The film spawned an animated television series that Burton produced and a planned unproduced sequel, Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian. In 2012, new development on a sequel was announced.
Barbara and Adam Maitland decide to spend their vacation decorating their idyllic Connecticut country home. As the two are driving home from a trip to town, Barbara swerves to avoid a dog and the car plunges into a river. After they return home, she and Adam notice that they now lack reflections and they discover a Handbook for the Recently Deceased. They then begin to suspect that they did not survive the car accident; Adam attempts to leave the house but finds himself in a strange, otherworldly landscape covered in sand and populated by enormous sandworms.
The house is sold and the new owners, the Deetz family, arrive from New York City. Charles Deetz is a former real estate developer; his second wife Delia is a self-proclaimed sculptor; and his goth daughter Lydia, from his first marriage, is an aspiring photographer. Under the guidance of interior designer Otho, the Deetzes transform the house into tasteless pastel-toned modern art. Consulting the Handbook, the Maitlands travel to an otherworldly waiting room populated by other distressed souls, where they discover that the afterlife is structured according to a complex bureaucracy involving vouchers and caseworkers. The Maitlands' own caseworker, Juno, informs them that they must remain in the house for 125 years, on pain of a dire fate. If they want the Deetzes out of the house, it is up to them to scare them away. Barbara's and Adam's attempts at scaring the family prove ineffective, despite their ability to shape-shift into monsters.
Although Adam and Barbara remain invisible to Charles and Delia, teenage Lydia can see the ghost couple and befriends them. Against Juno's advice, the Maitlands contact the miscreant Betelgeuse, Juno's former assistant and now freelance "bio-exorcist" ghost, to scare away the Deetzes. At first, they are unaware that "Betelgeuse" is pronounced "Beetlejuice", which is why they have such difficulty pronouncing his name and thereby summoning him. However, Betelgeuse quickly offends the Maitlands with his crude and morbid demeanor; and they reconsider hiring him, though too late to stop him from wreaking havoc on the Deetzes. The small town's charm and the supernatural events inspire Charles to pitch his boss Maxie Dean on transforming the town into a tourist hot spot, but Maxie wants proof of the ghosts. Using the Handbook for the Recently Deceased, Otho conducts what he thinks is a séance and summons Adam and Barbara, but they begin to decay and die, as Otho had unwittingly performed an exorcism instead. Horrified, Lydia summons Betelgeuse for help; but he agrees to help her only on the condition that she marry him, enabling him to freely cause chaos in the mortal world. Betelgeuse saves the Maitlands and disposes of Maxie, his wife, and Otho, then prepares a wedding before a ghastly minister. The Maitlands intervene before the ceremony is completed, with Barbara riding a sandworm through the house to devour Betelgeuse.
Finally, the Deetzes and Maitlands agree to live in harmony within the house. Betelgeuse is stuck in the afterlife waiting room; there he attempts to cut in front of a witch doctor, who shrinks his head in retaliation. Being Betelgeuse, however, he remains upbeat: "This could be a good look for me." Meanwhile, Adam, Barbara, and Lydia are seen in the front room of the house dancing to Harry Belafonte's "Jump In The Line" (with Lydia floating in the air) to celebrate Lydia getting an "A" on her math test at school.
The financial success of Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985) meant that Burton was considered a "bankable" director, and he began working on a script for Batman with Sam Hamm. While Warner Bros. was willing to pay for the script's development, they were less willing to green-light Batman. Meanwhile, Burton had begun reading the scripts that had been sent his way, and was disheartened by their lack of imagination and originality, one of them being Hot to Trot. David Geffen handed Burton the script for Beetlejuice, written by McDowell (who wrote the script for "The Jar", an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents directed by Burton).
Wilson was brought on board to continue rewriting work with McDowell, though Burton replaced McDowell and Wilson with Skaaren due to creative differences. Burton's original choice for Betelgeuse was Sammy Davis, Jr., but Geffen suggested Keaton. Burton was unfamiliar with Keaton's work, but was quickly convinced. Burton cast Ryder upon seeing her in Lucas. O'Hara quickly signed on, while Burton claimed it took a lot of time to convince other cast members to sign, as "they didn't know what to think of the weird script."
