movie AND the cartoon. It used to be on all the time and my brother (who is 2 yrs younger) and I would watch it every Saturday and then watch the re-runs.

  • George | March 30, 2013 9:58 PM

    Nope, I'm 19 and I watched this show everyday. Given that they were most definitely reruns, it was still pretty darn popular for people in my generation.

  • 30 plus | March 30, 2013 5:17 PM

    Yep, that's pretty much right. I'm just 30 and I was 6 to 9 when that show was on. I should think that any younger than me would have been absolutely confused by the show or just too scared to watch. Even I remember being right on the border of understanding anything the show was saying or doing, other than the french skeleton and the tap dancing spider.

  • Andrew | March 30, 2013 1:07 PM

    First thing I did when I saw that line...checked my own age because I loved the cartoon back then: 35.

    "20 something" is a nice idea, though.

    This was a fun article to read, thanks!

  • Andrew | March 30, 2013 1:07 PM

    First thing I did when I saw that line...checked my own age because I loved the cartoon back then: 35.

    "20 something" is a nice idea, though.

    This was a fun article to read, thanks!

  • John | March 30, 2013 9:19 AMReply

    Orion is a constellation, not a star.

  • Cp | December 17, 2013 10:58 PM

    Yeah but only because of that famous movie Ryjell

  • Ricky | October 14, 2013 8:32 PM

    Yup. The more well known star of which is Rigel. This writer does not know his astronomy.

  • brer | March 29, 2013 11:59 AMReply

    Since Burton married colorful camp and dark expressionism so well in Edward Scissorhands, I bet Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian would have been good.

  • Mark W. | March 29, 2013 11:40 AMReply

    After Warren Skaaren died of cancer at the age of 44, there was a small exhibit of his work at the University of Texas at Austin where he donated his papers. Under glass was a copy of an enticingly titled script, "Beetlejuice in Love," which I imagine was Skaaren's version of the "Beetlejuice" sequel.

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