31 Days to Scare ~ Pacific Heights (1990)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A couple work hard to renovate their dream house and become landlords to pay for it. Unfortunately, one of their tenants has plans of his own.

Stars: Melanie Griffith, Matthew Modine, Michael Keaton, Mako, Laurie Metcalf, Carl Lumbly

Director: John Schlesinger

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: In these days there’s nothing quite as terrifying as…real estate. It’s a seller’s market and even though just a few years ago the market was good, unless you’re willing to pay a lot more for a lot less, you’re best to stay in your rental unit until the prices dip once more. That was also the case in 1990 when the compact little thriller Pacific Heights arrived in theaters boasting an Oscar winning director and three A-List stars. Even if the film didn’t have much of an impact at the time (made for 18 million it only made 29 in the states), it’s a taut entertainment worth another look.

Taking a chance and putting their life savings into a multi-unit house in a desirable California location, Patty and Drake fix up the place and start to rent it out. One unit goes to a quiet Asian couple and the last unit is eventually rented to Carter Hayes, a smooth talking single guy that assures them he’ll pay the rent on time and won’t be a bother to anyone else with his comings and goings. At first, everything is fine but when the rent is missed and strange construction noises from within his unit begin to stretch on into the night Patty and Drake get worried. You see, Carter isn’t who he claimed to be and the young couple has just acquired a renter from hell that will put them through the wringer.

Melanie Griffith (Working Girl) and Matthew Modine (47 Meters Down) convincingly play two individuals with a strong bond that find themselves fraying with the increased pressure brought on by Carter (Michael Keaton, Spotlight). These are just ordinary folks looking for an investment opportunity, no match for Carter who has done this before and who eventually takes a sinister turn on his landlord. There are plenty of legal frustrations as the couple tries to evict him as well as physical altercations that give way to a final third that turns a bit into a horror film.

Director John Schleisnger (Midnight Cowboy) keeps things at a good clip. At 102 minutes there’s not a lot of padding and while some of the decisions Patty and Drake make might have you pulling out your hair, you certainly feel for the no-win situation they find themselves in. In addition to the nice performances of Modine and Griffith, the latter who truly moves into the lead performance for the final act, there’s a nicely dark turn for Keaton who revels in the chance to play a different kind of sociopath. It’s a strong trifecta of actors that helps to elevate this from your TV movie of the week hellscape.

31 Days to Scare ~ Huluween 2018

The Facts:

Synopsis: Eight up-and-coming filmmakers have the opportunity to showcase their horror-themed short films on Hulu throughout the month. The filmmaker with the highest levels of viewer engagement and the highest scores from a panel of expert judges will win $10,000 towards production of their feature length film.

Review: Here’s something a little different, the streaming service Hulu.com has launched Huluween, a short film competition that asked eight filmmakers to create spooky films for easy consumption (and a $10,000 prize). The films are all about 5 minutes and run the gamut from sinister and clever (Lippy) to benign and cliché (Urn). Thankfully, most are nice little treats with a few tricks along the way. If you have a half hour to spare and want to view all of the Huluween short films, visit http://www.youtube.com/hulu or navigate to Hulu.com.

CARVED
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0BvhGhkuvI
Synopsis
: A boy’s choice of an ugly pumpkin results in an unusual Jack-O-Lantern.
Directed & Written by: Justin Harding

THE GILLYMUCK
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-y3FxktsdA
Synopsis
: The cute cuddly Gillymuck has pretty teeth dear, but it keeps them out of sight.
Directed & Written by: Dan Samiljan

HAUNTED, HORRIFYING SOUNDS FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YN8ZwviC-A4
Synopsis
: A musician’s money grab Halloween composition unleashes the haunting sound of his own mother’s death.
Directed by: Rodney Ascher
Written by: Basil Quartermass

LIPPY
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Qz2Ay1K5Ig
Synopsis: Two teenage friends caught shoplifting must face the wrath of an unforgiving security guard.
Directed & Written by: Lucy Campbell

