FEATURE: THE HALF CLOTH GUIDE TO HALLOWEEN
by Chad Jewett
Not everyone likes horror movies. More specifically, I don’t like horror movies. There are of course films that are incredibly scary that are also artistically valuable, because they have something to say with their narrative bloodshed; The Shining, The Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead, hell, even Scream are all at least invested in some allegorical weight to turn our baser instincts against us. But be honest: when was the last time you were at a party and someone decided to put on Freaks, or Nosferatu, or even Psycho? I would pay to go to a party that was running some of the great expressionistic French and German horror films from the 1920s or the Universal Monster movies from the 1930s. But nope, if there is a television on at a Halloween party, it is almost always playing something heinous and dumb. John Carpenter’s Halloween exists; why not play that? Why does it have to be made on a used-Kia budget in order to be playing in the background? Irony is dead and annoying Halloween movie choices killed it. I can remember a few years back attending a great party, with lovely decorations, excellent food and drink, well-chosen music — all of which were kinda ruined by, if memory serves, some grungy D movie set in a random, god-awful city’s outskirts, and starring Snoop Dogg maybe? No one sat in that living room for more than two minutes, even though that’s where all of the candy, beverages, and most of the decorations were. We were squeezed in the weird rectangular city kitchen, as if to escape the Netflix-dreg grossness that someone thought screamed “festive harvest!” The movie was gross, and dumb, and sheer lowest-common-denominator. It was a drag on the party. Who wants that?
So here is my solution. These are ten movies/collections that “get” Halloween — that it’s supposed to be eerie, giddy, fun, and scary in equal measure. You’re a kid again at Halloween, and trust me, your kid self wants to watch Scooby Doo. The classic horror movies seem to match the mixed-emotions of the holiday, when and if they’re not busy being horribly misogynist (the reason you won’t see much stuff from the 80’s on this list). But part of what’s fun about Halloween is it falls in a special time of year, right before the holiday season, right when the cold makes you giddy instead of nightmarishly depressed, right at peak Pumpkin-Spice-appreciation. So here are ten party accompaniments that won’t ruin that twelve-ingredient punch (served in a hollowed-out pumpkin) that you made. To that end, I’m also recommending the perfect, empty calorie pairings for each film; help me help you! Because believe me, Halloween party host, you deserve better.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1994)
Beautifully-rendered, macabre, and darkly funny, The Nightmare Before Christmas is THE Halloween movie. Like a more richly romantic Addams Family, Nightmare gets the uncanny loveliness of gothic late autumn, where what’s eerie is suddenly so appealing for whatever reason. The film also gets points for its tongue-in-cheek commentary on the ways in which Christmas seems to dominate our calendars beginning in October. And while I love Christmas, and actually don’t mind seeing Macy’s in red, gold, and green starting around Columbus Day, I really like the way those two holidays mix during the last weeks of October. While The Nightmare Before Christmas occasionally borders on mean-spiritedness, you’ll barely notice during the Season of Ugly Horror Sequels that Halloween has become. Plus, Jack Skellington and Santa patch things up in the end, and a Halloween Town covered in snow is a pretty nice metaphor for a more positive way of thinking about Christmas sneaking into October.
Empty Calorie Pairing: Pumpkin Spice M&M’s. They’re orange, brown, and green, covering your Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas bases, and reflecting the Holiday mash-up that is The Nightmare Before Christmas, especially since, if you’re anything like my family, pumpkin pie is getting trotted out for all three.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966)
I almost love the Peanuts Halloween special too much to have any critical distance from it. No, scratch that; I absolutely love the Peanuts Halloween special too much to have any critical distance from it. It not only gets the giddiness and potential disappointment (this is Charles Schulz after all) of childhood Halloween perfectly, it’s also archetypically evocative of fall. Finding space in its twenty-five minute runtime to explore the sugar-rush rituals of picking and carving pumpkins, Halloween parties, trick-or-treating, bobbing for apples, and making costumes, all drawn with impressionist exaggeration (the costumes and decorations are especially great), It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is the document you’d send into space to explain Halloween and American youth to aliens. The B-story of Snoopy getting entirely too wrapped up in his WWI barnstormer persona (crossing French rivers, imagining air-raid sirens, evading enemy troops in barns/Violet’s house) is gloriously odd, but also gives Bill Melendez and his animators the chance to show off an achingly beautiful fall suburban landscape, full of watercolor washes of orange, navy blue, yellow, and black, all set to Vince Guaraldi’s gorgeous, autumnal jazz score. The night sky looks different after watching It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and, as Schulz was always so able to do, it makes you feel like a kid again.
