Halloween TV Party: Invader Zim – “Halloween Spectacular of Spooky Doom”

In the previous post of this project, I wrote about a few episodes of Rugrats – so it’s only fitting that I keep marching onward with yet another Nickelodeon show I hold near and dear to my heart. Actually, probably even more so. I was probably way too young to be watching Invader Zim when it aired and I’m still totally baffled that it found its way on the network in the first place. Nonetheless, I adored its unflinching weirdness as a kid and continue to rewatch the show from time to time and lament over its cancellation as if I’m ten years old again.

So anyway, this episode is titled “Halloween Spectacular of Spooky Doom” (01×14), keeping consistent with the show’s inexplicable obsession with the word “doom”. It begins with the type of morbid humor I am all to familiar with seeing in this show – Ms. Bitters shutting down a young student’s innocent love of Halloween with a flashback that demonstrates her negative experience having been a “fairy princess” once. While Zim is perplexed over the concept of Halloween itself and terrified that his costumed classmates have transformed into even more grotesque versions of themselves, Dib runs into the class babbling nonsense about terrible visions of hideous creatures. Ms. Bitters reacts perfectly naturally and commits him to the “Crazy House For Boys”. At this point, we’re taken into Dib’s perspective and it is revealed that, due to his messing with one of his mad scientist father’s inventions, he is forcefully being teleported to an alternate nightmare universe full of scary creatures (many of which influenced by people from his own life) who desire traveling to and taking over the real world via a portal in Dib’s brain.

If this is your first experience with any form of style or substance from Invader Zim, while this particular episode’s concept is a bit higher than usual, yes it really is this bonkers all the time. This is highly augmented by its horror-based, steampunk-esque character and background design. Even though this episode was bound to be somewhat dark in nature due to its Halloween theme, its palette of grays, blues, and purples is not unlike most episodes of the series. And this episode also perfectly displays the show’s sick sense of humor as well. Early on, Dib describes “horrible nightmare visions” to his teacher, to which she immediately responds, “It’s called life”. There’s also a bit of a repeated joke where beasts of the nightmare world are condemned to a hell-like domain for failing their mission, which is accompanied by a few brief moments where they weep and slowly walk away, suitcase in hand – before being engulfed in torturous flames.

I should also once again emphasize that the creature designs in this episode are absolutely sick and effectively creepy. In particular, the design of Nightmare Bitters is pretty wicked, especially during one of the episode’s climaxes when she transforms into a grotesque spider-like monster. I was always creeped out by normal Ms. Bitters as a kid just by virtue of her dark witchiness, but this design just turned that up to a completely different level entirely Additionally, I thought the evil Gaz was just so cool – even though it is essentially just real-life Gaz with larger teeth and a whole lot more slobbering. In terms of the story, I generally prefer the episodes of Invader Zim that aren’t completely reliant on Zim’s perspective on the world, and especially the one’s that are untethered from earth itself. I really wish that the show was given more time to explore more of its universe, because what we were exposed to was usually the coolest shit. Once again, the fact that they were able to get away with airing this on Nickelodeon of all places is just a true testament to the show’s oft brilliance.

Anyway, as Halloween episodes involving monsters tend to go, the narrative soon begins to draw explicit parallels between the beasts of the nightmare world and the children in costumes on real-life Halloween. In particular, the trick or treating experience of the neighborhood kids is terrorized by GIR, who violently attacks each child and quickly gobbles up all their candy. By the end of the episode, GIR is but a giant candy-filled machine-blob surrounded by various kids strewn about the floor, alive but groaning and unable to move. Back in the nightmare realm, the monsters are able to successfully transport into the waking world by way of Dib’s giant head… only to be instantly terrified by the horrifying scene and revert back to the dark world, never to be heard from again. Though this punchline is pretty standard for episodes such as these, it still is kind of nifty nonetheless.

If you aren’t an Invader Zim viewer and certain parts of this write-up has got you confused… it’s alright. I can definitely see this episode being more for fans and viewers already at least somewhat familiar with the show’s concept – it takes the preexisting style, characters, and general plot and elevates it to something slightly more rooted in fantasy and supernatural elements. It’s not the best episode of the show and while it’s well-written, it’s probably not suitable for first-time viewers. For that, I’d gladly direct you to “NanoZim”, “Walk of Doom”, and/or “Dark Harvest”. Yeah, I’m definitely biased with how much I enjoy this one, but I think it’s worth watching for at least a taste of the dark, crazed weirdness that was Invader Zim.

