Ginger Nuts of Horror
The self-styled “Free-Range Bio-Exorcist,” “Ghost with the Most's” debut feature is hardly what you might call a child friendly affair. With its close focus on death, its surreal and morbid imagery and subject matter, its distinctly adult jokes and tone, Beetlejuice sits uncomfortably in that bracket of being a beloved childhood favourite that was never intended for children.
Being a child of the '80s, I was perfectly positioned to be one of the film's many, many, many child converts, hardly anyone I knew as a boy not having seen or owning the film on VHS; a fact which various interests knew and were keen to exploit.
As such, it wasn't like before Beetlejuice was adapted into comics, cartoons and, indeed, a short lived but highly inventive toy line.
One of the more interesting elements of this toy line is that it in no way coincides with the Saturday morning cartoon, instead deriving inspiration directly from the original film. The reasons for this are unclear, as most cartoons of the era boasted toy lines to profit from them or vice versa. Also, a notable issue with making a toy line derived from the film is the extremely limited range of characters, items etc.
This is where this line comes into its own: the vast majority of the toys consist of one character: Beetlejuice himself, in various forms and guises based on those he demonstrates in the film: from the “Show Time” Beetlejuice figure, which sports the character's iconic black and white striped suit (along with a removable rubber head beneath which is a leering, snake-like visage inspired by one of the film's more sinister set pieces) to the “Shish Kebab” form, which boasts various rubber spikes that can be inserted into holes in the figure until he is totally impaled through, each of the figures represents one of the myriad ways Beetlejuice appears in the film, along with certain unique accessories or gimmicks derived from one of his physical horror gags.
Interestingly, the toys don't shy away from the more grotesque or gory elements of the film; along with the aforementioned “shish kebab” figure, which is fairly graphic (one of the “kebabs” boasts Beetlejuice's impaled heart) there is also a figure that physically explodes, its limbs and body parts flying everywhere when its legs are squeezed, another that is infested with various oceanic parasites (tentacles emerging from its head when a switch is pressed) and various others.
Perhaps the most notable in this regard is the figure of protagonist Adam Maitland (spouse Barbara notably absent), who is inspired by a particular scene in the film that is perhaps one of the least child-friendly instances it contains:
Having been killed in a car crash, now trapped in ghostly form in their home, Adam and Barbara attempt to scare the Deetz -the family who have purchased the house- via variously comic and grotesque means, but with little effect: one involving Barbara posing in front of them wielding a knife and Adam's severed head (utterly useless, considering that the still living can't even see them), which results in some fairly slap-stick moments as Adam's headless body careens around the house attempting to lock doors and prevent the new owners from trespassing in the attic (which them make a temporary home).
The toy essentially consists of Adam Maitland with a removable head, which can be slid down his arm and positioned so it looks like he's carrying it. The toy also comes with a mask that can be affixed to the head resembling the distorted, demonic visage Adam crafts for himself at one point in the film in an effort to scare the Deetz away.
But perhaps some of the most bizarre choices in this line is not in what it contains, but what it omits: Otho, one of the film's tertiary characters, gets a plastic incarnation here, as does a background ghost that, in the film, has no name, and occurs in only one or two scenes (“Harry the Haunted Hunter,” according to his toy blurb), but major characters such as Winona Ryder's Lydia Deetz, Barbara Maitland and Charles Deetz are entirely omitted. Lydia in particular is notable, in that, after the Maitlands, she essentially becomes the film's protagonist and the eyes of the audience (also serving a principle role in the Saturday morning cartoon).
Being inspired a film, the line was somewhat short lived, but managed to incorporate a surprising range of both figures, accessories and play-sets: alongside the action figures, Beetlejuice's grave could also be purchased (an almost direct recreation of how it appears in the film), which has the peculiar gimmick of being able “shrink” Beetlejuice to his miniature form as he consistently appears in the film (a variation on an old magician's trick; the grave can open, allowing one of the Beetlejuice action figures to be placed in it. After closing the grave, the sign bearing Beetlejuice's name can be switched like a lever, which activates a secret compartment in which a smaller version of the figure is housed). Two highly detailed and well designed vehicles were also available: “The Creepy Cadillac,” Beetlejuice's possessed car, which is one of the most detailed toys in the collection, as well as a spectral motorcycle complete with chattering skull and the ability to fold out wings and become a sort of flight craft.
Later instalments in the line would inevitably begin to stretch the subject beyond its bounds, yet still paid little to no reference to the Saturday morning cartoon, which might have extended its longevity somewhat: Instead, the line began to incorporate toys that might not have even been originally designed for it: figures that certainly had nothing to do with the film or the cartoon, other than they were vaguely grotesque or boasted a horror motif: a neighbourhood bully character that could be transformed into a demonic pig, a teacher from Lydia's school that became a vampiric, bat-like entity.
Being film-inspired, the toy line inevitably suffered an extremely short shelf life, lasting little more than a year or so after the original film was released before being discontinued, but, like many on this list, is incredibly fondly remembered for its gruesome details, its invention and its appeal to the gross and nightmarish that children generally crave.