10:00 — 11:35: Halloween
The Holy Bee has already dedicated a “Halloween Special” post to his ill-advised, but ultimately successful, attempt to watch all eight original Halloween films in a row. I’m pretty sure we need only bother with the first one here, 1978’s Halloween, directed, co-written, and scored by John Carpenter. That three-note synth riff has become synonymous with slasher films, and almost as well known as the Jaws theme. Film historians have had a long-running debate about what constitutes a true “slasher” film, or what the first one was. Whether or not Halloween was the first slasher film, it certainly put all the tropes together in a stylish way, and more importantly, it was a pretty solid commercial success.
Success breeds imitators, and wherever Halloween’s place is in the origin of the genre, it opened the floodgates to the Golden Age of Slashers. Halloween’s superhuman, knife-wielding killer Michael Myers established a formula followed by at least two other slasher film series of the 1980s, beginning with Friday the 13th (1980) and its Jason Voorhees, and A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) and its Freddy Krueger. There were also dozens of others of lesser repute, and those usually sprouted a franchise of their own since they were so damn inexpensive to produce.
Unlike its later knock-offs, Halloween is almost Hitchcockian, pretty much bloodless, and except for a few flashes of nudity, could probably play uncut on network television. Carpenter’s film succeeds on camera work and atmosphere, which cannot be said for the others, and cannot even be said for subsequent Halloween films, which were in the hands of lesser talents than Carpenter.
11:35 — 12:00: NewsRadio (Season 3, Episode 5: “Halloween”)
NewsRadio was one of the most underrated shows of the 90s, and was one of the of the last great three-camera, live-audience sitcoms. (And before anyone says anything about Big Bang Theory or something like that, remember I said “great”.) Its best moments were in the same league as Taxi or Cheers, although it lacked those shows’ richness. I suppose it was more comparable to Night Court when it was at its mid-run peak, if anyone remembers that. Almost a television version of a comic strip. The ensemble cast boasts two genuine comedy geniuses (Dave Foley and the late Phil Hartman), future Serious Actress (Maura Tierney) before she became a fixture on E.R., and two future nutcases (Andy Dick and Joe Rogan) before they went barking mad.
The show’s real treasure, though, was Stephen Root as the eccentric billionaire who owns the radio station, and in this episode refuses to invite the staff to his annual Halloween party. When asked why, he mentions that at his last Halloween party, the staff were, as he puts it, “too cool for school,” refusing to wear costumes and participate in the party games. He relents after they beg him to reconsider, leading to the show’s payoff — After frantically trying to think of a costume idea, in desperation Dave Foley asks to borrow Maura Tierney’s new cocktail dress, which leads to Foley revisiting his Kids In The Hall days and appearing in full drag…and looking quite fetching, actually. Tierney is in a mysterious foul mood for the remainder of the episode. When Foley finally asks why she is sulking, she explodes “Because you look better in my dress than I do!”
12:00 — 1:25: The Monster Squad
A flop upon release, The Monster Squad (1987) has developed a dedicated cult following over the past couple of decades, despite the fact it was a pretty obvious attempt to recreate The Goonies, right down to the slightly older tough kid and the token fat kid (simply referred to throughout the film as “Fat Kid.”) However, The Monster Squad has its own charms, not least the inclusion of the full gamut of classic movie monsters.
Through a series of convoluted circumstances, Count Dracula and cohorts are very real, very alive (or at least very undead), and wreaking havoc on a quiet 1980s suburban neighborhood. The only ones to take the threat seriously are Sean and Patrick, a pair of earnest, slightly nerdy middle schoolers who have a “monster club” in a treehouse right out of an Our Gang short. They are happy to be joined by the super cool older delinquent Rudy, though it’s for less than wholesome purposes. (The treehouse has an unobstructed view of Patrick’s older sister’s bedroom. And you know Rudy’s a delinquent because he wears shades and a leather jacket and chews a matchstick.) The club’s activities are usually restricted to drawing pictures and writing stories, but when people begin turning up dead, they piece together the clues, arm themselves with stakes and silver, and go into battle.
Despite, or because of, all its juvenile silliness (including its now-classic line from Fat Kid: “Wolfman’s got nards!” after he delivers a solid kick to the werewolf’s nether regions), there is a lot to enjoy here, including a fully committed performance by Duncan Regehr as Count Dracula, a poignant subplot about a Holocaust survivor, and a series of crowd-pleasing moments as it heads for its climax. My personal favorite is when the cynical, condescending non-believer Rudy unexpectedly steps up and blasts a stake through the heart of a hissing vampire to the open-mouthed amazement of everyone. (“What? I’m in the goddamn club, aren’t I?”)