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Halloween TV Party: 3 episodes of Rugrats

After reaching back nearly forty years in Halloween TV specials past, I’ve decided to mix things up a bit by watching a few episodes from a show that was a crucial part of my own childhood – Nickelodeon’s Rugrats! Now, I know that the popular consensus is that in the match between Nickelodeon vs. Cartoon Network regarding their lineups in the 90s and early 2000s, Cartoon Network tends to end up on top. Nonetheless, the original line of Nicktoons were what I tended to watch in my formative years and are what I tend to hold the most nostalgia toward. I was definitely hooked on Rugrats for at least a little bit during their entire run on the channel – I even watched a bit of All Grown Up for a little while (even though it is vastly inferior to its predecessor). Anyway, maybe I’ll go more into why Rugrats was so cool, but for now we’ll just cover the three Halloween episodes of the series!

The first of these three episodes is “Candy Bar Creep Show” (01×09), which comes early enough in the show’s run to take full advantage of the naivety of our tiny protagonists. As the adults set up a haunted house for trick or treaters on Halloween night, Tommy, Chuckie, Phil, and Lil are confused about the newly decorated environment, not to mention the grown-ups’ creepy costumes. Angelica comes by to explain the situation in the only way she knows how: by hyping up the significance of the Reptar candy bar, which is only rewarded to the big kids who visit the Pickles’s haunted house. This means that the babies are left to figure out on their own just how they can get their hands on a Reptar bar!

For the most part, I really appreciate how much light this episode shed on one of the most under-appreciated aspects of Halloween culture: the homemade haunted den. Not only did the Pickles’s deck out their garage with dark, spooky imagery, but they also used every cheap special horror effect under the sun: grapes for eyeballs, spaghetti for worms, a disorienting funhouse mirror. I honestly don’t know if these elements of Halloween are at all in style anymore, but they were among my most anticipated parts of trick or treating as a kid and I love their mention here. Tommy had some cool parents for sure! Additionally, this is a great example of the typical Rugrats style to play up the babies’ perspective to transform something innocuous into a genuinely terrifying Halloween romp. By the end, by virtue of the kids’ attempts at snagging their own share of candy, even the adults are left spooked out by the sights and sounds of their own creation! I think the best Halloween specials are the ones that capture the aesthetic and general feel of the holiday so palpably – and with that, this one succeeds so well!

This next episode, entitled “Ghost Story” (06×12), is pretty different from the last in many ways. For one thing, it’s immediately clear that the animation here is much more polished than in early episodes – colors are sharper, lines are smoother, and the look is just much cleaner overall. There also seems to be a much stronger sense of a story as well. The main narrative here involves the babies (including Tommy’s new brother Dil!) having a sleepover at Angelica’s house, where they decide to take turns telling the same scary story from varying perspectives. For the most part, though, it seems like it’s mostly Chuckie’s scary story, with the other children portraying different characters within. It’s a typical sort of haunted house mystery, with giant worms, ghosts, and monsters waiting around every corner.

Which brings me to probably the most peculiar aspect of this whole episode: seemingly out of nowhere, we get some cameos by the characters from Aaahh!!! Real Monsters… really! I get that this was an attempt to link two Klasky-Csupo brands, but I don’t think there’s been any other episode of Rugrats that feature cameo appearances. Plus the show had been off air for about two years at this point! I’m probably thinking way too much about this, but it really is just that weird. Anyway, while it’s cool seeing familiar Rugrats characters go on adventures outside of the real world, not enough happens in terms of story to make this particularly worthwhile. It’s another one of those episodes marketed as Halloween specials, when they really have nothing to do with the holiday and are only mildly spooky. Besides the bonkers Aaahh!!! Real Monsters cameo, there’s probably no harm in skipping this one.

And finally, the last of the Rugrats Halloween specials, “Curse of the Werewuff” (08×02). Initially, the episode was pretty confusing – it begins with the babies once again being confused over the concept of Halloween and Angelica once again explaining the holiday to them. It’s as if they want to pretend the first Halloween episode never actually existed. Also, it doesn’t quite make a whole lot of sense that it has been at least a whole year since that first Halloween, yet none of the children seem to have developed very much further than how they started.

Anyway! Let’s get to the actual story. So, Angelica is stirring the pot as always by telling the babies that whatever Halloween costume is chosen for them is what they will embody for the rest of their lives. This causes poor anxious Chuckie to have a nightmare over his own costume (a werewolf), especially as the troop head over to a scary amusement park for some trick or treating. And as these sequence of events tend to go, Chuckie endures his existential crisis over time and finds his inner werewolf to finally stand up for himself against Angelica. So, while this episode doesn’t quite possess much of the messy charm of the earlier episodes, it does have the most concrete character development of them all.

