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Scrooge Month Day 8: Bill Murray in SCROOGED (1988)

Scrooged 1988Director: Richard Donner

Writers: Mitch Glazer & Michael O’Donoghue, suggested by A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Bill Murray, Karen Allen, John Forsythe, John Glover, Bobcat Goldthwait, David Johansen, Carol Kane, John Murray, Robert Mitchum, Alfre Woodard, Jamie Farr, Robert Goulet, Buddy Hackett, John Houseman, Lee Majors, Brian Doyle-Murray, Mary Lou Retton, Michael J. Pollard, Wendie Malick, Nicholas Phillips

Notes: This is one of the biggest departures from Dickens we’ve seen yet (and the biggest, I suspect, that we will see in this project, although other movies stray even further from the formula). Bill Murray plays Frank Cross, a disgruntled television network president who is planning a live production of Scrooge on Christmas Eve, loaded with stars like Buddy Hackett as Ebenezer Scrooge and Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim. But Frank has lived a rather Scrooge-like life himself, and the Ghosts of Past (Carol Kane), present (David Johansen) and Future are at work once more. We also get Bobcat Goldthwait splitting the Bob Cratchit role with Alfre Woodard (whose young son Calvin, unable to speak for some reason, is our Tiny Tim stand-in), Murray’s younger brother John playing a Fred-like part in the story, and Karen Allen filling in for Scrooge’s lost love Belle in a greatly expanded part than the character has had in any other version of the tale. John Forsythe plays Frank’s late boss, taking the Jacob Marley part.

Thoughts: This weird version of Dickens kicks off with Lee Majors leading an expedition into the North Pole to save Santa from a bunch of terrorists, which he accomplishes by arming the crap out of Santa, Mrs. Claus and all the Elves, all cast against a setting that could have fallen from Tim Burton’s brain. (It doesn’t hurt that we get a Danny Elfman score). It turns out to be one of several horrendous specials planned for the IBC network this year, all being shown to Frank Cross (Bill Murray). As we get to know Frank, we see quickly he’s not exactly Scrooge. Sure, he’s self-centered and greedy and completely lost touch with everything that matters in life – he’s so callous that when a woman has a heart attack and dies after seeing his Scrooge promo he considers it nothing but world-class publicity — but he’s still played by Bill Murray. Such a character cannot be without a sense of humor, and after yesterday’s bitingly joyless performance by George C. Scott, this is already a drastic improvement.

Forsythe’s Lew Hayward is the most gruesome apparition I’ve seen all month. Although he’s talkative and chipper, he looks like a zombie – and not a fresh one either. He’s dried up, desiccated, with rats crawling from a hole in his skull caused by the still-embedded golf ball that killed him. He fills his role neatly, but the sarcastic way Bill Murray deals with him deflates the character right up until Lew gets pissed and dangles him out the window to prove his point. It’s a shame that Murray didn’t have time to call his friends – he knows some people with ghost experience, after all.

Yet another thing that sets Frank Cross’s story apart from Ebenezer Scrooge is that he’s given a chance to return to his life after each ghostly encounter. His meeting with Lew Hayward puts him in touch with Claire Phillips – played to charming perfection by Karen Allen. Claire, it seems, is the one that got away, the love of Frank’s life, the girl who he left behind when he got big. Unlike Scrooge, Frank has a second chance – Claire is still single and she’s clearly happy to see him again. Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a movie if he didn’t come close to screwing it up all over again.

David Johansen is our Ghost of Christmas Past – here depicted as a rough New York cab driver whose taxi takes Frank back in time to relive childhood Christmases where his father (Brian Doyle-Murray) gave him meat and less distant years when things with Claire were pretty good… until they went bad. Johansen is a nice character – funny and sarcastic at the same time, even with his harsh edge. Despite that, though, despite heaping verbal (and even a little physical) abuse on Frank, you never lose your faith that his ultimate goal is for Frank’s ultimate good.

In Carol Kane, we get a Christmas Present that looks like a tooth fairy and has the clear-headedness of a toddler. She also has no problem with smacking Frank around when he needs it, which he frequently does. Her visits with Frank’s brother and Alfre Woodard’s family do more than the traditional Christmas Present visits, where Scrooge usually sees what he’s missing out on and begins to feel empathy for Tiny Tim. Here we also see how good everyone else is in comparison to him—Woodard goes behind Frank’s back and sends his brother a VCR for Christmas rather than the proscribed towel he’s handing out to everyone else. This is also where the movie takes a sharp turn into melancholy when we encounter a homeless man (Michael J. Pollard) Frank had earlier met at Claire’s soup kitchen, now frozen to death. It’s a perhaps the saddest moment in the film, and it gives Frank just the right blow to turn the chink forming in his armor into a full-on crack. It’s just such a sad, hopeless, pathetic sight you can’t help but be affected, and Murray’s enraged screaming at Pollard’s frozen corpse is the clearest indication yet he has a conscience in there somewhere. He may be yelling at Herman for being stupid, but he really hates himself for not doing anything to save the man when he had the chance.