Beetlejuice's budget was $15 million, with just $1 million given over to visual effects work. Considering the scale and scope of the effects, which included stop motion, replacement animation, prosthetic makeup, puppetry and blue screen, it was always Burton's intention to make the style similar to the B movies he grew up with as a child. "I wanted to make them look cheap and purposely fake-looking," Burton remarked. Burton had wanted to hire Anton Furst as production designer after being impressed with his work on The Company of Wolves (1984) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), though Furst was committed on High Spirits, a choice he later regretted. He hired Bo Welch, his future collaborator on Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Batman Returns (1992). The test screenings were met with positive feedback and prompted Burton to film an epilogue featuring Betelgeuse foolishly angering a witch doctor. Warner Bros. disliked the title Beetlejuice and wanted to call the film House Ghosts. As a joke, Burton suggested the name Scared Sheetless and was horrified when the studio actually considered using it. Exterior shots were filmed in East Corinth, Vermont.
McDowell's original script is far less comedic and much darker; the Maitlands' car crash is depicted graphically, with Barbara's arm being crushed and the couple screaming for help as they slowly drown in the river. A reference to this remained in all versions of the script, as Barbara remarks that her arm feels cold upon returning home as a ghost. Instead of possessing the Deetzes and forcing them to dance during dinner, the Maitlands cause a vine-patterned carpet to come to life and attack the Deetzes by tangling them to their chairs.
The character of Betelgeuse—envisioned by McDowell as a winged demon, who takes on the form of a short Middle Eastern man, is also intent on killing the Deetzes rather than scaring them, and wanted to rape Lydia rather than marry her. In this version of the script, Betelgeuse only needs to be exhumed from his grave to be summoned, after which he is free to wreak havoc; he cannot be summoned or controlled by saying his name three times, and wanders the world freely, appearing to torment different characters in different manifestations. McDowell's script also featured a second Deetz child, nine-year-old Cathy, the only person able to see the Maitlands and the subject of Betelgeuse's homicidal wrath in the film's climax, during which he mutilates her while in the form of a rabid squirrel before revealing his true form.
In another version of the script, the film was to have concluded with the Maitlands, Deetzes, and Otho conducting an exorcism ritual that destroys Betelgeuse, and the Maitlands transforming into miniature versions of themselves and moving into Adam's model of their home, which they refurbish to look like their house before the Deetzes moved in.
Co-author and producer Larry Wilson has talked about the negative reaction to McDowell's original script at Universal where he was employed at the time:
I won't name names here, but I worked at Universal Studios at the time. I was director of development for the director Walter Hill. I had a very good relationship with a very prominent executive at Universal. He liked me, and he liked what I was doing with Walter, and the material I was bringing in.
I gave him Beetlejuice to read, and I gave it to him on a Friday, and on Monday his assistant called me and said well, he wants to meet with you. My initial reaction was wow! He'd read it. He must have loved it or he wouldn't have wanted to see me so soon. But I went into his office, and he literally said 'what are you doing with your career?'
'This piece of weirdness, this is what you're going to go out into the world with? You're developing into a very good executive. You've got great taste in material. Why are you going to squander all that for this piece of shit', was basically what he was saying. It goes to show, right? Shortly after that, we sold it to the Geffen Company […]
Skaaren's rewrite drastically shifted the film's tone, indicating the graphic nature of the Maitlands' deaths while depicting the afterlife as a complex bureaucracy. Skaaren's rewrite also altered McDowell's depiction of the limbo that keeps Barbara and Adam trapped inside of their home; in McDowell's script, it takes the form of a massive, empty void filled with giant clock gears that shred the fabric of time and space as they move. Skaaren had Barbara and Adam encounter different limbos every time they leave their home, including the "clock world", and the Sandworm's world, identified as Saturn's moon Titan. Skaaren also introduced the leitmotif of music accompanying Barbara and Adam's ghostly hijinks, although his script specified R&B tunes instead of Harry Belafonte, and was to have concluded with Lydia dancing to "When a Man Loves a Woman."
Skaaren's first draft retained some of the more sinister characteristics of McDowell's Betelgeuse, but toned down the character to make him a troublesome pervert rather than blatantly murderous. Betelgeuse's true form was that of the Middle Eastern man, and much of his dialogue was written in African American Vernacular English. This version concluded with the Deetzes returning to New York and leaving Lydia in the care of the Maitlands, who, with Lydia's help, transform the exterior of their home into a stereotypical haunted house while returning the interior to its previous state. It also would have featured deleted scenes such as the real-estate agent, Jane, trying to convince the Deetzes to allow her to sell the house for them (having sold it to them in the first place--Charles and Delia decline), and a reveal on how Beetlejuice had died centuries earlier (that he'd attempted to hang himself while drunk, only to mess it up and died slowly choking to death, rather then quickly by snapping his neck) and wound-up working for Juno before striking it out on his own as a "free-lance Bio-Exorcist".
