The original script was much darker, and traces remain underneath the finished product's goofy slapstick. Keaton's Betelgeuse is a perv as well as a prankster – harassing Geena Davies at every opportunity and setting his sights on hooking up with an unwilling Winona Ryder, who is just a child. So lurking behind the cartoonish wedding ceremony, which provides the final moments of tension in the film, is the spectre of sexual violence and paedophilia.

That makes the film quite strange tonally. For the most part, it looks like Caspar the Friendly Ghost given the Tim Burton design treatment. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are wholesome, unadventurous nerds happiest when at home in their rural townhouse. The Deetz family are absurd caricatures of metropolitan bourgeois values, while their daughter is the most ridiculous goth on screen. There are little shadings of tragedy underneath the fairytale portrayal though. Baldwin and Davis's domestic bliss is marred by their inability to have children. Ryder finds her parents repulsive and considers suicide as a way to escape their clutches and join Baldwin and Davis in the afterlife.

If the film is about anything, it's about Ryder finding happiness in a surrogate all-American family structure that leaves her real parents compartmentalised in the attic – free of the responsibility of trying to understand or look after their daughter. In their way, they also find contentment – Charles finally escapes the rat race, and Delia pursues her hideous art projects as a form of private expression (much like Baldwin and his model-building). Betelgeuse is a degenerate wastrel completely alien to the small town middle class community Baldwin and Davis belong to, and the Deetz family join by rejecting their urban attachments and attitudes. While Burton's design sensibilities are outlandish and bizarre, his film is ultimately a tribute to conformism – championing the containment and domestication of deviant urges so that family and society are preserved.

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