Thursday, October 30, 2014

Nothing Ever Happens on Halloween: A "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" Marathon (Guest post!)

Holiday Film Reviews presents a special Halloween guest post courtesy of Victoria Willis, co-editor of the recently published book Geek Rock: An Exploration of Music and Subculture.  She also happens to be an old friend of RigbyMel's (they've known each other since elementary school) and a talented photographer and essayist.    We hope you enjoy this essay about the Halloween episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  - RigbyMel & J.A. Morris


I’ve discovered that it’s impossible for me to write about Buffy the Vampire Slayer without making some sort of argument. This is probably largely due to my involvement in the Whedon Studies Association, a fantastic organization devoted to scholarship about all things Whedon-y. So if you enjoy (and/or disagree) with anything that you read here, check them out. And if you’re planning to marathon the Buffy Halloween episodes, then know that you are automatically awesome, and have chosen your Halloween activities wisely. The Halloween episodes are excellent. They are also easily marathon-able, with three Halloween episodes in Buffy (discussed in more detail below) and one Halloween episode in Angel (which I’m not discussing below, because even though it’s in the Buffyverse, it’s in Angel, not Buffy. But in case you’re wondering which episode it is, it’s “Life of the Party,” Season 5, episode 5.). Viewed together, these episodes create an interesting statement about identity, masks, and the mundane. After all, nothing is supposed to happen on Halloween in the Buffyverse. 

Each Halloween episode of Buffy is, appropriately enough, about masks. Keeping up appearances.Saving face.Whistling in the dark. While it’s hard to say conclusively how the tradition of Halloween evolved, it is fairly clear that masks, candy, and carved pumpkins are central to the holiday. Whether the masks and disguises were to ward off the dead, protect against the dead, celebrate the dead, remember the dead, or ridicule the dead and/or death, the tradition of dressing up has continued, only now with costume contests and prizes. As Buffy tells Willow in “Halloween” (Season 2, Episode 6), wearing a costume is a chance to “come as you aren’t.” Buffy also points out that, for women in particular, Halloween is the opportunity for a woman to dress as sexy as she pleases without repercussion (an observation that is particularly interesting (and ahead of it’s time) in light of current discussions about slut-shaming). Willow dresses sexy, but loses her nerve and covers her sexy outfit with a ghost costume.

In this episode, we first meet Ethan Rayne, worshipper of Chaos and Giles’s former demon-raising chum. Ethan opens a costume shop in Sunnydale and sells enchanted costumes (he likes to sell enchanted things, evidently. See: “Band Candy”). Buffy, who has been lamenting that she is not an ordinary girl/ fancy noblewoman that Angel would have liked, buys a ballgown from Ethan’s shop and gets her wish. Willow’s ghost costume, also from Ethan’s shop, kills her and she becomes an actual ghost (wearing her sexy outfit that was underneath her ghost costume). Xander becomes an army guy because he bought a toy gun from the shop. 

In “Halloween,” the enchanted costumes allow the wearer to become who they are. Cordelia, whose cat costume was purchased elsewhere, is already a catty character, mocking the uncool and priding herself on her dating skills. Cordelia is what she is, a point that continues to be made throughout the series. But the others are still negotiating their teenage identities, trying on activities and interests, much like one tries on costumes, in order to become what, and who, they are. When Willow dies and becomes her ghost costume, Giles looks at her sexy outfit and asks, stuttering a bit, “The ghost of what, exactly?” Even as Willow becomes what she is, who she is remains in question. But for identity negotiation, neither costumes nor teenagedom is required. Giles’ identity also comes into question when he confronts Ethan Rayne to break the spell, and the viewer learns that the tweedy librarian is not only connected to a sketchy, Chaos loving sorcerer, but is also quite the badass.

