Thursday, October 31, 2019

Attack of the Sweet Tooth: Memories of Halloween Candy

Just in the nick of time for the big night itself, here's the one thing most kids remember....

Trick or Treat!

I've talked a lot over the years, every October in fact, about various things Halloween related. I've talked about movies and games, costumes and cartoons. I've even talked about the spiritual and historical significance of a day that, to me, happens to be just about the "holiest" day there is. But one thing that every kid who has ever celebrated the big night remembers, THE one thing that every kid who has ever been lucky enough to "Trick or Treat" remembers, is also the one thing most associated with the  (commercial aspect) of the holiday. For many adults, it's (sadly) either drinking in a dumb costume, or (more awesomely) watching horror and monster movies. But let's be real here. For kids, and just in general, the ONE thing that stands out in most people's memories of Candy.

For better and for worse, "Trick or Treating" and Halloween candy are the things that stick with us our whole lives, no matter what else changes. Even when the ToT-ing stops, because kids get "too old" (if you ask me, NO ONE should be too old, but certainly not teens), they still remember the candy. And most adults buy candy to give out to kids, as a guise to have that sweet, sweet tooth-rotting goodness for themselves as well. I myself have briefly touched on the subject before, but I thought that candy was important enough, and synonymous enough with the holiday, that I'd be remiss if I didn't write a piece dedicated to it, and more specifically, to my memories of it.

Everyone's favorite?

Pictured above, you can see what is perhaps the most iconic "Halloween Candy". Meaning it is perhaps the most closely associated with the holiday, and with "Trick or Treating". That doesn't mean that everyone loves the stuff. In fact, many don't. I myself am somewhat ambivalent to it. I liked it and ate it as a kid, but I wouldn't say it excited me, and they were hardly my favorite. That being, so-called "candy corn", and the pumpkin variants there-of. There were, in my childhood as I recall, other "flavors", sort of, such as ones with chocolate flavored tips. I'd say that they aren't terrible, though they do seem to be the butt of many Halloween candy related jokes. But love them or hate them, there is no denying that there really is no specific candy more associated or more iconic of Halloween, than this stuff.

Now if you want to talk BAD Halloween candy...

How bizarre.

How insidious...

How gross!

From top to bottom, what we have here are: Wax Lips, Candy Cigarettes, and Circus Peanuts. I will start by saying that as far as the candy cigarettes go, I don't clearly remember if I myself ever actually got any for Halloween. And I'd imagine most responsible parents wouldn't be thrilled if their kid got any, either. I DID however, get these multiple times as a little kid, from my chain-smoking grandmother no less. They basically taste like sweetened chalk, and as if it weren't obvious, were created, most likely, by some cigarette company or another, as a means of getting some "early starters", so to speak. To give kids the idea that smoking is "cool", and start them young. I myself, while I'm sure deep down my grandmother absolutely didn't want me to ever start smoking (even though she had no problem smoking AROUND me for the first 10+ years of my life), she still bought me these on occasion when I was basically toddler or pre-school age. And you know what? I definitely imitated what I saw my grandmother doing, puffing on them and pretending to smoke them, before I'd actually eat them (because they weren't all that good as candy). And I DEFINITELY thought they were pretty cool at that age, and thought I was cool to be "smoking" them. So I know first-hand, while I've never taken up actual smoking because it's fucking disgusting, the affect these forsaken objects can have on impressionable children.

As for the others, well...what is there to say about Wax Lips? I seem to vaguely remember OTHER, non-lip-shaped wax "candies" as a kid, but these are the ones that stick out, and the most famous. I clearly remember these popping up in store displays during my childhood Octobers, and while I didn't love them by any means, I did seem to get them more than once. To be perfectly honest, it isn't really accurate to say that Wax Lips taste "BAD". Because they don't. They just kinda don't taste...much at all. They certainly have a flavor, of sorts. Waxy. But as far as sweetness goes, while it's THERE, it's very subtle.You're basically just chewing wax, after holding the thing between your lips and pretending they were YOUR lips for a bit first. Whoever came up with these things, I'd put them right up with with "My Pet Rock" (I had more than one of those as a kid too), as being the most successful, truly DUMB ideas in history.

Lastly, we have the scourge known as "Circus Peanuts". Even as a kid, while I liked most candies I ever encountered at least a little, and while I DID eat these many times, I never genuinely liked them much. The main reason for this is...they're just not very good. Granted, SOMEONE, somewhere on planet Earth must think they're great, because they're still around, still manufactured, to this day. But I couldn't tell you why, except that some people must have weird ass taste. Speaking of taste, if you've never encountered these things in your own life, they basically taste like, to put it bluntly, stale marshmallows. Which is basically what they are, as far as I'm concerned. They have the flavor and texture of a marshmallow that has maybe been sitting out for a long time, and they're kinda tough, and kinda chalky, and just really...bleck. Moving on...

An early childhood favorite.

Child Crack.


For a few more odd or obscure Halloween items, I present to you: Necco Wafers, Pixie Sticks, and last but certainly not least...Popcorn Balls. As far as the Neccos go, they really were a favorite of mine as a kid. Some of my very most favorite things when I was between the ages of, let's say, 3 and 6 years old, were Fig Newtons, Squirt soda, and Necco Wafers. I especially loved the "chocolate" flavored ones, that you could find in their own exclusive package. To be perfectly honest, Necco Wafers aren't especially great. They are, as one might imagine, fairly chalky, and the flavors are fairly subdued. I'd say that they taste less strongly, and probably less pleasant, than something like Sweet Tarts, a similar product. But for some odd reason as a child, I really really liked them.

Pixie Sticks are something I'm sure most kids are familiar with, and to put it simply, they are really just sugar in a closed-off straw. That's really basically it. Some kids absolutely love these things to death, and it's not hard to see why, because it's essentially skipping the bullshit and trappings of what candies of any sort really are. and just giving the common base element straight: sugar. Which is why they are also essentially childhood crack. I myself didn't LOVE them, oddly enough. As a kid, I guess I preferred the trappings and the bullshit, I liked various shapes and flavors, and apparently didn't just want to eat straight sugar.

