The untold truth of Beetlejuice

There are plenty of all-out grisly and gory horror movies, but when it comes to movies the whole family can watch together to welcome the spooktacular season of Halloween, there's really only a handful of choices. You've got old standbys liked Hocus Pocus and the two Addams Family movies, of course, but the all-time greatest movie in this category might be Beetlejuice. Arguably the funniest horror-comedy ever conceived, this 1988 hit solidified filmmaker Tim Burton as one of the greats with a devilish plot, wondrous special effects, and wild performances from a terrific ensemble cast that included Michael Keaton as the manic titular spook, Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis as the recently deceased Maitlands, Winona Ryder as teenaged Lydia, and Catherine O'Hara and Jeffrey Jones as Lydia's yuppie parents.

The production of this classic and its ensuing legacy are filled with fascinating stories and lore. Jump in the line, and enjoy these facts about the making of Beetlejuice (Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice).

No laughing matter

While Beetlejuice is all about ghosts, monsters, death, and other objectively spooky stuff, it's not all that scary, thanks to Michael Keaton's delightfully hammy work and the nonstop juxtaposition of comedy (and calypso dance numbers) to keep things light. As it turns out, all that stuff happened during rewrites and filming — in its earliest conceptions, Beetlejuice was a very different movie.

In Michael McDowell's script, the adorable Maitlands' death scene is quite graphic and traumatic — they get trapped in a car and scream to no avail as they're shown slowly drowning. Then they enlist the help of "Betelgeuse," who isn't so much an edgy clown in stripes as he is an evil demon with wings. And then rather than try to scare away the new residents of the Maitlands' old house, he pretty much just tries to murder them (which would get rid of them, but still). His relationship with Lydia Deetz is downright predatory, as the ghost tries to get with her in an inappropriate way… before he tears her apart.

An interesting idea, babe

Portraying Beetlejuice (who is actually only in the finished film for less than 20 minutes total) was a surprising departure for Michael Keaton, a star previously known for his "regular guy" roles in comedies like Gung Ho and Mr. Mom. His performance here showed he could do horror, gonzo comedy, and, well, just about anything — and immediately after Beetlejuice, director Tim Burton cast him in Batman. 

Burton is a quirky filmmaker who often makes off-the-wall casting choices (Robert Goulet, of all people, appears in Beetlejuice), and Keaton actually wasn't his first pick for the title role: He wanted beloved actor, crooner, "Candy Man," and all-around entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. for the part. Up to that point, the script called for the character to take the form of a Middle Eastern man, and to be a bit more evil with a Las Vegas lounge singer kind of vibe; as Davis was a former Rat Packer, he fit the bill in that last regard.  Producer David Geffen talked Burton out of his pick, and suggested he check out Keaton instead.

A reluctant star

At Burton and Keaton's first meeting, Burton tried his best to explain Beetlejuice's far-out concept — and apparently didn't do such a great job. "I didn't understand what he was talking about," Keaton said of the encounter on Charlie Rose in 2014. "But I liked him. I went, 'Oh, well, this guy's something.' And so I said, "I wish I could do it, you seem like a really nice guy, I know you're creative, but I don't get it." 

Burton got Keaton to meet again, and that time he went into more detail about the project, but Keaton still didn't understand, and politely declined Beetlejuice once more. Undeterred, Burton persuaded Keaton to take a third meeting, where he rattled off some ideas that Keaton said "just logged" in his brain. He asked Burton for some time to think it over… which he spent building the character so he could wrap his mind around it. Keaton called up some associates at the producing studio's wardrobe house and asked for various clothing choices from different time periods, as well as some help in creating the character's appearance — he wanted his hair to look like he stuck his "phone in an electrical outlet" and his face to have mold on it. All that stuff wound up in the character design.

A very sheet-y potential title

While in line with director Tim Burton's frequent approach of naming his movies after their central character — Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood — Beetlejuice is a relative mouthful of a title. And that's after it was given a more phonetically friendly and easily pronounceable version of the inspiration for the character's name, the star Betelgeuse. As a young filmmaker at the time, Burton had to deal with a certain amount of studio interference, and executives initially planned to give the movie the bland and forgettable (but accurate) title House Ghosts. Burton hated that idea, so he tried to play a little game with his bosses and suggested the ghostly but suggestive Scared Sheetless instead of House Ghosts, thinking that the powers that be would relent and let him go for Beetlejuice. But the plan backfired — the studio actually liked Scared Sheetless and seriously considered releasing the movie under that title. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.

Who's the Goth?

Thirty years later, the role of Lydia Deetz, an awkward teenage goth who could talk the talk and walk the walk of being into the dark side of life by communicating with the dead, still ranks among Winona Ryder's most definitive and popular performances. Beetlejuice launched the young actress to megastardom and marked her first collaboration with Tim Burton, with whom she'd work again on Edward Scissorhands and Frankenweenie. Looking back, it's hard to believe that Ryder just barely landed the part, and only landed it after beating out an actress who doesn't seem very Burtonesque at all: Who's the Boss? teen sensation Alyssa Milano.

In a 2016 interview with HuffPost Live, Milano reveled that casting Lydia came down to two choices: Ryder and herself. "You always wonder what would have happened differently in my life had that worked out, not that I would want it to be any different," reflected Milano, who admitted she "really, really wanted to get" the part. "It's just an interesting thought game."