But yeah, as far as just plainly being the most Halloweenish, “Candy Bar Creep Show” is the way to go here. It harks back to a lot of what made the holiday so great as a little kid, while also humorously lampooning off of the actual experience of Halloweening as an adult with children. Despite all this, it was really fun looking back at all of these classic episodes after years – it helped me to remember what made the holiday episodes of Rugrats so wholesome and enjoyable.

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Halloween TV Party: The New Misadventures of Ichabod Crane (1979)

Okay, I promise I’ll get out of 1979 right after this one! These older Halloween specials simply fascinate me and I don’t think enough of an effort is being made to archive these wonderful treats.

So, The New Misadventures of Ichabod Crane comes to us from Canada – while I do know that it was made by Titlecraft in association with the Canadian Broadcasting Company, I can’t seem to find where it was initially aired, only that it first aired in the US on syndication. I’m not exactly sure if there is much semblance of nostalgia held for many folks compared to other Halloween specials like Disney’s Halloween TreatWitch’s Night Out, or It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. I guess reruns definitely account for something, but I’ve just never heard this one mentioned in many parts. Nonetheless, I love me a good Ichabod Crane/Headless Horseman story, so I was eager to press play on this one.

With all that being said, this one is a bit strange. It opens up with a truly awesome Headless Horseman introductory sequence, replete with spooky animation, ominous music, and just a terrific, foreboding atmosphere in general. After some prowling in the shadows, we see the Horseman terrify folks in a stagecoach with his black fire-breathing horse, after which he takes off with a treasure chest full of gold coins. This short sequence sets up this terrific mood of eerie horror and supernatural spookiness… only to awkwardly transition to significantly more bright, lighthearted theme music that plays with the introductory credits. Uh, okay…? It’s honestly so jarring and even a little disappointing, as if the awesome introduction belonged to a completely different Halloween special to which I would like to return.

But let’s move on with the actual story. At this point, it’s important to acknowledge the “new” in the title – essentially, this is more of a reimagining of the original Washington Irving story of Sleepy Hollow than any sense of canonical retelling. The character of Ichabod Crane is still here as well as the aforementioned Headless Horseman (and Rip Van Winkle, for some reason). Here, however, Ichabod is assigned by the eccentric folks of Sleepy Hollow to rid the town of the Horseman’s terrorizing, due to his vast knowledge in supernatural matters. Moreover, early in the story it is also revealed that the Horseman himself is not a specter, but the result of a shape-shifting spell put on by cackling witch Velma. Honestly, this sort of cheapens the idea of the Horseman for me – now it’s essentially a kind of scary costume only occasionally put on by the witch, instead of an actual threat itself.

Essentially most of the first half of the special consists of Ichabod and Rip traveling to locate the Horseman, accompanied by a dog named Wolf and Crane’s horse named Washington. There’s surprisingly a lot of dialogue in this special, with every other line attempting to drop some sort of gag or one-liner. The vast majority of these simply fall completely flat – there were only a couple of times I can remember actually getting a slight giggle out of the writing. This accompanied with the mostly tedious story just make these parts of the special a bit of a drab to sit through. Eventually, Crane and his posse stumble suddenly upon the Headless Horseman… and, of course, he reveals himself to actually be Velma the witch. There isn’t too much more of the Horseman from this point on, which I guess isn’t the worst thing in the world – despite the disappointment, Velma is actually a very competent witch character and rather fun to watch.

The rest of the special is all very silly. Rip gets kidnapped by Velma and she turns him into a possum. Ichabod then disguises himself as a dapper traveling salesman to distract Velma while Wolf frees Rip. From here, the magical book of spells becomes fair game for anyone’s use, resulting in a variety of wacky transformation gags akin to the magic battle in Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. At one point, while our protagonists are running away, Velma casts a spell which makes all of the scarecrows come to life – easily the scariest few moments of the entire episode and actually pretty awesome! This is followed up by Ichabod finding the spell to transform himself into the Headless Horseman… whereafter he proceeds to slaughter everyone one of the scarecrows. How delectably morbid!

And then it sort of peters out by then. Ichabod concludes that he can use this Horseman spell to go after Velma, shall she decide to mess with Sleepy Hollow ever again. And then they all just ride off into the sunset. Now, I’m all for non-canonical reimaginings of preexisting source material, but this is just dull and lifeless when compared to the traditional horror of the original tale. It’s not all bad, though – I’m always a huge sucker for the type of understated hand-drawn animation typical of 70s cartoons. Moreover, these characters aren’t too bad; Velma is a delightful screen presence, Ichabod’s reinvention as a clumsy, bumbling intellect is enjoyable, and even the running joke of Rip as a slumbering old man is pretty funny at times. But it seems that if these characters existed in an entirely different storyline, maybe it would have worked better overall. Anyway, I don’t fault anyone at all for finding this charming by its own right – it just doesn’t quite do it for me personally.

