When I was a kid, Halloween was (and still is) the coolest thing ever. It allowed us as kids to cosplay for an entire night (long before the word ‘cosplay’ was ever a thing) and we got paid in candy for our efforts! The thrill of the hunt; going to stranger’s houses, awing at their cool decorations, all in the hopes of scoring pillowcases full of candy (Reeses’ Peanut Butter cups and Hershey’s dark chocolate bars were usually my scores of choice, but those orange peanut-shaped things sucked).
I loved Halloween night with a passion, and even at age 51, I still do. Turns out, it’s just as much fun to be one of the ‘favorite houses on the block’ as it was to visit them. My ardor for Halloween shows no signs of ebbing anytime soon. Christmas was always nice enough, sure, but it also carried the burden of expectations; buying expensive gifts, navigating crowded malls, spending quality time with all of the relatives, getting the food just right, etc. Halloween was just about dressing up and having a night of pure scary fun. No strings attached.
I also enjoyed horror movies as a kid. In fact, my very first magazine subscription was to the late Forry Ackerman’s “Famous Monsters of Filmland.” How I wish I had the foresight to hold onto some of those…
One of my favorite Halloween specials on television was the 1966 Rankin-Bass stop motion animated feature, “Mad Monster Party?” Featuring the voices of horror icon Boris Karloff and comedian Phyllis Miller. Rankin-Bass productions (cofounded by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass) were mainly known for their stop-motion animated Christmas specials such as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1964) and “Little Drummer Boy” (1968). They also produced two traditionally animated adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (1977) and “Return of the King” (1980); Rankin-Bass didn’t own the rights to do an animated “Lord of the Rings”, which was produced theatrically by the Saul Zaentz Company in 1978.
“Mad Monster Party?” had it all; it was a great gathering of all the classic monsters (Frankenstein’s monster, his Bride, Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Igor, Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man and “It”; “It” was clearly King Kong, but a rights-issue prevented actual use of the name).
The monsters rendezvous at a remote island to witness Dr. Frankenstein (Karloff) unveil his latest H bomb-like creation, with each monster jealously trying to steal its secrets. Complicating matters is the arrival of the Doctor’s nerdy nephew, Felix Flanken (voice of Allen Swift), a klutzy drugstore clerk who stands to inherit his uncle’s fortunes. Flanken is also smitten (as is everyone) with his uncle’s voluptuous, mysterious assistant, Francesca (voiced by singer/actress Gale Garnett).
There are catchy songs (“Do The Mummy” “You’re Different” “One Step Ahead”), silly puns, and one-liners perfectly suited to a monster-loving 8 year old (though some are quite painful today). “Mad…” was the antidote to all of those syrupy Christmas specials, and I suspect it was probably the most fun for Rankin/Bass as well. They got to let their hair down a bit with this one, and get away from overly reverential Christmas themes.
By the way, the “Hotel Transylvania” series owe its entire existence to “Mad Monster Party?” The “Hotel Transylvania” movies are essentially unacknowledged remakes, especially the first film of the series.
It was on a Halloween afternoon 25 years ago that a friend and I took in a new movie based on a Tim Burton (“Beetlejuice,” “Batman”) poem called “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” My friend and I were 23 and 26; hardly the demographic for a ‘kid’s movie’, but luckily this was not just a movie for kids. “Nightmare…” was the Halloween love letter I had been waiting for all of my life. It was as if Rankin-Bass’ Christmas specials and their own “Mad Monster Party” had a great, joyous, head-on collision. Yes, Christmas is the impetus of the story, but ‘Halloween Town’ is the main setting and the packaging in which everything else is wrapped like a piece of Halloween candy. The other worlds are seen through its wonderfully twisted, gothic lens.
Afterward, my friend and I spent the evening dishing out Halloween candy at my old apartment, watching a nonstop Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Terror” marathon that was only interrupted by the tragic breaking news of the death of actor River Phoenix (“Stand By Me” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”). Despite the news and the activities of the holiday itself, I couldn’t shake the sights and sounds of the movie from my head.
My obsession with “The Nightmare Before Christmas” was just beginning.
“The story that you are about to be told…”
The story of “Nightmare…” is predicated on the existence of ‘holiday worlds’; each world exists within its own dimension, which are accessed through tree-trunk doorways in a magical forest. These dimensions exist solely to create a single holiday for us poor slobs in the real world, who are unaware of the tireless work done within these worlds for our benefit.
After yet another successful Halloween night, Halloween Town’s own “pumpkin king” Jack Skellingon (voice of Chris Sarandon/sung by Danny Elfman) is growing tired of ‘sound of screams’ in his gothic world. He yearns for something, anything new. With his ghost dog Zero, he wanders aimlessly into the magical forest of holiday doorways and finds himself curiously compelled to enter one which leads him into Christmas-Town.
Christmas Town resembles a Rankin-Bass Christmas special on steroids. It’s overflowing with the colors, mood and feel of Christmastime. There, amid the sights, sounds and even the ‘smells of cakes and pies’, Jack finds a renewed purpose; he is determined to bring Christmas to his Halloween Town, and take over Yuletide duties from the one he mistakenly refers to as “Sandy Claws,” St. Nick himself (Edward Ivory).
Complications arise for Jack when his secret admirer Sally (“Beetlejuice” alum Catherine O’Hara), a lonely rag-doll woman given life by her jealous creator Dr. Finkelstein (the late William Hickey), has a vision of Jack’s Christmas ending in catastrophe.
Jack and the ‘two-faced’ Mayor (voiced by another “Beetlejuice” alum, the late Glenn Shadix) recruit the denizens of Halloween Town to make gifts and other trappings for their own version of Christmas. They also enlist the aid of duplicitous trick or treaters “Lock” (Paul Reubens), “Shock” (O’Hara) and “Barrel” (Danny Elfman) to retrieve Santa from Christmas Town in order to give him an enforced day off.
