Tuesday, October 10, 2023

‘The Halloween Tree’ 30th Anniversary Retrospective – An Essential Celebration of the Holiday

“Night and day. Summer and winter, boys. Seedtime and harvest. Life and death. That’s what Halloween is, all rolled up in one.”

Halloween is dominated by iconography both macabre and delightful. Terrifying and pleasant. Freeing and disguised. It’s a night that’s been assigned to the fantasies of youth and yet remains steeped in the realities of the very old. Where dark and ancient tradition mingle with the lightness of modernity and treats are exchanged for the chants of possible tricks which invite more devilish favors than sweets. At its core— at the core of all such wicked celebrations— is death. What it means. Why those in this existence are so fascinated, incensed, intoxicated and repulsed by its shadow and how it is people reconcile death’s existentially labyrinthian impact on their lives.

Halloween is the day that we face that chilling finality. Commune with it. Drape our world in its trappings. Halloween is the day that death becomes the tapestry of our joy. We accept it. We embrace it. Maybe we even learn from it. And few Halloween based books, movies, stories or otherwise capture this idea more absolutely than Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree. Perfectly in line with its multi-layered historical trappings, it’s a tale that went through several iterations on its journey to the hallowed halls of Halloween history and one that seemed destined to become the essential animated classic that it has in the three decades since its release.

Almost 30 years before The Halloween Tree (1993) first aired on ABC, Ray Bradbury sat down to watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown one October evening in 1966. Despite the acclaimed author’s excitement and unabashed love for all things Halloween, he stood up and kicked his television set as the special’s credits rolled. While he had hoped for the equivalent of Halloween’s Santa Claus in the Great Pumpkin, the promised deity never arrived, denying the holiday its mystical spirit and breaking the vow that its title professed.

Not long after, Bradbury joined animator Chuck Jones, known for his prolific work on Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, for lunch. Commiserating about the lack of Halloween focused stories in circulation, the two decided to take the problem head on. Years earlier, Bradbury had painted what he had dubbed “the Halloween Tree.” After speaking with Jones, he procured his old painting and showed it to the animator. Chuck Jones was amazed by the intertwining branches brandishing countless orange-faced, jagged grins. He saw the history of Halloween in that tree. A genetic record, as Jones referred to it.

With Bradbury in the writer’s chair and Jones’ sway at MGM, the two creatives decided that they would make The Halloween Tree.

Still, despite the 92 page screenplay that Bradbury produced, the project never went under the pen at MGM. The studio shuttered their animation units shortly thereafter and the project lost its home. Designed and developed specifically for animation, Bradbury shopped the pitch around but found financing impossible given the medium’s decline at the time. After a few years he decided that his screenplay did no good languishing on a shelf and turned it into a novel, providing the world the Halloween special he always had hoped to see on the screen on the page instead.

Almost 20 years would pass before the screenplay turned novel would be transformed back into a screenplay again, prompted by the then head of Hanna-Barbera, David Kirschner. Having been thirsting to work with animation for his entire career, Bradbury was excited by Kirschner’s proposition to finally see The Halloween Tree realized, albeit concerned given the quality of the Saturday morning programs he’d seen Hanna-Barbera release. Promising quality and a steadfast integrity when it came to his words, Kirschner convinced Bradbury to sign on. Shortly thereafter, Bradbury provided an updated screenplay that married his original story with slightly more modern sensibilities all the while maintaining its signature timelessness.

A surprisingly accurate representation of the novel’s 40,000 words, the 69 minute film is a brisk, autumnal trek into the hazy, swirling mists of Halloween’s knotty past. Bradbury’s intoxicating prose is ever present, narrated by Bradbury himself in his own jovial tenor, infusing the events with crisp metaphor and haunting poeticism. It’s a tale about death, true, but its grim and unearthly depths are handled with celebration and care, ultimately fashioning both a love letter to and an informative biography of a holiday that so often goes underserved in such examinations.

