Halloween falls on a Saturday this year. As far as the Holy Bee is concerned, every Halloween should be on a Saturday. (A dark, rainy Saturday, preferably. Not one of the sunlit 80-degree days that so often characterize late October here in the central valley of California. The last Halloween that combined Saturday and the requisite gloom was 1998, and it was mostly wasted by me working the afternoon shift down at the old movie theater. At least we were showing Bride of Chucky…)
Especially since I’ve had a grown-up, Monday through Friday type of job, Saturday Halloweens have retained their special cachet, and now another is upon us.
Given the choice between doing something and not doing something, the Holy Bee would tend to choose the latter course every time. I’ve often said to my sons (who share this philosophy) that our family crest should contain the Latin motto Utinam Non Magis (“I’d Rather Not”), along the lines of Bartleby the Scrivener. Combining a Saturday Halloween with nothing to do? Perfect. That’s when you dive into a Halloween-themed marathon on a local channel or deep cable. These are always a great idea, but they often come up short in terms of variety. How much variety can one put into a Halloween-themed marathon? Plenty.
Though I’m not quite Walter Mitty level, I do tend to daydream, usually when driving at high speeds, or when important people are talking to me about a topic I’m not interested in (which is most of them). So not long ago, I began thinking about how I would program a Halloween marathon on my very own TV station (“KHBE”).
Imagine yourself, Gentle Reader, as the inhabitant of a better world where KHBE actually exists, and is airing a “24 Hours of Halloween” marathon from midnight to midnight. You would get home from work around five-ish on Friday the 30th (maybe having slipped out a little early), toss your keys on the counter, flip through the mail, perhaps fix a snack, and then pop an Ambien and get right into bed and get some sleep! Set your alarm for 11:55 pm.
I hope you’ve stocked your larder and have the number of a good pizza delivery place, because you won’t be leaving the house any time soon. Cut through some of that post-Ambien grogginess with a quick Instant Pumpkin Spice Latte, and fire up your TV. What will you see? Not commercials, that’s for damn sure. The Holy Bee has scheduled this marathon tightly. No time for ads.
There will be a few minutes of downtime here and there to keep things starting on the 0s and 5s. I have decreed that this time will be filled by everyone’s favorite wise-cracking horror hostess, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. I don’t care if she’s now 64 — enough make-up, candlelight, and soft focus will transport her back to how she looked on that Coors Light cardboard standee (left) that greeted millions of 7-11 customers during any given October in the 1980s, and may have contributed to the onset of puberty for the younger ones. (Her self-titled 1988 movie did not make the cut for the marathon because I needed her for hosting duties, and did not want to make 24 Hours of Halloween top-heavy? overstuffed? with Elvira.)
12:00 — 12:25: Three Disney Shorts
At the stroke of midnight, we start with three classic Disney shorts to set the mood, beginning with 1929’s “The Skeleton Dance,” the very first in their series of musical shorts known as Silly Symphonies which ran through the 1930s. (It’s kind of forgotten now that the names of Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies were originally intended as nods to the Disney series.) “The Skeleton Dance” is pretty basic, what with the synchronization of sound and images still being a very recent development. The title kind of says it all. In addition to dancing, the skeletons also play each other’s bones in a percussive manner.
And they don’t neglect a favorite early Disney theme — doing something terrible to cats (in this case, stretching one out and playing it like a double bass). A cat must have pooped in little Walt’s Cream of Wheat or something early in his development, because he certainly had an axe to grind (sometimes literally) with members of the feline community. Despite its simplicity, thanks to “The Skeleton Dance”’s inclusion in almost every Disney montage, TV special, and/or video collection even vaguely related to general spookiness (and in lots of other stuff), it has reached iconic status.
Following that, we get Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy in 1937’s “Lonesome Ghosts.” The trio are the “Ajax Ghost Exterminators,” an obvious forerunner to the 1984 comedy Ghostbusters. At one point, Goofy actually says “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts!” (Not heard in the film itself, but a refrain in the chart-topping Ghostbusters theme song by Ray Parker, Jr.) The ghosts themselves can be considered poltergeists — noisy, trouble-making pranksters, clad in bowler hats and what appear to be pajamas. They call the Ajax Ghost Exterminators themselves out of boredom. When Mickey, Donald, and Goofy arrive with their ghost-exterminating equipment — a fire-axe, a butterfly net, and a double-barreled shotgun — the ghosts proceed to harass them by whacking them with pieces of lumber, and playing a trombone behind them, until the tables are unexpectedly turned (no spoilers here) and the ghosts run for the hills.