The Deetz on casting Delia

Burton helped Catherine O'Hara's career with Beetlejuice, and the movie had a major effect on her offscreen life, too. Brooding, mysterious, odd — these are words one would use to describe Tim Burton, but probably not "romantic" or "matchmaker." Still, according to O'Hara, he exercised that part of his personality on the set of Beetlejuice. 

Bo Welch served as the set designer for Beetlejuice, so he's very responsible for giving the film its sensational and original postmodern horror look. O'Hara had a prominent role in the movie as Delia Deetz. And Burton thought the two would make a very cute couple… so he tried to make it happen. "Tim actually set us up to date," O'Hara told Digital Spy. They hit it off, and a couple of years later, Welch and O'Hara got married and had two children. Those kids owe their lives to a casting switcheroo — their parents may never have met if O'Hara hadn't replaced Anjelica Huston, who won the role of Delia but had to drop out of the project after she fell ill.

A very important Day-O on the set

One unexpected ripple effect of Beetlejuice: It made calypso cool again, which hadn't much been in the pop consciousness since Harry Belafonte topped the charts in the 1950s and early '60s.

During a dinner party, new haunted house residents Delia and Charlies Deetz (Catherine O'Hara and Jeffrey Jones), as well as their guests, become compelled by ghostly forces to perform a musical number set to "Day-O." That's just one of multiple Belafonte songs in the movie — in the opening minutes, Adam Maitland (Alec Baldwin) listens to "Sweetheart from Venezuela"; later, Lydia (Ryder) joyfully dances (and floats) to "Jump in the Line (Shake, Señora)"; and "Day-O" plays another time, when Adam and Barbara Maitland peruse the Handbook for the Recently Deceased

None of that appeared in the first version of Michael McDowell's screenplay; when writer Warren Skaaren took a pass, his draft included classic R&B — the haunted dinner party scene involved the humans dancing to the Ink Spots' "If I Didn't Care," and suggested Lydia provide a rendition of "When a Man Loves a Woman." Where did the calypso come from? Catherine O'Hara. According to her onscreen husband Jeffrey Jones, O'Hara suggested that the musical form would liven up the dinner party scene. Tim Burton and the rest of the filmmaking team dug the idea, and set about getting the rights to old calypso tunes and threading them throughout the movie.

A cameo from Burton's future

He's gone on to log numerous hits and cult classics, but Beetlejuice might be Tim Burton's most signature movie. All his calling cards are present — a ghoulish protagonist, a mixture of high comedy and spooky darkness, and quaint, puppet-and-model-based special effects.

In Beetlejuice, our title character attempts to terrify the Deetz family, the new, human residents of the former Maitland home, by rising up out of a town model. Michael Keaton appears ghostly white, mouth agape, and wearing a mobile on his head that's comprised of little dragons and hideous sea monsters. ("Attention K-Mart shoppers!" he quips.) Also on his head is a black-and-white-striped tube hat to match his primary costume. And on top of that is an umbrella-like contraption overseen by a little model of some kind of undead creature. That creature is a dead ringer for Jack Skellington, the main character in Burton's A Nightmare Before Christmas… which wasn't released until five years after Beetlejuice.

Beetlejuice 2, an eclectic boogaloo

Given how popular it remains, the lack of a sequel to Beetlejuice is surprising, but it isn't for a lack of effort. Shortly after the first film, Burton wrote an outline that writer Jonathan Gems turned into a script titled Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian. As Gems told Fangoria, "Tim thought it would be funny to match the surfing backdrop of a beach movie with some sort of German Expressionism, because they're totally wrong together."

Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian was publicly announced in 1990, with Michael Keaton, Winona Ryder, Jeffrey Jones, and Catherine O'Hara all agreeing to reprise their roles for a story that found the characters heading to Hawaii to check up on a Deetz construction project: a casino built on top of a sacred Hawaiian burial ground. Along the way, Lydia visits the worlds of the undead, and Beetlejuice wins a surfing contest. But then Warner Bros. offered Burton total creative control on Batman Returns, so he — and Keaton — went off to do that. Interest died, the actors moved on, and the script was never filmed, nor was a subsequent effort by Beetlejuice co-writer Warren Skaaren called Beetlejuice in Love, in which Beetlejuice offers up his services to some new characters.

In 2011, Warner Bros. decided to explore a sequel once more, with a script potentially written by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies author Seth-Grahame-Smith. That never turned into cinematic gold, either.

Third time's the charm

NBC's cult sitcom Community was a comedically rich and pop culture reference-laden show. Often thanks to the media-obsessed Abed (Danny Pudi), scenes were loaded with subtle nods to beloved movies and TV series and well-placed Easter eggs that rewarded hardcore fans. Probably the most elaborate running joke and secret treasure the show ever featured paid homage to Beetlejuice

Over the course of three seasons, writers found a way to drop the word "Beetlejuice" into scripts. On one occasion, a character jokingly suggests that Britta (Gillian Jacobs) is named "Beetlejuice"; on another, Britta compares another's striped outfit to Beetlejuice's; and finally, Annie (Alison Brie) complains that a playlist consists largely of "the Beetlejuice soundtrack." At that exact moment — as it's a Halloween episode — an extra walks by in the background dressed in a complete Beetlejuice costume. In other words, the characters of Community said "Beetlejuice" three times, and, per the rules, he appeared.