The story concerns four friends, culled from the eight boys the original treatment and book followed, as they embark on a journey to find and save the dying spirit of their best friend Pipkin one fateful Halloween eve. Upon discovering that Pipkin, a boy who exemplifies all things childhood, whimsy and imagination, has been rushed away for an appendectomy, the crew decides to head to the hospital to visit him. Still, after a detour through a dark and mysterious ravine, the four find themselves chasing after a ghostly, luminous specter that appears as Pip and that leads them to the doors of an imposing, magnificent mansion.

Inside they meet Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud, voiced with fiendish exuberance by Leonard Nimoy. A tall figure with a cranium like a gourd, Moundshroud’s long, pointed nose extends out from his elongated face like a scythe ready to carve. A man of riddles and allegory, Moundshroud balks at the trick-or-treaters’ lack of understanding and appreciation for the sacred holiday they claim to so love. The kids’ costumes are paradigmatic of the holiday, after all; Ralph is a mummy, Wally a monster, Jenny is a witch and Tom Skelton is a skeleton. Yet, none of the wary four can tell Moundshroud why such attire is appropriate on All Hallow’s Eve nor are they able to reflect upon the significance of the night in question.

Beside Moundshroud’s towering manor sits the Halloween Tree. Its craggy branches form an endless maze of intertwining boughs all heaving with clusters of Jack-o’-lanterns, their snaggy expressions glimmering yellow against the murky blues of the moonlit night sky. In an instant, the tree becomes a thing of legend, the ideal visualization of Halloween’s eternal history and the resting place of the spiritual collective of those who succumb to the holiday’s influence in its current form. Moundshroud presides over the tree and its flickering souls as a devil might dance with his damned, delighting in the enormity of its perpetual worth.

The disembodied spirit of Pipkin appears once more, climbing the tree and retrieving the pumpkin that resembles his own squat face. Incensed that Pipkin has stolen one of his pumpkins, Moundshroud vows to retrieve his property. After some deliberation, Moundshroud agrees to let the other four tag along, suggesting they may be able to save Pip while gaining the answers to the questions about the holiday and their costumes posed earlier.

What transpires is a globe-trotting expedition through time, weaving together the many cultures, religions and traditions that have coalesced over the years into what we now know as Halloween. In Ancient Egypt they watch as a family invites their mummified relative to dinner before chasing Pipkin’s spirit into a tomb where the secrets of mummification are laid bare. At Stonehenge during the Dark Ages, the kids experience Celtic rituals and don broomsticks as they flee a witch-hunting mob. In France, the group watches as the Notre Dame Cathedral is constructed around them while all of the ancient beasts, gods and creatures are adopted as gargoyles as paganism is swallowed by evolving beliefs. Finally, they arrive in Mexico, discovering the significance of skeletons as proxies for the soul as the four watch how death might be celebrated and embraced during Diá de los Muertos.

While their method of travel alters from place to place, the group always takes flight when it’s time to leave. A trope Bradbury himself had always appreciated in animation, the author believed that death and flight were intertwined, not only key points of fascination for people but connected on an ethereal and spiritual level. At first, the group constructs a kite out of old circus posters they find (similar posters to those that Bradbury himself collected as a boy) forming the tail with their own bodies, but as the film progresses they borrow Moundshroud’s cloak, soar on broomsticks and eventually take flight on monstrous gargoyles. Some of these methods collide with their individual costumes of choice and others merely represent the raw, innovative power of a child’s imagination and belief in general when put to the test, but they all serve to further the film’s eclectic eccentricity.

In each time and place, Pipkin’s soul is in ever increasing peril. From near mummification to being stuck in the unlucky form of a black cat, from a frozen gargoyle unable to commune without the help of air or water to being trapped in a tomb with over 100 rotting souls unwilling to let him go, Pipkin seems destined to meet his fate in the underworld. Moundshroud oversees the events with amusement and intrigue, offering prompts that both trick and treat his wards of travel as he promises to do from the moment he steps onto the screen.

