A scene-stealer that plays the title role in a film? How can that be? Well, Michael Keaton may have played the “starring role” in Beetlejuice (credited as “Betelgeuse”), but did you know he has just a minuscule 17 minutes’ screentime in this 92-minute film? Far from being the lead character, Betelgeuse doesn’t even make an appearance until 25 minutes in. Yet his role navigates the entire film down a very weird and wonderful path, and his limited appearances are undoubtedly the highlights.
Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin play the Maitlands, a cute, loving couple who live in a big, warm home that they dearly love. They love it so much, in fact, that when they die just 10 minutes into the film in a sudden car accident, their main purpose becomes to successfully haunt the house and rid it of its uncaring, obnoxious new owners. Cue failed attempts at dressing up in bed sheets to frighten their unwanted housemates.
The Maitlands quickly have to learn to navigate Tim Burton’s freaky view of the afterlife, monster-ridden deserts and all. Burton’s world in Beetlejuice is typical of his early films: dramatic, odd, and otherworldly. Davis and Baldwin are the “normal” characters in the film, the ones you’re supposed to relate to the most. They may be dead, they may pull bizarre pranks to frighten off unwelcome visitors, but they are at heart just a sweet, ordinary couple.
Then pops up a TV advert from Betelgeuse (Keaton), a wild-haired, decaying entity who just needs you to say his name three times in order to enter your world and help you with all of your newly-deceased needs. He’s manic, a whirlwind of dark energy that seemingly never stops. He can morph into pretty much any size or shape, swap voices in a split second, and go from charming to terrifying just as quickly. He’s your best friend, and he’s your worst nightmare. Once he’s released into the outside world, it’s very hard to get rid of him.
A year before he first donned the cape in Batman, this is truly Keaton at his wildest. Think Robin Williams and Jim Carrey’s energy levels combined, then add a tonne of makeup and outlandish costumes and you have Keaton’s Betelgeuse. He’s like a lightning bolt to every scene he appears in, often taking it down paths that you wouldn’t expect. With a lot of ad-libbing involved, Keaton seems to be on a different wavelength to Baldwin and Davis entirely, which works incredibly well. While they are trying to think deeply about how they will solve their crisis, Betelgeuse is jabbering away in the corner and distracting them as much as possible.
While the film will always remain a cult favourite, it does look very dated now. This is predominantly down to Burton’s artistic style in the late ’80s and early ’90s (and what from the ’80s doesn’t look dated, anyway?) – but something about the character of Betelgeuse isn’t dated at all. Burton apparently wanted the character to appear as though he had lived in every time period, but to be from no specific period at all.
He constantly switches accents and costumes, giving the feeling that he really has been everywhere at any given time. He stands very much apart from the others in the film; even the other deceased characters have very little in common with him. Betelgeuse is a crazy whirlwind that sweeps up the audience and co-stars alike, and behind all that elaborate makeup Keaton delivers a truly unforgettable 17 minutes of screentime.