Friday, October 25, 2013

Childhood Memories: Halloween Specials

Back again with the next entry in the Retro Revelations buildup to Halloween!

When I was a kid, my favorite time of year was (and honestly still is) the last quarter: October, November, and December. With October, it finally started getting cold (not as much as I'd like where I live, but still), the leaves started turning colors, and it capped off with Halloween. November held even colder weather, along with Thanksgiving and my birthday, which, funny story, actually falls on Thanksgiving about every 4 years or so, so I get my own birthday feast in a way. And then of course, December came, and with it, the Christmas season, the tree went up, the lights went on, carols were in the air, specials were on tv, it was just a great time. In some ways, Christmas-time was my favorite time growing up, because it just seemed to happy so my child's perception. I was also equally bummed once Christmas had passed, because after New Year's Eve, everything just went back to normal.

But as much as I loved Christmas, I think it's fair to say I loved Halloween just as much. Not just the candy, which I of course loved to death. It was the magical feeling in the air, I suppose. I think even as a kid I still felt it. The ancient Celts believed that on what they called Samhain, the veil between the world of the living and the spirit world was at it's weakest. It was on the night of what is in the Roman calendar called October 31st, all the way through to the morning of November 1st, they believed that during that time spirits of passed loved ones, as well as entities from the spirit world that weren't so nice, were more or less free to roam our physical plain. And so, they'd paint their faces and dress in grand attire, so as to ward off evil and make themselves recognizable to clan ancestors, and they'd light huge bonfires and break out in song and dance and stories and feasting, all night long. The original "block party", in a way, I guess you could say. And some of that spirit still resonates in modern Halloween, even though it's been dumbed down and commercialized. I always personally loved the monsters and mystery and mysticism surrounding it, the imagery of werewolves and ghosts and ghouls and jack o lanterns and slimy creatures who go bump in the night. To be honest it still entices me as an adult now, it's just a fun atmosphere all around.

And with that in mind, one of the best parts about Halloween time growing up, were the great Halloween specials that used to air on television. I'll only be covering a few here today, some of the earliest ones I remember, but might well write a sequel piece at a later date, covering others. So without further adieu:


It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! (1966)

It's usually best to begin at the beginning, so with that in mind, it's probably best to start with what is the first real Halloween cartoon special ever made (to my knowledge). "It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" was the third ever animated Charlie Brown cartoon, back when creator Charles M. Schultz was directly involved. It's also quite likely the first Halloween special I remember ever seeing as a small child, as they have played it annually on TV for decades. It originally came out in 1966, and while there were many great Charlie Brown specials, it remains one of the very best. The plot centers around Lucy's little brother Linus, who is under the belief that while most people recognize Santa Claus as the greatest spreader-of-joy, there is another such mystical figure who is criminally unknown: The Great Pumpkin. According to Linus, The Great Pumpkin rises out of a pumpkin patch once every Halloween night, only appearing to the most earnest children, and flies through the air spreading cheer and gifts to all good kids everywhere. Basically Santa, except he's a magic pumpkin. Linus, of course, seems to be the only one who believes in the Pumpkin, and while he gets Charlie Brown's little sister Sally to wait with him for it to arrive, only on account of her big crush on him, the Pumpkin never actually shows. Poor Linus.

I always liked this special as a kid, even though I always hated that the Pumpkin never showed up, and that no one believed Linus. It also used to bother me that poor Charlie, who is such a good and decent guy, always seems to get crapped on. I mean who the hell gives a kid ROCKS for Halloween Trick or Treating? But regardless, this is a timeless classic, and I feel it's something that should be seen by everyone when they're young, kind of like seeing "Rudolf the Rednosed Reindeer" around Christmas time.

Ah....the memories.

Disney's Halloween Treat (1982)

Another of the earliest Halloween-themed specials I remember, this, or another very similar one called "A Disney Halloween" aired just about every year on The Disney Channel (back when it was cool) at least up until the 90s. It's basically a clip show, airing as part of their 80s era program "The Wonderful World of Disney", and it features segments from classic Disney animated movies and theatrical shorts, all of course having spooky or supernatural types of themes. It was hosted by a talking jack o lantern puppet, which of course is always a nice touch. The various clips they would use, were things like the "Night on Bald Mountain" piece from Fantasia (which is still amazing to this day), the "Heffalumps and Woozles" bit from "Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day", and the Wizard's Duel between Merlin and Mad Madam Mim from "The Sword in the Stone". Depending on the version (this or "A Disney Halloween"), they would also feature a live-acted version of the Magic Mirror from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves", who would also introduce a few old Disney shorts like "Pluto's Judgement Day", "Lonesome Ghosts" and "Trick or Treat". They also had the always hilarious Donald short "Donald Duck and the Gorilla", which is one of the best Golden Age shorts Disney ever crafted. There was another Halloween special that used old footage of their cartoon archives in the late 80s, a special edition of their DTV program (an MTV type deal that set real music to footage from their old cartoons), called "Monster Hits", which had music videos of a sort for the old "Monster Mash" song, as well as Michael Jackson's "Thriller", etc.