The puppet they use for Christmas Future here is the scariest damn version of the character yet, making his first appearance on a wall of television monitors and reaching out of it for Murray just before Bobcat Goldthwait bursts in with his shotgun. (More on that shortly.) The future he shows Frank is even bleaker than Scrooge’s usual future. Claire isn’t just alone, she’s embraced Frank’s gospel of greed. The non-talking Calvin (Nicholas Phillips) isn’t dead, but he’s been committed to a sanitarium. Brother James comes off the best in the future – he and his wife (Wendie Malick) are the only two people who show up to watch Frank’s cremation, except for Frank himself… and he, naturally, winds up in the coffin.

Although Bobcat Goldthwait’s Eliot Loudermilk is filling the Bob Cratchit archetype, a Cratchit he’s not. He has good intentions, but after Frank fires him in the opening scenes of the movie, he goes nuts. He shows up later toting a shotgun, planning to get his revenge. Fortunately for him, Frank has been redeemed by that point and not only gives him his job back, but recruits him as his sidekick in the glorious finale, in which he takes over the studio at gunpoint and shows off his newly-discovered Christmas spirit to the world.

The finale, in fact, is why I love this movie so much. Not to say the rest of it isn’t entertaining, but if it weren’t for the ending, when Bill Murray stands in front of the cameras and expresses his joyful spirit to the whole world, even winning back Claire. The happiness and sincerity in that final sequence is maybe the most believable such redemption I’ve ever seen a Scrooge undergo. He shouts at the camera, he pleads with the audience for everybody to embrace the feeling that’s overtaking him, and Bill Murray sells every inch of it. And if you don’t laugh when he starts talking to the audience in the movie theater, compelling them to sing along, I don’t know if I want to know you. Scrooged may be the least Dickensian of the films we’ve watched, but it’s easily one of my favorites.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Lunatics and Laughter Day 8: Beetlejuice (1988)

beetlejuiceDirector: Tim Burton

Writers: Michael McDowell, Larry Wilson & Warren Skaaren

Cast: Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton, Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones, Glenn Shadix, Sylvia Sidney, Robert Goulet, Annie McEnroe

Plot: Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) decide to a vacation at home, decorating their quaint New England house. On their way home from a shopping trip, Barbara swerves to avoid a dog and the two plunge off a bridge. Returning home, they are startled to find they don’t feel fire, they have no memory of how they got back from the bridge, and attempting to leave the house teleports them to a bizarre, horrific landscape full of enormous sandworms. They have no reflection, and a book is waiting for them: Handbook For the Recently Deceased. Adam and Barbara are dead.

Some time later a new family moves into their house: Charles Deetz (Jeffrey Jones), his wife Delia (Catherine O’Hara), and his cynical daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder). Delia, a pretentious would-be artist, begins to gut Adam and Barbara’s charming home, transforming it into a wild, gaudy funhouse with the help of interior designer Otho (Glen Shadix). Adam and Barbara try haunting the Deetzes to drive them from the house, but find the living cannot see them at all. Adam locks the attic, protecting his prized model train set from Delia and Otho. He uses the Handbook to open a portal to a “waiting room” full of other ghosts who have died in various grotesque ways. In the waiting room, the Maitlands learn that they must spend 125 years on Earth, in their house, during which they can contact their caseworker Juno (Sylvia Sidney) for help three times. As they wait, Lydia uses a skeleton key to open the attic, where she finds the Handbook. When the Maitlands finally meet with Juno, they find they’ve been waiting for three months and their home has been completely transformed. Juno tells them to study the Handbook for tips on how to haunt the Deetzes, but warns them not to turn to Betelgeuse, her former assistant, for help. She warns them not even to say his name, as saying it three times will summon him.

The Maitlands try again to haunt the Deetzes, but instead wind up revealing themselves to Lydia, who can see them. When they fail to scare her and she warns them that her parents aren’t likely to leave, they give in and summon Betelgeuse, or “Beetlejuice”. A quick interview disturbs Barbara, and she refuses his help. Their next attempt forces the Deetzes and their dinner guests to perform an impromptu dance to “Day-O,” but rather than scaring them off, they love it and try to convince the Maitlands to come out for another performance. With nowhere else to turn, they again summon Betelgeuse who turns up the haunting in earnest – transforming into a giant snake and attacking. Barbara prevents him from hurting Charles, but Beetlejuice has taken a liking to Lydia.

The Maitlands are tasked with driving out the Deetzes – without Betelgeuse – before it goes too far, but Barbara is upset, not wanting to frighten Lydia. They go to her just before Betelgeuse tricks her into freeing him and tell her they want her family to stay, but Charles arrives with his boss, Maxie Dean (Robert Goulet). Charles wants to turn the house into a tourist attraction, and Maxie is still skeptical about the existence of the ghosts. Otho summons the Maitlands via a séance, in view of everyone, but they immediately begin to age and decay. Lydia turns to Betelgeuse to save them, but he’ll only do it if she agrees to marry him. She agrees, and he unleashes his madness on the living. He drives out Maxie and Otho, then summons a ghoul to perform the ceremony and marry him to Lydia. The Maitlands try to save her, but he banishes Adam to his train set and Barbara to the sandworm-plane beyond the house. Adam distracts him while Barbara steers a sandworm back into the house, devouring Betelgeuse whole. In the end, the Maitlands and Deetzes find peace with one another, living together in harmony, while Betelgeuse is sent to face the ultimate punishment for his crimes… he’s sent to the waiting room.