THE BOX
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YlSK5hxchr0
Synopsis
: A little boy unknowingly releases something perilous from within an ancient box.
Directed by:
Santiago C. Tapia
Written by:
Jessica Curtright & Santiago Tapia

THE HUG
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIgxob1_v-k
Synopsis
: An animatronic panda at a rundown pizza place seems to be out of order… until little Aden gives it a hug.
Directed ,Written & Produced by: Jack Bishop and Justin Nijm

THE RIZZLE
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfALLlKcces
Synopsis
: A mysterious video on the internet provokes viewers to perform an old, ritualistic dance.
Directed by: Josh Tanner
Written by: Josh Tanner & Jade Van Der Lei

URN
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NH_xiF4TBxY
Synopsis
: A woman scatters her mother’s ashes into a lake, but finds it’s not so easy to throw away her past.
Directed & Written by: Ben Steiner

 

31 Days to Scare ~ Brain Dead (1990)

The Facts:

Synopsis: In a showdown of man versus machine, Martin plunges into a chaotic nightmare trying to save his mind from the megalomaniacal corporation.

Stars: Bill Pullman, Bill Paxton, Bud Cort, Patricia Charbonneau, George Kennedy, Nicholas Pryor

Director: Adam Simon

Rated: R

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Spoiler alert right from the start: the poster for Brain Dead is very deceiving. The face on the cover doesn’t belong to any of our lead cast members nor does it factor in at all to what happens during the 85 minutes of this low-budget horror film from prolific producer Roger Corman. It’s an effective hook ,though, and I’m guessing it helped earn a rental from most people who never even bothered to look at the back for a plot synopsis. That was Corman’s specialty, creating a box art that that catches the eye and sets some intrigue in the eye of the consumer.

The good news about Brain Dead is that, slightly false advertising aside, it’s a dandy of a horror/thriller hybrid that has several soon to be heavy hitters doing some good work early in their careers. I’m not sure if any of them would necessarily voluntarily list the movie on their resume but their presence alone makes the film an interesting watch. Add to that a script from Charles Beaumont who wrote multiple episodes of The Twilight Zone and you have a movie that rises above its meager production to be a somewhat low-wattage cult favorite.

Dr. Rex Martin (Bill Pullman, American Ultra) is a scientist focusing on brain studies. Experimenting with new techniques, he’s contacted by an old friend (Bill Paxton, Edge of Tomorrow) on behalf of the organization he works for. Seems that one of their employees (Bud Cort) has suffered a mental break and is in a delusional state. He is the only one that knows a certain series of numbers imperative in advancing their business but in his current state he can’t remember or is unwilling to provide a response. Paxton’s character wants Pullman to help extract the data using his untested methods…at least that’s what Pullman thinks is going on.  After a rather standard first half hour the film takes the first of several turns that changes the way Pullman (and we the audience) looks at the situation. The lines of reality blur and we aren’t sure if Pullman is the doctor, the patient, or something in between.

Director Adam Simon keeps things strange enough to keep the 85 minutes rocketing along and there’s enough gore to punctuate the action when it gets staid.  I’d advise keeping yourself distraction free while watching Brain Dead because the plot twists and turns on a dime – you won’t want to miss where the film is heading. While it’s no gigantic achievement, considering the cast alone it’s definitely a hidden gem in the Corman catalog.

31 Days to Scare ~ Sorority House Massacre (1986)

The Facts:

Synopsis: College student Beth and her sorority sisters are stalked by an escaped psychopathic killer who shares a strange telepathic link with her

Stars: Aimee Brooks, Angela O’Neill, Wendy Martel, Pamela Ross, Nicole Rio, John C. Russell

Director: Carol Frank

Rated: R

Running Length: 74 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: It’s going to be hard to look past the title of this movie. It’s going to be even more difficult to overlook the plot description. The cover is going to make you raise both eyebrows in a significant arch. Yet, in the end, Sorority House Massacre is not a bad effort considering it’s low budget and inexperienced cast. You’re just going to have to trust me. It’s no classic and there are literally hundreds of other movies you should see before this one. If you’re like me, however, you’ve seen all those other hundred movies and might need to take a chance on something you’d normally breeze by.  This 1986 cheapie from Roger Corman’s production company was written and directed by Carol Frank, a first-time director who never made another movie after this. That’s no dig on Ms. Frank, just an important bit of trivia to get out of the way. Though it’s very similar in plot to The Slumber Party Massacre, another Corman flick that Frank served as an assistant to the director on, Sorority House Massacre does what it can to set itself apart when it has the opportunity to do so.