Empty Calorie Pairing: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is the all-time great Halloween special, and Reese’s Cups are the all time great Halloween candy, end of story. Plus, you’ll be even more thankful that you didn’t come home with a bag full of rocks.
The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror (1990- )
At this point, there are too many episodes of The Simpsons’ annual three-piece Halloween episode to do justice to them all, but suffice to say they’re easily the one annual sure thing for the long-running series. Generally split between parodies of well-known horror flicks and original stories, the “Treehouse of Horror” series has spoofed The Shining, Twilight Zone, Nightmare on Elm Street, you name it. There’s even a Great Pumpkin parody, featuring the appearance of an actual anthropomorphic pumpkin who is shocked by our Jack-o’-lantern-carving ruthlessness. You could conceivably have a party purely themed around “Treehouse of Horror” (come to think of it, I’m claiming the idea, you can’t have it), but if you’re strapped for time, go with the all-time classic “Treehouse of Horror V” which features a parody of The Shining (wisely renamed “The Shinning” by a lawsuit-shy Groundskeeper Willie, who, in a running gag, is offed upon the cusp of saving Bart and Lisa in all three segments), as well as a time-traveling Homer, and a ghoulish school cafeteria. Classic lines abound (“Oh I wish, I wish I hadn’t killed that fish”) and the installment solidifies the “Treehouse” series’ fourth-wall breaking self-reference in a closing bit that features the Simpson family performing a Chorus Line number as a mysterious fog turns them inside-out.
Empty Calorie Pairing: Butterfinger. This should go without saying, but nobody lays a finger on my Butterfinger.
Hocus Pocus (1993)
I’m not a huge fan of the bottom-of-the-barrel horror movie version of Halloween. It’s frequently ugly and exclusionary. But I AM a huge fan of the campy, goofy, anything-goes version of Halloween that defines Hocus Pocus. Beloved by Generation Y, Hocus Pocus pits a moody teen slacker, his rich town-aristocrat crush, and his smart-yet-goofy little sister, against a trio of reincarnated-and-fabulous Salem witches, while also mixing early-90s earnestness with kitschy pop energy (there is time for a Bette Midler-led glam/girl-group rendition of “I Put A Spell On You;” the mom dresses up like “Vogue”-era Madonna). It’s the very conglomeration that would define everything we like about the decade, from Boy Meets World to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Pavement. The movie features some lovely New England settings (it’s meant to be Salem, it’s actually a mix of Plymouth, Southern California and a bit of the actual town) and some great trick-or-treating humor to make you wax all kinds of nostalgic. Plus, Bette Midler camps it up as a diva witch, who routinely argues with a colonial zombie and a talking cat named Thackery Binx. Also, Garry Marshall, in a devil costume, yelling “THE SANDERSON SISTERS!!!” It’s gently subversive, tongue-in-cheek, and surprisingly eccentric for a Disney movie. Odds are you’ll be missing the days of Are You Afraid of the Dark? and that episode of Boy Meets World where Corey thinks he’s turning into a werewolf. If you weren’t already, that is.
Empty Calorie Pairing: Whatchamacallit. I’m tempted to go with “Tombstone Pizza,” since it shares this movies goofy-macabre spirit, and because I remember chowing down on one while watching this on Disney Channel as a kid, but I’ll go with Whatchamacallit, the perfect “I-remember-those-ads-from-1993” candy.
Looney Tunes, “Scaredy Cat,” “Claws for Alarm,” “Jumpin’ Jupiter” (1948-1955)
United by the peerless direction of Chuck Jones, and a premise that takes Porky Pig and his eerily silent companion, Sylvester the Cat, into a rundown house, a creepy hotel, and a remote desert campground respectively, this 1950s trilogy of surprisingly scary cartoons is still more than a little unsettling. While the final chapter, “Jumpin’ Jupiter” is mainly a goofy story about aliens, the first two installments, “Scaredy Cat” and “Claws for Alarm” feature Sylvester attempting to survive the night in impressively gothic, Poe-esque houses, haunted by ghoulish mice who, throughout the two shorts, attempt to dispatch Porky Pig with a shotgun, noose, kitchen knife, and axe (the last of which is brandished by a mouse in an executioner’s costume (!!!)). To this day I remember the creepy, leering eyes of the mice peeping out from the dark corners, as well as the legitimately great scare of a final pair of eyes in the speedometer as Sylvester speeds away with Porky in tow at the end of “Claws for Alarm.” The shorts are beautifully animated – I’ve always wanted to decorate a party based on the incredibly spooky interiors of “Scaredy Cat” – and get the balance of scary, funny, and eerie just right. The sheer violence, for a cartoon, is shocking in 2013, but perhaps even more surprising is the tone, stylishness, and mood of what was supposed to be a lighthearted short. The toons are beautiful, terrifying, and unforgettable.