1:25 — 1:50: The Simpsons (Season 2, Episode 3: “Treehouse of Horror”)
Speaking of treehouses, the most famous treehouse in all of Halloween media is up next. Originally broadcast as The Simpson’s Halloween Special, the first “Treehouse of Horror” consisted of three Halloween mini-episodes, presented anthology-style, and established a tradition that continues a quarter-century later. (“Treehouse of Horror XXVI” just aired the night before I’m writing this.) Although they later went for some genuinely gruesome moments (for The Simpsons at least — XXVI featured Sideshow Bob prancing around while wearing the disemboweled Bart’s large intestine like a feather boa), the first installment was pretty tame, but a classic nonetheless. The first story, “Bad Dream House” is a parody of The Amityville Horror. The second, “Hungry Are The Damned,” is a Twilight Zone-ish tale of alien abduction that introduced Treehouse of Horror fixtures Kang and Kodos, a pair of drooling, tentacled, one-eyed extraterrestrials. The final tale, which some people did not care for but is my favorite, is a fairly straightforward reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” The narration is supplied by James Earl Jones, with the dialogue and action performed by Homer and a raven that looks suspiciously like Bart. Simple yet effective, there are those that prefer the more outre vignettes of later seasons. But it makes a great transition into…
1:50 — 3:20: The Raven
Although it’s very (very, very) loosely based on the authentically spooky Poe poem and set amongst the shadows and staircases in the castles of rival 15th century sorcerers, Roger Corman’s rather silly film would not frighten a timid toddler. However, I couldn’t let a Halloween marathon go by without seeing something with Vincent Price, and without acknowledging the impact of Roger Corman.
Corman practically invented low-budget independent cinema, directing 54 films between 1955 and 1971, usually horror or sci-fi, on schedules of a few days each with budgets that wouldn’t even pay for the catering on regular Hollywood films. His greatest acclaim came for his adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe material in the early 1960s, usually starring Vincent Price. Price, a veteran of many horror films, Corman and non-Corman, had such a cultivated air and rich, plummy voice, I always forget he’s not British. (He’s a native of St. Louis.) The Raven is the most lighthearted of Corman’s Poe pictures, very tongue-in-cheek, and featuring the humorous (mostly ad-libbed) asides by another old horror movie fixture, Peter Lorre, in one of his final appearances.
As a producer, Corman gave many new directors their first real job behind the camera (among them Coppola, Scorsese, James Cameron, Joe Dante, and Ron Howard), and gave several actors their first break. A stiff, amateurish Jack Nicholson appears in a small supporting part in The Raven (his third Corman film), looking embarrassed in his silk and velvet period costume (complete with feathered hat.) The highlight of the film is Boris Karloff as the black-hearted villain. It’s ironic that he got his start as the mute Frankenstein’s Monster, because his true gift is his deep baritone voice, which he shows off to great effect here. Though the budget may be in the basement, the script by Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man, I Am Legend) is anything but cheap-sounding, and gives Karloff plenty of delectable dialogue to roll around in. (Millions still hear Karloff’s wonderful pipes every December when they watch the animated How the Grinch Stole Christmas.)
3:20 — 4:00: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Our second and final visit with Disney animation, this was originally released in theaters in 1949 as the two-story film The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. With the Wind in the Willows material trimmed off, we get a superb 40-minute adaptation of the Washington Irving story that has been broadcast separately on TV quite often since 1955.
4:00 — 5:55: The Haunting
Robert Wise directed this 1963 adaptation of the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House, and it stands as one of the greatest haunted house movies of all time. In contrast to the dumb, loud Amityville Horror, The Haunting succeeds because it’s so quiet. Every thump, knock, and disembodied whisper in the large English manor house in which the film is set is loaded with portent. The stately pace increases the engulfing sense of doom that is felt while wondering what is on the other side of the door. Is it just the wind? The house settling? But a settling house can’t touch you in the dark…
Speaking of dark, The Haunting closes out the afternoon, and the sky is getting noticeably plum-colored outside…
5:55 — 6:20: Garfield’s Halloween Adventure
One of the last great holiday specials, 1985’s Garfield’s Halloween Adventure closed the door on a two decade run of must-watch animated events that popped up in prime-time around the holidays since the initial broadcast of A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965. The release of a lot of these specials on home video beginning around this time diluted them of their impact. If you can watch Garfield’s Halloween Adventure in March by popping it into your VCR, what makes it “special”? They’re no longer harbingers of the holidays, they’re just another tape to throw on the stack.