The last, is something that I have a feeling younger kids nowadays are likely less and less familiar with. They still sell them in some stores, and I'm going to take a stab in the dark and imagine that there MUST still be some adults out there who might hand out home-made ones to "Trick or Treaters". But Popcorn Balls are a genuinely odd duck. They aren't BAD as a concept. And sometimes, if you're lucky, they're not bad as a reality either. It's just that when you get a bad one, you get a BAD one. They're generally supposed to be what they look/sound like: a bunch of popcorn, stuck together in a ball shape by some kind of sugary glaze. If you're unlucky, you'll get ones that taste stale as hell, as I feel like I must have. Because while I definitely liked popcorn as a kid, I really never cared for these damn things. And regardless, I feel like most kids were probably disappointed, when they got non-candy items like these, in place of that sweet childhood gold they were REALLY after.

More traditional hard candies.

Gum Drops.

Various candy bars.

Pictured here, are, besides Candy Corn, what I'd consider more "traditional" types of Halloween candy. Hard candies were, when I was a kid in the 80s and early 90s, a fairly common thing to get for Halloween. I have no idea what "Trick or Treaters" get from people now, but if what my roommate buys to give out every year is any indication, I'd imagine they get a lot less of these types, or the weirder fare that I've already shown, and a lot more of the name brand candy bars and stuff that most stores tend to sell in huge (often expensive) packs now. Granted, not all hard candy, or Gum Drops or what-have-you, are great. But I think there is something to be said for variety, and for the air of mystery involved in your Halloween candy, versus basically getting the same limited set of stuff from most houses. As an aside, I'd like to point out that for a certain duration of my pre-teen and early teen childhood, I fuckin' LOVED Butterfinger bars. But as I got older, I got really tired of them sticking in my teeth constantly, and frankly, I fell out of love with their "not really peanut buttery" flavor.

Childhood Gold.

The King of Off-Chocolate Taffy Stuff.

Weird, fun, and delicious!

Peanuts stuck to caramel = genius.

The only flavors that existed when I was a kid.

Cool, minty, refreshing!

THE best, for Halloween, Christmas, or any time.

So, this cavalcade of candy pictures embodies most of my top favorites to get as a kid. THESE were the true gold I was after, and ever-hopeful for, when I would go "Trick or Treating". On a random side-note, as a kid I always associated the York Peppermint Patties with the Peanuts (Charlie Brown) character Peppermint Patty. Eating them always made me think of her. Weird, but hey.

Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, it goes without saying, are godly. I have loved them my whole life, hands down. But while some may find it odd, I have always, ALWAYS preferred the "mini" cups pictured above, instead of the bigger, normal ones. Not that I didn't LIKE the bigger ones. But I just always liked the small ones better. I guess to me it was a perfect chocolate-to-peanut-butter ratio. I've always liked Reese's Pieces (made famous in the film E.T.) as well, though I don't know if any of you have noticed, the peanut butter in those things does NOT taste the same as in the cups. And I've always preferred the cups. They remain one of my top favorites to this very day.

Starburst were more of a childhood favorite, with me liking them less as I got older. Not that I DIS-like them now. But a combination of eventually becoming diabetic (not because of candy), and eating candy less and less in general, saw them drop off as I hit adulthood. But let me tell you, four flavors or not, in the early-to-mid-90s, these things were my jam. And yeah, I probably did like the pink ones best, though to be fair, I really did like the yellow, where some claim not to.

Tootsie Rolls are also something that I came to love less as I got older. Not because I grew to dislike the flavor, I still like how they taste, that weird, off-chocolate taffy type flavor. But similar to Starburst, I just ate them gradually less and less, till now I hardly ever touch them. But again, as a kid, I absolutely adored these things. I've always preferred the smaller, "bite sized" ones, but the longer ones, and especially getting the rare "KING Sized", was pretty exciting. I also remember the non-chocolate flavors they had, such as vanilla, and a few fruit flavors. Those were all pretty good, though I never loved them nearly as much as the traditional chocolate.

As far as Nerds go, I'm sure people exist who don't, but WHO honestly doesn't love these things?  They were pint-sized bits of hardened, flavored sugar. In the shape of silly creatures no less. And came in boxed that usually had two different flavors, so somehow you felt like you were getting more "bang for your buck", to so speak. I seem to remember these things coming into existence during my lifetime, and it would seem I'm correct. I really don't remember having them till the late 80s, at the earliest, but it would appear that they came into existence in 1983. If you've never had Nerds, do yourself a favor, go grab a box, if only to experience them once in your life. It's a Bucket List sort of deal. And who knows, you MAY just love them.

Payday bars were something I don't really remember getting until the 90s, my later childhood years, though it seems they've been around quite a long time. If you've never had one, it's pretty simple: peanuts, literally rolled around a stick of caramel. To be perfectly honest with you, I have never LOVED caramel. It is good in small measure, WITH certain other things. But it's never been my favorite on its own. However, Payday bars are the ONE exception, considering most of what the bar is, is caramel. But to be perfectly fair, and to give credit where it is most certainly due, it is the PEANUTS that bring the party to your mouth. The salty, peanut-y goodness, is what makes all the caramel bearable, and the caramel is just there to get those peanuts into your gullet. The two flavors go great together, I'll admit. But it really is the peanuts that make the bar.

And last but DEFINITELY not least, are the phenomenon known as "Assorted Mini Hershey Bars". These things were a staple of both Halloween and Christmas during my childhood, and I looked forward to them every year. Regular, plain-ass milk chocolate Hershey is pretty decent, and something I'm nostalgic about, at least in "Kiss" form (Hershey Kisses were something I really only got or associated with Christmas as a kid). But it was the three OTHER kinds that you wanted, always. Krackle and Mr. Goodbar are basically the same thing with a different added ingredient. Krackle is milk chocolate with Rice Crispies (the cereal) basically, and they're pretty swell. My preferred of the two, though, was Mr. Goodbar, which instead had peanuts. I guess I just like peanuts.

Food of the Gods.

But my FAVORITE, by far, perhaps in part because they always seemed more rare than the others, were the "Special" Dark Chocolate ones. Either in bar, or in my adult years especially in "Kiss" form, I will admit, I adore Hershey's Dark Chocolate. It is my favorite KIND of Dark Chocolate, in point of fact. Both because I am nostalgic for it from my childhood, but also because I just like the way it tastes. I have, just to let it be known, had other, more expensive and fancier, even EUROPEAN kinds of Dark Chocolate. And it has been brought to my attention by chocolate snobs, that Hershey's (or if they're extra-snotty ANY American-made chocolate), is "garbage". But hey, you know what? Fuck those people. Because I love Hershey's Special Dark Chocolate, and I prefer it over the fanciest Euro shit I have yet to ever put upon my taste buds. I'll stand by that one, hardcore: Hershey's Dark Chocolate fuckin' ROCKS!

