Tag Archives: Jeffrey Jones

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BEETLEJUICE (1988)

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DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton

FEATURING: , Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, , ,

PLOT: A milquetoast suburban couple find themselves dead and haunting their own house; when new tenants they can’t stand redecorate the place and prove themselves immune to haunting, they hire a “bio-exorcist.”

Still from Beetlejuice (1988)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The premise, following a couple of ghosts protagonists along their misadventures in the afterlife, is a good enough foundation, but could have been a ho-hum fantasy in different hands. It took this all-star crew to come up with a desert world populated by sand snakes, a brothel in model train scale, a dinner party becoming a Harry Belafonte singalong, and a million and one creepy/hilarious dead folk to round it up to an eye-popping experience. It’s the happiest movie about death ever made!

COMMENTS: Tim Burton has certainly provoked his share of discussion on our site. Had 366 Weird Movies been around when he started his career, he doubtless would have been keen to make our list. Don’t let him kid for you a minute: Tim Burton knows exactly what weird is. He has Danny Elfman around, he knows about Forbidden Zone. There’s no excuse. He also knows what money is, and the siren song of the almighty buck has proven a stronger lure than prestige as a true artiste and auteur of midnight movies. Hence has he ever aimed his output straight for the suburban outlet mall, right between Hallmark and Hot Topic, making sure he can be equally merchandised in both. It’s clear that his artistic muse struggles to insert weirdness into everything he does, but if the weirdness factor cuts into the box office factor, he’s not about to take a chance on leaving a single empty seat in that theater on opening weekend. He still sobs himself to sleep at night over the lost Happy Meal deal. His saving grace is that he got off a few riskier shots in his wild years before Hollywood tamed him.

Beetlejuice is definitely Tim Burton at his wildest. If you remove his name and the all-star crew from consideration and view Beetlejuice objectively as its own thing, it’s pretty jaw-dropping that it ever got made. It is the blackest of black comedy subjects, getting a laugh out of scenes like suicide cases showing off their slashed wrists. And how would you like to hang yourself, only to find out that in the afterlife you’re condemned to keep dangling from the same noose, which is running around on a track amid office cubicles, so you can deliver memos? And the daughter protagonist—who can see ghosts through her sheer magical goth pixie powers alone—writes her suicide note but ghosts talk her out of it because, basically, death sucks too, kid. And how about Juno, the social worker for our hapless couple, who chainsmokes and exhales through the slash in her throat, and yet the effect is so underplayed that you could blink and miss it?

I once griped about the Imagination Ceiling: writers who bring up supernatural characters with allegedly near-boundless powers, but then the writer can’t think of anything awesome enough for them to do to make it worth the while. Beetlejuice does the Imagination Ceiling right. It’s jam-packed with supernatural characters who warp reality with a thought, pulling off one crazy stunt after another. Beetlejuice, tasked with getting rid of an intruding couple, does so by turning himself into a carnival strong man mallet game topped by a malevolent merry-go-round, for no other reason than that’s the first idea that popped into his head. In the manic hour-and-a-half running time, we never get very much explained, but the fever-dream logic is internally consistent enough that it makes perfect sense for a guy to get munched by a sudden sandworm attack. Right after he got rammed in the foot by a toy car driven by an outraged hobbyist shrunken down and left for stranded in his own model town, of course.

The mortal characters would be hard pressed to match the supernatural ones, but they do a bang-up job regardless. From the impossibly prissy interior decorator turned medium to the hysterically neurotic sculptress who will eventually be held prisoner by one of her own creations, they match the dead half of the cast bonker for bonker. Nobody with more than two lines in this film is forgettable. Only now we can start talking about the cast and crew, a unique blend of quirky careers and offbeat talents. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis stand out by the magnitude of their vanilla Brad and Janet routine, lost in a different kind of Gothic funhouse. Winona Ryder plays the most Winona Rydery role of her career. Danny Elfman’s music is a haunted circus. And all I want is for Glenn Shadix to follow me around all day narrating every mundane thing I do in his dramatic purple ham voice, is that too much to ask?

Beetlejuice is Tim Burton’s weirdest movie, because it ranks four out of five bowls of sugary cereal on the Saturday Morning Cartoon scale of unfettered childhood imagination.