Reminiscent of any number of popular slasher films that came before it (the whiff of the Halloween films is ever-present), Sorority House Massacre follows a few nights in the lives of sorority sisters left alone for the weekend. Though at first they giggle and talk about boys, they soon start screaming as a madman gets into their house and starts picking them and their boyfriends off one by one. Beth (Angela O’Neill) figures out she has a telepathic link to the killer and discovering how this connection is formed becomes a nice diversion in the midst of all the slayings.

At 74 minutes, the movie manages to feel longer than it should be. There are a few silly sequences included just for the drive-in fans…like the totally random sequence where the girls invade one of their absent sorority sisters closet for a dress-up montage. Of course this is a great moment to feature some copious nudity but it’s oddly voyeuristic, like the camera was just left on during a costume test for the nubile actresses. Then there is the fascination with repressed memory (lucky that one of the girls is a budding psych student!) that results in a hysterical passage where Beth gets hypnotized to plumb her mind for details on the killer.

Surprisingly, the acting is often above average here and I appreciated the attempt to fill out the movie with more backstory than was probably necessary. The killings are bloody enough and several chase sequences have a decent payoff…though it’s never clear just how these girls can’t overpower the scrawny slasher or call for help in what is a fairly populated neighborhood. As in most of these low-budget productions, there’s a lot of crew equipment visible and in one shot I thought a boom mike was another character in a scene because it made so many appearances.

This is one I always passed up in my video store days…mostly because I couldn’t come up with an excuse for my parents to let me rent a movie called Sorority House Massacre. It’s available to stream on Amazon Prime and though I considered stopping it several times I’m glad I took a gamble on it because while it’s not quite bad enough to be a cult classic it’s good enough to hold my interest.

31 Days to Scare ~ Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween

The Facts:

Synopsis: Halloween comes to life in a comedy adventure based on R.L. Stine’s 400-million-selling series of books.

Stars: Jack Black, Madison Iseman, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Chris Parnell, Ken Jeong, Jeremy Ray Taylor

Director: Ari Sandel

Rated: PG

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Fall is in the air and it’s definitely beginning to feel a lot like Halloween. This is the time each year I can watch whatever I want if it’s related to Halloween and not feel the least bit of guilt for neglecting non-genre films. That’s why I opted out of a screening for a movie with considerable more buzz than Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween and found myself in an early evening preview of this follow-up to the modest hit from 2015.  Side note…why aren’t all screenings at 6:30pm?  Makes it possible to have some part of your night free if you’re seeing a shorter film.

I found the first Goosebumps to be a perfectly fine family film that tweens could watch with their parents as an alternative to the adult fare. I’m already dreading seeing how many children there will be at the new Halloween movie next week. The original had a good-set up, decent effects, solid acting, and while it turned into too much mayhem near the end with iffy CGI it was still more than modestly enjoyable. To be honest, I wasn’t even aware a sequel was greenlit, much less in the can and ready to go until I caught the first preview several months back.

With the principals from the first film unavailable and star Jack Black (The D Train) tied up making the also Halloween family friendly The House with a Clock in Its Walls, screenwriter Rob Lieber (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Peter Rabbit) and original writer Darren Lemke (Jack the Giant Slayer) fashioned a new story set in a different fictional town in upstate New York that takes their Halloween very seriously. Houses are decorated to the max (must be nice to have expendable cash) and costumes are several notches above your standard vampire fangs.  Sonny (Jeremy Taylor Ray, IT) and his upperclassman sister Sarah (Madison Iseman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) live with their single mom Kathy (Wendi McLendon-Covey, Blended) in Wardenclyffe, NY and it’s almost Halloween. Sarah is occupied with boyfriend troubles and trying to get into college, Kathy is overworked, and Sonny is just trying to perfect his school science experiment. Though it often takes a backseat to the shenanigans that will follow, there’s a nice family dynamic created here and one that stresses responsibility to ones self and loved ones – not a bad message hiding amidst all the scares.