The Halloween Tree bradbury

In the end, Moundshroud moves to collect Pipkin’s soul. The unifying factor that binds the various times, places, convictions and customs into the holiday of Halloween, Moundshroud represents death incarnate. And death, as Moundshroud handily reflects in so many words, has always been at the heart of the human condition. From the moment the earliest people struck a fire in a cave to stave off the darkness, they have feared the eternity that awaits them when the fire goes out. Halloween is the culmination of that struggle, compartmentalized to one night where we allow ourselves to play in the dark along with all of those things which once plagued our subconscious. Celebrations vary from place to place and time to time, but humanity’s relationship with death is the ubiquitous fuse tethering them all.

In response, Tom offers a year of his life in exchange for Pipkin’s soul. Jenny does too, and Ralph and Wally follow suit. Moundshroud considers and accepts, warning the children that while they may seem eager to offer precious time off the end of their lives now, they may not be so happy when the moment of collection arrives. He offers a piece of candy skull to each, broken from one with Pipkin’s name printed on its sugary surface, and the four take the sacrament, binding their promise. They’re swept back to their small, suburban town and find Pipkin safe in his home. With vague recollections of the adventure, the friends acknowledge one another and their sacrifices, riding off into the fading Halloween night to enjoy its splendor for the final seconds of its waning life.

Moundshroud extinguishes the light inside the pumpkin carved in his own image and evaporates, disappearing in the last gust of October air along with his hordes of pumpkins. Thousands of orange faces swirl high into the sky as the cluster of carved smirks, scowls, grimaces and grins vanishes into the blue tinted haze cast before the full moon. Pipkin’s pumpkin remains, however, secured by the diligence, sacrifice and love of his closest friends.

The Halloween Tree special

Ray Bradbury once described death as like the pulling of a tooth, an empty socket in the mouth where a piece has gone missing. The host can not help but tongue the cavity, Bradbury observed, tasting the blood. Tasting death. We’re drawn to it. Repelled by it. In so many ways, it’s the link between life and death that defines both. People’s relationship with their own mortality has helped to craft culture, religion and infrastructure across the whole of human history. Such deathly concerns dominate dreams both fantastical and nightmarish, gripping a world collectively and perpetually struggling to balance their fear of the dark with their love of the light and all that falls between.

The Halloween Tree has evolved a great deal since Ray Bradbury and Chuck Jones first discussed its possibilities over lunch over 50 years ago, serving as the culmination of Bradbury’s love, respect and dedication to Halloween. More than that, the story is a testament to friendship, adventure and youth while simultaneously acknowledging and embracing the fleeting nature of such things. It’s a tale that asks us to consider the ramifications of skeletons, monsters and death, not so that we further fear these things but so that we might understand why we do so in the first place.

Like hosting a generations-old family member for dinner in Ancient Egypt, death can be memory and not letting go of those you’ve lost. Like innocents burned as witches in the Dark Ages, death can be fear and blindly losing control in its stead. Like the construction of Notre Dame Cathedral, death can be beauty and building monuments to our shared beliefs. Like singing songs and sharing food amidst Diá de los Muertos, death can be celebration and visiting with those on the other side with bittersweet cheer.

In all its forms, Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree is an essential examination of Halloween, a loving tribute to the brisk, airy soul of a holiday rooted in humanity’s everlasting quest to understand their mortal coil. A warm distillation of October 31st’s many eerie and yet comforting facets, it’s a film that echoes with the voices of every kid who’s ever howled at the moon as the clock neared midnight on All Hallow’s Eve. A reminder to viewers young and old that on one night a year, both the ghastly and the beautiful can walk side by side, when conflict is harmonious and pumpkins grow on trees.

The post ‘The Halloween Tree’ 30th Anniversary Retrospective – An Essential Celebration of the Holiday appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Got any friends who might like this scary horror stuff? GO AHEAD AND SHARE, SHARE!


Some of Scary Horror Stuff's Freakiest Short Horror Film Features!

The latest on the horror genre, everything you need to know, from Freddy Krueger to Edgar Allan Poe.

How Plausible Is It to Have the "Hocus Pocus" Kids Back for Some More Halloween Hijinks?

Potentially very good. See below. It turns out that the announcement is official according to the Carrie Bradshaw of the Sanderson bunch (Sarah Jessica Parker): there will be a "Hocus Pocus" sequel, premiering on Disney+.