Genre: a type or a category. It can define what scheme a movie follows or it can merely be a starting point from which a movie can grow in complexity and be anything but a standardized product of a movie company. Fantasy movies tell stories that allow viewers to dive into the moviemaker’s head and see their imagination and dream worlds come to life on the big screen. Two classic ghost fantasies, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) and Beetlejuice (1988), show underlying similarities interlaced with significant differences. The two films find common ground in their concepts and iconographies, but are unique in the way that the fantasy film incorporates other genres to create a specific cinematic experience reflective of the time. Moreover, the distinctive personalities and viewpoints of the filmmakers involved in these movies influence and further differentiate the two films’ aesthetics.
Fantasy films have inherent conventions, which include themes, props and settings that are consistent with movies within this specific genre. One common theme in ghost fantasy movies is that the living characters reside in a home that is estranged from big cities, often creating a sense of isolation and otherness. Lucy, the main character of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, moves into a seaside, “haunted” home that is far away from her in-laws and other city folk with the idea of living a peaceful life without the pressures that come with being a widow and a single mother in the confines of an urban environment. Barbara and Adam Maitland, the ghost couple of Beetlejuice, purposely bought a classic New England home in a small, idyllic town away from the city to start their new lives as a married couple, when their lives are abruptly stunted by a car accident that kills them both and forces their ghosts to haunt their home.
A constant theme in both movies is seen when the hero, or heroes, tends to fall into a mystical world and calls upon the help of a supernatural being. The protagonists in both movies look toward another ghost to help them achieve their overall goals. In The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Lucy seeks guidance from the ghost, Captain Daniel Gregg, to help her get enough money in order to pay for the expenses of her new home; he allows her to write a novel of his memoirs to make the money needed. The heroes in Beetlejuice, Barbara and Adam Maitland, the newlywed ghost couple, find Betelgeuse, a ghost well known as a deceitful “bio-exorcist,” to help them scare away the new family living in their home, the Deetzes, despite the admonishments of other ghosts. In addition, only one living person in the house had the ability to see the ghosts: Lydia, the daughter of the new family. She became important in that she provided beneficial connections for the ghosts.
This is attributed to her odd personality and goth-like interests that echoed her desire to become a ghost herself. Lucy was the only person who could see Captain Gregg in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and such a connection allowed him further involvement within the real world through her. The fantasy genre also involves topics of the impossible and tells stories spawned from the imagination. Fantasy goes beyond genres such as comedy, thriller, and drama in that it delves into people’s thoughts and dreams and brings them to life in a small setting or in a completely new and unique world. This genre is very open and not a defined concept because it can involve so many varied approaches toward creating narrative, characters, and other features of the film such as theme. This allows for movies within the fantasy genre to overlap with other genres such as comedy, romance, science fiction, adventure, and horror.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Beetlejuice combine polar genres with the fantasy of ghost stories to create plots and themes unique to each. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is a gothic, romantic fantasy where Lucy and Daniel are brought together because of friendship that later became love. However, they are separated for the rest of Lucy’s natural life because Daniel realized that he could not preserve a love between a supernatural being and a living person. In the end, they are united as spirits in the afterlife. Lucy was then able to continue her existence with Daniel, her true love. This movie had its core in the fantasy of the ghost, but it also included the love that grew from their friendship that continued to the very end. On the other hand, Beetlejuice does not include any themes of romance, but those of horror and comedy.
The main goal of the movie was for the Maitlands to scare the Deetzes out of their home, and it included the unwanted help of Betelgeuse and other ghosts in the world of the afterlife to do so. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is very lighthearted and shows how love can be everlasting as demonstrated by Daniel and Lucy walking into the sunset at the end of the movie, whereas Beetlejuice is a lot more complex and dark. It is meant to be scary while still being funny, as seen in the scene where the Maitlands insert themselves into a formal dinner given by the owners of the house, the Deetz family. Delia Deetz, starts singing “Day-O” and everyone is forced to dance except Lydia. At the end of the song, each of the guests’ and the Deetzes’ shrimp cocktails become a monstrous hand, grabbing each person at the table by the face, and throwing them onto the floor.
This great contrast of genre and complexity of theme is also related to the time each movie was made, its place in the development of cinema, and the person who brought the movie to life. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was made in the late 1940’s at the peak of a time in Hollywood cinema called the classical era. In this time, movies followed a classical scheme that was consistent with a cause and effect process. As stated in a lecture by Karen Voss at the American Film Institute, the beginning of the film started with an introduction to the protagonist and the problem he or she wants to overcome, in a sequence called “in media res”. The problem that protagonist faces is usually based on some type of natural disaster, economic problem or a cause such as a war and it is introduced very early in the movie.
There is a progression of the conflict that leads to the climax of the movie, and following is a regression to the conclusion, where it is usually a happy ending. There are sometime multiple lines of action with the plot, which most times include a romantic relationship between the two of the characters. (Voss) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is no exception to the customary process in the movie industry at this time. This movie revolves around the relationship between Daniel and Lucy as they meet and their love for each other grows. Problems arise when Lucy can’t meet living expenses, which is resolved when she writes a memoir of Daniel’s life. Then comes the introduction of another character, Miles Fairley, who becomes romantically involved with Lucy. This leads to the climax, where Daniel leaves her knowing that she needs to have a life with a real person, one she can marry and create a real family with. The regression occurs as time passes and Lucy grows old.