Together with his friend Sam (Caleel Harris), Sonny finds himself in an abandoned house cleaning out junk and that’s where the two boys come across a hidden chest that holds only a locked book and a key. Opening the book releases Slappy the ventriloquist dummy and that’s when all Halloween hell breaks loose. Though Slappy originally starts out as being somewhat helpful by showing Sonny and Sam’s bullies a thing or two and doing their chores, his benign nature gives away to something more evil when he causes an accident that sends Sarah’s cheating boyfriend to the hospital. Eventually, Slappy’s true nature is revealed…he wants to make Halloween come to life 365 days a year and rouses every manner of beast and ghoulie to achieve his task.

Director Ari Sandel won an Oscar for a short film in 2007. I haven’t seen that movie but it’s clear he has some style seeing that the movie bops along so pleasantly for its 90 minutes. It’s fast moving without making too many narrative leaps and surprisingly cohesive even with a sometimes overstuffed plot. Introducing R.L. Stine (Black, who also provides the menacing voice for Slappy) late into the mix feels unnecessary because he doesn’t have much to do. I get the impression Black became available after the script was completed and went through a small revision to include him. It’s all low-stakes but that’s what makes it a less intense experience than the first one, making it easier to recommend for smaller children…but parents should still heed the PG rating if your kid is of the nervous variety or else plan to invest in a nightlight.

I’m liking these low-impact scary films targeted at families more and more as studios start to get the idea of how to make them not quite so scary. While it isn’t something I would normally seek out in theaters, both Goosebumps films (and a second sequel hinted at in the finale) have been pleasant diversions to the more intense creepy fare that rises from the dead this time of the year.

31 Days to Scare ~ Pet Sematary (2019) – Trailer

Synopsis: Behind a young family’s home in Maine is a terrible secret that holds the power of life after death. When tragedy strikes, the threat of that power soon becomes undeniable.

Release Date:  April 19, 2019

Thoughts: Remakes are a tricky thing and often I feel like to remake an already established film isn’t really worth the time or money.  Why go back and revisit something that still holds up?  Sure, movies like Oceans 11 and even last year’s re-do of Stephen King’s IT improved upon their originals but what about the Carrie remake or any of the sanitized updates to horror films like Prom Night or When a Stranger Calls?  Tough stuff.

So here we are now looking down the barrel of a Pet Sematary remake and I’m conflicted.  The original 1989 film retains much of the same scares and thrills as it did when first released but this look at the 2019 version has arrived and I’m not inclined to claw at the walls in frustration.  I really enjoyed directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer previous film Starry Eyes and star Jason Clarke (All I See Is You) seems a good choice for the lead.  I just hope they can exercise some restraint and give us a spooky tale and not go into excess.  Don’t want audiences leaving the theater thinking that sometimes un-remade is better.

Make sure to check out my review of Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary, the documentary on the making of the first film.

31 Days to Scare ~ Deadly Blessing (1981)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After her husband dies under mysterious circumstances, a widow becomes increasingly paranoid of the neighboring religious community that may have diabolical plans for her.

Stars: Maren Jensen, Sharon Stone, Susan Buckner, Michael Berryman, Lois Nettleton, Jeff East, Douglas Barr, Lisa Hartman, Ernest Borgnine

Director: Wes Craven

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Hard to believe it now, but back in 1981 when Deadly Blessing was released director Wes Craven wasn’t nearly the household name he would become. Coming off of directing the intense The Last House on the Left and the bizarro The Hills Have Eyes (both of which would get lesser remakes decades later), Craven dialed down his extreme style for this moody chiller. Though not well received by audiences or critics, it was interesting to view this one for the first time. While Craven was never someone that was consistent from film to film, he had good eye and that’s what keeps Deadly Blessing afloat for much of its run time.