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Halloween TV Party: The Pumpkin Who Couldn’t Smile (1979)

Upon compiling the list of Halloween specials I would potentially watch and review this season, one fact soon became abundantly clear: the late 70s loved Halloween. Sure, Halloween specials and themed episodes of TV shows have been around since the rise of TV itself – the earliest example of such I could find was a 1952 episode of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. But it seems that the holiday took a pronounced upsurge in popularity around the late 70s, where it rode steadily through the 80s and 90s. Nowadays, while Halloween episodes definitely still exist, there isn’t much incentive for them to be coming from all directions as they had in the past. In any case, 1979 seems to be the year where this specific trend seemed to take on an uptick – so I’ll cover one of these specials from this particular year!

This one is called Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy in The Pumpkin Who Couldn’t Smile… although the shorter title of The Pumpkin Who Couldn’t Smile is also acceptable. This is the first time I’ve seen anything from the catalog of popular animated specials featuring the titular duo (although A Musical Adventure has been on my radar for quite some time). The program opens up with what could only be described as a jack o’ lantern going through an existential crisis. It’s Halloween night and the pumpkin literally cries tears of pumpkin seeds as he sings the opening number about his feelings of depression and loneliness as the one who never got picked. Elsewhere, though, Raggedy Ann and Andy are lamenting about how their neighbor Ralph is disallowed from trick or treating by his stubborn Aunt Agatha – she literally tells him that they’ll go to a museum tomorrow to “look at the rocks”, as some attempt at compromise!

Eventually, though, Ann and Andy (along with their equally Raggedy dog Arthur) head off to find a pumpkin to cheer Ralph up. For the most part, a lot of this special is told through very traditional style of hand-drawn animation that is surprisingly lovely in its 70s simplicity. Every frame seems to be bathed in this orange glow that fits remarkably with its fall time theme. Although some of the narrative elements aren’t exactly to my liking (such as the overemphasis on Arthur the skateboarding dog), I can appreciate how kids of its era would find enjoyment in them. There are more nuanced elements to its tale that are well worth its time, though. Eventually, the trio find their way to the pumpkin, but the pumpkin rejects their compliments and affection, presumably out of denial that he is worth anything at all, a familiar feeling for anyone with depression. But after realizing that he finally has a purpose this season, in a truly heartwarming moment his face lights up with optimism and bittersweet happiness.

The remainder of this middle third basically consists of a mad dash back home by way of Arthur’s skateboard. There’s a funny scene involving a confused policeman, but it’s clear that much of the animation here is just filler. But then we reach probably my favorite scene of the entire special, that wherein Ralph and his pumpkin finally meet. It’s incredibly heartwarming to see two forlorn characters finally find happiness in one another, especially with Ralph’s immediate love for the pumpkin, who now cries pumpkin seeds of joy. But it doesn’t stop there – now Ann and Andy take it upon themselves to remind Aunt Agatha how much she loved Halloween as a little girl. This plan works and the special ends with the three of them – Aunt Agatha, Ralph, and the pumpkin – all going trick or treating together. Although the portrayal of the aunt as mean and haggard is a tired and trying trope, I do appreciate that the resolution to this conflict isn’t quite as mean-spirited as these things tend to head.

In general, this is a pretty sweet and wholesome little Halloween adventure, perfect for kids of all ages. I should note also that this was directed by legendary animator Chuck Jones, who at this point had already built up a sizable filmography of works both humorous and touching. Although it’s clear that the funny stuff is watered down here, this is more than made up for the charming animation and many of the more tender, heartwarming moments. Additionally, legendary voice actor June Foray plays two roles in this special – the mean Aunt Agatha and Raggedy Ann herself – though for some reason she is credited as “Mrs. Hobart Donavan” for the former. Raggedy Andy is voiced by Hanna-Barbera voice actor Daws Butler (think Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Snagglepuss, etc.), and while this isn’t quite in the higher rungs of what I’m used to from him, his comedic timing at points is quite impeccable. There’s a lot to love here, even if its leisurely pace from its opening minutes might suggest otherwise – give it a shot!

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Halloween TV Party: The Worst Witch (1986) and The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t (1979)

I gotta be real – for the most part in this Halloween TV Party, I intended on covering primarily animated specials. These are the stuff I grew up watching and what I most dearly connect with the holiday all the way into adulthood. I do plan on mixing it up a bit by throwing in a couple of live-action TV specials here and there (as I’m doing right now), but I just want to make this fact a bit more concrete moving forward. Okay, now that we’ve got that settled, here’s what I watched recently!

