In 1990, Kenner and Satan teamed up to bring us a fairly enormous Beetlejuice toy collection, with figures, playsets and costume kits based not on the cartoon show, but the actual movie.
The line always struck me as a little odd. While I’d openly credit Beetlejuice for breaking Zagnut bars out of a centuries-long popularity rut, I don’t necessarily believe that children had enough of a passion for the titular character to buy a bunch of action figures based on his movie. I mean, Kenner went so far as to create Adam Maitland and Otho figures. Otho! There was an ironic appeal in an Otho action figure, sure, but it’s not like anyone noticed it until it was fifteen years too late.
For a brief time, my town was blessed with a Lionel Kiddie City. These toy stores were the stuff of legend for many, but we only had ours for two years, tops. The main merits of Kiddie City stores were their fabled clearance aisles, where toys that hadn’t been produced for up to fifteen years still found themselves marked and pegged, adorned with gigantic, package-ruining, luggage tag-themed red clearance stickers. It’s why so many still-carded vintage action figures are sold with big, gaping tears on the front all over eBay. Even more than a decade later, sellers still don’t want you to know that Tasha Yar’s TNG figure cost them seventy-eight cents a pop.
In the Beetlejuice toyline’s prime, I wasn’t interested. Marked down 75% at Kiddie City, I was all over it. From the figures to the weird motorcycles and convertibles that the figures rode on or in, I’ve seen virtually everything in the collection. Even stupid stuff, like the thing pictured in the 6.25″ photos above and below.
The Beetlejuice “Gross-Out Meter” was the pinnacle of the line’s ridiculousness, and for a collection that included everything from coffin-themed playsets to 18″ belching Beetlejuice dolls, that’s saying something. This was a high-concept toy, if we can assume that “high-concept” is defined as “something that takes more than 500 words to describe.” Let’s see if I can do it in 400.
The “Gross-Out Meter” provides you with the means to find out just how disgusting your friends really are. A spinning meter offers random readings like, “REALLY GROSS” or “TOTALLY FOUL.” To help sell these readings as truly personalized, the meter can be affixed to the wrist of your client, who at that point will have no solid rebuttal to being christened as totally foul.
And if that isn’t enough for you, a lever underneath the toy signals a plastic bug to jump several feet in the air from a bone-themed cage on the side of the meter. This doesn’t really connect with the spinning meter readings in any natural way, but hey, flying toy bugs.
If nothing else, you could at least say that the “Gross-Out Meter” wasn’t fashioned from the dusty mold of some preexisting, long forgotten Kenner toy. Truly, this was the first and last time we saw anything of the sort. I’d almost say it’s more of a work of art than a toy, for one easily finds themselves bored with the spinning level readings and flying bugs, opting to simply stand and admire the fact that a large toy company mass-produced skeleton hand-themed meters that told kids how gross they were. If you were in the mood to interpret or deconstruct, the “Gross-Out Meter” was the best thing in Aisle 7.
On the other hand, all of Kenner’s Beetlejuice toys broke the mold in some way. Most of the action figures (which seemed par for the course at first glance) had pop-off rubber heads which revealed tiny-sized plastic heads underneath, in tribute to the voodoo head-shrinking scene from the film’s climax. Other figures went down more traditional routes, i.e., a punky street thug who could be folded down into the shape of a giant rat.
Oh, and there was a Beetlejuice mask infested with three multicolored hair snakes that popped upwards under the power of a hidden hand-pump. For the kid who had everything.
The best part about buying a “Gross-Out Meter” was the included Kenner Action Toy Guide, with pages and pages of well-set color photos of all the boy-targeted playthings they had on the market in 1990. Every major toy company stuck booklets like this into the boxes of their larger offerings, and they kinda served as off-season Sears Wishbooks. They weren’t catalogs in the traditional sense — you couldn’t place orders from them — but the books still let us map out which plastic artifacts we were going to beg for next.
Moreover, these little catalogs were how non-readers like me got that same level of smug “AH AH I read a book” satisfaction other kids spent 150 pages of their life to achieve.
Beetlejuice: Thank you for being Halloweeny. You are… *checks* …totally offensive.
PS: I know you’re wondering what that flying toy bug looks like. Here. It looks like that. A small part of me believes that I got the same bug figure out of a can of Ecto-Plazm, but maybe I’m just kicking Kenner when they’re down. I only bitch about people who are dead and companies that are out of business. This keeps me safe.