Jim Schmdit (Douglas Barr) grew up as a member of the Hittites (think Amish) but left the religious community to marry.  Inheriting a family farm, he’s returned with his bride Martha (Maren Jensen) much to the judgmental dismay of his father Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine) the elder in their order. When Jim dies in a suspicious accident his family that disowned him feels the land should revert to them and not to Martha.  Martha intends to stay but when her two friends arrive for support and strange accidents start to happen, it’s up to her to find out if Isaiah is behind it all or if there aren’t more malevolent supernatural forces at work.

I’ve mentioned before how much I frequented the horror section of my local video store as a child.  I can still remember seeing the Deadly Blessing VHS staring back at me but, alas, it’s never one that made it home.  I actually think had I seen this as a teen I’d have been disappointed – back then I was all about the gore and high stylized horror flicks and Deadly Blessing isn’t overzealous with blood and guts.  It’s more character driven than you might expect and while there are some tepid performances (Jensen is a snooze…a pretty snooze…but a snooze all the same) it’s a mostly well acted affair.

Playing Martha’s best friends are a young Sharon Stone (Lovelace) and Susan Buckner (Patty Simcox in the movie version of Grease) and they are often the highlights of the film.  Stone seems to go off the deep end pretty quickly (you would too if a giant tarantula fell in your mouth!) and never quite comes back from the brink which results in feeling like her performance is way too overbaked. That stands in stark contrast to Buckner’s nuanced take on the character – she’s a nice breath of fresh air and I wonder how much more effective the movie would have been if she and Jensen had switched characters.

Craven stages some sequences with a nice amount of tension, like the scene where Jensen is relaxing in a bathtub and someone releases a huge snake into it with her. Though it’s almost a shot-for-shot preview of what he’d do three years later in A Nightmare On Elm Street (the snake head pops up between Jensen’s legs like Freddy’s glove does with Heather Langenkamp) it’s highly effective. I definitely subconsciously lifted my legs off the floor and tucked them in under me.  There’s also a creepy scene with a couple attacked in a car and some nice point of view shots where we become the person stalking Jensen and company.

The conclusion of the film was a genuine surprise and who (or what) is behind it all was kept secret right until the final reveal. Do you know how hard that is?  Though it must be said that the good will is nearly ruined by a dumb nonsensical coda the studio insisted on, for the most part Deadly Blessing is a worthwhile look into Craven’s earliest work. Special mention for the spooky score by the late James Horner (The Magnificent Seven), a future Oscar winner. Another special mention for myself for never realizing until now that Stone is featured on the poster and not Jensen…sheesh…how did I miss that?

31 Days to Scare ~ Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A night at the movies turns into a nightmare when Michael and his date are attacked by a hoard of bloodthirsty zombies – only a “Thriller” can save them now.

Stars: Michael Jackson, Ola Ray, Vincent Price

Director: John Landis

Rated: PG

Running Length: 13 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: To celebrate the 35 year anniversary of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the folks over at IMAX did a pretty cool thing and re-released it in theaters for one week. Showing before The House with a Clock in Its Walls and looking scary good enhanced by 3D, it only hammered home again what a landmark achievement this was in the still-growing music video scene. All these years later, it stands as a high-water mark for the medium and is a pretty creepy mixture of horror and music.

Directed by John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) who had shown an eye for horror and comedy, there’s a sizable portion of this without any music at all and it opens with Michael Jackson and his girlfriend Ola Ray running into car trouble in the woods. Aping I Was a Teenage Werewolf from 1957, Michael changes into a beast and just before he nabs his prey we see that we’re actually watching a movie…that’s also being watched by Jackson and Ray. The meta-ness of it all aside, Ray can’t take the scares and hightails it out of the theater. Reluctantly, Jackson follows her and that’s when Thriller takes control. As they walk home Jackson’s killer vocals and unimpeachable dancing give way to an ever expanding smorgasbord of all manners of ghouls and zombies that come out to play…and dance. It all culminates around the 8:25 mark when Jackson finds himself possessed by the dead. Will Ray be able to get away or will she succumb to the creatures of the night?

