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VULTURE DROPPINGS OF THE WEEK: Halloween

October 31st, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

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It’s time once again for the weekly roundup of my favorite pop culture atrocities, misfires and entertaining trainwrecks. This week’s theme: Halloween.

Ya gotta love the pagan holiday that is Halloween. It’s the extravagant closing party of a bizarre month-long celebration of everything macabre. Even the sweetest of old ladies hang corpse dummies on their porches with precision care, adding the perfect amount of oozing blood to the ripped torsos. And the topic of what costume to wear is discussed ad nauseam. Girls agonize over whether they’re going to be a sexy kitten, a sexy nurse or a sexy French maid, while guys pick up a pair of fangs and call it a day.

Is there any real significance to this American-as-apple-pie holiday? No – other than it allows people to indulge their inner performers. Given Halloween’s huge popularity, it’s no wonder why the entertainment industry desperately tries to cash in on it every year with a profusion of movies, novelty music, TV specials and god knows what else. Some of these projects can be good–great even (I’m a horror freak as much as the next guy)– but most tend to suck. Come Nov. 1, when the fog clears and the moldy jack-o-lanterns get tossed out, nobody will give them a second thought.

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1. NANCY KERRIGAN’S ‘HALLOWEEN ON ICE’

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One Saturday afternoon in October a couple of years ago, I was laying around in my friend’s living room, trying to recover from the debaucherous Halloween party the night before. Little did I know that when I turned on the TV for a little afternoon viewing, that I was about to treated to a far-out program called Halloween On Ice, a vanity project from Olympic medal-winning figure skater, {183F8270-4A2E-4900-B37E-99DF628C550A}Img100Nancy Kerrigan. It features pro skaters, decked out in Halloween scrubs, dancing to harrowing scores of Mannheim Steamroller, a group that specializes in holiday-themed music (I guess the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is above this).

Halloween On Ice first aired in 1994 and then again in 1998. In 2004, a “Best Of” DVD was released by the production company Arts Alliance Amer. It has since become a yearly happening as a live event, with occasional network airings. Kerrigan was just staged a production of it at the Qwest Center in Omaha, Nebraska on Oct. 19.

In an interview with local station, KETV, before the event, Kerrigan said that coming up with “spooky” ice routines keeps her ticking creatively and that it’s a fun challenge for her and the other skaters.

“They become the character and it sort of creeps into you, “

she commented.

With make up on and costume on, it really changes how they perform. I’m still blessed to be able to do what I love. It’s just getting more difficult physically.”

Yeah, difficult for both her and the audience.

Halloween On Ice is so corny and so sure of itself that it becomes almost cool in the process (in an ironic hipster kind of way). Watch this clip of Kurt Browning skating to the “Monster Mash” and you’ll know what I mean:

The best part of Halloween On Ice by far is the voiceover guy who announces the coming segments and eases the transitions to commercials. In his deep baritone, he howls, “Up next, the Zombie…and the Gypsy!”, like you’re supposed to go, “Ooohh!” He also adds a layer of dramatic terror: “Coming halloweenonice2up, Nancy defends herself from the devil and the scarecrow!” And Kerrigan is the glue that holds the whole clambake together–even though she doesn’t really do much of anything besides show up.

Each segment starts out with Kerrigan escorting each ghoulish character onto the rink and then she skates over to a bench and sits down to watch the performance. Then there’s an occasional close-up on her face as she tries to act appropriately scared. Kerrigan’s no actress, but at least she’s having fun. She could work the creepy-factor a bit more, though. For a Halloween-themed show, the only thing chilling is the ice. Maybe next year she can replace one of the vampires with Tonya Harding. That would be truly frightening.

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2. ‘HOCUS POCUS’ (1993)

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Director Kenny Ortega has been the toast of Tinseltown ever since he made a fortune for Disney directing the High School Musical trilogy. He recently bowed out of a deal to direct the high-profile remake of Footloose, a gig many Hollywood power players would love to get their hands on. And his latest movie, Michael Jackson‘s This Is It, is one of the most anticipated releases this year.

It wasn’t always this rosy for Mr. Ortega. Back in 1993, he directed the expensive, over-produced Halloween fam-com, Hocus Pocus. The movie follows the adventures of two siblings, Max and Dani (Omri Katz and Thora Birch, respectively) as they battle the evil Sanderson witches (played with over-the-top gusto by Bette Midler, a pre-Sex and the City Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy).

hocus_pocusEarlier this year, Ortega revealed who his first choice was for Max, the main character:

“If you’re a young person who wants to become an actor, it’s really important to walk into a casting room with a sense of yourself and some life experience. You can really delight a room and have them already choose you before you’ve even said a word! This actually happened to me years ago when a young Leonardo DiCaprio auditioned for me for [Hocus Pocus]. He ended up not doing it. He ended up doing a movie called What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, which was a good choice, but he came in and he completely won me over.”

