Monday, October 22, 2012

31 Days of Halloween 2012: The Halloween Tree

An appreciation by Charles Cassady, Jr.

Reading down the "31 Days of Halloween" project foisted upon readers of the Cleveland Movie Blog has indeed been an education, even for someone such as I, having considered myself a trashhound of longstanding. Truly, I've never heard of most of these movies, or at least heard nothing much good about them. Bob Ignizio - who walked out on BATTLESHIP, mind you - just gave much love to a movie called NUDE FOR SATAN. Yes, NUDE FOR SATAN. The most inappropriate combination of words ever put together, except maybe "Ingenuity Cleveland." Yet he liked it!

(For my part, I did at least see another 31 Days of Halloween recommendation, BLOODY PIT OF HORROR. It was for sale at a distant thrift store near where I had an interview for a job opportunity that might have turned my life around; I figured it would make a whack souvenir of the interview. I didn't get the job. So any negative opinion I might express here about the worth of BLOODY PIT OF HORROR is likely to be affected by despair, regret and resentment; maybe decades from now I'll evaluate more objectively.)

But for all the schlock, nobody in this Cleveland Movie Blog accounting of favorite neglected horror flicks has thus far dared to break the last taboos nudity. No swearing. No cannibalism. No sex. No nude swearing cannibalistic sex (unless it's in the bootleg Director's Cut from an imported Hong Kong laserdisc). Yes, I'm talking about the dread genre of "kiddie flicks," so let me be the first.

Yes, gorehounds, I would cite a G-rated entry. A cartoon with immense Halloween cred that also holds the honors as, IMHO, the best-ever screen transmutation of notoriously tough-to-visualize author and fantasy fave Ray Bradbury. It's 1994's THE HALLOWEEN TREE, a TV-movie special from Hanna-Barbara Studios, at a time when they had an injection of stimulus money from being partnered with Turner Entertainment.

Say what? Yes, the same cartoon assembly line that gave the world the Flintstones and the Jetsons and Scooby-Doo pulled off a minor miracle, in my opinion - the only adaptation of a Ray Bradbury property that comes closest to bringing late writer's lyric-fantastic prose to life on the big screen. (Yes, I know, everyone loves FAHRENHEIT 451. But that was as much Truffaut as Bradbury. I finally got around to that book this year - had to do it, before the Romney supporters go off an burn all copies - and found much in it that French adaptation eschews a good deal of the more visionary and out-there stuff, especially Bradbury's lethal "Hounds" robots. Doubtless a prudent move on Truffaut's part)

Directed by the unsung Mario Piluso, THE HALLOWEEN TREE feature is a well-rendered, intelligent phantasmagoria, done for the Cartoon Network originally, that follows Bradbury's 1972 novel of the same title quite closely but doesn't fall victim to bland literalism; it truly stands on its own merits.

Ready to trick-or-treat on Halloween eve, four costumed kids learn that their Peter Pan-esque leader Joe `Pip' Pipkin is sick and won't be coming. Yet they glimpse his phantom flitting ahead, and follow the apparition through the woods to a tree hung heavy with Jack O'lanterns. Pip picks a pumpkin possessing a face just like his, then disappears into a whirlwind. From a nearby mansion emerges a grotesque old man named Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud, who proposes to help the children retrieve their friend while touring the historical roots of Halloween.

The youngsters travel through time and space, successive destinations dictated by their costumes. A mummy disguise means a visit to ancient Egypt. A witch getup, ditto for the Dark Ages in Europe. Quasi-Quasimodo makeup cues Notre Dame Cathedral with its gargoyles, etc. Moundshroud materializes in each setting to emphasize the macabre rites and folk customs that have enabled humanity through the eons to face death.

Pip, it turns, is gravely ill, and Moundshroud, some manner of Angel of Death, intends to claim him despite a last-minute complication. But that doesn't mean the fiend can't be bargained with...
Animation is just about the only medium that could successfully convey Bradbury's magical and poetic text; I'd expect a live-action production of The Halloween Tree would have been as awkward as, well, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, A SOUND OF THUNDER, the made-for-TV MARTIAN CHRONICLES and other futile feints at the writer's descriptive sorcery (I hear it's awful but I'd still like to check out PICASSO SUMMER, the obscure feature derived from Bradbury's non-fantasy short story, just to fill my mind's private Museum of Ray Bradbury Movie Misfires. You have it downloaded, Ignizio? You found NUDE FOR SATAN, @*!&% it! ). While Hanna-Barbara's repute rests on a cut-rate drawing techniques heavily reliant on simplified lines and Xeroxed cels, that helped lower the bar for cartoon art way and do away with the painstaking crafmanship of early Warner Bros., Disney and Fleischer artists, THE HALLOWEEN TREE is no quickie. Background paintings are rich and detailed, and the circus-poster "October kite" that transports the kids to distant realms is particularly memorable.

Leonard Nimoy (who has recorded Bradbury audio anthologies) gets top billing as the voice of Moundshroud, affecting a great cackling falsetto similar to the late Hans Conreid, nothing at all like his famous role as the emotionless alien Spock. Moundshroud also underscores that THE HALLOWEEN TREE offers something rare indeed in the often hackneyed scripts of "family" features, an ambiguous villain who isn't even defeated in the end, but accommodated.

So there you are. Disclaimer longtime readers of this blog might have noticed by now that much of this was reprinted out of my Bradbury appreciation published under my "Dope Island" column space from earlier this year, after the great writer died. Hey, even Bradbury recycled his themes and settings with some frequency, so I'm in good company. And if you don't like it, then I'll remind you that it's not called "trick" or treat for nothing, you blind, blind fools!

Now here's where I sprout great leathern wings like Bradbury's delightful creation Uncle Einar and fly away, cackling while Clevelanders cower in fright. It's what LeBron would have done.

(Okay, I'm watching BATTLESHIP on video while polishing this for publication. Damn, Ignizio, it would have taken all my self-control not to walk out at the seven-minute mark, with the PINK PANTHER gag references; how'd you stand it for as long as you did? On the plus side, BLOODY PIT OF HORROR is suddenly looking much better.)

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