So, which part of that last paragraph makes me sound the oldest? I promise you, the Holy Bee is not an all-out curmudgeon (yet). Believe me, I love living in a world where just about every movie and TV show is available with the click of a mouse. Re-watching some of the shows to jog my memory for this very blog entry would be impossible without the tireless streaming of the good people at Hulu Plus, HBO Go, YouTube, and Netflix. But I wonder how different my childhood would be if all that existed back then. If the specials weren’t special, if they weren’t something we waited for for days or even weeks, and didn’t represent the Halloween/Thanksgiving/Christmas year-end trifecta around which my year revolved (still does, actually), you might not be reading this.
On the other hand, if I had access to all media at all times back then, I might be twice as awesome now, and not wasting everyone’s time with this nonsense.
It’s full-on dark now…
6:20 — 7:50: Pumpkinhead
Stan Winston was one of the last great “practical” special effects designers in the modern film industry. The Terminator’s skeleton, the aliens of Aliens, the predator of Predator, and the menagerie of creatures who fell victim to Sean, Patrick, and Fat Kid in Monster Squad all came from Wintson’s workshop. And not only did he not flee into retirement when digital effects became the norm, he became a digital effects pioneer, creating the CGI dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 milestone Jurassic Park. He made his directorial debut in 1988 with this interesting take on the supernatural-killer-hacking-its-way-through-a-bunch-of-teens type of low-budget horror flick.
Somewhere in some unspecified rural backwoods, the usually mild-mannered roadside store owner seeks revenge on the callous teens who killed his young son in a careless accident. He enlists the aid of a local witch (this is the type of rural backwoods that would totally have a local witch) to raise the slavering, unstoppable demon known as Pumpkinhead. The teens are dispatched through the usual range of impalings and dismemberments, and then the store owner learns that vengeance comes with a price…
Winston, unsurprisingly, handles the director’s reins with great technical skill, imparts a little more swampy atmosphere than the typical film of the genre, and generally acquits himself quite well, but Hollywood was not pounding down his door to direct further epics. After one more ride in the director’s chair (1990’s A Gnome Named Gnorm — it’s every bit as good as its title), Winston returned to his workshop, bought some computers and some “So You Want To Transition Into Digital Effects” books, and took Spielberg’s call.
7:50 — 8:15: It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
This is the big one, the one show a Halloween marathon could not do without. It features gorgeous, watercolor backgrounds with an autumnal palette, a top-notch jazz score by the Vince Guaraldi Sextet, and voice acting by actual children, a Peanuts innovation and quite a novelty for that era. The normally level-headed Linus’ bizarre dedication to a magical Halloween gift-giver no one else has even heard of drives the story, and poor Charlie Brown’s many ritual humiliations (“I got a rock”) are the b-plot. Throw in a wordless vignette with Snoopy fighting the Red Baron in his imagination, and you’ve got the makings of a TV tradition which has aired annually for almost half a century. Home media viewing of this may not be the worst idea — for its past several showings, the TV networks have trimmed a few minutes to make room for more commercials. Blasphemy. Rest assured, KHBE will show every second of it.
After the success of A Charlie Brown Christmas, there was a clamor for further holiday specials featuring Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip characters. 1966’s It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown began a cottage industry of countless holiday-themed Peanuts TV specials, up to and including Election Day, Arbor Day, and Super Bowl Sunday. There was also the cancer-themed Why, Charlie Brown, Why?, as Schulz was a melancholy guy with a bit of a morbid streak. (The Holy Bee recommends David Michaelis’s controversial 2007 biography Schulz and Peanuts for further insight.)
The overtly religious themes of A Charlie Brown Christmas came as no surprise to those who knew Schulz as a devout Christian, but his faith was complicated, often conflicted, and sometimes a little dark. Although he later disavowed this intention, in a letter to a viewer at the time he explained that he created the Great Pumpkin as a comment on the ridiculousness of believing in Santa Claus at the expense of believing in Jesus (the irony may or may not have escaped him). He seemed surprised when people didn’t get the point, and treated It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown as a holiday trifle, rather than the somewhat barbed religious parable he had intended. The only differences between this and Christmas was that Christmas’ message was worn on its sleeve and inclusive, and Pumpkin’s was buried in metaphor and judgmental. Although he remained spiritual, in his later years Schulz quit church, publicly described himself as a “secular humanist,” and seemed much more at peace. At which point he simply described Linus as “a little confused” when it came to the Great Pumpkin.
OK, now that I’ve ruined It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown for you, let’s move on to another mini-marathon…KHBE now proudly presents the cinematic King of Halloween…Mr. Tim Burton.