Retrospectively, McDowell was impressed at how many people made the connection between the film's title and the star Betelgeuse. He added that the writers and producers had received a suggestion the sequel be named Sanduleak-69 202 after the former star of SN 1987A.
The Beetlejuice soundtrack, first released in 1988 on LP, CD, and cassette tape, features most of the score (written and arranged by Danny Elfman) from the film. The soundtrack features two original recordings performed by Harry Belafonte used in the film: "The Banana Boat Song" and "Jump in the Line (Shake, Senora)." Two other vintage Belafonte recordings that appeared in the film are absent from the soundtrack: "Man Smart, Woman Smarter" and "Sweetheart from Venezuela". The soundtrack entered the Billboard 200 albums chart the week ending June 25, 1988, at #145, peaking two weeks later at #118 and spending a total of six weeks on the chart. This was after the film had already fallen out of the top 10 and before the video release later in October. "Day-O" received a fair amount of airplay at the time in support of the soundtrack.
The complete score (with the Belafonte tracks included) was released in both the DVD and the Blu-ray as an isolated music track in the audio settings menu; this version of the audio track consists entirely of "clean" musical cues, uninterrupted by dialogue or sound effects.
Beetlejuice opened theatrically in the United States on March 30, 1988, earning $8,030,897 in its opening weekend. The film eventually grossed $73,707,461 in North America. Beetlejuice was a financial success, recouping its $15 million budget, and was the 10th-highest grossing film of 1988. Based on 42 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, Beetlejuice received an average 81% overall approval rating. For comparison, Metacritic received an average score of 67 from the 13 reviews collected.
Pauline Kael referred to the film as a "comedy classic", while Jonathan Rosenbaum of Chicago Reader gave a highly positive review. Rosenbaum felt Beetlejuice carried originality and creativity that did not exist in other films. Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it "a farce for our time" and wished Keaton could have received more screen time. MaryAnn Johanson was impressed with the casting, production design and jokes. Desson Howe of the Washington Post felt Beetlejuice had "the perfect balance of bizarreness, comedy and horror".
Janet Maslin of The New York Times gave the film a negative review, stating that the film "tries anything and everything for effect, and only occasionally manages something marginally funny;" and "is about as funny as a shrunken head." Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars, writing that he "would have been more interested if the screenplay had preserved their [Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis] sweet romanticism and cut back on the slapstick." For Keaton's character, Ebert called him "unrecognizable behind pounds of makeup" and stated that "his scenes don't seem to fit with the other action."
At the 61st Academy Awards, Beetlejuice won the Academy Award for Best Makeup, (Steve La Porte, Ve Neill and Robert Short.) while the British Academy of Film and Television Arts nominated the film with Best Visual Effects and Makeup at the 42nd British Academy Film Awards.
Beetlejuice won Best Horror Film and Best Make-up at the 1988 Saturn Awards. Sidney also won the Saturn for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Juno, and the film received five other nominations: Direction for Burton, Writing for McDowell and Skaaren, Best Supporting Actor for Keaton, Music for Elfman and Special Effects. Beetlejuice was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. Beetlejuice was 88th in the American Film Institute's list of Best Comedies.
In 2000, the American Film Institute placed the film on its 100 Years…100 Laughs list, where it was ranked #88.
Due to the film's financial success, a Beetlejuice animated television series was created for ABC. The show ran for four seasons (the final season airing on Fox), lasting from September 9, 1989 to December 6, 1991. Burton served as executive producer.
Beetlejuice is the title of three different video games. The original Game Boy and Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) releases were developed by Rare and published by LJN. Another game was released for the DOS in 1990 called Adventures of Beetlejuice: Skeletons in the Closet. Each game is loosely based on the film and the animated series.
Beetlejuice: Horrific Hijinx from the Neitherworld! is a video game created by Rare and published by LJN for the Nintendo Game Boy. It is based on the animated series.
A Beetlejuice themed fun pack for the toys-to-life video game Lego Dimensions was released on September 12, 2017. The pack includes a Beetlejuice minifigure and constructable Saturn's Sandworm, and adds a Beetlejuice-themed open-world area and battle arena to the game. Beetlejuice also features prominently in an episode of Teen Titans Go! included as part of the game.
