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Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Five Amazing But Sadly Forgotten Animated Halloween Specials!

Let’s just admit it: There aren’t enough Halloween specials.

There’s a reason we revisit It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and Garfield’s Halloween Adventure every year, and that’s because the pickings are pretty slim. There are tons of Halloween episodes of TV shows, and plenty of movies out there, but Halloween just doesn’t have as many memorable TV specials as Christmas does.

In fact, some of the most interesting Halloween TV specials have been largely forgotten. Some never had an audience and some lost their popularity over time, but they deserve to be rediscovered now before it’s too late.

What follows are our picks for Five Amazing But Forgotten Halloween Specials, whether they’re wonderful, weird, or just so danged head-scratchingly inane we can barely believe they exist.

The Adventures of the Scrabble People in A Pumpkin Full of Nonsense

Every other toy had a cartoon series in the 1980s, so why not Scrabble? Probably because Scrabble is an abstract board game without a plot or characters, but that didn’t stop them from making The Adventures of the Scrabble People in a Pumpkin Full of Nonsense.

This 1985 TV special tells the story of Mr. Scrabble, whose most distinctive characteristic is that he wears a blue shirt, and two kids who are looking through a pumpkin patch on Halloween and find a gigantic pumpkin that’s actually a gateway to a land called “Nonsense.” In this magical land, an evil ruler has outlawed putting letters in order, and now everyone’s miserable because they don’t know which store sells groceries or which building to send their kids to for school.

It has, and this must stressed as much as possible, nothing to do with Halloween. It’s set on Halloween, and Mr. Scrabble’s two young friends are dressed up for the holiday (unlike Mr. Scrabble, who looks like he half-assed a Speed Racer costume at best), but the plot is boiler plate kiddie stuff about why reading is good. It’s a message that might have come across better if the “heroic” Mr. Scrabble wasn’t a colossal a-hole who fat shames women and mocks the illiterate.

But it is, undeniably, a fascinatingly weird attempt to turn the board game Scrabble into an animated Halloween special. It’s hard to believe this danged thing exists at all.

The Devil and Daniel Mouse

It’s hard being a folk musician mouse. The industry is pivoting to hard rock in the late 1970s, nobody wants to hear Jan Mouse’s tunes about peace, love and understanding, and her bandmate and boyfriend Daniel left her in the woods so he could pawn his guitar and buy a tiny bag of food with the proceeds.

Fortunately, the Devil just happens to be wandering around, and he signs Jan to an exclusive contract, using her own blood for ink of course (which is pretty grim for a kids special from 1978). Now she’s the biggest rock star in the world! But the devil finally comes to collect her soul, forcing Daniel to defend her in a trial over her recording deal.

The Devil and Daniel Mouse is a loose adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benet’s The Devil and Daniel Webster, and it’s been gene-spliced with the Barbra Streisand version of A Star is Born. The songs are actually pretty groovy, although the idea that Dan’s sappy climactic ballad is so good it cools the fiery hearts of the hellhound strains credulity, even in an anthropomorphic mouse cartoon.

The most noteworthy part of The Devil and Daniel Mouse, however, is that director Clive Smith took the ideas from this cartoon and evolved them into the 1983 cult classic film Rock & Rule, starring Lou Reed from The Velvet Underground as a mad rock overlord in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, who kidnaps a young anthropomorphic animal singer to use in a satanic ritual. Cool stuff, Rock & Rule.

Gary Larson’s Tales from the Far Side

Lots of newspaper comic strips have had animated holiday specials over the years, some of them good (Garfield’s Halloween Adventure), some of them awful (BC: The First Thanksgiving). But none were weirder than Gary Larson’s Tales from the Far Side, an eclectic assortment of morbid sight gags that spilled right out from the single panel imagination of, well, Gary Larson obviously.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Larson’s distinctive brand of humor was a striking counterpoint to the banality of most of the other daily comic strips. But it didn’t necessarily lend itself to television, in large part because it had no recurring characters and no storyline. It was a hodgepodge of weird ideas and science jokes and non sequiturs that varied from day to day, and for better or worse (a comic strip which also had a Halloween special, come to think of it) that randomness is what got adapted into this animated treat from 1994.

Gary Larson’s Tales from the Far Side is a mostly silent animated special with sketches involving a farmer who creates a “Bride of Cow-enstein” in his barn, an airplane full of insects (the bees are in buzz-ness class), and aliens who disguised themselves as cowboys in the 19th century. Fascinating, morbid and very funny, this Halloween special was quickly forgotten by most, but it did yield a sequel, Tales from the Far Side II, which only aired in the United Kingdom.

The Mad, Mad, Mad Monsters

Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. were the force behind some of the most iconic animated holiday specials ever produced, including Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, but they notoriously never made a Halloween special. Except they kinda, sorta, maybe did.

A spiritual follow-up to the 1967 stop-motion feature film Mad Monster Party?, the cel-animated The Mad, Mad, Mad Monsters tells the story of the Frankenstein Monster’s wedding party. Dr. Frankenstein has made him a bride, and now Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man and the Gill Man are spending the weekend in a fancy hotel and – naturally – wrecking the place in the build-up to Frank’s big night.

This hour-long TV special is lovingly animated, with striking character designs and exciting movement, and plays like a precursor to the charming Hotel Transylvania series. The plot is thin to a massive fault, and the Invisible Man’s verbally abusive relationship with his wife is cringe-worthy, but it’s an impressive animated special. If it had only taken place on Halloween instead of Friday the 13th it might be considered a holiday classic, but it did originally air in late September so let’s just say it kinda, sorta, maybe counts.

Witch’s Night Out

The best known Halloween special on our list is still, sadly, not as well known as it should be. Witch’s Night Out stars comedy superstars Gilda Radner, Catherine O’Hara and Dan Aykroyd in a delightfully monstrous animated adventure about a witch who feels unappreciated, and two young children who wish they were scarier on Halloween. A bargain is struck, the children are turned into real-life monsters, but they quickly realize that there’s a downside to being scary after the townsfolk turn on them all.

With a catchy electronic theme song and a distinctive, angular and colorful animation style, Witch’s Night Out really pops off the screen. It’s imaginative and engaging and the conclusion, where everyone in town gets to be monsters for the evening, is a perfect capper for a Halloween special. So many Christmas specials are about the importance of embracing the spirit of the season. Not enough Halloween specials put forth the effort to consider why we love his holiday, and instead are content to rely on monster iconography instead. Witch’s Night Out is one of the better exceptions, telling a pleasing story about the holiday and what it means to people while also engaging in the supernatural.

Witch’s Night Out was part of the regular Halloween TV rotation for quite a few years, but then all but disappeared at the turn of the century. It’s currently on DVD along with an assortment of other Halloween shows, and can be found on multiple streaming services, but it largely seems to have fallen out of the pop consciousness.

So let’s resurrect it now, along with all these other amazing – or at least amazingly weird – Halloween treats!


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