On Friday night – and special occasions! – IndieWire After Dark honors fringe cinema in the streaming age with a feature-length film.
First, the spoiler-free pitch for an editor’s midnight movie – something weird and wonderful from every era of film that deserves our memory.
Then the spoiler-filled aftermath, as experienced by the unwitting editor attacked by this week’s recommendation.
The Pitch: It’s a wonderful night for eyebrows!
Don’t tell Seventh-day Adventists, but Halloween and Christmas are inextricably linked.
Film lovers can thank Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas for the most popular narrative tie-in to the holidays – but slasher Santas and Christmas ghosts were around long before Jack Skellington appeared in Christmas Town. The connection makes sense. The Western world’s two greatest holidays are opposites yet complementary: theatrical celebrations of excess and social fantasies that capture our imaginations, satisfy our appetites, and give pseudo-intellectuals the perfect excuse to misunderstand pagan traditions. Besides, you know, Red.
The spooky hybrid genre has been so thoroughly explored in television, film, and literature that it’s almost unsurprising to learn that Dr. Seuss once brought Halloween to Whoville. No, it is not the annual October 31st holiday as we know it. Grinch Night, as the green giant likes to call it, is a spooky semi-annual event that’s more like a natural disaster than a holiday. When the right extreme weather events accompany certain animal behaviors, the Sour-Sweet Wind calls the Grinch (voiced here by Hans Conried) down from Mount Crumpit. Soon he’s wreaking havoc on the Who without a disguise.
The villagers seek shelter as the Grinch begins his descent into town. He rides a so-called “utensil cart” pulled by his hapless dog Max (Henry Gibson; yes, Max gets one). song!). Sergeant Samuel McPherson (Jack DeLeon), a sort of meteorologist for the spirit of the mean Greens, tracks and broadcasts news of the Grinch’s movements in a winding rhyme landscape that somehow makes the looming threat of terrorism cute. So Whoville learns of the harrowing ordeal of Euchariah (Gary Shapiro): a little boy who gets lost on the way to “Euphemism” – aka his family’s outhouse – and suddenly finds himself on the path of the Grinch.
Director Gerard Baldwin’s 1977 TV special Halloween Is Grinch Night appears to be both a sequel and a prequel. It foreshadows the events of How the Grinch Stole Christmas while making some narrative twists that make no sense in the context of that film. It’s imperfect because it has as many misfire musical numbers as it has good bops. (“The Grinch Night Ball” is barely a song, but “Grinch Is Gonna Get You” is absolutely a slap in the face.) And while it features some wonderfully strange animation, its story could be better.
Still hilarious dialogue (“It’s a wonderful night for eyebrows…“) and some surprisingly effective world-building make “Grinch Night” a memorable holiday TV special. It’s rare to find a high quality copy of the film; Grab any VHS tape of this you come across. But even a grainy recording will give you fascinating new insight into one of Christmas’ most infamous villains. It’s a delicious, bite-sized palate cleanser for whatever horror movie you watch tonight, and the perfect appetizer for the happier holiday season that’s just around the corner. Happy Halloween! —AF
The consequences: First they came for the Amish Whos, and I said nothing
Prequels are often intended to fill gaps in their predecessor’s story, but sometimes they raise more questions than they answer. Case in point is “Halloween Is Grinch Night” and the inexplicable revelation that every Who in Whoville was apparently once Amish.
I understand that this was written by Dr. Seuss-written Halloween special was conceived as a harmless piece of children’s entertainment, and I won’t deny that it manages to extend the Grinch brand into Halloween with some charming animation. But when I watched it as a grown man who had only recently learned of its existence, I couldn’t get away from the fact that it revolves around a cast of characters with blatantly Amish names like Josiah and Euchariah Who – of many of whom had huge beards in keeping with their apparent beliefs.
I have nothing to do with the Amish now, and honestly I think it’s wonderful that Whoville has given such a marginalized religion room to flourish. But I still found the news disturbing – because there is absolutely no trace of the Amish in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. At this point, all the Whos seem to lead largely secular existences. They love Christmas very much, but it’s obviously just an excuse to eat who hash and roast beast. And their names are all modern, the only criterion being that their first name must rhyme with their common last name (e.g. Cindy-Lou Who). The abrupt change forced me to ponder an uncomfortable question: What happened between the two specials that wiped out Whoville’s thriving Amish community?
It is quite possible that the Hegelian wheel of progress kept turning and the faith died a natural death as young people were exposed to new technologies. But since we don’t know how much time passes between the two specials – it could just be the month of November! – we have to think about even worse possibilities. Did some cult leader roll through town and trigger a mass conversion to neo-paganism? Was there a tragic accident while raising the barn? Or a Who-ified version of the Crusades that led to the downfall of the Amish? Dr. Seuss and Gerard Baldwin mercifully shielded America’s children from this knowledge, but if you ask me, it’s a bit of a dampener on the entire Grinch brand.
Regardless, I’m thrilled that I’m still learning about Dr. Seuss after spending so much of my childhood with him. At 22 minutes long, there is no excuse for any Geisel completist to miss this piece. It goes a long way toward answering the timeless question: “What was the Grinch like during?” other 11 months a year?” – It’s all the more rewarding when his heart finally grows three sizes larger. —CZ
Those brave enough to join in the fun can stream “Halloween is Grinch Night” on YouTube via the Museum of Classic Chicago Television. IndieWire After Dark posts midnight movie recommendations every Friday at 11:59 p.m. ET; Special editions are released at the same time on public holidays. Happy Halloween! Read more about our crazy suggestions…