Not to be forgotten.

"Back in MY day..."

I'd like to give a quick shout out to the "round candy-shelled drops of goodness" variety of candies, lest I be accused of forgetting. I've already mentioned that I liked, and still like, Reese's Pieces, though as previously stated, the "peanut butter" within those candy shells, simply does not taste the same, nor as good (to me), as in the cups. I also loved (and still like) Skittles, which of course, to my memory, during my childhood in the 80s and early 90s, what you see above is what you got. I may be wrong, but I'm PRETTY sure that all I ever saw or had as a kid, was the regular ass Skittles. All the billion other flavors didn't start coming on until the later 90s, I think. And the cartoon ad for the M&Ms, I included to illustrate the same. To my recollection, the only varieties of M&Ms, the BEST varieties of M&Ms, that existed, up until the mid-90s and my early teen years, were regular and peanut. Peanut, perhaps not surprising and part of an obvious trend here, are my favorite kind. Well...almost...I also happen to REALLY love the Dark Chocolate kind.

Anyone who would ever do this, should be shot.

So I can't wrap this sugarpocalypse up, without first talking about the way you GOT this candy on Halloween night, as a kid. To me, though as with most things my experience was odd or limited thanks to my grandmother, "Trick or Treating" was a magic all its own. I'm sure most kids feel some fashion of the same way. The whole ordeal, the entire package experience, was pretty great. You got to dress up in some goofy, or weird, or if you were really lucky, cool costume. If you were UNLUCKY, as I was a couple of years, you were either poor as fuck, and/or your parental figure is just lazy or has bad taste, and won't let you pick your own costume. In that case, you might get stuck with a SUPER shitty costume, like that of a crappy clown, or cowboy. But I digress, regardless, the dressing up part was, while hardly the MAIN event of the evening, pretty damn cool. Then you got to go out, AT NIGHT (or in the evening), when the weather was finally getting colder (if you, like me, lived in California, at least). You got to go around, in my case always with adult supervision (which sucks when you're a kid, but as an adult, I get it), to various neighborhoods, in my case always of total strangers. You got to see other kids' costumes. You got to, if you were lucky, see various manner of cool (and sometimes even scary) Halloween decorations, which could range from cheap and tacky, to incredibly elaborate. And best of all, to most kids anyway, you got to go up to people's doors, and ask them for FREE candy, which they usually gave you.

It was all at once both thrilling, and a bit scary, to go knock on complete strangers' doors, hoping they'd give you that sweet glory you were dreaming of. The mystery and anticipation of it all was, in a way, half of the fun. The general "rule" was, that if a porch light was on, USUALLY, this meant you were welcome to knock. If not, then no-go. But this wasn't universal, as some of the folks who were more into it than others, who went all out with decorations, would have the light off to be "spookier", and so you had to kind of go with your (or your grandmother's) gut, when it came to reading the situation. All in all, from what I can remember, I seem to recall good, mostly positive vibes from my "Trick or Treating" experiences.

In fact, probably the worst I had, was the last year I did it, October 1995, when I was almost 14. Two of my friends and I, also young teens, went "Trick or Treating", like any other year, expecting to have the same fun experience. Except that, while we DID still get some candy, and to be fair maybe we picked a bad neighborhood, we ran into a FAIR few houses that would either be a bit snotty but still give us candy, or some that outright REFUSED to give us any. In all of those cases, it was always the same shit: "Aren't you a little OLD to be doing this?" And frankly, I'd just like to state, for the record, that that attitude and practice of ostracizing teenagers who want to keep "Trick or Treating", is complete bullshit. The idea that giving out candy should ONLY be for younger kids? Incredibly lame. But worse yet, is the accompanying snottiness, as if they're trying to shame young teens for "being too old" to still want free candy and have fun. It's like, what would society rather have? Teens out committing crime, doing drugs, and who knows what else? Or would they rather let teens who WANT to still "Trick or Treat", do so with open welcome, treating the TEENS with just as much friendliness and kindness as the younger children. What a concept, right?

Last but not least, as the picture above alluded, is a phenomenon that I myself, thankfully, never experienced. Though because my grandmother was an over-protective hawk about most things, I still lived under the spectre of the fear that it COULD happen. And that is, the fact that apparently, while most treat it as an "Urban Myth", there ARE in fact some heartless, sadistic, shitbag assholes out there, who will actually try to basically "booby trap" the candy they give out. By putting sharp things, or even something like POISON, hidden in the candy. To deliberately hurt innocent kids who are just trying to have fun on a special night. The very idea, that grown ass adults would find it amusing to try and ruin Halloween for kids, but worse yet, actually seriously HURT these kids? That is beyond fucked up. I won't linger on the subject, but let's just let it be known, anyone who would do that to kids, or anyone really, should at the very least, have every bone in their body broken.


So with that, I'll end this diabetes-inducing article. I likely have more candy memories than I've shared, many other sweets that I experienced growing up, like taffies, and Twizzlers, and gummies, and "Chocolate Truffles" (hot DAMN), etc. etc. etc. But I think I've left a pretty good amount laid out there as it is. If you're an adult, I'd say to make sure, if you're going to bother, to try and make the "Trick or Treating" experience as safe, and welcoming, and friendly, and fun, for the kids as possible. And if you're taking kids "Trick or Treating" yourself, obviously, it goes without saying, to make sure they have fun, but also that they stay safe! I hope everyone has a great, electricity powered, safe, and fun-filled Samhain night. And as always, make sure to watch (or show others) some classic Halloween-type cartoons and movies!

Monday, October 14, 2019

Childhood Memories: More Halloween Specials

The Halloween Train is a'rollin'! Our next stop? Some sweet childhood memories...

Several years ago, October 2013 in fact, I wrote about some of my favorite and most memorable Halloween Specials, from my childhood years. The big ones were covered, like It's The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, and Garfield's Halloween Adventure. But there were certainly many more, some I remember clearly, and some that are more or less lost to the vapors of time. Today I'm here, all these years later, to finally get around to talking about some more of those pieces of my childhood. So let's get started!

Few things are worse than a sad pumpkin.

