Updated: Feb 13, 2021
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
Michael Keaton as the scene-stealing ad-libbing Betelgeuse, with teenager Winona Ryder as Lydia Deetz.
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4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 1988; PG for scary situations; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video, Apple (4K), FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)
Best extras: Three cartoons from the 1989-91 series that aired on ABC and Fox
CAN YOU imagine anyone not named Michael Keaton playing the ghost with the most?
Tim Burton did.
The surprise success of “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” (1985) had given him some sway in Hollywood, so when it came time to cast the lead for his next feature, he wanted to turn none other than – Are you sitting down? – Sammy Davis Jr. loose in the Afterworld.
Yes, the original Candy Man! Don’t you l-o-v-e it?
Burton had other ideas, too: He envisioned Betelgeuse as a Middle East demon, a sadistic, winged demon at that. The original script had him wreaking havoc in an at-times violent, grisly story that was closer to pure horror than the one that mildly spooked but mostly tickled audiences in 1988.
The topper? Warner Bros. Hated the title and came up with “House Ghosts.” Zzzzz. Burton’s suggestion? “Scared Sheetless.” You can imagine the reception that got in the boardroom.
(1) The lovey-dovey Maitlands, Adam and Barbara (Alec Baldwin & Geena Davis) enjoy a kiss in the attic where Adam is building a model of the town. (2&3) East Corinth, Vt., subs for Peaceful Pines, Conn. The Maitlands’ big white house on the hill was a facade built for the movie. (4&5) After Barbara drives into a covered bridge to avoid hitting a dog, their survival hangs in the balance. (6) Back home, they realize something has changed.
Anyway, enter David Geffen, who had been developing the script. He recommended Keaton. Burton was sold; the problem was, Keaton wasn’t. He told Rolling Stone that he turned down the role because “I didn’t quite get it, and I wasn’t looking for work.” He changed his mind when Burton told him that he wanted to change the tone of the original script and gave Keaton carte blanche to come up with his own shtick.
“The attitude is ‘You write your own reality, you write your own ticket,’” Keaton said. “‘There are no bars, I can do anything I want and under any rationality I want … ’”
You know the rest.
The impossibly lovey-dovey Maitlands, Adam (Alec Baldwin, “30 Rock”) and Barbara (Geena Davis, “Thelma & Louise”), are spending their vacation fixing up their rural Connecticut dream home when they’re killed in a freak accident. They learn that they’re to spend 125 years there, which isn’t so bad until the new owners, the Deetz, move in: Charles (Burton fave Jeffrey Jones) a New York real estate developer; his wife Delia (Catherine O’Hara, “Schitt’s Creek”), a gawdawful sculptor who wants to turn the place into the SoHo gallery from hell; and their morbid, but very sweet daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder, “Edward Scissorhands”), who befriends the Maitlands. No one else can even see them.
Haunted by the new occupants, Adam and Barbara, who are just so nice, reach into their limited bag of tricks to scare them off. (The scene where they’re possessed by Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O” is still worth the price of admission.) Nothing works. What they need is a pro, and even though they’ve been warned to steer clear of Betelgeuse, they call on the self-styled bio-exorcist to do the deed.
That, of course, is when the movie, which copped the Oscar for Best Makeup, kicks into gear.
(1&2) Charles and Delia Deetz (Jeffrey Jones & Catherine O’Hara) and their teenage daughter Lydia buy the Maitlands house. (3) Confined to the attic of their home, Adam and Barbara bone up on life in the Afterlife by reading the “Handbook for the Recently Deceased.” (4) They try to scare the new homeowners, but only Lydia can see them. (5) Adam and Barbara step out of the house and land on the Sand Worm planet.
But you know all that. What you may not know is that, thanks a sparkling, new 4K transfer (with HDR10) and a new, immersive Dolby Atmos audio track, “Beetlejuice” kicks butt.
The jump in quality from the old recycled Blu-ray to the new 4K Ultra HD is quite stunning. Warner scanned the original camera negative (1.85:1 aspect ratio) in 4K and mastered the new source in the higher resolution giving Burton’s tale new life. And for the first time, natural film grain dances across the screen, while the bump in clarity reveals the smallest of detail with the colorful costumes and the practical makeup. The wide-shots are even more striking – extracting the finest of detail with distant objects like the individual slate roof shingles on the Maitlands fixer-upper.
The HDR10 toning provides a well-balanced color palette with saturated reds, blues, and greens while keeping the faces natural without an orange cast found on the 1080p version. And, the blacks are deep and detailed, a key during the second half of the film, while the highlights are bright and controlled.
The 4K disc features a new eight-channel Dolby Atmos soundtrack with plenty of spooky fun music sent to your height speakers as Danny Elfman’s lively score fills the room. The main titles tune is the highlight, with Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jump in Line (Shake, Shake Senora)” not far behind.
This is where Warner Bros. dropped the ball. “Beetlejuice” cemented Burton’s rep – he collaborated with Keaton again on “Batman” the following year – so you’d think, 32 years on, the studio would’ve gotten someone to talk about it. No soap. There’s not even one of those crummy behind-the-scenes/making-of features.
Instead, the “extras,” such as they are, have been picked up from the 2008 release: three cartoons from the 1989-91 ABC/Fox series and a trailer. Hey, we love cartoons as much as the next guy, but, really?
The trade-off? That picture and sound.
Oh yeah, and a hoot of a story that’s lost none of its originality since Day 1.
Craig Shapiro and Bill Kelley III, High-def Watch producer
(1) The Maitlands spend what seems like an eternity in the Netherworld’s waiting room with other distressed souls. (2) The waiting room receptionist (Patrice Martinez). (3) It’s showtime: Betelgeuse, who specializes in “exorcisms of the living,” meets the Maitlands. (4) The Deetz’s dinner guests, including smarmy interior decorator Otho (Glenn Shadix), are served up a few scares.
(1) The Maitlands find themselves back in the waiting room. (2) Things don’t look good when they’re summoned during a séance that goes wrong. (3) The one and only ghost with the most. Keaton was given carte blanche by director Tim Burton to develop the character.