I can’t tell you what a joy it was to see this projected on the huge IMAX screen in 3D. It looked like a million bucks and by the time we get to the legendary dance break I had goosebumps all over. It’s such a masterful mix of music and story tightly packaged into 13 minutes. While this was only in theaters for a week, maybe we’ll all get lucky and they’ll bring it back around Halloween – it’s worth seeing whatever movie it is paired with.  Even if you can’t see it in a theater, watch it again above and relive how good this is!

31 Days to Scare ~ Thinner (1996) 

The Facts:

Synopsis: An obese attorney is cursed by a gypsy to rapidly and uncontrollably lose weight.

Stars: Robert John Burke, Joe Mantegna, Lucinda Jenney, Michael Constantine, Kari Wuhrer, Stephen King, Walter Bobbie

Director: Tom Holland

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Starting with the release and huge success of Carrie in 1976, author Stephen King has enjoyed seeing the profits for numerous adaptations of his work come his way.  Studios began scrambling to buy the rights to his work and bring his tales of terror to life which is how we’ve come to have solid titles like The Shining, Christine, Cujo, Firestarter, The Dead Zone, and Misery in our libraries.  To talk about the good adaptions, you must also talk about the bad and King’s work has produced far more duds than hits…such is the case with Thinner from 1996.

Originally published under King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman, Thinner hit bookshelves in 1984 and when it was discovered the King was Bachman isn’t wasn’t long before a studio attached themselves to the grim morality tale.  Condensing the 300+ page novel to 90 minute movie, director and co-screenwriter Tom Holland (who also wrote Psycho II and directed Fright Night) removed the, uh, fat from King’s tome and produced a slick but slack horror thriller that is passable entertainment but feels like everything about it was second-hand.

When overweight attorney Billy Halleck (Robert John Burke) accidentally runs over and kills an old gypsy woman and then gets off scott free, he incurs the wrath of a gypsy king (Michael Constantine, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2) who puts a curse and him and others that covered up the crime.  Each person cursed has their own personal hell to endure and Billy’s is that no matter how much he eat,s he continues to lose weight at a rapid pace.  At first, that’s good news for the man that has tried for years to shed pounds and his beleaguered wife (Lucinda Jenney, Matinee) who has kept him on a strict diet.  When the weight loss begins to accelerate, and his friends start dying in horrible ways, Billy must track down the gypsy clan to get the curse reversed.

Arguably, there’s a nice concept at the heart of Thinner and had this been given a bit more money and prestige I’d imagine it could have been a sleeper hit.  The problem is that Holland never quite figures out is how to make his characters (any of them) the least bit sympathetic so we have someone to be invested in.  There’re literally no “good” people to be found, everyone has an ulterior motive to their actions or spits their lines out with such overstimulated venom you have a hard time feeling sorry when they are killed off.

It also doesn’t help the leading man is such a bore.  Burke had infamously taken over for Peter Weller in RoboCop 3 and even under that heavy costume with his face obscured he managed to overact.  He does the same thing here, saddled with a fat suit and unconvincing make-up at the beginning and eventually turning skeletal as he continues to lose fat and muscle.  I’m not sure if the make-up did this to him but Burke has this smile/grimace on his face when he’s heavier that is truly unnerving…and not in the way Holland intended.

If I’ve forgotten to mention Joe Mantegna (House of Games) up until this point he should count himself lucky.  As a tricky mobster client of Billy’s, Mantegna plays up the wise guy role to the point of parody and acts as a silly means to an end in helping Billy connect the dots to the origin of the gypsy curse.  If there’s one actor I didn’t mind, it’s the always reliable Jenney who seems to know she’s in a turkey so opts for such a small performance that it has the effect of letting her scene partners look like they’re overacting.