In the second Halloween episode, “Fear Itself” (Season 4, episode 4), Buffy and the Scoobies head to a frat party where the fear demon Gachnar has been brought forth. The fears of everyone in the house, including Buffy and the Scoobies, are made manifest. Buffy is alone. Xander is invisible to his friends. Willow can’t control her magic. Oz wolfs out. The only ones who are “immune” are Anya and Giles. Arriving late to the party, Anya discovers that the door to the frat house is missing. She is dressed as her greatest fear, a bunny, but her fear of losing Xander propels her to Giles. In another unexpected moment of badassery, Giles chainsaws his way into the frat house. They both run upstairs, find Buffy, Xander, Willow, and Oz, and Giles begins to explain how to defeat Gachnar. Buffy destroys the Mark of Gachnar, mistakenly bringing forth the fear demon, who, as it turns out, is tiny and squashable. 

“Fear, Itself” follows the same pattern of identity negotiation as “Halloween.” Anya and Giles are never affected by the haunted frat house. Somewhat like Cordelia, Anya’s identity negotiation is different from the other Scoobies. After all, she is a thousand year old ex-vengeance demon. She is trying not only to discover who she is as a teen, but also who she is as a human. The other Scoobies are trying to deal with their fears, and with how they compensate and react to their fears. Their fears are teenage fears, superpowers notwithstanding: the fear of being unimportant and lesser than one’s friends, the fear of being alone, the fear of losing control. And these fears don’t really ever go away as we grow up. Giles, the adult, is still negotiating his identity. He keeps his chainsaw hidden, but reveals it when necessary. He’s learning how to be an ex-librarian just as much as Anya is learning how to be an ex-demon. His fears, and Anya’s fears, are much like the fears of the Scoobies--being unimportant, unwanted, out of control, and alone. Fear is human. And we  learn to cope with our fears, much like Buffy and the Scoobies do: by wearing costumes, keeping our chainsaws in our gym bags, seeing our fears for what they are, and squashing them as best we can.

Giles creates a door into the frat house
We wear costumes every day. We put on work clothes, we put on brave faces, we put our best foot forward. Identity is not just about who we are, but about how we are. “All the Way” (Season 6, Episode 6) is the final Halloween episode in Buffy. The episode opens with a Halloween sale at the Magic Box. Xander and Anya are in costume, spirits are high, and Xander finally announces to the rest of the Scoobies that he and Anya are engaged. Willow uses magic to decorate Buffy’s house for an engagement party, which upsets Tara, who says Willow’s magic usage is getting out of control (and which is, incidentally, Willow’s manifested fear in “Fear, Itself”). Dawn goes out with Janice under the guise of spending the night at Janice’s house. Together, Dawn and Janice meet up with Zack and Justin, two boys from school. Dawn, trying to impress the boys, smashes an old man’s pumpkin. Her pumpkin smashing is fairly outside of the Dawn norm, and her action is her attempt to be someone the boys, particularly Justin, will like and find cool. Her identity negotiation has become more teen than paranormal (see “Blood Ties” for the Key to paranormal identity negotiation). The boys that she tries to impress, however, turn out to be vampires. The teen vamps, like all vamps, wear masks of humanity, and Dawn has to see through the mask and stake her first kiss. This is how coming of age works in Buffy. Appearances are stripped away. Because masks, costumes, appearances--these things are important for how negotiate ourselves and the world around us.  

Dawn dusts her first kiss
And, much like Halloween in the Buffyverse,  these negotiations are important and also, at the same time, nothing terribly special. Nothing ever happens on Halloween that doesn’t happen on any other day. We put on our work costumes. We ask for rewards. We negotiate who we are, in small ways and large ways. We squash our fears and get on with our lives as best we can. In the Halloween episodes of Buffy (and, arguably, the series as a whole), the real magic is in the allegory of becoming who we are. In the case of the Halloween episodes, it’s spookier magic, with added treats. 

Garfield's Halloween Adventure (aka Garfield In Disguise)

Premiered October 30, 1985

"Halloween is my kind of a holiday. Not like those other stupid holidays. I don't get pine needles in my paws. There's no dumb bunnies, no fireworks, no relatives, just candy. Boom, you go out, you get candy. It's as simple as that."

