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)

Spider Baby

spiderbabyposterA cheeky exploration of in/out-group dynamics, Spider Baby takes us into the decrepit Los Angeles estate of the Merrye family descendants, sterile genetic defectives suffering from a condition that makes them revert to atavistic, cannibal behavior.

This includes offing the poor local postie, slicing him to bits after trapping him in a web, but not before he’s made his final delivery: a legal disposition regarding a deed to the house.

It appears some distant relatives, siblings Emily and Peter, have designs on the Merrye estate and their sleazy lawyer, Schlocker, is trying to snare it for them, before they’re all ensnared.

And the legal case against their cousins, the home’s occupants, appears simple: they’re gown-clad stab-happy simpletons Elizabeth and Victoria, home-schooled teens with under-developed social skills who should be Wards of the State. They’re the girls the poster refers to who combine the “seductive innocence of Lolita” with the “savage hunger of a Black Widow.” Then there’s the bald mute pervert of a manservant (the wonderful Sid Haig), who travels about the house via dumbwaiter. And they’re all under the care of a mild-mannered chauffeur, Bruno, the incomparable Lon Chaney Jr.

Emily and Peter, their lawyer, and his assistant, are welcomed into the family home, a creepy creaky taxidermy abode, that has some of them looking for other accommodations.

spider_baby_stillIt’s a terrific setup, from the haunted house thunder narration of cousin Peter, to the wonderful introduction of Chaney driving a lumbering dark Duesenberg. 

Talky, shadowy and effortlessly charming, Spider Baby also happens to feature one of the better dining scenes in all horror, save for perhaps Dead Alive or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre — but pretty great nonetheless — showcasing the family’s…how shall we put it? Unorthodox eating habits…

But ultimately, the film, shot in 1964, also showcases the versatility of writer/director Jack Hill, who’s also given us Death Ship, as well as some women-in-prison/blaxploitation 70s stalwarts like Coffy and The Big Doll House. The Hill/Sid Haig commentary is highly recommended.

***1/2 (out of 5)