Warner Brothers re-released Beetlejuice in a collectible Blu-ray steelbook package in 2019, giving us the excuse we needed to finally review it. It has the original trailer and the three episodes of the “Beetlejuice” cartoon series that were included on the “20th Anniversary” Blu-ray, but doesn’t come with the isolated score or soundtrack CD bonus disc from that release.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Right off the bat, the whole premise is fucking weird, and it just gets weirder with each subsequent single scene. People pull their faces off, heads are shrunk, sculptures come to life, eyeballs become fingers, massive worms eat people—it really is a nonstop barrage of ‘what the hell?’ How someone sat down and gave Tim Burton millions of dollars to make this is almost incomprehensible.”–Germaine Lussier, Gizmodo

CAPSULE: HOWARD THE DUCK (1986)

DIRECTED BY: Willard Huyck

FEATURING: Ed Gale, Lea Thompson, , , Liz Sagal, Holly Robinson, Chip Zien

PLOT: Loosely based on the Marvel comic book series, Howard is accidentally transported from his home planet of Duckworld to Cleveland, where he meets rock singer Beverly (Thompson); while trying to get  back home, his machinations inadvertently send an intergalactic monster to Ohio.

Still from Howard the Duck (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s creepy, overblown and leadenly unfunny, but not really all that weird, except maybe for the “romance” between Howard and Beverly.

COMMENTS: Hollywood history is littered with legendary critical and box office disasters that really aren’t as bad as their reputations suggest, like Cleopatra, 1941, and Ishtar. On the other hand, there’s Howard the Duck, which truly is as godawful as everyone said it was back in 1986. The movie’s best moments come right at the beginning, when we see Howard on his home planet reading “Playduck” in front of a poster for “My Little Chickadee”. (The ornithological puns are as amusing as the picture ever gets). But once Howard lands on Earth, flirting with Thompson and befriending Robbins, the flick completely falls to pieces, culminating in a riot of stop-motion effects (courtesy of Phil Tippett) which are impressively elaborate, yet fake-looking and alarmingly grotesque. Howard himself resembles a Disney Audio-Animatronic possessed by an evil spirit.

Today, it would all be CGI, of course, but CGI couldn’t fix this script. The film was a $40 million debacle that almost ruined Thompson and Jones, who were coming off hits Back to the Future and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, respectively. Infamously produced by George Lucas, this was his biggest mistake until Jar Jar Binks. One odd thing about the film: the theme song, written by Thomas Dolby and George Clinton, is an ear-worm that adamantly refuses to get out of one’s head.

The 2016 “Special Edition” Blu-ray features some 40 minutes of extras imported from the 2009 DVD, along with 11 minutes of featurettes from 1986. These include two trailers from the original release, plus a “News Featurette” and three short documentaries about the film’s stunts, special effects and music. From 2016 comes a twenty-six minute look at the film’s pre-production and shooting, and a 13-minute short examining the movie’s post-production, release, disastrous reception and “legacy”. That legacy includes Howard’s post-credits appearance in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Howard the Duck was, believe it or not, the first Marvel comic book character to appear in a feature film. Don’t be surprised if Howard receives a big-budget “reboot” one of these days.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “A hopeless mess… a gargantuan production which produces a gargantuan headache.”–Leonard Maltin (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: RAVENOUS (1999)

DIRECTED BY: Antonia Bird

FEATURING: , Robert Carlyle, , David Arquette

PLOT: During the Mexican-American war, a cowardly officer is exiled to a backwater fort in California; a survivor from a doomed group of settlers appears and leads the fort’s complement to a grisly fate.

Ravenous (1999)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With fine direction and A-list talent, Antonia Bird’s unlikely horror-comedy shows the positive effect a big budget can have on the splatter genre—but does not reach the necessary heights of weirdness.

COMMENTS: The tone for Hollywood’s foray into the realm of splatterhouse begins with Nietzsche’s quote, “He that fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster,” followed immediately by a timeless quote from anonymous: “eat me.” An 1847 American flag flies in the opening shot, and soon we see a group of officers and troops sitting down to a celebratory dinner of very, very raw steak. Captain Boyd, recently promoted, stares at the meat and quickly runs from the table to vomit. Why is this soldier so adversely affected by the sight of blood?

After the opening credits, set over a journey montage jauntily scored by Michael Nyman, we see his new home and new comrades. Deep in the Sierra Nevadas is a shack of an army fort, populated by the military’s cast-offs. Jeffrey Jones plays the affable commander of the troupe, Colonel Hart; David Arquette plays the lowest ranking character as one of history’s earliest comic stoners. Literally stumbling into the mix of soldier eccentrics is Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), who brings about the film’s main action when he relates his tale of desperation and cannibalism in a cave a few days march from the dilapidated fort.