Beetlejuice has had several theme park shows at Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Japan. Beetlejuice's Rock and Roll Graveyard Revue ran at the Hollywood park from 1992 until 1999 while the Florida park ran the show from May 1992 until January 2016. The character of Betelgeuse was also in the now defunct "Extreme Ghostbusters: The Great Fright Way!". He was also a featured part of Halloween Horror Nights in the early days of the Orlando park.
In 2016 a Broadway stage musical adaptation of the film was reported to be in the works, directed by Alex Timbers and produced by Warner Brothers, following a reading starring Christopher Fitzgerald. In March 2017 it was reported that Australian musical comedian Eddie Perfect would be writing the music and lyrics and Scott Brown and Anthony King would be writing the book of the musical, and that another reading would take place in May, featuring Kris Kukul as musical director.
In 1990, Burton hired Jonathan Gems to write a sequel titled Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian. "Tim thought it would be funny to match the surfing backdrop of a beach movie with some sort of German Expressionism, because they're totally wrong together," Gems said. The story followed the Deetz family moving to Hawaii, where Charles is developing a resort. They soon discover that his company is building on the burial ground of an ancient Hawaiian Kahuna. The spirit comes back from the afterlife to cause trouble, and Betelgeuse becomes a hero by winning a surf contest with magic. Keaton and Ryder agreed to do the film, on the condition that Burton directed, but both he and Keaton became distracted with Batman Returns.
Burton was still interested in Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian in early 1991. Impressed with Daniel Waters' work on Heathers, Burton approached him for a rewrite. However, he eventually signed Waters to write the script for Batman Returns. By August 1993, producer David Geffen hired Pamela Norris (Troop Beverly Hills, Saturday Night Live) to rewrite. Warner Bros. approached Kevin Smith in 1996 to rewrite the script, though Smith turned down the offer in favor of Superman Lives. Smith later joked that his response was "Didn't we say all we needed to say in the first Beetlejuice? Must we go tropical?" In March 1997, Gems released a statement saying "The Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian script is still owned by The Geffen Film Company and it will likely never get made. You really couldn't do it now anyway. Winona is too old for the role, and the only way they could make it would be to totally recast it."
In September 2011, Warner Bros. hired Seth Grahame-Smith, who collaborated with Burton on Dark Shadows and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, to write and produce a sequel to Beetlejuice. Grahame-Smith signed on with the intention of doing "a story that is worthy of us actually doing this for real, something that is not just about cashing in, is not just about forcing a remake or a reboot down someone's throat." He was also adamant that Keaton would return and that Warner Bros. would not recast the role. Burton and Keaton have not officially signed on but will return if the script is good enough. Grahame-Smith met with Keaton in February 2012, "We talked for a couple of hours and talked about big picture stuff. It's a priority for Warner Bros. It's a priority for Tim. [Michael's] been wanting to do it for 20 years and he'll talk to anybody about it who will listen." The story will be set in a real time frame from 1988; "This will be a true 26 or 27 years later sequel. What's great is that for Beetlejuice [sic], time means nothing in the afterlife, but the world outside is a different story."
In November 2013, Ryder hinted at a possible return for the sequel as well by saying, "I'm kind of sworn to secrecy but it sounds like it might be happening. It's 27 years later. And I have to say, I love Lydia Deetz so much. She was such a huge part of me. I would be really interested in what she is doing 27 years later." Ryder confirmed that she would only consider making a sequel if Burton and Keaton were involved. In December 2014, Burton stated, "It's a character that I love and I miss actually working with Michael. There's only one Betelgeuse. We're working on a script and I think it's probably closer than ever and I'd love to work with him again." In January 2015, writer Grahame-Smith told Entertainment Weekly that the script was finished and that he and Burton intended to start filming Beetlejuice 2 by the end of the year, and that both Keaton and Ryder would return in their respective roles. In August 2015, on Late Night with Seth Meyers, Ryder confirmed she would be reprising her role in the sequel. In May 2016, Burton stated, "It's something that I really would like to do in the right circumstances, but it's one of those films where it has to be right. It's not a kind of a movie that cries out [for a sequel], it's not the Beetlejuice trilogy. So it's something that if the elements are right—because I do love the character and Michael's amazing as that character, so yeah we'll see. But there's nothing concrete yet."