Jack is unaware that the three trick or treaters are secretly in league with Jack’s evil rival, the bombastic Oogie Boogie (Ken Page). Oogie plans to torture a captured Santa & Sally in his lair, which is a black-lit chamber of horrors.
Blinded by his newfound ambition to tackle Christmas, Jack takes off in a custom coffin-sleigh, with the glowing-nosed Zero leading a team of skeletal reindeer (a none-too subtle riff on Rudolph).
Jack’s attempt to bring Christmas to the real word is an unmitigated disaster; gifts made from Halloween’s citizens are utterly wrong-headed, including a Christmas tree-eating snake, a murderous wreath, and creepy flying vampire dolls.
For his troubles, Jack is shot down by the real world’s military and winds up a broken man in a moonlit cemetery. Rather than wallow in sorrow, Jack pulls himself together (literally), and with Zero in tow, vows to make things right!
The race against time is now multifold; Jack has to not only rescue Sally and Santa, but defeat Oogie and allow Santa to save what’s left of Christmas. Jack succeeds, Christmas is repaired, and Jack finds a renewed purpose in simply being the best Pumpkin King of Halloween Town…with the loyal Sally at his side.
“Nightmare Before Christmas” is one of the rare, near perfect things of this universe. A cinematic unicorn. I’ve owned the movie on VHS, laserdisc, DVD (twice) and most recently on Blu Ray (and a digital iTunes copy). If it ever becomes available on a permanent memory engram that I can have hardwired directly into my brain, I will no doubt pay for that procedure as well. Granted, it’s not a film I watch year round, but nothing heralds the approach of Halloween (or Christmas) season for me quite like “Nightmare…” Even the moment I hear the opening Edward Ivory narration, I’m awash in Halloween feels; it’s a Pavlovian response…
My personal ‘Nightmares’…
Back in October of 2011 (just a few weeks before Halloween), I had the chance to go to a local collectibles show, “Frank & Son”, a twice-weekly event in the City of Industry (about a half hour west of me). There, I got to meet both Chris Sarandon (speaking voice of Jack Skellington) and Ken Page (Oogie Boogie himself). I had them autograph a “Nightmare…” collectible book that I’d bought several years before, as well as a pair of autograph cards for a friend and my sister (who once dressed up as Oogie Boogie for our “Nightmare”-themed Halloween party). Page beamed a big smile when I told him I wished I could borrow his voice, and said (in a very southern gentleman-sounding way) that he wasn’t sure his mother would appreciate that. Both men posed for pictures.
I was so thrilled afterward that I could’ve floated home on a coffin-sleigh. I remember popping in the “Nightmare…” soundtrack into my car stereo for the drive home.
Incidentally, when I bought the soundtrack CD of the movie in the early 2000s, I learned a curious little factoid; the opening narration of the film, read by Edward Ivory (who voices Santa Claus) was first recorded by Star Trek’s own Sir Patrick Stewart, but was not used at the last minute. The Stewart version of the narration is the version available on the soundtrack.
Stewart also recorded a closing narration, as well as a special reading of Burton’s original poem: Tor.com/Patrick Stewart’s monologues on the Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack.
Marilyn Manson also does a kick-ass cover of “This is Halloween” on a later edition of the soundtrack.
“Nightmare” in San Diego…
This past summer, I’d also attended the “Nightmare Before Christmas 25th anniversary” panel at San Diego Comic Con 2018. This was an event I’d squatted through several other panels waiting for (totaling about four hours), but the buttock-numbing agony was very much worth it. Since I’d already posted about the event previously in my San Diego Comic Con Day 3 coverage, I’ll cut-and-paste those memories and photos of the event here, with a few extras:
Like “The Wizard of Oz” or the original “Star Wars”, ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas” is one of those family entertainments that is utterly timeless. Nothing dates it back to 1993 at all. 25 years later, I see the film continuing to attract whole new generations of fans, many of whom were born well after the movie’s 1993 release. Just visit a Hot Topic or Disney Outlet store at a local mall and check out the waves of new “Nightmare” merchandise that seem to flow from an endless well every year.
From a modestly successful theatrical run in 1993 (a $76 million haul) to annual screenings pretty much every year, “Nightmare…” is at “Rocky Horror Picture Show”-levels of cult status. My wife and I have seen it theatrically several times since 1993 (including a 3D presentation several years ago), and we’ll no doubt do so again if the opportunity arises.
Disneyland in Anaheim also does an annual “Nightmare Before Christmas” conversion of their “Haunted Mansion” attraction. I’ve only attended the refit-Haunted Mansion once, but it was as close to being within the film as is possible in the real world. Kudos to Disneyland for their role in keeping this wonderful film alive in such a novel yet commercially shrewd way.
There is also a 25th Anniversary live concert of the film’s music conducted by Danny Elfman himself (!) at the Hollywood Bowl, coming October 26th and 27th. Sadly I will not be able to attend (crying myself to sleep over that one), though I’m sure my wife and I will mark the film’s anniversary in our own way (including our annual Halloween decor shrine). To anyone who’s attending? Please enjoy it thoroughly on my behalf.
“Nightmare…” is easily in my top 10 or so favorite movies of all time. It’s such a brilliant conflux of so many things I loved in my childhood (stop-motion monsters, Halloween, Rankin-Bass holiday specials) all rolled into one creation. From the painstakingly crafted stop-motion miniature work (which took two years to film) to Elfman’s memorable songs (this is the only musical where I know the words to each and every song verbatim), “Nightmare…” is as perfect a holiday entertainment as possible.
It’s one nightmare I hope I’m never too old to awaken from.