Rounding out the trilogy is 1952’s “Trick Or Treat,” wherein Donald Duck’s nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie, enlist the help of Witch Hazel, voiced by legendary voice actress June Foray, (who also voiced the differently-drawn Warner Brothers Witch Hazel a few years later, and is still working at age 98) to get Halloween treats from their stingy “Unca Donald.” Donald not only withholds the treats, but instead fills their bags with lit firecrackers and dumps a bucket of water on them just for the sheer hell of it. Witch Hazel sings a bluegrass-y ditty while she uses an aerosol potion to spray a spell on Donald’s feet, which turns them pale blue and forces them to kick his own abdomen until he vomits up the key to the treat cupboard which he had swallowed out of spite. Watch it and tell me if that’s not an accurate description. Everyone thinks Disney stuff is so sweet, but their shorts can get pretty twisted…
12:25 — 2:05: Son of Frankenstein
For much of the middle of the twentieth century, “Universal” was synonymous with “horror.” Our mental images of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, Wolf Man, and the Mummy have all been created for us entirely by the movies made by Universal Pictures in the 1930s and 40s (and 1950s if you count the Creature from the Black Lagoon). Dracula in his tux and opera cape, black hair slicked into a widow’s peak, the Frankenstein Monster’s squared-off skull and neck bolts – none of these came from the original 19th century Gothic novels by Stoker and Shelly. They came from Universal, and Universal then sold them to television in the 1950s as a syndicated package called “Shock Theater,” which ran non-stop through the early 70s. The Universal monsters are inescapably woven into our cultural fabric.
So which Universal monster movie should represent in the marathon? The original 1931 Dracula and 1931 Frankenstein are obvious choices, but they’re incredibly stiff, creaky, and steeped in silent-film conventions. Some say the sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is a masterpiece, but flamboyant director James Whale blows it into the realm of high camp. No, give me the second sequel, Son of Frankenstein (1939), any day.
Many things we associate with Frankenstein are actually established in this third film. The family castle with its canted angles and oppressive shadows (borrowing heavily from German Expressionism.) The local police chief nosing around and asking questions. The bubbling sulfur pit in the basement. Relatively expressive and spry in the first two films, the great Boris Karloff in his last performance as the monster performs him here as a mute, lumbering beast. Karloff is joined by fellow Universal legend Bela Lugosi, putting aside his Dracula cape to bring us his second-greatest horror creation, the sinister broken-necked shepherd Ygor. How “Ygor” became the name associated with Dr. Frankenstein’s lab assistant is a mystery I cannot solve. There have been many hunchbacked assistants through the original series of films, and not one of them was named Ygor. Speaking of names, “Frankenstein” should never be used to refer to the nameless monster, only to the doctor who created him, but that has been a losing battle from the beginning, as acknowledged by the film itself. Basil Rathbone, playing the original doctor’s titular son, has a bitter line remarking how people are using his surname to refer to the shambling horror his father created.
If the story points of Son of Frankenstein seem familiar as you watch it, that’s because Mel Brooks used the basic plot of Son for his comedy masterpiece Young Frankenstein.
2:05 — 2:30: Roseanne (Season 2, Episode 7 — “Boo!”)
No one did a Halloween episode like Roseanne…even after the show went off the rails late in its run. The blue-collar Connor family is one of those that go all out for Halloween, decorating up their house at a cost of what appears to be at least a few hundred bucks (despite being perpetually broke), and having local trick-or-treaters run the gauntlet of terror, all while attempting to prank each other with frightening scenarios. All that is, except oldest daughter Becky, who is sulking about not being invited to the cool kids’ Halloween party. In the purest sitcom style, everything is resolved in 22 minutes, and Roseanne wins the pranking contest, retaining the title “Queen of Halloween.”
The next season’s Halloween episode is pretty worthy, too. It seems Connor patriarch Dan is having a hard time allowing youngest son D.J. to trick-or-treat in a dress as a female witch. Something the Holy Bee has some experience with…
OK, it’s the dead of night, the darkest time before dawn, and time to unleash a little gore and splatter. A part-sequel, part-remake of the ultra low-budget original, Evil Dead 2 (1987) pushes the cinematic boundaries of horror film violence and dismemberment to surreal new levels. By way of an old literary invention of H.P. Lovecraft’s, the infamous Necronomicon, a host of demons are unleashed upon a group of hapless folks stranded in a remote cabin. When they decide to fight back, the body parts fly. Writer-director Sam Raimi and his co-writer Scott Spiegel maintain a light, humorous touch despite being awash in colorful, slippery viscera almost non-stop, and Bruce Campbell elevates himself to B-movie legend with his portrayal of everyman Ash Williams. The big-budget sequel, Army of Darkness, toned down the gore and amped up the comedy in an attempt to make the series mainstream, but cinema audiences stayed away, and the trilogy remained a cultish video store staple (back when there were video stores.)
