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By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 30, 1988


Tim Burton
Alec Baldwin;
Geena Davis;
Michael Keaton;
Jeffrey Jones;
Catherine O'Hara;
Winona Ryder
Parental guidance suggested

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"Beetlejuice" is an extraspectral experience, a wonderfully wacko look at the hereafter's relationship with the here and now. It's a cartoon view of the afterlife landscape, where the living haunt the dead and death's no escape from life's little irritants -- like waiting rooms and elevator music.

Tim Burton, the Disney animator who directed "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," is the mind behind this stylish screwball blend of Capraesque fantasy, Marx Brothers anarchy and horror parody. And Michael Keaton is the juice that makes it go. He's a stand-up zombie as the revolting free-lance bio-exorcist hired to help Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin, playing the Maitlands, a couple of flummoxed young newly deads.

Manic as a cornered squirrel and prankish as Satan's kid brother, Keaton brings a sprinkling of brimstone to the bucolic Connecticut setting where the Maitlands have been lovingly renovating their cozy farmhouse. While driving to the hardware store, they swerve for a fuzzy dog and end up drowning in a picturesque creek.

Before you can say R.I.P., they're back home with no idea how they got there. They realize something's amiss when Barbara finds a copy of "The Handbook for the Newly Deceased." Otherwise nothing is changed -- except that if they walk out the door they're on the planet Venus, where the killer sand worms live. It looks as if they can spend eternity puttering.

Then trendies Charles and Delia Deetz (Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O'Hara) buy the house and desecrate it with Memphis furniture by way of Beverly Hills. Their daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder) mopes about in black veils, while Charles options farmland. Delia replaces the Maitlands' flowered sofa with one made of boilerplate and pony hide. And the Maitlands are trapped in "The Night of the Living Room."

The Maitlands, of the Casperian school, try to scare off the interlopers. But their hauntings only intrigue the Deetzes, who summon them in a se'ance and decide to open a paranormal theme park. It becomes a case of the materialistic versus the materialized. Despondent, the Maitlands are obliged to call Beetlejuice (Keaton), who appears in a trice, with green hair and teeth that haven't been flossed since the Plague. He's pawing Barbara Maitland when his head goes into a Linda Blair spin. "Don't you just hate it when that happens?" he growls, sounding as if he's been gargling with kitty litter.

The movie is a special-effect compendium of decomposing corpses, popping eyeballs and the occasional severed head. Awaiting their caseworker in purgatory, the Maitlands sit uneasily among the other dead folk -- a man with a chicken bone caught in his throat, a magician's assistant cut in half and a charcoal man who offers them a smoke.

This doesn't spook Geena Davis, who made love to "The Fly." She's a naturally blithe spirit, like a female Tom Selleck, who gives a dimpled congeniality to the proceedings. Both she and Baldwin, a "Knots Landing" veteran, bring warmth and believability to their cartoon roles.

The characters were conjured up by writers Michael McDowell and Warren Skaaren. Theirs is a diffuse, unstructured screenplay that doesn't even follow the rules of its own universe. It's strong on lines and situations, but absolutely, happily preposterous. And the moral is a fairy-tale bromide played for laughs: You can't escape your problems. Suicides are forced to become civil servants in the afterlife, and you can't leave your house for 125 years anyhow.

Not since "Ghostbusters" have the spirits been so uplifting.

Beetlejuice is playing at area theaters and is rated PG.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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