The holiday TV special holds a special place in the hearts of kids of all ages. Every occasion seems to merit a number of animated or live-action celebrations, including special episodes of ongoing series. Halloween can lay claim to an almost endless parade of cartoon and live-action interpretations, some of which have gotten lost in the folds of time. It would be a monumental task to exhume all the fan favorites that have drawn small audiences over the years, so we focus on five overlooked Halloween specials in particular — including one that was written by one of the greatest fantasy writers of all time.
Halloween Is Grinch Night (1977)
Eleven years after the huge success of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Grinch returned in this trippy Halloween installment. While there are differences of opinion among critics as to whether this is a sequel or a prequel, what is certain is that it’s a creepy, offbeat little fable. The animation and overall vibe are different from the Christmas story we know — it was directed by Gerald Baldwin rather than Chuck Jones. It also features more songs and a generally surrealistic tone. It might not be everybody’s slice of roast beast, but it’s certainly an interesting one to check out.
Halloween Is Grinch Night
A Scooby-Doo Halloween (2003)
Presented as the sixth episode of season two of What’s New, Scooby-Doo?, this special finds the gang heading to the small town of Banning Junction to spend Halloween with Velma’s family and see KISS. Yes, you read that correctly. The famous rock band lends their voices and music to the proceedings as the gang tries to solve the mystery of some larcenous and destructive robot scarecrows. Viewers get treated to an animated performance of “Shout It Out Loud,” as well as one classic KISS dialogue exchange: When the robot scarecrows storm their show and guitarist Tommy Thayer wants to know the plan, Paul Stanley says, “What we always do! Keep playing until the cops come!”
KISS plays “Shout It Out Loud” in A Scooby-Doo Halloween.
The Midnight Hour (1985)
Jack Bender’s career in television remains something even experienced directors would envy. He’s directed many episodes of classic TV, such as The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Alias, Felicity, Beverly Hills 90210, and 36 episodes of Lost, including the series finale. Among all of that inarguable greatness rests a dusty gem that has a hardcore horror cult following. The Midnight Hour is a made-for-TV comedic horror film with a heavy emphasis on the music of the 1960s; it additionally features one song from The Smiths and an original number, “Get Dead.” One of the most interesting things about it is its unique tone, combining music, witchcraft, zombies, vampires, friendly 1950s ghost cheerleaders, and teen comedy. While it might not be to everyone’s taste, it’s definitely an early signpost that Bender was capable of making fantasy elements work on screen.
The Midnight Hour
A Wonderful World of Disney Trio (1997, 1982, 1983)
Disney films and specials have been running as an anthology brand on television since 1954. Beginning with Walt Disney’s Disneyland in that year and moving through a series of name changes that generally include World in the title, the programming umbrella has often included holiday programming and compilations. Disney put three different specials into rotation in the late ’70s and early ’80s as distinct episodes, one of which was later made available on home video:
- Halloween Hall o’ Fame aired in 1977, featured Jonathan Winters as host, and included four classic cartoons: “Trick or Treat,” “Lonesome Ghosts,” “Pluto’s Judgement Day,” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
- Disney’s Halloween Treat aired in 1982 and combined some of the pieces from Hall o’ Fame with additional animated segments and a pumpkin puppet host; it ran numerous times and received a VHS release.
- In 1983, A Disney Halloween pushed the length to 90 minutes and combined a number of features into one special. The Magic Mirror hosts a tour through 23 animated segments, including previously used Halloween-themed bits and excerpts of villain scenes from various Disney films. It ran on both ABC and various Disney channels into the late ’90s.
While no exact reproductions of these specials are available on DVD today, and only portions are available on YouTube, the pending introduction of the Disney Streaming Service certainly opens up the possibility that they’ll be seen in their entirety again.
A compilation of Disney Halloween specials on YouTube.
The Halloween Tree (1993)
A giant of fantasy and science fiction, Ray Bradbury wrote 27 novels and more than 600 short stories. He was fascinated with Halloween and childhood, returning to those subjects in his writing in novels like Something Wicked This Way Comes and collections like The October Country. Beginning in 1950, he published 14 short stories and two poems in The Saturday Evening Post, and later served on its fiction board.
Based on Bradbury’s classic 1972 novel with a screenplay written by the fantasy master himself, The Halloween Tree first aired in 1993 and captured an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in an Animated Program. The story follows a group of children as they time-travel through the traditions that led up to Halloween in an effort to rescue their friend. Bradbury himself narrates, and the voice of antagonist Mr. Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud is provided by none other than Leonard Nimoy. The film enjoys some perennial popularity through nearly annual showings on Cartoon Network but still manages to fly under the mainstream radar. Interestingly, it received six separate VHS releases between 1994 (including two that came with the book) and 2000. It’s been released twice on DVD, mostly recently in 2016.
The Halloween Tree
As a special Saturday Evening Post bonus, you can read “The Happiness Machine” from Ray Bradbury’s collection Dandelion Wine.
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