4:05 — 4:30: The Addams Family (Season 1, Episode 7 — “Halloween with the Addams Family”)
The Addams Family was based on a series of dark-humored New Yorker cartoons by Charles Addams which began in 1938. Not based on any known horror tropes, the family collectively just has a deep affinity for the macabre, an array of mild supernatural powers, and a complete obliviousness to how their lifestyle appears to outsiders.
Coincidentally or not, ABC and CBS decided to go with spooky, horror-themed sitcoms at the same time in the fall of 1964. Both The Addams Family and The Munsters ran for a mere two seasons, and then perpetually in re-runs, leading to the “which was better” debate among TV nerds. Unlike the Ginger vs. Mary Ann or Kirk vs. Picard dust-ups, Addams vs. Munster was usually over pretty quickly, as The Addams Family was in every way superior. The Munsters was beating the corpse of the old Universal monsters (it was produced by Universal Television) for cheap laughs, whereas The Addams Family was going for something subtler.
And I mean “subtle” only compared to The Munsters, for there is noting subtle about any 1960s sitcom, where every performance is not only over-the-top, but has streaked past the top and lit out for the stratosphere. It must have been tremendous fun as an actor. The plot for this Halloween episode has a pair of fleeing bank robbers attempting to use the Addams’ mansion as a hideout. A young Don Rickles plays one of the robbers, and he mugs, blinks, double-takes, and in general hams it up so mercilessly I thought his face was going to detach from his skull and flap away. He is matched and surpassed, twitch for twitch, by Jackie Coogan as Uncle Fester, who gives a performance I can only describe as something between Joe Besser on PCP and a malfunctioning large appliance.
And apologies to good ol’ Fred Gwynne (and Raul Julia, for that matter), whom I like just fine, but John Astin is a god among men. His portrayal of Gomez Addams, full of grace notes like dark eyeliner, a shirt pocket full of cigars (revealed the few times he removes his natty pinstriped suit coat), and mischievous sidelong smirk, does not abandon or condescend to the sixties sitcom house style of “more is more,” but elevates it and makes it seem cool.
4:30 — 6:05: Scars of Dracula
There was Universal, and then there was Hammer, the little British studio that decided to put its own Euro-Gothic spin on all of the classic monsters. Beginning with 1957’s Curse of Frankenstein and ending with 1974’s Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, Hammer Films re-did Frankenstein, Dracula, et al, in glorious Technicolor, gave them their own line of endless sequels, made stars of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, concocted a few original franchises of their own, and upped the sex and blood factors as the series wound through the sixties.
Hammer films were devoured by American horror aficionados when they got their U.S. releases, usually at drive-ins and grindhouses. Not only were they edgier than standard American fare, they were made with a great sense of style, especially those films helmed by veteran director Terence Fisher. Unfortunately, 1970’s Scars of Dracula was not one of those films. The job done by director Roy Ward Baker here can be best described as “workmanlike.” But the marathon needed a Dracula film, so why not one of the Hammer-iest of all the Hammer films? You want ketchup-y, neon-red blood? You got it. You want giant furry bats flapping around on poorly-concealed wires? You got it. You want buxom women tiptoeing through castles in diaphanous white nightgowns that seem to have magic shoulder straps that refuse to slip off no matter what? You got it.
You also got 6’6” Hammer horror star Christopher Lee playing the Count yet again, much to his own disgust were you to ask him. Still, the checks cleared and the work was easy. He had previously appeared as the classic vampire in The Horror of Dracula, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, and Taste the Blood of Dracula, and would do so twice more in Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula, before Lee put his sizeable foot down and said no more. Lee’s Dracula shared the same caped, slicked-back and chalky-white appearance as Lugosi’s original creation, but the similarities end there. Lee’s Dracula is much more primal, an elemental force of nature. Rather than exchange pleasantries with his soon-to-be victims in a thick Transylvanian accent, he barely speaks at all, and when he does, it is a curt, low rumble. (Scars of Dracula is actually the outlier in the series in this regard, giving Lee far more dialogue than usual.) He is mainly a looming visual presence, with occasional flashes of fang and blood-red eyes when hungry or agitated.