Miles is no longer a part of her life as he was married with children before meeting Lucy, and Lucy’s family has grown and left the nest. This leads to the conclusion when Lucy dies and Daniel returns to take Lucy’s spirit with him and live together for the rest of their afterlives. The building of this story is strictly classical and does not diverge into other stories and plot lines, and it is a perfect representation of what the director, Joseph Mankiewicz, wanted in all of his movies. Joseph Mankiewicz was a director known to have tried almost every type of movie genre, but all of them followed a formula he devised that became known as “theatré du filmé”. In Brian Dauth’s article in “Senses of Cinema”, the concept of theatré du filmé is described as a way to “approach human beings analytically…in depth” (Dauth). This style focused on his characters’ self-consciousness. Mankiewicz wanted viewers to narrow their attention to the choices their characters made in the movies and the consequences that followed.
This created a cycle of choice and consequence for the character and that continued throughout the entire film. Mankiewicz had all of his movies revolve around one single character and their progression, which then created a very personal genre of its own. He was a unique director, unlike any other director at that time and still followed the same classical structure as most movies of that era, but with a different twist. Mankiewicz’s method of filmmaking is seen in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir as Lucy has to make personal choices in her life for her happiness, such as renting the cottage, and her financial security, when she wrote Daniel’s memoirs to be able to pay for rent and make up for her economic losses of widowhood. Those choices lead to later decisions involving romantic relationships with Daniel and Miles. The Maitlands’ story in Beetlejuice was told in the late 1980’s, 40 years after The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.
Times had changed drastically since the classical cinema age of the 1940’s and moviemaking was transitioning to a post-modern era. By the time Beetlejuice was made, Hollywood was well into the current post-modern age, where filmmakers were questioning problems that were brought up during the modernism era prior to this. Modernism itself is a revolution that responded to issues and the themes of the classical era. In turn, post-modernism revolutionized modernism by defining it further, as the culture within those few passing decades had changed so drastically. These changes gave way to post-modernism that grew into a reaction and an extension of modernism itself. The main themes of a post-modern movie include: a reflection of the society it was made in, an image of the filmmaker’s ideal society, and what is to come of the future of society.
Post-modernism plays with reality and ignores the laws of nature by using newer technology to alter the viewer’s perceptions of time and space. Beetlejuice takes a very post-modern approach to create the story of the Maitlands. It broke all boundaries of being a classically structured movie and made one of its own. Rather than featuring a clearly defined beginning-middle-end structure, Beetlejuice is built up around a series of let-downs and small episodes that create small subplots within the greater arc of the story in such a way that breaks the classically defined norms. In addition, this film brings up other more radical cultural ideas such as creating abstract art, as Mrs. Deetz made for the home.
Hand in hand with convention-breaking abstract art, the counter-culture age of the “goth” was featured in this 1988 film as seen by the inclusion of Lydia’s fashion and supernatural interests. The goth movement of the 1980s was a reactionary subculture that strove to assert its individuality and had found its place with the younger generations, who would have found the costumes and overall dark and twisted look to be relevant to the pop culture surrounding them. The abstract art serves as a small, hand-done detail that emphasizes the freedom of expression found within the film.
Tim Burton, the director of Beetlejuice, was always known to be different from the other directors in his industry. In his book Burton on Burton, he speaks about his experience prior to receiving the initial story of Beetlejuice and how he wanted to go beyond the “classic Hollywood ‘cookie cutter’ bad comedy” (Burton, and Salisbury, 54) that he kept receiving after the production of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and the story of Betelgeuse defied every rule of Hollywood. This was what Burton needed because it was so abstract and strange in its imagery and characters and every scene was packed with crude fun for people of all ages and allowed the audience to make even the worst characters lovable.
The movie Beetlejuice fits the requirements of a perfect Burton movie: very out of the box allowing lots of post-production effects and bizarre set and character design. These requirements became the standard for every Tim Burton movie that came after Beetlejuice and that every movie included some element of horror and comedy. Burton did not have a specific preference to the story development as long as it was not the standard script and was full of creativity and innovation. He liked actors who were not well known that allowed them to create a character and persona of their own, independent of the image Hollywood gave them. Burton wanted strange and insane, and that is what he created in the ghostly world of Beetlejuice.
The fantasy genre is one that allows for many different interpretations and themes. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Beetlejuice have similar themes of a classic ghost movie, but each take it in different directions as one is more of a romantic story while another is meant to scare the audience and make them laugh. Mankiewicz and Burton have their own goals and processes to produce their movies and were very different from the other filmmakers of their own eras, but they contrast in every aspect in aesthetic and the genre they work in. The two directors approached these films and the stories they told in almost opposite ways, but they both succeeded in creating an entertaining and memorable film with commercial success.
1. Burton, Tim, and Mark Salisbury. Burton on Burton. 3rd ed. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2006. Print. 2. Dauth, Brian. “Joseph L. Mankiewicz.” Senses of Cinema. 35. (2005): Print. 3. Voss, Karen. “Classical Hollywood Cinema.” American Film Institute. 2001. Address.
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