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)

Death Ship

Isn’t the captain supposed to go down with the ship?

Not here. He survives, and according to the poster, “would be better off dead” for doing so. Death Ship, needless to say, is a weird disaster film / supernatural horror-hybrid that is set on the high seas (and by the looks of the insane premise, “high” being the operative word).

A sweaty George Kennedy plays Ashland, a bored cruise ship captain whose vessel collides with a mysterious rusted brown freighter. His takes on water, and disappears quickly, leaving but a handful of survivors on a raft. They float about for a bit before coming upon the rust-bucket boat in question, now anchored, and they hop aboard.

They go exploring, only to discover that the ship in uninhabited. It’s always a delight to see a bunch of people poking about on an abandoned vessel, which we have not seen since the wacky 90s Italian horror, Creature from the Abyss, aka, Plankton).

There’s a ghost in the machine, however, and one of the passengers (Saul Rubinek, the Daphne love interest from Frasier) is hoisted by a crane and dunked/keelhauled to his demise.

The survivors realize that something is seriously amiss and they really haven’t been rescued at all.

You see, the titular ship has been totally abandoned and is just drifting around as if it’s been possessed by some nefarious spirit. Spoiler alert: It friggin’ has.

Even though Death Ship isn’t a slasher, and is as far removed from the likes of Friday the 13th or Halloween as you can get despite coming out during the Golden Era of horror, it still manages to succeed because like those films, there’s a solid understanding that place matters.

***1/2

[Check out our podcast discussion of Death Ship!]