The Worst Witch is a British made-for-TV film that is based off a successful series of children’s books by Jill Murphy. It aired first on HBO and then on the Disney Channel during the Halloween season, up until around 1996 – which explains how I never saw it as a kid, since I was too young to have discovered TV! As the title alludes, this film is about a young witch-in-training named Mildred (played by Fairuza Balk in only her second role since Return to Oz) who has been deemed the “worst witch” by both her peers and instructors, in a sort of proto-Harry Potter institution. The bulk of the narrative in the first half shows a number of instances wherein she struggles to keep up with other witches – mixing potions, casting spells, flying on her broomstick. To add insult to injury, even her assigned cat is a gray and white tabby instead of a black cat like the rest of her classmates, since her headmaster claims to have run out of black kittens.

Immediately, the cheapness of this film’s aesthetic is clear. While the costumes are just the right amount of garish to be more endearing than anything else, the set design is a tad more painful to look at. The flying scenes are accomplished by a tremendously gaudy green screen effect; in many of the shots, the clipping is so distractingly poor. Even more ridiculous is the decision to add voice-acting for the cats, with numerous scenes given this annoying, “meow, meow, meow” backing noise that doesn’t really work. Still, there is something pretty charming about the cheapness of this production. This is pretty much sealed sometime in the first act of the program where we see a troupe of witches cackling and plotting the downfall of the school, while singing a fun musical number dancing around a bubbling cauldron. It’s this kind of campy goodness that makes the Halloween season so great.

But let’s clear the air by mentioning what has got to be the very best thing about this special – Tim Curry as the Grand Wizard (don’t read too much into that title, please). His character is introduced as a special guest for the school’s annual Halloween fest. He isn’t in the movie for very long, but he does bring the second of the movie’s two musical numbers through what I could only describe as a 70s psychedelia music video. It’s an ungodly amount of green screen and just as cheap-looking as the previous instances of green screen – but even better. Really, this scene just has to be seen to be believed. I’m sure that if I had watched this movie at all as a youngster, I would have eaten up these visuals and the accompanying song as well!

As for the non-campy parts of this special… well, there aren’t too many. But it’s comforting to see that Fairuza Balk demonstrates an impressive amount of vulnerability and range at such a young age. It soon becomes clear that much of Mildred’s failures are actually a result of senseless bullying by fellow classmate Ethel, and the special becomes more of a tale of how Mildred can rise above this while also finding her place in the world. It’s quite a pleasant, wholesome adolescent tale, while having enough of the spooky Halloween aesthetic to keep things interesting. It’s one I’d surely recommend to any young witch who hasn’t yet uncovered this magical treat. Bonus points as well for Charlotte Rae playing two entirely different (twin) witches with unique looks and personalities – and playing them both super convincingly!

And now for the second special of the day, 1979’s The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t. I see this one often on lists of the greatest classic Halloween specials, though I never watched this one myself until last year. Like The Worst Witch, this aired seasonly on the Disney Channel until 1996; on the year of its first airing, it even won an Emmy! It concerns the infamous Count Dracula being jarred by rumors of Halloween potentially coming to an end, after which he bands together a group of the world’s most famous monsters and spooky figures to settle the matter. It soon becomes clear that the Witch had initially sparked the rumor, sick of how demeaned she feels each year, and writes up a list of demands Dracula must follow in order for her to comply and Halloween to continue to exist.

I gotta be honest: although I know this special is beloved by many, it’s really hard for me to get into. First of all, these costumes and sets are hilariously cheap – yes, even cheaper than The Worst Witch! Although seeing that this is a comedy and there are few things funnier than grown adults acting completely earnestly in garish Halloween costumes… I guess it succeeds there. Secondly, though, the humor of this special relies primarily on flimsy one-liners and slapstick gags – including the ol’ Scooby-Doo doors effect. I think there’s something to be made of the fact that these monsters feel that the new generation no longer fears them and the ridiculous humor sort of plays upon this… but I just don’t find much of it very funny. And I’m sure that this itself is the way time has aged such humor, but on its own it tends to move at a snail’s pace.

Overall, not a whole lot happens in this special. Just a bunch of shenanigans, with a final, heartwarming resolution that conveniently ties everything up. I will admit that I enjoyed this special more with this second viewing than I did with the first last year, so maybe that means I’ll come around to it with subsequent viewings? Bah, who knows. Oh, by the way, this particular Halloween special ends with a totally random disco party over the end credits, which is the most 1979 thing about it! That alone makes it well worth your time, I think.

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