The Pumpkin Who Couldn't Smile (1979)

Directed by one of the greatest figures in animation history, Mr. Chuck Jones himself, this Raggedy Anne & Andy cartoon was something of a follow-up to the previous year's Christmas special, The Great Santa Claus Caper. While that story featured someone (who looked an awful lot like Wile E. Coyote) trying to ruin Christmas, in this story, Halloween is in the process of BEING ruined, for two sad, lonely souls. The first, is a little boy name Ralph, whose Aunt Agatha thinks that Halloween is a pointless holiday, just an excuse for children to get into mischief, and thus won't allow little Ralph to partake. Anne and Andy, voiced by veteran voice actors June Foray and Daws Butler, set out to find a Halloween pumpkin for Ralph, to try and cheer him up.

The principle players (minus Agatha).

 Which of course brings us to the second lonely soul, a lone pumpkin in a pumpkin patch, who hadn't been picked by anyone. Utterly depressed and crying uncontrollably, the pumpkin was resigned to rotting, or possibly becoming someone's pie, but of course Anne and Andy have other ideas. With the help of their dog Raggedy Arthur and his trusty skateboard, they manage, with a few hijinks, to get the pumpkin down the hill, to Ralph's house. They hoist him up to Ralph's window, where the boy instantly falls in love, but their job isn't quite done just yet. There's still Aunt Agatha (also voiced by Foray) to contend with. Raggedy Anne speaks to Agatha in her sleep, and reminds her of when she was a little girl, and had loved Halloween, to which Agatha awakes and remembers. Agatha realizes that her nephew deserves to have those beloved memories and good times too, so she has a change of heart, dresses up like a witch, and takes Ralph out Trick or Treating while there's still time.

All in all, a simple but sweet special, and very much embodying Chuck Jones' sense of heart that most of his works possessed. I loved this special as a kid, which they would show in reruns various years. Even though it made me sad for the boy and the pumpkin, to have these two lonely souls come together and have each other, and to have Aunt Agatha flip the script and become fun again, it was a nice emotional ride that made me feel good. Plus I really wanted my own Raggedy Arthur!

Childhood terror.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1949)

Actually one half of the two-story 1949 Disney feature The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, both this and the Wind in the Willows segment were played with some regularity on the Disney Channel when I was growing up in the 80s and early 90s (back when the channel was worth a damn). This wasn't exactly a "Halloween Special", per say, but either as part of the Disney's Halloween specials of the 80s, or just by itself in full, the Disney Channel tended to play this classic gem pretty much every year, in some form.

The stuff nightmares are made of.

 For as much of reputation for being "kiddy" as Disney seems to have (even when I was a kid), they certainly had a way of embodying fear, and darkness, and evil, in their animated movies over the years. Whether it was Queen Grimhilde, who turned herself into the old witch in their original Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs feature, or the fearsome Sheer Khan in The Jungle Book, or The Horned King in the underappreicated classic The Black Cauldron. And the spectre of the Headless Horseman, roaming the woods on Halloween Night, is no exception. In fact he might be the most fearsome of all!

Based on the 1820 short story by Washington Irving, the Disney adaptation faithfully tells the story of the tiny town of Sleepy Hollow, and their new eccentric schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane. Crane fancies the young and beautiful Katrina Van Tassel, heiress to much local farmland and fortune, and wants to make her his wife. But the local hero and roughneck, Brom Bones, has other ideas. So at a harvest party at the Van Tassel house one night, Brom proceeds to tell a scary story of the "Legend of the Headless Horseman", who allegedly accosts travelers on that very night, and drags them to hell if they can't outrace him and cross the covered bridge, which he is incapable of crossing.

To me as a kid, the tale itself WAS legitimately spooky, but the sequence that followed, of poor Ichabod on his moonlit ride home, was outright scary. As he and his lazy horse get spooked by various sights and sounds in the night along their way, they eventually come to the darkest part of the wood. It's there, that they are indeed accosted by a mysterious cloaked form, who indeed seems to be missing a head. That Headless Horseman has a sword, and seems to be after Ichabod's head! The atmosphere of fear and dread that Disney created for this sequence is fairly unmatched, I think, in the history of animation, as far as creating a truly frightening scene goes. It is the perfect haunted tale, and thus is perfect for any Halloween. I always liked to think that Ichabod truly did get away, but that's up to each viewer to decide.

The Davis Family.

Mr. Boogedy (1986)

Unlike the previous two specials listed, this one was new when I was a child. I would have been about five years old when it premiered on the Disney Channel. This live action special is unique for a couple of reasons, but the chief one is, that it manages to be both goofy as hell, yet at parts legitimately creepy, especially if you were a kid like me. Starring Richard Masur and Mimi Kennedy as Mr. and Mrs. Davis, as well as young actors Kristy Swanson and David Faustino (who would later go on to fame in the Married with Children show), the Davis family (including youngest son "R.E."), are a perfectly likable, yet goofy family. Carlton, the father, who adores pranks and jokes of all sorts, runs a novelty gag shop, which he is moving, along with his family, to the sleepy hamlet of Lucifer Falls. He's moving them into a requesitely spooky old house, with a purported haunted history to boot!

Boogedy Boogedy, BOO!

As silly as this movie can be, including the town historian Mr. Witherspoon, played by the great John Astin (of Addams Family fame), to me as a little kid, it also genuinely scared at least a little shit out of me at times too. It turns out that their home used to belong to a mean old bastard named William Hanover, who loved a young widow Marion, who did not return his feelings. So he made a deal with the devil himself, to gain a magic cloak which granted him great power. He used this cloak to kidnap Marion's son Jonathan, in an attempt to force her to marry him, but when he used the magic he couldn't control, he accidentally blew up his house, killing all three, who would be stuck in the place as ghosts. The Davis boys, Corwin and R.E., first meet the ghost of Jonathan, who still has the cough he died with, and the entire family eventually begins getting haunted by Hanover, the titular "Mr. Boogedy" of the film, who has the ability to possess objects, and even people.

The Disney Channel played this for several Halloweens when I was growing up, as well as its somewhat unnecessary sequel Bride of Boogedy, though I think they had stopped playing it in favor of newer stuff, sadly, by the time the mid-90s hit.

That says it all.