8:15 — 8:45: Frankenweenie
This 1984 black-and-white live action short film was written and directed by Burton when he was an ambitious young Disney animator, with the intention of pairing it with a re-release of Pinocchio. When the Disney executives saw the finished product, they not only didn’t release it, they fired Burton for “wasting company resources” by making a film that was far too dark and twisted for young audiences.
When Burton became famous, of course, Disney was all smiles, and put Frankenweenie out on home video in 1992. No one was traumatized. It has since been included as a bonus feature on The Nightmare Before Christmas DVD and Blu-Ray. (And having thoroughly buried the hatchet, Burton and Disney collaborated on a full-length animated version of the story in 2012, but it has none of the dime-store charm of the original.)
8:45 — 10:50: Ed Wood
One of the Holy Bee’s all-time favorite movies, and marathon or no, one I almost always watch on Halloween night. Burton’s fictionalized biopic of the man often credited with being the worst film director in history is actually a loving valentine to the schlock, trash, and campiness that make Halloween so much fun. The many highlights include rich black-and-white cinematography, a fascinating delve into the minutiae of Z-grade cinematic garbage, and an examination of 1950s Hollywood seediness in anthropological detail. The friendship between Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Johnny Depp) and the dying horror legend Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau, in an Oscar-winning performance), the once mighty Count Dracula, who is now a drug-addled has-been who agrees to appear in Wood’s abominable movies, is the core of the film. If it sounds sad, it’s really not, it’s cathartic…it’s a tribute to all of us with more passion than talent.
10:50 — 12:00: The Nightmare Before Christmas
Although fellow former Disney animator Henry Selick is the credited director, no one considers The Nightmare Before Christmas anything but a Tim Burton film. Burton’s original story, characters, and drawings are brought to life as a musical stop-motion animation film that presents the imaginative notion that every holiday has its own fantasy realm. What would happen if a denizen of Halloween Town accidentally ends up in Christmas Town and replaces Santa Claus? A pretty messed-up Christmas, that’s what.
I had initially resisted including The Nightmare Before Christmas, having found it a little slow-moving (even at 76 minutes) when I first saw it, and it’s certainly just as much of a Christmas movie as a Halloween movie. But the first big production number, “This Is Halloween” is perhaps the most effective and evocative celebration of the holiday ever put on film, and its Christmas elements make it a great way to end the marathon, creating a neat little bridge into the next major holiday. Apologies to Thanksgiving, I meant the next major holiday that has a blitz of associated movies and TV to choose from.
KHBE’s “48 Hours of Christmas,” anyone? Looks like I have work to do. I’d better get started right now…
Internet Outrage Section or, “Hey! Why did you leave off MY favorite thing…?”
The Exorcist/The Omen/The Shining/Rosemary’s Baby/Poltergeist — These are thoroughbred, prestige pictures, designed for mass appeal, and maybe even a few legitimate awards. But they lack an indefinable atmosphere, or at least a certain second-class cheesiness, that Halloween marathon movies should have.
Friday the 13th/Nightmare on Elm Street/Child’s Play/Hellraiser etc. etc. — I think the low-budget 80s slasher film genre is adequately represented by the much more interesting Pumpkinhead, and of course by its originator, Halloween.
Hocus Pocus — Beloved by those about half-a-generation younger than me (along with Ninja Turtles and, for some reason, Boy Meets World), this staple of ABC Family’s venerable “13 Nights of Halloween” marathon already has its kid-friendly place occupied by The Monster Squad. I’ve also factored in the fact that it’s unwatchably terrible.
Those that soldier through it must attempt to keep their candy corn down as the tsunami-like force of Bette Midler’s shrill overacting destroys everything in its path. And it isn’t campy, fun sixties-sitcom overacting. It’s a desperate, sweaty, attention-whoring rampage. I can tolerate Bette Midler for just about the length of her three-minute guest shot on Seinfeld. Any longer than that, and she makes my flesh crawl (and not in a good Halloween way.)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer — I never warmed to this series, in the same way I never warmed to the old or new Doctor Who. I can see why people like them, and the Venn diagram of the people who love these shows, and love the shows I love (Monty Python, Firefly, etc.) is almost a single circle, but I’m on the outside fringe.
Scream/Young Frankenstein/Fright Night/Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein — All can be considered horror comedies (some place more emphasis on one genre than the other), and I like them all, but I only had 24 hours to work with.
The Scary Movie series — No.
Saw/Hostel/whatever your favorite douchebag Gen-Y post-2000 torture porn is — Not really keeping in the spirit of the overall tone of the marathon. Also, you’re a terrible person.
Thanks to the ubiquity of home media and all the aforementioned streaming services, this imaginary marathon is almost do-able, although I don’t know where you’d squeeze in Elvira…