Empty Calorie Pairing: Mounds. Mounds bars debuted right before the first of the “Scaredy Cat” trilogy, so we’ll go with that. Coconut always gets left out in the cold, plus something about a Mounds bar just seems super old-timey. A very grandpa-ish candy bar.
Golden Age Disney Shorts / Disney’s The Legend of Sleep Hollow (1929-1952)
While a lot less dark, and less laugh-out-loud funny than the Porky-and-Sylvester trilogy, the 1937 short “Lonesome Ghosts” and the 1952 short “Trick or Treat,” along with the excellent early 1929 Merry Melodies experiment, “The Skeleton Dance,” are all examples of Disney at their best. “Lonesome Ghosts” features Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy as The Ajax Ghost Exterminators, tasked with clearing ghosts out from a haunted house. The short is funny, but its value nowadays rests on its concept – I for one would love to see a feature length Mickey/Donald/Goofy Ghostbusters – and its beautiful, washed-out color palette, along with its nostalgia. I can’t be the only one who had this jam on VHS. The same goes for “Trick or Treat,” a later short featuring Donald’s nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, getting back at their miserly uncle with the help of a sympathetic witch named Hazel. Basically a morality play (the lesson being: “Make with the candy, cheapskate”), it’s a 50s era Donald cartoon – so its still funny, beautiful pop-colored, and kinetically animated. “The Skeleton Dance” is considered a masterpiece of early animation, and you could probably run it on a loop early in the party with no complaints. Opening with shock-lightning and an extreme close-up of a gothic owl, the short features a creepy churchyard, a spooky hound dog (reminiscent of a similar mutt in The Haunted Mansion rides) black cats, and the titular danse macabre set to the always creepy “The March of the Trolls.” Think of it as a Halloween Rosetta Stone. It’s all there. If the old-school cartoons are going over well, cue up 1949 short film Disney’s The Legend of Sleep Hollow. Somehow still the most accurate depiction of the Washington Irving short story about a superstitious Hudson River-valley schoolteacher and a local legend of a headless revolutionary mercenary, the Disney version lets the story stay scary, while offering richly animated depictions of an uncanny, haunted colonial America, dappled with orange and yellow maples at the beginning, and spooky, ghost trees at the end. Ichabod Crane is drawn tall and gangly, all for Goofy-like comedic expressionism, and the first appearance of the Headless Horseman is great, both fun and eerie. Narrated by Bing Crosby, who gets the mix of Yankee-yarn humor and a slightly spooky off-centeredness (i.e., he sounds drunk) just right, Disney’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow stands as the studios Halloween magnum opus.
Empty Calorie Pairing: Hershey Bar. We’re talking classics here, so why not go with the only candy I’m sure was around for all four of these cartoons? Plus, like these shorts, Hershey Bars are almost always better than you even remember. Simple, yet satisfying.
Young Frankenstein get’s points right away for simply being one of the funniest films of all time. Mainly a parody of Universal Monster movies and German expressionist horror, the movie gives you all the atmosphere of those movies (hell, Mel Brooks reused sets and props from the very flicks he was spoofing) while basically being a funny-quote generator. It’s essentially a two-hour comedy duel between Gene Wilder’s Frederick Frankenstein (grandson of the more famous Dr. Frankenstein) and Marty Feldman’s Igor. Wilder wins by a nose, if only because of his multiple, scenery chewing hysterical freak outs, including a scene in which, in an attempt to quell his ghoulish creation, Frederick locks himself in a chamber with his monster, played by Peter Boyle, only to immediately begin begging to be let out and utterly cursing out his associates for adhering to his wishes to be kept locked in. The movie rewards multiple views, and, like I said, is beautiful to look at, featuring a foggy black-and-white tone that won’t be out of place if you’re planning on just running the original Universal horror flicks. It’ll just be a lot funnier than those movies’ recurring theme of modernist existential dread. Also, Frankenstein and his monster perform “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” which is slightly different from how the source material ends.