Halloween Is Grinch Night (1977)

Another spooky piece of my childhood, this was played at least two or three times on TV as I was growing up, in repeat of course, as I wasn't born until late 1981. Produced by Dr. Seuss himself, as almost all of the animated specials based on his works were, this one was, I do believe, a TV exclusive sequel, much as the later The Grinch Grinches the Cat in the Hat was. It was executive-produced by DePatie-Freeling Enterprises, co-founded by legendary animator Friz Freeling of Looney Tunes fame. DFE was responsible for the Pink Panther shorts of the late 60s and 70s, as well as most of the Dr. Seuss specials, and several TV shows like the 70s Fantastic Four and Spider-Woman. As for this special itself, while not AS classic as the original 1966 adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (directed by Chuck Jones), I'd personally say that it's pretty close.

That mean ol' Grinch!

I suppose that you could, as I do, consider this to be a prequel to the Grinch's Christmas story, as he's still terrorizing Whoville at this time. The setting is on Halloween night, which in Whoville means trouble. For on Halloween night, that's when the "Sour-Sweet Wind" starts a'blowing, and that sets creatures like the Gree-Grumps and Hakken-Kraks to making all sorts of noise. Which in turn makes the Grinch, who is permanently grump, go into EXTRA grump mode. And THAT means that Whoville is gonna suffer, because when he's EXTRA grump, he likes to scare people!

He ain't afraid of no ghosts!

But there's one little Who, who doesn't give a single shit, or at least pretends not to, about this scary, scary Grinch, on this scary scary night. His name is Euchariah, an intelligent and learned little fellow, who has to use the "Euphemism" (the outhouse) after those Sour-Sweet Winds start raging, and those winds blow him all the way up to Mt. Crumpit, where the Grinch lives. On the road, he encounters said Grinch, driving his Paraphernalia Wagon with the begrudging help of his dog Max, down to Whoville to stir up trouble. But in Euchariah, he finds a boy who claims not to be afriad, and so he decides to put the boy to the test, inviting him into the wagon, and all the terrors that await. The boy does just that, which leads to a surreal and awesome segment where all manner of Dr. Seuss weirdness abounds. But in the end, ol' Euch ain't havin' it, and tells the Grinch to stuff it! It's a great testament to standing up to your fears, but it's also a really great special, perfectly suited to the holiday.

While the great Boris Karloff, who originally voiced the Grinch, was about a decade passed by this point, voice actor Hans Conried, who would voice Thorin Oakenshield in my beloved Rankin-Bass adaptation of The Hobbit the same year, filled in admirably in the role. In a fun bit of trivia, Henry Gibson, of Laugh In and The 'Burbs fame, did the "voice" of Max the dog. This is one of my favorite Halloween specials, and in my opinion the second-best Seuss cartoon, after the original Grinch affair.


So there you have it! Some more Halloween Special goodness, which I'm sure some of you were aware of, and some of you weren't. If you've never seen any of these, or even if you have, do consider looking them up and dusting them off during this month of October. Classic horror movies are nice, but nothing beats a good Halloween Special, if you ask me. Stay tuned, as there just MIGHT be one more Halloween treat headed your way before the big day hits! Cheers!

Monday, September 23, 2019

Godzilla Chronicles: Destroy All Monsters!

Last time around, I took at look at what some might consider the least of the Showa Era Godzilla films, 1967's Son of Godzilla. Of course, that's not an entirely fair estimation, considering the movie that came after the one we're here today to talk about. But that's a story for another time. Today, we're here to talk about what most Godzilla fans consider one of the very best in the series,  1968's Destroy All Monsters!

Godzilla hanging out in "Monsterland".

Destroy All Monsters saw the return of the two original mainstays of the franchise, director Ishiro Honda, and composer Akira Ifukube. Both had taken a break from the series since 1965's Invasion of the Astro Monster, my personal favorite. The two films in between had taken a progressively lighter tone, both being adventures taking place on small islands. For Destroy, Ishiro brought the series back to a somewhat more serious tone, more or less picking up where he had left off in "Monster Zero", dealing with alien invaders.

The big difference here though, was that while his previous Godzilla movies, Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster and Invasion, really established the "monster mash" motif, having three or four monsters at a time, for Destroy, he and Toho wanted to go bigger. By this time in the late 1960s, the Godzilla franchise was starting to make progressively less money, so at the time of production, there was a very real idea that what they were making would in fact be the last Godzilla movie, possibly ever. With that in mind, they wanted to go out with a bang, and thus in some ways this was the most expensive, and ambitious Godzilla movie to date. This time, they weren't going to have just three or four monsters. They were going to have just about every monster previously seen, even in non-Godzilla Toho films, outside of King Kong.

One of the more obscure monsters, Varan.

As far as the plot goes, because this movie was originally somewhat intended to be the last hurrah for the series, it takes place in the "far future" of 1999 (keeping in mind that this was 1968). By that date, mankind had, in the Tohoverse, reached a technological level where they could deal with the giant monsters of the world more easily. They kept most of them on a remote island which they dubbed "Monsterland" (called "Monster Island" in later films), a place where they could both study these amazing creatures, and through various scientific means, keep them from trampling around the globe. World peace had more or less become the norm by this version of 1999, and mankind even had outposts on the moon.

To this backdrop, we the audience are fairly quickly into the film, treated to these now peaceful monsters, suddenly missing from the island. Instead, they're inexplicably off rampaging around literally the entire planet. One thing this movie did that was unique for these old Toho films, was that it involved the whole world, and not just Japan or some nearby fictional island. Gorosaurus, a monster from the 1967 film King Kong Escapes (displaying Baragon's burrowing ability) trashes the Arc de Triumph in Paris, France. Rodan causes hurricane force winds to smash up Moscow, Russia. A new Mothra larva is seen running amuck in Beijing, China. The great sea serpent Manda, from the 1963 film Atragon, lays waste to a rail system in London, England. And the big man himself, Godzilla, is shown in perhaps the film's most iconic imagery, destroying the United Nations building in New York!

How can Gorosaurus burrow underground with such tiny T-Rex arms?

Godzilla, about to toast the "Big Apple".

Humanity is left scrambling to discover just what the hell caused them to lose control of these monsters, and make them go on this extra-aggressive global assault. And naturally, once they do a little digging, they discover the answer: more goddamned aliens! This time, with those bastards from Planet X out of the way, another race from much further into space come calling. The female-looking Kilaaks are the culprits this time around, and of course what they want is ownership of the Earth. They basically stole Planet X's playbook on controlling monsters to threaten Earth, but they just upped the ante, using about ten monsters instead of just three.