What follows both makes the movie so wonderfully strange and, no doubt, made its box office takings so meager. (An investment of twelve million dollars from the studio resulted in box office totals of not quite two million). There is another journey, from the fort to the cave, again put to a jaunty soundtrack, and there is a horrible revelation that contradicts Colqhoun’s account. In a scene reminiscent of the opening nightmare in Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, the soldierly Private Reich discovers too many bodies, one of many grindhouse nods. A scuffle ensues and Captain Boyd flees the monstrous Colqhoun, eventually being forced to make a tough decision.

Between the set up and the payoff, we learn a number of things about the nature of cannibalism, the evils of man, and the nature of American Exceptionalism. Carlyle’s Manifest Destiny speech is one for (from?) the history books: “…this country is seeking to be whole. Stretching out its arms and consuming all it can.” The movie does not wear its metaphor lightly, but its message about the, shall we say, ravenous nature of America’s territorial appetites is the only element in the film that can be taken remotely seriously.

The rest of the film’s tone is dictated by the mandates of one of the more difficult genres to tackle, that of the “horror/comedy.” When splicing chuckles and jolts, it takes a deft hand to make sure the mix is right, much like finding balance in a stew. Ravenous‘ stew has all the right elements in correct proportion: its universe is presented by actors who take their roles very seriously, with only Carlyle’s character being larger than life—sensibly so, for reasons explained by the film’s mythology. David Arquette stands out, taking a bizarre turn away from his previous teen drama/comedy fare to play an Idiot archetype. Jeremy Davies’ turn as the chaplain is a wonderful interpretation of a socially withdrawn priest who borders on autistic. Guy Pearce’s Boyd is strangely relatable as the protagonist, and Jeffrey Jones’ Colonel Hart is believable as a father figure who is key to the main character’s transformation. All these men are thrown into a mix of violent hilarity, and the characters come out both intact and convincing.

So is this movie is “weird”? The story is bizarre, but the narrative is very easy to follow. The gore and cheek go hand in hand, which is pleasing, but fairly conventional. Running through the background of the whole thing on screen is the mischievous Michael Nyman, providing one of the most refreshing and situationally ironic scores to be found in most anything released in the theaters. However, it adds more to the sense of “fun” than a sense of “weird.”

With all this in mind, the fact that this movie was made is far weirder a thing than any specific element of the movie. It may be best looked upon as a mainstream foray into the realm of the strange, and it is a very deep trek therein.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Ravenous is unlike anything else, and even if it’s not to my own specific taste, I have great respect for its unrepentant weirdness.”–Mike McGranaghan, “The Aisle Seat”

ED WOOD (1994), TIM BURTON’S GLORIOUS SWANSONG.

In 1980 , two years after Ed Wood‘s alcohol related death at 54, film critic Michael Medved and his brother published “The Golden Turkey Awards” and gave Wood the award of being “The Worst Director of All Time” and naming his film Plan 9 From Outer Space “The Worst Film of All Time.”  The forever constipated Mr. Medved must had the biggest bowel movement of his life when he discovered that he and his brother unintentionally put the wheels in motion for the cult celebrity status of Wood who, to Medved, was little more than an object of derision.

Quite simply, Ed Wood was an outsider artist, whose medium was film.  He managed to create two highly personalized “masterpieces” of naive surrealism; Glen or Glenda (1953) and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) with “star” Bela Lugosi, who was clearly at the end of his tether.

In between these two films Wood made Bride of the Monster (1955) , also starring Lugosi (the only one of the three Wood films in which Lugosi actually ‘starred’), but that film was more of a concession to the genre and lacked the pronounced Woodian weirdness found in either Glen or Glenda or Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Fourteen years after Wood’s cult status rocketed out of the pages of Medved’s book, Tim Burton produced his valentine to Eddie.  Clearly, Ed Wood was as personal a film for Burton as Glen and Plan 9 had been for Wood.  Burton faced immense difficulty in mounting the project and was given what, for him, was a small budget.  Artistically, the endeavor paid off and even did so financially, in time, although it took Touchstone years to realize the film’s cult potential for the DVD market.
Still from Ed Wood (1994)
In 1994 Tim Burton was the perfect artist to bring Ed’s story to the screen.  Burton, recognizing a fellow auteur and genuine oddball, treated Wood, not with derision, but with the respect he deserved.  Before Ed Wood, Burton, although trained at Disney, was still an outsider with Hollywood backing, which makes him (in that regard) a kindred spirit to Stanley Kubrick.  Burton’s first big budget feature effort Continue reading ED WOOD (1994), TIM BURTON’S GLORIOUS SWANSONG.