Garfield (Lorenzo Music) wakes up and is excited to learn that it's Halloween.  He informs Odie (Gregg Berger) that this is the night when dogs help cats get candy.  If Odie helps, he'll get one piece of candy.  They go hunting in the attic for costumes.

After trying on many outfits, they settle on pirate costumes.

Orange Beard the Pirate and Odie the Stupid 
Their owner, Jon Arbuckle (Thom Huge) sends them off to trick or treat.

They have a productive evening of trick or treating, and score bags full of candy.  (Plus a couple of unusual trick or treaters.)

Garfield then notices lots of houses on the other side of the river and wants to go across to pillage more candy.  He and Odie find a boat and commandeer it "in the name of Orange Beard, the pirate!"

However, Garfield's plan doesn't work out as intended.  Odie quickly loses the oars and they drift downstream for a while, unable to steer.  They are dejected and Garfield says he's done being a pirate. Just when all seems lost, Odie spots a dilapidated, old house on an island.  Garfield thinks maybe  they should go inside.

What the house contains will make this a Halloween they will never forget!

RigbyMel says:

I remember watching this special when it first aired.  I was a big fan of Garfield back in his 1980s heyday and watched many (but not all) of the assorted tv specials and series featuring the character.   This one really sticks in my memory because the whole pirate ghost plot scared the bejeezus out of me when I was a wee, sensitive little girl.

That being said, Halloween is supposed to be spooky and this special delivers horror and hilarity with just the right amount of gusto for kids (and the young at heart).

The scenes of Garfield and Odie trying on Halloween costumes found in a trunk in Jon's attic are quite amusing as is Garfield's mantra of "Candycandycandycandycandy!" and also stuck in my memory.  Recent re-watchings made me realize how many inoffensive, but forgettable songs were included in this special,   (The best ones are the cod pirate song Garfield sings on several occasions and the presence of Lou Rawls's singing voice.)

 We also get plenty of fun interaction between Garfield, Jon and Odie, as one would expect. There is also a nice little moment where Garfield doesn't let his greed get the better of him and decides Odie deserves his ACTUAL fair share of the candy after all they've been through together on this particular Halloween. This is not an unexpected plot point, but it is well deployed.

It's also interesting to note that Garfield's Halloween Adventure was the first Garfield animated special to feature a completely original story, as opposed to one that was adapted from the comic strips.

Garfield's Halloween Adventure is definitely worth seeking out during the Spooky Season!

RigbyMel's rating:

3 and a half jack o'lanterns

"My boat's gone, my candy's gone, the dead pirates are coming any minute, it's past my bedtime, and I wanna go home!"

J.A. Morris says:

While I was also a huge fan of the lasagna-obsessed feline back in the 80s, I didn't watch this special until recently.  But it's become a Halloween tradition in our house.  It has just enough spookiness to keep viewers (especially younger ones) on their toes.  The last act is especially chilling compared to other holiday specials of its era.

While the songs aren't classics, two of them are sung by Lou Rawls.  The opening theme is a fun up-tempo number.  Rawls also delivers another song called 'Scaredy Cat', sung from the perspective of Garfield.

Garfield & Odie get a scare from a creepy old man.
The voice actors here are the same ones who later worked on the series Garfield And Friends.  For me, Garfield will always "speak" with the voice of Lorenzo Music, and Music is great as always.  C. Lindsay Workman is also memorable as the voice of the old man who lives in the (possibly) haunted house.     

A note about the title:It originally aired as Garfield In Disguise, I'm not exactly sure when or why the name was changed.  The special currently streams on Hulu and Amazon.  It's being reissued on a dvd titled Garfield Holiday Collection on November 4. 

I didn't see this as a kid, so I'm giving it slightly lower rating than RigbyMel, since it doesn't hold any nostalgic value for me. But Garfield's Halloween Adventure is an entertaining special and a reminder of why Jim Davis' characters were so beloved in their time. 
J.A. Morris' rating:

3 jack o'lanterns

Monday, October 27, 2014

Witch's Night Out now available on DVD!

A couple of years ago when we reviewed Witch's Night Out,  we lamented the fact that it was not available on disc or streaming.  This special is one of our favorites and features the voice talents of Gilda Radner (as the Witch herself) and Catherine O'Hara, among others.

