Beetlejuice Blu-ray Review

Tim Burton’s cinematic work is known for being bizarre, surreal, macabre and eccentric in addition to often humorous, and it is his second feature film, 1988’s Beetlejuice, where these themes first came together. While the director has gone on to make movies that are more invariably well acted, have a deeper dramatic appeal and better production values, for my tastes, this is his most consistently humorous and enjoyable.

For those unfamiliar, the story involves the Maitlands, a happily married and recently deceased couple who come to the realization that they are ghosts (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin). They find their beloved country home, which the rules of the afterlife forbid them to leave, sold to a city couple (Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O’Hara) and their eccentric daughter (Winona Ryder). The plot follows the ghost’s comedic attempts to expel their new tenants including calling upon the talents of “bio-exorcist” Beetleguese. Michael Keaton steals the movie with his portrayal as the title character who is repulsive and nasty but excellently portrayed through the actor’s deeply humorous performance. Keaton has the least screen time of any of the main actors but easily outshines them all.

The movie was successful enough to land Burton a gig helming the first entry in the newly revamped Batman franchise the following year. Many of the trademarks that would grace his later work are found in Beetlejuice such as strong set design and costumes textured with purposeful use of color and/or lighting (the Oscar for Best Achievement in Makeup was deservingly received), explicit special effects (here in awesome pre-cgi claymation and stop action photography), a twisted sense of humor (consider the bureaucratic nature of the afterlife) and Danny Elfman’s distinctive score. It is easy to see how this film is a blueprint for Burton’s later work from A Nightmare Before Christmas through Big Fish to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

It could be argued that Beetlejuice suffers from a few flaws (though forgivable in the context of the overall presentation). Once the base story is established, the narrative moves at a capricious pace and at times almost falls apart. Leaps in logic are required, even past the initial suspension of disbelief, as some moments come and go without coherent relation to those preceding or following them. It may be that Beetlejuice works despite these inconsistencies or even because of them. The movie is not as dramatic or coherent as Burton’s later work, and the story exists to provide a skeletal framework for the eerie humor and slapstick to play out against the inspiring set designs and hypnotic score. If you are looking for much more, you will need to visit one of the director’s later films. I, however, find it as thoroughly enjoyable today as it was 20 years ago.

I had given up hope for an anamorphic widescreen edition of Beetlejuice to replace my original 1998 DVD. By the time the studio got around to releasing one for the movie’s 20th anniversary, we have high definition to occupy our attention. Warner presents the movie in Blu-ray framed at its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 with a 1080p VC-1 encode, and, in a quick comparison to the 1998 DVD, the HD version wins hands down with huge improvements in color, clarity, detail and contrast. This should not be surprising as the ‘98 release was a first generation product and there have been many advances in video mastering technology over the past decade.

Unfortunately the transfer does not compare as well to better HD titles, and coming immediately off my viewing of How The West Was Won for its Blu-ray review, it suffers greatly in contrast. That 46-year-old movie is a stellar example of a catalog title that appears downright stunning in HD while Beetlejuice looks all of its 20 years of age. I actually revisited the transfer a few days after my initial viewing with my expectations in check and found it has its benefits as well as deficits.

Though not close to the worst catalog title I have seen, the film looks like a product of the late 1980’s and endures all the trappings of that time period. The image is flat, often soft and never provides the dimensionality we have come to expect from high definition. It frequently displays inconsistent contrast with black levels having resolution issues. There are several scenes where it is hard to distinguish between where a character or physical object ends and the dark background begins.

To its advantage, the transfer is clean with minimal print damage or dirt and benefits from high definition in color reproduction, which is well saturated but not as vibrant as more recent efforts. Detail, while generally decent, is never inspiring and is best perceived in extreme close ups and the distinctive set pieces and models (though also bringing out the budget and technological limitations of the time). The opening scene is heavy with grain that thankfully settles down to a healthy and rarely obnoxious level. The film is naturally grainy so at least it appears Warner did not hamper the video with any heavy-handed use of digital noise reduction.

