Cinema Phantasmagoria: Beetlejuice (retro review)

Many film organizations screen classic and cult horror movies during October, but Street Food Cinema has found a way to turn its retro series into a true Halloween event. Cinema Phantasmagoria transforms the Million Dollar Theatre into "an immersive haunted theater experience," populating the venerable Los Angeles landmark with ghoulish characters from the 1920s, whose presence is explained by a backstage ghost tour detailing their sordid Hollywood history. The result is not quite on the level of the House of Spirits immersive cocktail soiree, but it is much more than the usual Halloween overlay.

Cinema Phantasmagoria Review: Million Dollar Theatre

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The marquee of the Million Dollar Theatre is festooned with giant spiders nesting in their webs. Inside, the second floor landing has been transformed into haunted chamber, with flickering candles, undulating lighting, and cobwebbed chandeliers.

Far more than decor awaits you. Ghoulish balladeers strolls the sidewalk. Creepy-looking ushers and cigarette girls from an earlier era haunt the lobby, where silent screen star Max Denton welcomes you to the premiere of his new movie, "The Revenge of Dr. Faustus." Tables and counters display small "missing" posters for Lily Lavender, last seen October 1, 1923. There is a scandalous secret hidden here, and you may get hints of it from your interaction with these characters, but the full truth comes out later...

Despite the cobwebs and candles, there is a gala atmosphere to Cinema Phantasmagoria, befitting a "premiere." A snazzy bar serves cocktails in the lobby. There is another bar on the second floor, where popcorn and confectionery is also available. If you prefer more substantial nourishment, you can bring in from from the many vendors at Grand Central Market, located next door to the theatre.

Cinema Phantasmagoria Review: Screening Beetlejuice

 

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Before the film, Archibald (who shares history with Max) entertains the audience, and his colleague channels the spirit of the late Keith Emerson while miming a rendition of Bach famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. There's a short film detailing the history of the Million Dollar Theatre, and the previews are done up to resemble choppy old celluloid running through a 35mm projector for the thousandth time. The feature presentation, fortunately, is pristine digital all the way, and the film in question, Beetlejuice (1988) is a perfect choice for Halloween entertainment.

Tim Burton's sophomore feature (after making his debut with Pee Wee's Big Adventure) more or less established the director's reputation for the rest of his career. Beetlejuice was seen as entertaining but erratic, strong on quirky visuals and amusing sight gags but short on narrative coherence. What's interesting in retrospect, however, is how solidly the film's story is grounded in characterization, and how cleverly the visuals support that.

For example, the famous opening tracking shot, beneath the main titles, ends with a spider crawling from a miniature building on a table top rendition of the local town, built by Adam Maitland (Alec Baldwin), who, instead of killing it, removes it to safety. Immediately, you know what you need to know about the guy, and the same holds true of his wife Barbara (Geena Davis). This is a movie about a couple very much in love with each other and in love with the house where they live. When they die in an automobile accident, it's a tragedy, but the real pain begins when a new family moves in, and the stepmother (Catherine O'Hara) begins redecorating - every splash of spray paint feels like a horrible violation of everything the Maitlands have sought to achieve in their home, and this is what fuels the rest of the film.

The title character is justifiably famous, largely because of Michael Keaton's inspired performance, but Betelgeuse (as it is properly spelled) is really a fly-in-the-ointment, a "fixer" the Maitlands turn to in desperation, who ends up causing more harm that good. The real story is about the couple's befriending the self-described "strange and unusual" Lydia (Winona Ryder) and eventually finding terms of peaceful coexistence with the living inhabitants of their home, particularly Jeffrey Jones' overworked real estate developer, who could easily have been portrayed as a complete jerk but actually has enough good sense to appreciate what the Maitlands' home for what it is.

Beetlejuice 1988
The Maitlands (Alec Baldwin & Geena Davis) bedeviled by Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton)

Of course, the Betelgeuse character gives the film its memorable kick. Burton and screenwriters Michael McDowell and Warren Skaaren wisely keep the character mostly off-screen for the first two acts, fully unleashing him only at the climax, when his wild antics truly do steal the show. Sure, the main characters end up largely sidelined (so I guess that part of Burton's reputation is not completely invalid), but they do come through at the end to save the day.

Beetlejuice isn't really a horror movie, but it traffics in horror-movie imagery, particularly of the haunted house variety, and along the way Burton throws in numerous visual delights, including a beauracratic vision of the afterlife, wherein those who died under unfortunate circumstances (shrunken head, shark attack, sawed in half) seem to wait for a virtual eternity for a little help from their caseworkers. The old-school special effects (including stop-motion and miniatures) perfectly blend in with the tone of the living action, more eccentric and stylized than frightening, and it's hard to imagine modern computer graphics working half so well. In the end, Beetlejuice might not be a perfect film but it is perfectly suited to the Halloween season.

Cinema Phantasmagoria Review: Backstage Ghost Tour

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Interested in exploring the origins of the haunting at the Million Dollar Theatre? Then sign up for the Backstage Ghost Tour. This is as close as Cinema Phantasmagoria comes to offering a haunted walk-through. The fifteen-minute tour takes curious guests behind the scenes of the movie theatre - in fact, literally behind the screen, at one point - into storage areas and dressing rooms, dimly lit in ominous hues of red and blue.

Along the way, the tour guides offers a fictionalized version of the standard haunt tour, recounting the lives of dead people alleged to now haunt the premises. We learn that after Archibald and Lily fell in love, Lily left him for Max, who promised to turn her into a star. Max never came through on his promise; this led to an argument, after which Lily disappeared. Is her body secreted somewhere on the premises?

The tour is more creepy than scary, but echoed voices are heard from other rooms - presumably the ghosts of the characters being discusses - and sharp-eyed visitors may catch a brief glimpse of something in nearby after the lights blackout in one room. In spite of the paranormal activity, you should be able to get back to your seat in time to watch the movie.

Cinema Phantasmagoria Review: Conclusion

Cinema Phantasmagoria is just about the most enjoyable way we can imagine to watch a Halloween horror movie screening. The Million Dollar Theatre is the perfect setting for retrospective screenings, its age well suited to the event's back story, the seasonal decorations fitting the venue like custom-tailored clothing - elegant and yet spooky.

The cast of characters all have their routines, but with a little prompting they will happily improvise, engaging and drawing your deeper into the haunted theatre experience. The only thing more we could have wanted was a more dramatic climax to the tragic love triangle at the heart of the haunting - which we sort of got in our on-camera interview with Archie (see video above) but which should have been presented in some way so that all the audience could see it or at least discover if it they looked for it.

Drinks are pricey ($12 for a standard well drink), and the theatre's food options are limited; fortunately, you can grab whatever you need at Grand Central Market.

Hopefully, Cinema Phantasmagoria will return next year.

Find more 2019 Halloween Horror Screenings here.

Cinema Phantasmagoria Rating
4

Bottom Line

We can’t think of a better way to watch horror movies at Halloween than this self-described “immersive haunted theater experience,” which has audiences rubbing shoulders with ghosts in downtown L.A.’s Million Dollar Theatre.

Cinema Phantasmagoria continues with Sleepy Hollow on October 30 and The Nightmare Before Christmas on November 2. Doors open at 5pm. Movies screens twice; both screenings are included with admission. Back VIP Backstage Ghost Tour starts every seven minutes (separate ticket required). Prices are $27 for General Admission, $33 for Reserved Section, $15 for Tour. Discounts for advance purchases. The Million Dollar Theatre is located at 307 S Broadway, Los Angeles, 90013. The event website is here.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.