Tim Burton’s 1988 film Beetlejuice is a master class in set and character design; it even won an Academy Award for makeup. It’s filled with creepy crawlies, sight gags, and self-trimmed bangs tailor-made for the Weird Barbie crowd. But for all of its terrorizing intent, Beetlejuice is, at heart, a movie about the existential dread that accompanies home renovation–here’s why.
Barbara and Adam Maitland Are Basically a Normcore Chip and Joanna Gaines
The plot is straightforward–to a point. A young couple, Barbara (Geena Davis) and Adam Maitland (Alec Baldwin), pass away, leaving their choice Victorian-style pile on the market. It falls into the hands of the overzealous and outrageously artsy Deetz clan (Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O’Hara, with a young Winona Ryder in tow), who proceed to renovate to bring the interiors in line with Delia’s, ahem, distinctive tastes. “If you don’t let me gut this house and make it my own, I will go insane and I will take you with me!” Delia Deetz yells.
For Barbara, there’s no greater horror than watching as the Deetzes bulldoze the boonies right out of her living room, swapping the couple’s country florals for colors like mauve and viridian with the help of Delia’s friend Otho (Glenn Shadix), who provides decorative consult and ad-hoc paranormal services.
From Barbara’s pre-Hill House Home nap dress to Adam’s black-and-white gingham and khakis ensemble, this proto-normcore couple truly couldn’t be a better cinematic dupe for Chip and Joanna Gaines.
Decorating Choices Can Haunt You
The Maitlands return from an accidental three-month stint in the realm of the dead to find that the entire house has been reimagined, courtesy of Otho, in a distinctly 1980s decorative vernacular we might dub “Memphis Macabre.” They proceed to attempt to haunt the Deetzes out of their home, but, as the original New York Times review of the film smartly observed, “When the new owners shriek, it’s only over the lack of closet space.” Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) is practically an afterthought.
A Love of “Collectible Design” Will Hold You Hostage
The renovation is, for Delia, a work of art in and of itself, which brings us to our next point: What is collectible design if not a set of sculptural furnishings that come to life and hold their owners captive? The work of Delia’s try-hard artist remains a punch line until the end of the film, when we see that she has graced the cover of Art in America, clutching–what else? A sculpture that bears a striking resemblance to Beetlejuice himself.
But a Commitment to Personal Taste Is One to Be Admired
In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, Delia throws a dinner party for her and Charles’s “city friends,” who arrive in their finery only to find themselves possessed to dance to Harry Belafonte and attacked by bowls of shrimp.
The setup is supposed to illustrate the Deetzes’ garish taste and social striving, but at least the rooms have their point of view. Nancy Meyers-pilled audiences might recoil in horror from the glass brick, black leather, and red lacquer, but in 2023, those details, while anachronistic, reflect an admirable commitment to personal taste. (Don’t get us wrong, we love a Nancy Meyers kitchen. But that’s the problem–everyone loves a Nancy Meyers kitchen.)
While our sympathies toward the Maitlands are stoked throughout the movie, the real Beetlejuice hero isn’t one mode of decoration over another (although the house does get restored to a bit of its country glory, in the end). The true victor is marching to the beat of your designer drum. Mauve, viridian, and micro-florals for all!