While these complaints may make the 1080p transfer sound less than admirable, it needs to be taken in the context of its time and source material. My guess is that it outdoes the concurrent DVD release but by how much, I cannot definitively say. It is definitely not a title you will pull out to convince your friends of the benefits of high definition video but services the overall presentation as well as can be expected and is mostly acceptable. I am happy to replace my 10-year-old DVD copy with this Blu-ray.

The only 5.1 audio included are the English Dobly TrueHD and Dolby Digital tracks. French (Parisan, Quebec),Spanish (Castilian, Latin), German, Italian and Japanese 2.0 dubs are also present. Subtitles are offered in English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese and Swedish.

Upon first watching the movie, I did not find the 5.1 audio very impressive. Then I remembered Warner does not default its Blu-ray discs to the lossless tracks, when included. Once I switched to the Dolby TrueHD, it made a noticeable improvement. The sound went from being a bit thin and anemic to warm and robust. Elfman’s score really benefits from this treatment with the mid to lower level responses reproduced very well. Dialog, centered in the front speakers and accentuated in the center channel, is constantly crisp and never has to compete with the musical score.

As full-bodied as the high def audio is, it lacks the immersive presence found in more modern lossless soundtracks. Since this surround mix was constructed from the original two-channel soundtrack, it appears the front channels are mostly duplicated in the respective rears. While there is an average level of stereo division in the front speakers, there is not a very solid sense of separation among the full surround setup. The quality of any particular channel is very decent, but their combined effort does not equal that of much more dynamic tracks. Still, this is very satisfactory audio for a 20-year-old movie.

Extras are fairly slim for this “20th anniversary” package. Many of Burton’s later releases are more highly regarded and have garnered more substantial special edition features. Still, considering its status as a beloved cult classic, you would think the studio would have gone to greater effort. Warner potentially had years to prepare this edition and, knowing the director does commentaries, the inclusion of one and/or a “making of” feature would have been greatly appreciated. The following are what we get instead:

Three episodes from the animated Beetlejuice TV series (36:45): A-Ha! , Skeletons in the Closet and Spooky Boo-Tique are included from the ’89-’91 cartoon series inspired by the movie. Each lasts exactly 12 minutes and 15 seconds and is encoded in VC-1 but still shown in standard def resolution with stereo sound. Burton was producer of the series, but I do not find that it carries over much, if any, of the charm of the movie. Fans of the series may find these to be interesting.

Music Only Audio Track: There is an option to listen to Elfman’s soundtrack in Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Once choosing this option from the Special Features menu, you must begin the movie for the audio to start. It would have been nice if they had included this in Dolby TrueHD.

Theatrical Trailer (1:27): The trailer for the movie shown in standard definition and stereo sound. The video quality is fairly poor and makes you appreciate what the high def transfer was able to bring out for the movie.

I would not be inclined to mention this, but a Collectible Booklet is referenced on the front slipcover as a feature. It is a foldout with black and white pictures of creatures from the film and some “cute” tips about ghosts. This is not of any lasting interest.

A bonus Soundtrack Sampler CD with the following tracks, all by Elfman with the exception of Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song. This is a brief but vaguely interesting addition. I assume it was included to entice buyers into purchasing the separate soundtrack on CD. It would have been a better supplement if the full soundtrack had been included.

  • Main Titles (2:27)
  • Enter…”The Family”/Sand Worm Planet (2:50)
  • The Aftermath (1:21)
  • Showtime! (1:05)
  • The Banana Boat Song (3:02)
  • End Credits (2:47)

Many critics pan Beetlejuice for exactly the reason that it works for its supporters: a surreal story and zany sense of humor that have garnered it cult classic status over the past 20 years. It may not be my favorite Burton film (that honor probably goes to Sleepy Hollow), but it is one that I often return to with consistent enjoyment. Fans of Tim Burton who have never experienced this gem should definitely give it a shot.

Warner gives us a decent upgrade from the decade old DVD release but not a reference quality Blu-ray in any fashion. While the video and audio are understandably constrained by their source materials, the lack of any substantial extras is a real disappointment. Still, this is the best presentation of Beetlejuice we have seen for home video and fans should be satisfied enough, at least until a possible Blu-ray double-dip at some point in the future.

– Robert Searle

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