Winona Ryder as Lydia in 'Beetlejuice' (1988)
Beetlejuice (1988) Warner Bros.
Stories & Ideas

Sun 01 Nov 2020

Beetlejuice – "My whole life is a dark room"

Edit Line Film Pop culture
Blake Howard

Australian film critic and award-winning podcaster behind Michael Mann’s One Heat Minute

While Lydia Deetz's whole life might be a dark room, audiences have been knocking on the door to get in thanks to Tim Burton's stylish and macabre sensibilities.

"My whole life is a dark room,” deadpands Lydia Deetz (Winona Ryder) in Tim Burton’s Bettlejuice (1988). That's just the thing about Tim Burton's style and the emergence of late 80s and early 90s superstar Winona Ryder, that teeny weeny "my" infers that their experience of the world is theirs alone. And what's terrific is that this stylish, fresh, macabre and ugly little world ripped straight from Burton's imagination in Beetlejuice (1988) is that it, and the worlds of his other films, are the most delightfully disturbing playgrounds that fill a void in the audience they didn't know they had. Burton's emergence and his unbelievable run of feature films including Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), Edward Scissorhands (1990), Batman Returns (1992) and Ed Wood (1994) continue to influence Hollywood to this day and his gothic stylings and parables about forging your identity despite absent or vacant parental role models had a profound critical and commercial impact.

Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis) are dead. Rather than going into the next realm, they're forced to endure occupation; their home has been bought by the Deetz's. Despite adopting the role as corporeal surrogate parents for their daughter Lydia - who can see the house's previous occupants - they want their home back. After failed attempts to scare the Deetzes away, they attract Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton); a spirit with the raucous energy of a used car salesman to help get rid of their home's new inhabitants once and for all. However, his services come with some fine print that puts Lydia (Ryder) in danger. It feels like Burton's characters, in perpetual states of mourning, seem to be the tip of a pop-cultural Goth spear. At the point that Winona's Lydia says that little "My" she's garbed in black, draped in a veil, looking like she’s front row at a funeral. She's talking to her parents, who clearly don't understand. Lydia says, "My whole life is a dark room" and in that simple statement, she's making a claim that in 1988 struck Gen X right in the emotional core and became an unlikely fashion icon.

If Molly Ringwald was the reigning 80s Teen Queen, Ryder quickly took her rightful place as our naughtier Princess Margaret. The Breakfast Club (1985) celebrated and defiled Ringwald's original goth sister Ally Sheedy by giving her the She's All That (1999) makeover treatment at the end of the film. Winona assumed this role with the black veil at this moment and forged her career in dark rooms or by bringing her dark dynamo into the light spaces. Ryder's royal rein charted through Beetlejuice (1988) to the scathing and iconic Heathers (1989). Ryder rejoined Burton's twisted fairytale Edward Scissorhands (1990) with brief flame Johnny Depp and later became the object of affection for the original vampire in Francis Ford Coppola's operatic retelling Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) and joined Martin Scorsese's mannered and brutal The Age of Innocence (1993).

– Blake Howard

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This essay was written for Edit Line

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