Well, we finally got a Halloween wish and this forgotten classic from the mists of 1978 is now available for purchase on DVD.   (It is also showing up several times on the THIS tv network -  so check your local listings!)

Thank you, fairy godmother! 

Naturally,  we pre-ordered our copy of the DVD as soon as we possibly could.    It is very nice to finally be able to watch  Witch's Night Out in crisp,  good quality DVD video.  Due to the age of the source material, there are a few artifacts that pop up, but the overall video quality is great.  Especially
when compared to the grainy, taped off tv copies that have been floating around the internet for some years.

For comparison purposes, here are a few screenshots from our previous review:

And hear are the same screenshots from the new release:

The DVD release also includes some unrestored, older, public-domain cartoons like an early "Casper the Friendly Ghost" short (WARNING: we thought the "Casper" short was sad, have some tissues on hand for that one) as well as assorted shorts featuring Felix The Cat, Popeye, the New 3 Stooges and Hoppity Hooper.

In addition to picking up the DVD, which was released by Mill Creek Entertainment about a month ago, Witch's Night Out fans should check out the special's official webpage.   You should also pay a visit to the Cross/Rogers blog to thank the folks who helped bring this Halloween classic to DVD.

We'd also recommend sharing Witch's Night Out with anyone you think might enjoy a little Halloween magical mischief and mayhem during this spooky season!

-- RigbyMel & J.A. Morris

Monday, October 20, 2014

Ultimate Spider-Man: "Blade & The Howling Commandos"

Premiered October 5, 2013.

"You ruined my Halloween, so smell my feet!"
-Spider-Man to Dracula

It's Halloween Night,Spider-Man (Drake Bell) and his fellow teenage superheroes are meeting a S.H.I.E.L.D. contact. They're clowning around in a cemetery, telling "scary" stories, jumping out of the shadows and startling each other.  
Nova(Logan Miller) scares Spidey & Iron Fist (Greg Cipes) with a "Doctor Doom" mask.
Their fun is broken up when the team is attacked by vampires!  The vamps have the upper hand, but the battle is joined by a sword-wielding man who calls himself Blade (Terry Crews), who helps the heroes.  
Blade slashes at some vampires.
Blade is the world's greatest vampire hunter.  Spider-Man objects to Blade "killing" the vampires, but Blade tells him they were "shadow vampires, undead drones, never alive".  

Blade & Nick Fury have a heated discussion.
They reconvene on the Helicarrier,where S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury (Chi McBride) and Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) fill them them in on their mission.  The heroes learn that Dracula (Corey Burton) is trying to take over the world.  The king of vampires is seeking an ancient Egyptian artifact called Tekament's Ankh.   Blade has the other half.  

If Dracula captures both halves, he will be invulnerable, able to walk in the sunlight, immune to any of the usual vampire weaknesses.  The other half is kept at the American Museum of Natural History.  Fury tells the teen heroes that Blade will go to the museum alone, his mission is out of their depth.  But they tail Blade until he reluctantly allows them to tag along.  

Dracula decks Blade!
The heroes gather at the museum to protect the other half of the ankh.  Dracula and his minions appear and attack.  He hypnotizes everyone but Blade and Spider-Man, the heroes teleports them away and takes them prisoner.

Spidey hits Drac with some artificial sunlight, just as effective as the real thing.
Blade and Spidey return to the Helicarrier where Fury tells them it's time to bring in the big guns:The Howling Commandos!  They consist of Werewolf By Night (Ross Lynch), Frankenstein's Monster (Kevin Michael Richardson), N'Kantu, the Living Mummy (Oded Fehr)...

...and last-but-not-least, the macabre Man-Thing!  The monsters will join Spider-Man and Blade in their battle against Dracula.

But they take a minor detour.  Dracula learns that Spidey has an aunt in Queens, NY and sends his drones to capture her.  Blade, Spider-Man and the commandos save Aunt May, defeating the drones.  