You could even call these chicks Kilaakian K......jerks.

Of course what any Godzilla fan and/or kid worth their salt would care about, was the monster action. And while it could have had more, this movie still delivers. It's cool to see the various monsters all over the planet, but unfortunately those scenes are just tantalizing, short little morsels. The main course isn't delivered until the movie's epic climax. It turns out that all those attacks on other cities, was just a distraction so that the Kilaaks could set up shop in Japan. Soon enough, they have the monsters doing what they do best: attacking Tokyo, etc.

But without giving TOO much away, those pesky Earthmen (and women) eventually pull through, and manage to sever control of the monsters. The aliens are then forced to reveal the final boss, Godzilla's biggest and baddest foe, King Ghidorah!

The King vs. The Demon From Space

My boy, Anguirus, along with Gorosaurus.

Ultimately, the film's highlight is the big battle royal, or if we're using proper pro wrestling terms, a major handicap match, between the seemingly unstoppable King Ghidorah, and practically every other major monster on Earth. In the past, keeping in mind that Godzilla is a badass who is never fully defeated by anyone, even if he "loses" a fight now an then (King Kong, Mothra Larva), the Big G and his enemies/friends, could not fully defeat the evil space dragon Ghidorah. Both times that Godzilla and Co. fought him, they were able to basically drive him away from Earth, and that's it.

That's really saying something, considering Godzilla's track record. He's kicked the shit out of more monsters than he could shake his tail at. But Ghidorah? That dude is made of tougher stuff! So THIS time around, and again bearing in mind Toho was treating this as the last Godzilla film, they threw a TON of monsters at the three-headed sonuvabitch. Godzilla, of course, leads the charge, but almost everyone else gets some kind of lick in. On the one hand, it does seem kind of unfair that Ghidorah is ganged up on by like, EVERYBODY. But on the other hand, it also emphasizes just how bad ass he apparently is, because it takes help from most of Godzilla's pals, to really put him in his place.

One of the best scenes in the movie, Anguirus biting that asshole's neck!

Stomping a mudhole and walking it dry.

Now for my part, this is one of the few Showa Era films I didn't get to see as a kid. During my "Godzilla Craze" years, from ages 8 to 13 or so, as I've related in the past, I got to see most of them in some fashion or another. Whether it was VHS tapes we'd find at Walmart, or my beloved TNT's MonsterVision, I got to see all but four of the fifteen Godzilla movies, as well as related films like the solo Rodan and Mothra movies. But it's really too damn bad I had to miss out on this one. While Ghidorah would have been nice, Son is fun, and Hedorah incredibly unique, Destroy is the BIG Battle action that a kid obsessed with Godzilla, as I was, would have gone nuts for.

Essentially speaking, what I'm saying is that I wish I'd been able to see ALL of the Showa films during that young, raw, innocent age. Because I would have enjoyed them all and gotten a lot more out of them. I didn't get to see Destroy, I'm going to say, until at least age 16 or 17, when I finally managed to rent it. I still enjoyed it, due to my enduring nostalgic love of Godzilla. But I would have absolutely flipped my shit, even at age 12 or 13, to be able to see that climactic battle.

The cover art of the original DVD I owned.

As with almost all of these films, I would eventually come to own it on DVD in my 20s, when I had spending cash to burn. Above, you can see the cover of the original DVD I bought, but as neat as that art is, the disc itself sucked. Yes, the movie was there, but that was literally ALL that was there. The damned thing didn't even have so much as a menu screen! You just popped the disc in, and the movie immediately started, and would play on loop until you stopped it. It was nice owning the movie, but to say that DVD release was a let-down is an understatement. Thankfully, I came to later own a better, more worthwhile DVD release, which actually had, you know, a menu, and subtitles, etc.

Thinking about where this movie stands for me, when it comes to Godzilla movies, I'm not sure it's in my personal Top 5. Keeping in mind that my Top 5, or even Top 10, are made up entirely of Showa era films. While I do like and appreciate the 80s/90s Hesei era films, they just don't compare to the tone, spirit, and fun, to me, of the Showa movies. I like Destroy All Monsters a lot, even though I was sadly robbed of that childhood nostalgia connection to it. But even with the grandeur of its climactic battle, it doesn't quite hold a candle, for me, to my all-time favorite, "Godzilla vs. Monster Zero" (the alternate name for Invasion of the Astro Monster). My Top 3, easily, are Monster Zero, Sea Monster, and King Kong, in that order. I suppose #4 would be a toss-up between Hedorah (Smog Monster) and the first Mecha-Godzilla film. So it's possible that Destroy is #5, if one of those two aren't.

The cast and crew.

As a movie on its own merits, while "cheesy" by many people's standards, for what it is it's pretty solid. The plot is simpler and more streamlined than even, say, Monster Zero or Sea Monster. But it's a well done, entertaining ride. And as far as technical achievement's go, I can't stress enough just how complex and likely difficult it was to pull off that final battle. Keeping in mind that "monster suit" actors were not in high abundance, as you had to have high endurance, be in great shape, and have a high tolerance for discomfort, and be able to act and move in bulky suits where you can barely see, if at all. The fact that they pulled off such an elaborate fight, and involved so many monsters, was a hugely ambitious thing for them in that time. And I think they pulled it off pretty well.

By today's standards, many people look at guys in suits stomping around miniature sets, and say "that looks SO fake". But the thing is, those suits were usually high quality and super elaborate, and the miniature sets were works of art in their own right, taking a long time to build and having a (usually) high attention to detail. The whole "Suitmation" deal was an art-form of its own, that Toho basically pioneered, and it gave birth to later things like Ultraman, and the Power Rangers. It seems to be a dying art, at least in the movies (it's still going strong in Japan with GoRanger, Ultraman, Kamen Rider, etc. shows). Even Toho themselves seem to have mostly abandoned it, which in my opinion really sucks. Much like stop-motion animation, or traditional hand drawn cell animation, it is an art form that I strongly feel deserves to be continued and kept alive. There is something far more organic, and "real", about seeing giant monsters "in the flesh", so to speak, instead of even the best, most detailed, yet lifeless computer graphics.


