Beetlejuice

As champions of Italian horror, we’re eminently familiar with style over substance. In Beetlejuice, this is similarly true, a sumptuous visual feast (hell, this one also features a dilapidated house, a book of incantations, and a Dario Argento color palette, so perhaps it’s a kindred spirit).

A couple (the Maitlands) drives off a bridge and drowns, only to find themselves in an underwhelming afterlife, roaming their own home as ghosts, with New York interlopers redesigning their homestead to their own particular design aesthetic.

The now late Barbara and Adam Maitland discover a Handbook of the Recently Deceased, which grants them a caseworker and an associated ID and introduces them to posthumous bureaucracy (the similarities to the Ted Danson venicle, The Good Place, are pretty obvious as the deceased tries to make heads or tails out of their deadness).

Trying to circumvent all that red tape, the couple summons Beetlejuice, a “bio-exorcist”, so that he can scare the bejeezus out of the new tenants and the Maitlands can resume their rightful place at home (interestingly, director Tim Burton once referred to Beetlejuice as a “burlesque version of The Exorcist”).

A restless and ever-creative spirit, Burton was being pitched crap projects that included Hot to Trot, about a talking horse of all things. Perhaps it was detritus like that, which got the creative juices flowing as Beetlejuice is as imaginative a series of set pieces as you’ll ever see.

The star, of course, is Keaton as the title character, a foul-mouthed decaying rapscallion and fast-talking chiseler stuck in a hokey diorama (The bio-exorcist’s qualifications? “I attended Julliard… I’m a graduate of the Harvard business school. I travel quite extensively. I lived through the Black Plague and had a pretty good time during that.”)

His performance is so engaging, so over-the-top and so effortlessly memorable, it threatens to overwhelm the proceedings at times. Luckily, there’s the ever-dependable Catherine O’Hara and Wynona Ryder to keep things in check.

**** (out of 5)

April Fool’s Day

Confinement adds a bit of an intrigue to a slasher, whether it’s the high gate in Hell Night or the dreamscape of A Nightmare on Elm Street. April Fool’s Day smartly employs an island to get more mileage out of its Ten Little Indians conceit.

[Check out our accompanying April Fool’s Day podcast]

A group of college seniors gathers at a dock for a spring break getaway. And compared with other films of this ilk, these folks are positively restrained when it comes to all the good vices. Instead, they talk about their futures (this was back when college students had a future. Today, the average student loan borrower has US $37,172 in student loan debt, 20k higher than a decade and a half ago). Unsolicited advice: pick a trade and stick to it.

They mug for the camcorder and banter about utility curves and Paradise Lost (to the extent that that’s even possible) before sailing over the island, accessible only by ferry and complete with its own sprawling mansion (the family home of Kennedy-esque WASP elite Muffy St. John, the host of the shindig).

As the group settles down to supper, they experience a slew of April Fool’s-related pranking that includes falling doorknobs and spray faucets.

When one goes missing, the joking ceases. And they have to contact cops on the mainland, post haste.

Fred Walton directs (he who gave us the sporadically fun if overly procedural, When a Stranger Calls) and he’s in full command of his craft here, as there are some legitimate little scares. But the real star is writer Danilo Bach (Beverly Hills Cop) who gives April Fool’s Day whip-smart dialogue, almost too good than it deserves (an outlier for the slasher boom, that’s for sure, which was sputtering to its end around the late 80s)

Like Sleepaway Camp, this one will be mostly remembered for its top-notch denouement, a dynamite pretzel-worthy twist.

***1/2 (out of 5)