Empty Calorie Pairing: Snickers. This one was tough since there weren’t any big candy debuts in the 1970s, so I’m going to go with Snickers, which is just the sort of “all-in-one” candy that matches Young Frankenstein and its ability to give us all the trappings of Golden Age horror while also being a top-five comedy.
I seriously doubt I have to convince anybody of this one. If anything, throwing on Ghostbusters might kill your party, because whatever anyone was doing before that (awesome) opening library scene, they aren’t doing it now. Now they’ve sequestered every sit-able surface in your house for the next two hours. And who can blame them? It’s Bill Murray at his smartass best, the construction-paper-and-masking-tape special effects just make you nostalgic for when the human eye could still process cinema graphics, and there is basically a parade of 80s and 90s All-Stars (Sigourney Weaver! Ernie Hudson! Rick Moranis!). Plus, since the “Ghostbusters” theme (courtesy of Ray Parker, Jr.) plays for roughly ten minutes straight at the end of the movie, you have a pretty solid dance-party segue. You could even plan ahead and stir up some homemade Hi-C Ecto Cooler (online recipes abound), or make that the Halloween punch (again, too late, officially my idea). Just don’t put on Ghostbusters 2. It’s not as good as you remember it and everyone will just get bummed out. Trust me.
Empty Calorie Pairing: Mallo Cup / Halloween Peeps / Count Chocula. If you can find them, go with Mallo Cups or Halloween Peeps, the only even semi-available candies to feature marshmallow, in honor of the Stay Puft Marshmallow man. If not, go with a bowl of Count Chocula for everyone – you get the marshmallows, as well as the shock of reminiscence of when we were all watching this movie on Halloween morning before getting costumed-up for free sugar.
It’s a bit of left-field choice, I admit, but Ed Wood A.) commits even more overtly to the campy, fun, “let’s all dress up!” side of Halloween that Hocus Pocus evokes and B.) It’s about the godfather of crappy horror movies. It feels like Halloween should also be the day we remember Ed Wood, since in many ways, he set the tone. Basically, a gonzo bio-pic of the late schlock director that is also routinely hilarious and playfully spooky in a black-and-white, Vincent-Price-TV-special sort of way, Ed Wood is a straight up underappreciated classic. Johnny Depp does his best work ever as the delusional but somehow still-inspiring Wood, and Martin Landau nails it as a washed up Bela Lugosi, who has fallen low enough to want to be in Ed Wood’s movies, where he must, amongst other things, pretend to fight a fake octopus seemingly made out of spare couch parts in a “lake” made with a garden hose. Plus, it offers a nice dose of forward-thinking inclusivity to defuse whichever bro-horror Eli Roth travesty your worst friend wants to put on. Ed Wood is laugh-out-loud funny, and features enough bad horror, campy 1950s imagery (it’s like a less gross-out happy John Waters), and black-and-white moodiness to perfectly match the type of party where everyone is a zombie-version of a Grease character.
Empty Calorie Pairing: Hershey’s Cookies and Cream Bar. This choice fits Ed Wood twice over, both for its matching black-and-white colors, and for its 1994 debut.
Anticipating Ed Wood’s embrace of glorious, beautiful weirdoes, Beetlejuice (another Tim Burton goth comedy) is a great end of the night Halloween flick, both riotous (everyone remembers the possessed dance scene set to Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”) and surprisingly philosophical about death and eternity. The movie stars Alec Baldwin, Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, and Michael Keaton, so there is literally no chance that we wouldn’t have it listed here (we’re still in the early stages here at Half Cloth, but suffice to say, we love Michael Keaton – watch Johnny Dangerously and you’ll understand). If It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown gets the earth-toned, autumnal Halloween aura right, then Beetlejuice nails the neon-green and black color scale that screams “Target on October 30th.” The whole thing is candy-colored, so if you’re trying to get rid of that last bag of Milky Ways before everyone splits, here’s your chance. And if you’re a child of the 90s like us, you’ll also be thinking back to the almost David Lynch-like cartoon series adaptation that ruled Nickelodeon afternoons in the early part of the decade — and what’s Halloween for if not nostalgia? Plus, seriously, Michael Keaton is a genius. A genius.
Empty Calorie Pairing: Skittles. Like I said, this movie pretty much looks like cheap food dye and high fructose corn syrup, so why not the candy that I’m almost positive consists of only those two ingredients?