During the fight, the wallcrawler learns that Blade had been a member of the Howling Commandos, but they had a falling out. 

Spider-Man and the commandos then prepare to attack Dracula's castle in Transylvania.  Can they free the other heroes and defeat Dracula?  Even if they're able to stop the vampire, another enemy is waiting in the (bat?) wings!

J.A. Morris says:

It should be noted that "Blade & The Howling Commandos" premiered as an hour-long special on the Disney Channel.  Since then, on tv and home video, it's been broken up into two episodes, one titled "Blade", the other called "The Howling Commandos."

If you've read either of my comic book blogs, then you know I'm a huge fan of Marvel characters, especially Spider-Man.  But the Ultimate Spider-Man series has been somewhat disappointing.  This iteration of Spidey isn't very likable and it has too many cut-away gags, reminiscent of shows like Family Guy.  

Having said that, this is the strongest episode of the series.  The presence of the monsters gives it a fun "Universal Horror" atmosphere.  I appreciated the scene where Spider-Man made a point of telling Blade that he doesn't kill, which is consistent with the character's history.  The webhead's interaction with Aunt May, where he unmasks, was funny.  Dracula's plan to conquer the world is good megalomaniacal villainy, and Tekament's Ankh is a good MacGuffin.

One of the coolest things about Marvel comics and animation is that the stories take place in "real" cities (instead of Gotham City or Metropolis).  So it was nice to see a battle take place New York's American Museum of Natural History.

The voice actors are all well cast.  Blade is portrayed by guest star Terry Crews, best known for his rolls on Brooklyn 99 and Everybody Hates Chris

If I have a problem with it (besides the usual cut-aways), it's Dracula's appearance.  I realize that Dracula has been depicted in various ways since he was created.  But the long, white hair and red armor just doesn't "look like Dracula" to me.  But he acts like him and makes a good villain, especially in a Halloween episode.  

"Blade & The Howling Commandos" may never become a classic, but it's full of action and Halloween-themed fun.  Recommended to audiences of all ages, especially fans of Marvel Superheroes.

J.A. Morris' rating:

3 Jack o'lanterns.

RigbyMel says: 

This is an amusing Halloween-themed offering from an otherwise mediocre series.   
The monster spin on the Howling Commandos was inspired, as was their mode of transport -- a "Monster truck."  *rimshot* 

As J.A. Morris mentions above, there are some great moments in this installment of the series, my particular favorite involves the fact that Agent Coulson has a super-secret all access pass to the Natural History Museum (of COURSE!!!)  and that he even gets a moment to do some Indiana Jones-ish Halloween cosplay.   It's also great that Clark Gregg -- who plays Coulson on Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  tv show and various other Marvel movies -- voices the same character on this series, which does give it a little boost in terms of cachet.  (Clark Gregg seems to make most things he's involved in better by being in them!) 

"Indiana" Coulson gives our heroes some ankh exposition
Unlike J.A. Morris,  I don't really have a problem with Dracula's appearance in this episode,  sure he doesn't look like Bela Lugosi,  but his gear certainly has a sort of updated Eastern European warlord feel to it, which works ok even if it isn't "traditional."     

The main problem I have with the episode is an issue I have with the whole Ultimate Spider-Man series, most specifically the characterization of Spider-Man/Peter Parker.   Spidey comes off as a lazy, jerk. 

Spidey's smart alecky sense of humor was always something I enjoyed about the character, but he has to be SMART for it to work.  Unfortunately, Ultimate Spidey comes off as more willfully ignorant than smart.   Peter Parker may be a teenager and make mistakes, but he'd NEVER skip out on studying up on things scientific or otherwise.  Moreover, he would probably know that Transylvania was a real place before being told!  Spidey is supposed to be the hero, but I find it difficult to enjoy him in this iteration. 

Aunt May is unimpressed with Petey's "lame" Spider-suit costume
So this episode gets kudos for Halloween fun and the inclusion of Clark Gregg, but major deductions for bad hero characterization (and annoying jump cutting).  

RigbyMel's rating:  

2 and a half Jack o'lanterns