So as always, if you haven't seen Destroy All Monsters, make sure to put it on your list of "Movies to Watch" this Halloween season. And speaking of Halloween season, stay tuned for more spooky goodness to come in the month of October!

For now, for any who may have missed them, here are the other Godzilla Chronicles articles, in order:

1. The Beginning

2. Gojira (aka Godzilla: King of the Monsters)

3. Godzilla Raids Again

4. King Kong vs. Godzilla

5. Mothra vs. Godzilla

6. Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster

7. Invasion of the Astro Monster (aka Godzilla vs. Monster Zero)

8. Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster

9. Son of Godzilla

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Silver Screen Stories: The Dark Crystal

With this property's sudden resurgence in interest, I think it's high time I talked in depth about one of my favorite movies of all time, and in my humble opinion, one of the best films ever made.

In December, 1982, a movie quietly released that, while it made money, was not a big financial success, and certainly not a blockbuster hit. And yet, it was arguably the most unique display ever put to film, presenting arguably the most distinctive and inspiring cinematic world ever crafted. This was all done before the age of CGI and cheap movie tricks. This was done with a lot of grueling work and determined effort, led by a mad visionary and his merry gang. That man was Jim Henson, and that movie, was what I (and I believe he) consider to be his master work, The Dark Crystal.

Doing it the hard way. The right way.

Coming off of the raging success and cultural phenomenon that was The Muppet Show, not to mention teaching and inspiring entire generations with his contributions to Sesame Street, Jim Henson was a man suddenly finding himself wielding a certain amount of power and creative capital. With the additional success of his first film (though he didn't direct, a fact he later lamented), 1979's The Muppet Movie, and deciding to end his famous Muppet TV hit after only five seasons, while he felt they were still on top, he was ready to finally realize a project he'd been slowly crafting for years. Jim had always felt, even when he was first doing TV spots in the 60s, and then the early Sesame days on PBS, that puppetry wasn't "just for kids". In fact he was insulted by the notion. He took it not only as an affront, but also as a challenge, to prove that no, in fact, puppetry could be, and should be, for everyone. He realized that in a big way with his smash success, The Muppet Show, a show centered around cute and funny puppets, that aired on "Prime Time" TV, and appealed to people of all ages. He had already proven his point in spades, but to a creative madman like Mr. Henson, that was simply not enough.

He believed that puppetry could evolve. That it could, and should, go even further. And to fully illustrate and actualize his vision, he had just the project in mind. He had been thinking for years, of a story, grand in concept and adventure, set on an entirely alien world, yet embodying incredibly familiar and pertinent elements for we sordid humans here on Earth. Jim was the kind of guy who literally wanted to change the world, and in some small way, I think his most complex, most challenging, and at least as far as I'm concerned, his greatest work, achieved that.

Fantasy made real.

The remarkable thing about The Dark Crystal, is not just that it features (even by today's standards) super complex and advanced puppetry, and animatronic work that for the time was very bleeding edge and groundbreaking. It also isn't the excellent cinematography work or memorable, sweeping score. It isn't even the charming, frightening, and universally excellent characters the story presents. The MOST remarkable thing, if you ask me, is the fact that this movie creates an entirely original, unique, alien world, Earth-like enough to not be jarring, and yet very much not of this world. They didn't skimp when making this movie, even though they made it on a "paltry" budget of $25 million dollars. They squeezed every last drop out of that budget and their production time, and practically broke their backs creating and filming what, as far as I'm concerned, is the most lush, most vivid, most organic, and most fully realized fantasy/sci fi world ever put to film. And all of this while not having a single, regular human character, purely puppetry, animatronics, and a few long-shots of actors for fluid movement.

They went the extra mile and then some, probably in large part because of Jim's drive and obsessiveness to detail. He had a lot of collaboration and help making his dream a reality, but make no mistake, The Dark Crystal was Jim's vision and his baby. He wanted to craft an entirely foreign world, and while the film does feature some beautiful location shots as well, the vast majority of the film features just that: a living, breathing world that they built from scratch. And they didn't do the bare minimum, or even a great job. They did a fantastic job, probably even going overboard in the world-building department. Every rock, every weird alien plant, and curious little creature, from a spooky bog, to a dense jungle, and even soaring mountaintops, are all beautifully crafted and realized. Every single set, from the "Earth Mother" Aughra's mountain observatory, to the rustic Podling village, to the dusty Gelfling ruins, and of course the dark and daunting Crystal Palace, not a single square inch is left unattended. They weren't lazy with even the tiniest, most easily hidable corner of any set. This movie isn't just a water mark for puppetry, animatronics and special effects, it should be required viewing for set design and production as well.

Jen's teacher and father figure, urSu the Mystic.

Kira's family, the people who raised her, the Podlings.

As a child in the 80s, I can rightly say that this was indeed one of the movies I "grew up with". Even in the years before we owned a VCR, this must have played on TV, because I know I saw it several times. I have heard many people say that this movie "scared the shit out of them as a kid". But I honestly did not have that experience, and feel like most who say that are exaggerating. Yes, it has some scary parts, certainly the monster Garthim, which definitely did scare me as a kid a bit. But my memories of this movie are not of being "traumatized", as some hyperbollically claim. Rather, my memories of it are fond, happy ones. This world, and these characters really delighted and inspired kid me, so much so that it became one of my favorite movies of all time, and remains so to this day.

One of the film's many iconic moments.

Story-wise, at its heart, beyond the obvious themes of "Good vs. Evil", things coming full circle, and in a way, redemption, to me, the story is about the two main characters, Gelflings Jen and Kira. Both orphaned at a very young age, because of the Skeksis ordered extermination of their people, neither grew up knowing much at all about themselves or their own culture. In fact, before Fate had them meet as the story unfolds, they each had come to believe they were the very last of their kind. Jen and Kira are awesome to me, beyond just being the movie's heroes. They are also, in a way, "Soul Mates", and they lean on each other and come to each other's aid, throughout the tale once they're together.

Jen is, pragmatically speaking, the central protagonist of the tale, as he is who you meet first, he is the one given a quest by his dying master, and it is technically he who Destiny seems to have tasked with healing the eponymous "Dark Crystal", to save their world. But having grown up sheltered by the wise and gentle Mystics, while he did commendably make his way, alone, to grumpy Aughra's mountain, Jen is largely naive to the greater outside world. It is arguable that without meeting Kira and receiving her aid, he might not have completed his quest. Or perhaps it is more appropriate to say, that much like the concept of "Soul Mates", the two of them really do compliment and complete each other in the tale. Jen with his higher learning and sense of purpose, and Kira with her knowledge of the natural world and seemingly endless compassion. They work together from the moment they meet, Kira joining him without a second thought, as if they belonged together, which honestly they did. And ultimately, without spoiling too much, it takes them both to meet their journey's end.