6:05 — 6:30: Bugs Bunny’s Howl-o-ween Special
Animation purists will be the only ones howling over this one, where eight classic Warner Brothers cartoons (each originally 7 to 8 minutes) with Halloween-appropriate themes are sliced and diced to fit into a thirty-minute time slot, along with some new linking animation to turn them into a unified narrative. It doesn’t fool anyone under the age of six, but as Bugs himself says, “Meh, why not? It’s Halloween.”
First aired in 1977, the shorts include “Broom-Stick Bunny,” “Bewitched Bunny,” “Transylvania 6-5000,” “Claws For Alarm,” “Hyde and Hare,” and “Scaredy Cat,” among a few others. I heartily recommend seeing each of the shorts in full, but for our purposes, the truncated versions packed into Bugs Bunny’s Howl-o-ween Special will do.
If you have an eastern-facing window, you’ll begin noticing a slight lightening of the horizon about now. Still pretty dark, though. If all goes well, a few raindrops will be pattering on the roof…
6:30 — 8:00: The Blair Witch Project
Often imitated, never bettered, The Blair Witch Project was hugely divisive among audiences when it first came out in 1999, between those who wanted traditional horror movie jolts and a conventional payoff, and those who appreciated how different its approach was at the time. For those who really focus on the details and buy into the story thread it’s weaving, the film is a deeply unsettling and creepy experience. It was not the first to use the “found footage” documentary style, but I think it did it the best, before its lesser imitators ran the whole “found footage” thing into the ground. You feel like you’re in that ice-cold tent in the Maryland woods right along with those doomed amateur documentarians.
A great movie to watch as a pale autumn sun slowly rises…
8:00 — 9:40: An American Werewolf in London
Let’s see, we’ve had Frankenstein, Dracula, demons, witches…and it’s still early! Time to check off another major horror figure — the werewolf. John Landis’ 1981 An American Werewolf in London set new standards in man-to-wolf transition effects. No more old-fashioned in-camera dissolves, as in 1941’s The Wolf Man; no, now the camera leers unflinchingly as we see the stretching of sinews and hear the cracking of bones as leading actor David Naughton’s body writhes through the grotesquely painful process of becoming a four-legged lupine. Naughton, previously known for his long-running and brutally relentless musical Dr. Pepper commercials (“I’m a Pepper, he’s a Pepper, she’s a Pepper…” etc.), brings the requisite amount of pathos and vulnerability to the role of the man who frequently becomes a murdering monster against his will. John Landis, primarily known as comedy director (Animal House, Trading Places, many others), has a real flair for horror, and also manages to inject enough humor into the proceedings to allow An American Werewolf in London to join the ranks of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, Fright Night, and the aforementioned Evil Dead 2 as a great horror-comedy film.
A couple of times throughout the marathon we’ll have a “mini-marathon.” By including the video for the Michael Jackson song “Thriller” as an immediate chaser to American Werewolf, we are saluting John Landis, who was hired by horror movie buff Jackson to direct what was definitely more than a standard music video — it was a genuine short film, clocking in at fourteen minutes. It premiered on MTV in December 1983 (over a year after the classic album of the same name had hit the shelves), it became the hottest thing on the video channel through the spring of 1984, airing every few hours. The original six-minute song is sliced up and re-shuffled to better fit the narrative scope.
After a clever opening sequence, a film-within-a-film that features Jackson transforming, David Naughton-style, into a yellow-eyed “Werecat,” we hear the verses of the song as Jackson taunts his frightened girlfriend (Ola Ray). The Vincent Price (more on him later) spoken monologue that closes the original track comes in halfway through here, as the living dead squirm out of their graves. Then there’s the funky musical breakdown, where a zombie-fied Jackson leads an elaborate dance sequence with his fellow corpses, and we finally explode into the song’s chorus, relieving the tension that had been building subtly through the film, and featuring Jackson in a red jacket so iconic it has its own Wikipedia page.
A masterstroke for both Jackson and Landis, the video went on to further success when it was released on VHS with the 45-minute behind-the-scenes Making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The tape certainly received heavy play around the Holy Bee’s childhood home (although it wasn’t purchased — we taped it when it was shown on MTV, with clumsy attempts by the nine-year-old Holy Bee to edit out the commercials.)
TO BE CONTINUED…