I'd just like to say, that this is the perfect example of why The Disney Channel was awesome when I was growing up in the 80s and early 90s. Because they actually used to have good programming that wasn't all dumb teen sitcoms, they used to have awesome exclusive tv movies and specials, and actually used to frequently show their old theatrical shorts on television. I was lucky enough to be exposed to a great deal of Disney's classic library growing up thanks to that, and thanks to specials like this. These Disney Halloween shows, and other specials they had on The Disney Channel, were great memories from my childhood.

"I vant to suck your blood! Or.....maybe just disco dance, if that's okay."

The Halloween That Almost Wasn't (aka The Night Dracula Saved the World, 1979)

A made for TV movie that originally aired in 1979, and subsequently was a regular on Halloween on The Disney Channel throughout the 80s, this is an obscure but awesome little special. Live action, unlike most of the more memorable Halloween specials, it's a fairly goofy show that exudes awesome mainly on account of some great monster portrayals by great character actors. The show opens on Dracula (portrayed by Taxi's Alex Rieger, actor Judd Hirsch), who rises from his coffin, only to find Igor (played by character actor Henry Gibson) watching TV. A telecast comes on, claiming that Halloween may be at an end, and it's Dracula's fault. Incensed by such a suggestion, and by the threat to what he calls "His national holiday", Dracula calls a meeting of the world's most famous monsters, to try and save Halloween. This brings many guests to his castle, including Frankenstein's Monster, an Egyptian Mummy, a Hungarian werewolf, a Haitian Zombie named Zabaar the Zombie, and of course a broom-riding Witch (played by actress Mariette Hartley).

Dracula feels that Halloween is losing it's power because the monsters have all become too popular, people think they're "cool" now, and more funny than scary, and he feels they need to be scary again. The Witch, however, feels unappreciated, and tired of people making ugly witch jokes about her, so it turns out she is the one who started the rumor that Halloween was over, because apparently Halloween Night can't start until she rides her broom over the moon, which she says she now refuses to do. The special features a "normal" human family, with two kids who are all excited for Halloween, but sad to hear it might end. They're basically used as an in-between narrative device, as well as an educational one, as the parents tell their kids about the history of Halloween. In the end, while she also presents a list of demands that she expects Dracula to meet, making her more of an equal, it is the two kids who magically show up at the Witch's door, the girl dressed as a witch herself, that convince the Witch how important she is, so she agrees to ride over the moon.

Of course being the late 70s, one of her demands is that Dracula has to take her disco dancing, and so after she rides over the moon, the special ends with all the monsters partying at Dracula's castle, disco style. It sounds hokey, and it is, but it's also the kind of special that you really just don't see on television anymore. Judd Hirsch and James Gibson especially really play up their parts of Dracula and Igor well, with Hirsch producing an especially cheesy (but awesome) Bela Lugosi impression throughout. I loved this as a kid, and still honestly like it. It's just a rare piece of film that you don't see the like of today, and it's a great little 20 minute show to watch (if you can find it on Youtube, etc.), for a family or just by yourself, to get you in that Halloween mood.

How awesome does Garfield look as a pirate, honestly?

Garfield's Halloween Adventure (1985)

A strong candidate for my favorite Halloween special of all time, and just one of my favorite comic/cartoon characters of all time period. This was another of the earliest specials I remember seeing, and one of the best ever made. It needs to be said, first off, that between Garfield and The Real Ghostbusters, voice actor Lorenzo Music was an important part of my childhood. I always loved him as the voice of Garfield, and he was WAY better than Dave Coulier as the voice of Peter Venkman (but that's a story for another day). This, I feel, along with the Garfield Christmas special, are the two best out of the 12 they produced, and I really don't know why they don't still show them on TV. They used to show them every year, and I think they're certainly good enough to deserve that "perennial tv special" status.

Anyway, the crux of this story, naturally revolves around Garfield's love of food. And he loves Halloween for one reason in particular: candy. So he dresses himself and Odie up as pirates (with him fully intending to take Odie's share of candy as well), and off they wander into the spectral night. They do in fact get a hefty ransom of sweets, but Garfield, always wanting more, notices more houses across the river, so he and Odie set out in a rowboat on a quest for twice as much candy. They wind up adrift and float down the river, till they reach an abandoned dock on an old island. They wander into an old house, seeing light in the windows, and attempt to warm themselves by the fire, when they are startled by an old man sitting in a chair. He proceeds to tell them a wondrous tale about pirates and stolen treasure, how he was their cabin-boy 100 years ago, and how they had buried the treasure under the house and agreed to return for it 100 years hence, even if it meant returning from the grave. Which of course it did. As Garfield notices it's almost midnight, he and Odie go to leave, and Garfield stops to ask the old man if he wants to join them, but he's gone. He has stolen their boat, leaving them behind as the ghost pirates arrive to get their gold. Long story short, Garfield and Odie have to make a run for it, diving into the river, where Odie has to save Garfield from drowning. They finally reach safety on the other side, where they find the boat, with their candy untouched. Garfield, having learned his lesson, and thankful for Odie saving him, gives the dog his fair share of the candy.

It's a very entertaining piece, and the "darkest" of all the Garfield cartoons simply by virtue of it's subject matter. If you've never seen it, make an earnest attempt to do so, as I highly recommend this over pretty much any other Halloween special, if you see only one.

And that'll be about it for this entry, but fear not, for next week we count down to Halloween itself!

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