Not surprisingly, this was a huge box office bomb but it didn’t stop the King adaptations from coming.  It would be three years before The Green Mile would be released and in 2017 there was the one two punch of the remake of IT and the dandy Gerald’s Game for Netflix.  It’s clear the best was behind the King work at that time and while Thinner wasn’t bad enough to make studios think twice about taking a dip in the King swamp it’s prospects of being much better are keenly felt two decades later.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

The Facts:

Synopsis: An animated adaptation of The Wind in the Willows followed by an adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Stars: Bing Crosby, Basil Rathbone, Eric Blore, J. Pat O’Malley, Campbell Grant, Oliver Wallace, Pinto Colvig, Leslie Denison

Director: James Algar, Clyde Geronimi, Jack Kinney

Rated: Approved

Running Length: 68 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: In going through items to feature in my 31 Days to Scare, I often forget to include some kind of film the whole family can watch together.  So pulling The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad off the shelf seemed like a good idea because what I remembered of it was that it started benignly enough with the light-hearted foibles of characters from The Wind in the Willows and ended with the scary treat of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  Admittedly, it had been years since I’d seen either short (each about 30 minutes) so revisiting this lovely little package of hand-drawn animation was as much a joy for me as it would be for you and your family.

Released in 1949 (a mere four months before Cinderella), The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad starts off like so many of the Disney animated films do – that of a live-action book opening to reveal the story to be told.  The first segment features eccentric dandy Mr. Toad and his comic antics that almost causes him to lose his beloved Toad Hall to a bunch of wily weasels.  Aided by his friends Badger, Rat, and Mole, Mr. Toad must prove his innocence after he is wrongly convicted of stealing an automobile and goes on the run to clear his name.

Narrated by Basil Rathbone , the animation in the Mr. Toad passage is truly top-notch (the film won a Golden Globe…for cinematography!) and finds Disney artists working at the top of their game.  The landscapes are beautiful and the way the fast-moving action is oriented drips with creativity and the type of inspiring imagination that was quickly becoming Disney’s calling card.   It’s also heartily funny, with Mr. Toad’s frenzied zest for fun fairly infectious.  Based on a small section of Kenneth Grahame’s popular children’s novel The Wind in the Willows, it was always interesting to me Disney didn’t revisit this character.  Before this was released, it was Disney’s wish to animate a full version of The Wind in the Willows but sadly that never appeared.  Still, you can take Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland if you need a Willows fix.

Moving into the next sequence, the narrator (Bing Crosby, who also sings three swinging songs throughout) welcomes us into the tale of Ichabod Crane, the meek schoolteacher in Sleepy Hollow that falls in love with a beauty but runs afoul of a legendary headless rider that haunts the woods.  This part of the film is why I wanted to feature it in 31 Days to Scare, but I didn’t remember it as clearly as I thought because it only turns dark and scary for the last ten minutes.  The majority of the short is bright and breezy following Ichabod’s falling for Katrina van Tassel, much to the annoyance of local big shot Brom Bones.  Crosby croons out two nice ditties and one with an ominous bounce as Brom retells the legend of the Headless Horseman.

Based on a short story by Washington Irving, parents won’t need to be on high alert because when the film does move toward its scary finale it’s tempered with comic action and a few false endings.  As an adult watching it, I appreciated the pace but young kids are either going to get freaked out when the ghoul does appear or be asleep by the time he does.  The animation isn’t quite as strong as the Mr. Toad sequence (and boy oh boy does Katrina look an awful lot like Cinderella!) but the touches of Disney charm again are much appreciated.

I grew up watching both segments individually on the Disney Channel…this viewing was the first time I’d ever seen them in their original packaged presentation.  Many of these old Disney films have some cringe worthy bits that are definitely not PC but both parts that comprise The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad are free from any such historical snafus.  Not that there aren’t elements we can’t learn from and have discussions on today, it’s just nice to have an example that’s free of perceived controversy.