Of course it was a good choice. Let’s see — Academy Award nomination or be a part of a sinking ship? Leo was a savvy Hollywood player even as a teenager. Maybe Zac Efron could have starred in Brokeback Mountain instead of HSM if he had avoided Ortega as well.

In September of 1993, a couple of months after Hocus Pocus hit theaters, the New York Times ran an article about blockbuster hits and misses, calling it one of the biggest financial and critical disasters of the summer (why the Halloween-themed movie didn’t get an October release, nobody knows). Hocus Pocus grossed a paltry $39 million. And critics weren’t put under its spell. In the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote,

Hocus Pocus is really two movies — a sophomoric caper for teenage boys and a dark lark for fans of Disney farce, an abracadabra Sister Act. Both of them are failures. Kenny Ortega, the choreographer of Dirty Dancing who turned director with Newsies, doesn’t dawdle over the material, but he doesn’t manage to unify it either. That would take Rosemary’s Baby himself.”

hocus-pocus-2In 1995, another NYT article appeared, detailing how Disney’s live-action movie division was in hot water:

“With rare exceptions, Disney’s non-animated film studios have failed to deliver the big blockbusters or even a string of steady hits that translate into mountains of cash and help feed the insatiable demand of its many distribution channels for entertainment products. Disney’s dominant reputation was for turning out such forgettable duds as… 1993′s Hocus Pocus.”

Despite the sour reception, the movie is still shown religiously on cable every time Halloween season rolls around. And it still has at least one confirmed fan. On February 10, 2008, Bette Midler appeared on the BBC morning show, Breakfast, and stated that, out of all of her movies, Hocus Pocus is the one she likes the most. Sadly, I concur. Have you seen The Stepford Wives, Jinxed or For the Boys?

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3. ‘TRICK OR TREAT’ (1986)

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Charles Martin Smith is an interesting character in Hollywood. After being discovered by a talent agent in a high school production of Man of La Mancha, he found success as a character actor, appearing in such films as American Graffiti, Starman and The Untouchables. He is also a sometimes writer and director, with such diverse projects as Boris and Natsha and Air Bud to his credit. On his IMDb page, the following quote appears:

I intend to do things of artistic integrity. I grew up thinking that every movie should be The Graduate. I don’t want to do something just because it might be commercially popular — it’s more important to do something that has meaning.”

He must have said that before he directed the Halloween-themed, horror turkey, Trick or Treat.

It took a whopping five writers (Rhet Topham, Michael S. Murphey, Joel Soisson, Glen Morgan and James Wong) to come up with the movie’s ridiculous screenplay. I’ll attempt a summary (see if you can keep up). Heavy Metal star Sammi Curr (Tony Fields) meets his smoky fate in a hotel room fire. No one is more distraught at this news than Eddie (Marc Price), his biggest fan at Lakeridge High School, who ends up lamenting with local radio personality DJ “Nuke” (Gene Simmons – yes, the guy from KISS).

As a memento, the DJ gives him a rare demo record that is the last known recording of Sammi’s. Eddie is stoked and rushes home to hear it. Within trick_or_treatminutes, he discovers that, when playing the vinyl backwards, Sammie is able to communicate with him from beyond the grave. The late rock star becomes a mentor of sorts, instructing Eddie to exact revenge on all of the school bullies who torture him on a regular basis. Eventually, Sammi’s orders get more and more sinister and Eddie realizes that an evil, supernatural forces are at work — forces that culminate at the Lakeridge High Halloween Dance.

Trick or Treat features a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Ozzy Osbourne, although the movie’s marketers would have you think otherwise with this video cover. It is also notable for being one of the first releases from the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, a studio formed by independent producer, Dino de Laurentiis (Barbarella, King Kong).

The company went bankrupt two years later after a string of box office failures. Trick or Treat is campy, but it takes itself a wee bit too seriously. At the time of its release, the staff at Variety felt the same way:

Like a relatively dark street on Halloween night, Trick or Treat is ripe for howls and hoots, but only manages to deliver a choice handful of them when the festivities are just about over.”

Despite the fact that Trick or Treat is not nearly as good as The Graduate (or even Halloween II, another de Laurentiis gem), it has still managed to develop a following among fans of B-movie horror schlock (there are even fan sites dedicated to it). It’s no wonder why. Everything about it is wildly over-the-top: the sets, the acting and, especially, the soundtrack by Fastway (a duo made up of Motorhead‘s Eddie Clarke and Flogging Molly‘s Dave King).

To capitalize on Trick or Treat‘s cult following, Anchor Bay Entertainment attempted to release a 20th anniversary DVD in 2006, but the plans were scrapped because due to music licensing issues. An out-of-print edition can be purchased from Amazon for about forty bucks. My advice: save your money.

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