Thoughts: Tim Burton has had an interesting career, starting with shorts and cartoons that blended a twisted sense of humor with a macabre sense of story. Over the years he’s tapped into blockbuster franchises like Batman, ruined blockbuster franchises like Planet of the Apes, and tackled everything from Pee Wee Herman to Roald Dahl. To my way of thinking, his best work is done when he gets to create a whole world with his unique, bizarre perspective, and he’s never better than when it’s a world he conjures from whole cloth rather than an existing property. This is the first time he did it really well, before A Nightmare Before Christmas marked him as a master of this quirky, “safe” kind of horror/comedy mashup. This movie also allows him to practice his beloved stop-motion animation, a style he’d use much more in the aforementioned Nightmare (with director Henry Sellick) and, on his own, in The Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie. In anybody but an artist, you’d start to get worried if they focused on this sort of macabre style. Fortunately, for storytellers, sharing the bizarre is nice therapy.

This movie, more so than most others, treads the line between Type A and Type B very neatly. Although the plot isn’t “pure” horror, the way we saw with Ghostbusters, the gags are a little too gory and bizarre to classify it as a straight comedy either. An early scene with the ghosts attempting to haunt the Deetz family gives us a hanged woman, a missing face, bulging eyeballs and a decapitation – not exactly kid stuff. In the waiting room we see people who’ve been cut in half, a flattened man who was run over by a car, and plenty of other people whose violent deaths have marred them indelibly in death. We even get a nasty realization from the receptionist with her slashed wrists – suicides, in the afterlife, are sentenced to be civil servants. In many ways, this is big a departure from our other movies with dark situations and light comedy. The actual jokes in this story are far darker than in most of the films we’ve discussed so far. This is as true a Black Comedy as we have yet encountered.

The good news is, for all its darkness, the movie really is very funny. This was Michael Keaton at his peak, playing the sort of wild character he was known for at the time. (The irony is that finally escaping the stereotype, thanks to teaming with Burton on 1989’s Batman, somewhat crippled his career since then.) Oddly enough he isn’t even the main character here – like Julius Caesar, he plays a supporting role in his own eponymous story, and doesn’t even join the plot in earnest until 45 minutes into the film. But once he appears, the energy he brings to the film is undeniable. His “qualification” speech was, for some time, the stuff of quotable film gold, and his wild impressions and boundary issues seem natural and unforced.

Winona Ryder, meanwhile, did a lot of this sort of dark comedy earlier in her career (Heathers came out the same year), and attaching herself to the always-entertaining Catherine O’Hara was a great move. The two of them clash a lot in this film, with O’Hara’s Delia desperate to transform the Maitland house and Lydia desperate to save her friends. The regular stepmother/stepdaughter antagonism comes through here as well, as the two of them clearly clash on all points, putting Jeffrey Jones in the middle of the daughter he’s raised and the wife he’s a bit intimidated by. The women are nice foils for one another, with O’Hara’s considerable skills on display and Ryder developing her own talents next to her.

From a technical standpoint, the movie is incredibly impressive. The stop motion animation is good in and of itself, but the makeup, prosthetics, and animatronics that make up the ghosts and other creatures in and from the world of the dead are absolutely amazing. Burton has a bizarre, wild imagination that is so perfectly suited to this kind of story one almost wonders why he ever bothers to   do anything else. The world he shapes for us is part carnival funhouse and part Halloween haunted house, with a bit of Looney Tunes cartoons mixed in for good measure. (Once Beetlejuice shows up full-force, he even starts throwing in cartoon sound effects.) The resulting world is horribly familiar, despite its complete alien nature. The finale, when a fully-powered Beetlejuice is allowed to run wild, is one of the most visually creative things I’ve ever seen in a horror/comedy, a perfect blend of grotesque imagery with pure, electric mania.

It was years since I watched this movie until I screened it for this project. In fact, I’d forgotten how much I liked it. I was 11 years old when it was released and, like many of the films of the 80s, it turned into a hot topic of discussion on the schoolyard for months after afterwards, then again when it hit home video. Kids in my class were just at that right age, understanding we were watching something somewhat subversive without taking us so far over the edge that we would wind up scarred for life.  I’m really glad to see that this film, unlike so many of the others that we loved back then, really holds up all these years later. Although there’s always talk of a sequel (and for a while there was an actual, horrifying treatment for Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian floating around Hollywood), for the most part this movie has drifted out of public consciousness. It’s a shame – it’s a lot of wild, crazy fun, and just perfect for Halloween viewing.