The Gelflings confronted for the first time by a Skeksis.

I've actually covered this film a bit in the past, in the second part of my "Top Favorite Movies" piece. In that article, I somewhat arbitrarily listed it at "Number 10", which isn't really accurate to where it should stand on my list of favorite movies of all time. This is legitimately one of those films that I almost never get tired of. I would likely get sick of seeing it for a bit if I saw it too frequently, but it is one of those movies that I can pop on almost "anytime", and still feel like watching it and enjoy it. Most movies, even many I adore, I have to be in a mood to sit and watch. This is one of those very rare films where that isn't so much the case. Having said that, if I were to "officially" say where this movie belongs on that list, I would at least say the Top Five. It's damn hard to think about pushing out the likes of Ghostbusters, Big Trouble in Little China, or The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. But in all honesty, when I really give it serious consideration, this probably belongs as my #3, or even arguably #2, behind only my TOP favorite of all time, the 1977 Rankin/Bass animated The Hobbit.

The Ritual of the Suns.

Seeing as I spoke at length about this movie in that aforementioned article, I think I might as well quote some of what I said there, as I don't mind saying it was pretty decent stuff:

"The ultimate end product, wound up being quite possibly the most dense, organic, living and vibrant fantasy world ever put to film, and that is including all of the massive-budget CGI films of the modern day. With a sweeping, majestic musical score, a dark but endearing story that Henson himself wanted to reflect the original, darker Grimm's Fairy Tales type material, a lot of deep spirituality and philosophy hidden in subtle layers throughout the film's world, and characters that were not only visually stunning and lifelike, but genuinely memorable. I remember seeing this movie as a young child, and having it evoke so many things from me at such a young age: fear, wonder, excitement, inspiration, you name it. I truly don't think this movie gets nearly the recognition it deserves, both for the almost impossible, monumental achievement it's even getting made and coming out like it did represents, but also for just genuinely being an amazing piece of film. And to think that the studios producing this master-work, were going to gimp it and give it minimal advertising, basically sending it out to die, because they "didn't get it". Thankfully, Jim cared so much about his baby, that he bought it back from the studio, and funded it's release himself, just to make sure it got a fair shake."

That last part is absolutely true. Jim not only wanted creative control of his vision, but he also wanted to avoid a situation that many great films (such as Big Trouble in Little China) suffered at the hands of Hollywood. That being the sheer idiocy of a major studio putting millions of dollars into a film, only to effectively "send it out to die" by releasing it at a bad time, and/or giving it next to no actual promotion, ensuring it will fail the box office. And again, while it was no mega-hit, Jim's shrewd and risky move paid off, as the film was a financial success, even if at the same time it somehow also got semi-ignored. It did, of course, go on to become a cult hit on VHS and TV showings, where I first encountered it, as I'm sure many other 80s (and perhaps even 90s) kids did.

Another great thing about this movie was the fantastic art it generated. You can already see some at the top of this article, but here are a few more:

A European poster, I believe.

Simply stunning detail.

Excellent "Good and Evil" contrast.

The simplest, and my personal favorite.

As I'm writing this, a new prequel series on Netflix now exists, and is available to watch. The movie itself has also, to Netflix's credit, been on their streaming service (as well as available to rent physically), for some time now as well. I won't speak too much on the series, though I've watched a few episodes so far, except to say that while it definitely has a few of its details wrong, which I feared, it does seem to have its heart in the right place, and is mostly pretty well done. The biggest criticism I'll lay at it before I move on, is to say, of course, that while the production crew should absolutely be commended for mostly sticking to the style of the original movie, as the vast majority of characters and creatures are still puppetry or animatronics, and there are no human actor characters, I STILL feel the show utilizes FAR too much CGI for my taste. The original masterpiece created an entire living fantasy world without it, I think outside of a few little flourished here and there, this new crew could have and should have as well.

Interestingly enough, this series was technically born out of an idea for a sequel film, called "The Power of the Dark Crystal", which was for decades stuck in what is known as "development hell", where it simply found no backing and gained no real traction. That concept, taking place years after the movie's events, was eventually turned into a twelve issue comic book series, released in 2017, which I still need to read. I had been somewhat excited by the idea of a sequel, and yet, frankly, much like this well-meaning prequel series, while it might have been cool, nothing can ever top, or even truly match, the original.

The one of a kind Aughra.

As far as this man's concerned, The Dark Crystal was and remains a singular cinematic experience, the likes of which had never been done before, and I do not earnestly believe will ever truly be done again. Of all the many incredible things that Jim Henson brought to life over his career, I really do feel like this movie was his "Magnum Opus", and from what I've gathered, Jim felt that way himself. I think he wanted to keep going, to try and do even more and go even further with puppetry, which to a limited effect he tried with the movie "Labyrinth", but while exceptionally well done, it just wasn't on the same level. I don't think any of his other works were, even as great as they were. To me, this movie embodied not only what he worked for and believed in as a creator, but I also feel it embodies Jim Henson the person. As if this movie, more than any other work, is his creative fingerprint. It certainly was his most unique, and probably the hardest thing he ever made. But he loved it, and so do I.

I genuinely feel bad for any person, especially any child, who has never seen this movie. Because I really do believe it is one of those "have to see before you die" type of films. I also think that it's difficult as numbed and jaded adults, to get the fully experience as (sadly) only a child can. My childhood sucked big time in a lot of ways, but I was fortunate in the respect that I got to experience movies like these when I was raw, open, and innocent. And if I had to say that any three words most represented what I feel Jim Henson tried to present to people with his works, it would be those three: raw, open, and innocent. I certainly think that was probably what he wanted to make us "big kids" be able to feel again, even if only for a few fleeting moments.

So as I often say with these pieces, if you've somehow never seen this movie, then please go watch it. If you haven't seen it in a long time? Give it another whirl. And for the love of all that's good and pure in the world, if you happen to have kids, MAKE sure they watch it too. Take care, and brace yourselves for the coming spooky season...