October 31, 2009

The Halloween That Almost Wasn't

The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t first aired as an ABC-TV special in October 1979. Kid-friendly and stacked with popular TV stars, the 30-minute comedy special would go on to seemingly perpetual reruns on the Disney Channel through the late nineties.

Though freighted with clichés and mercilessly stuck in time with its Disco references, it’s a good-natured romp with over-the-top performances by its principals. Judd Hirsch, famous for his part in the hit sitcom Taxi, wildly hams up his Dracula as a Borscht-belt Bela, and Mariette Hartley, a TV regular who won an Emmy playing the woman who married The Hulk, is terrific as a headstrong Witch. Henry Gibson, of Laugh-In fame, plays a fright-wigged Igor.

The story travels familiar terrain. Hartley’s Witch, feeling unappreciated, won’t fly over the Moon, effectively canceling Halloween. A desperate Dracula calls all the great monsters to his castle for a meeting. That’s the plot on which writer Coleman Jacoby, a veteran of the Milton Berle and Phil Silvers shows, would hang a bunch of jokes.

The assembled monsters include a sleepwalking Zombie, a nondescript stumbling Mummy, veteran actor Jack Riley as a Cowardly Lion-like Werewolf and, the brightest spot in the collection, John Schuck in fine makeup as a classic Frankenstein Monster. Borrowing a joke from Arsenic and Old Lace in which the Jonathan Brewster character was given Boris Karloff’s scarred face after the drunken plastic surgeon had seen “that movie”, Schuck’s Frankenstein has taken to tap dancing after seeing “that movie”, a reference to Young Frankenstein, made just five years earlier.

Dracula and his gang are constantly foiled by the Witch who uses her powers to teleport out of harm’s way and make The Three Musketeers pop out of a painting to defend her. There’s physical action, monster pile-ups, and even a speeded-up sequence in a corridor where characters go in one door and out the other, a comedy device that was already old by 1925. Nevertheless, the unabashed silliness and the sheer energy of the players keep things hopping.

There’s a distinctive look to the show, due to its being shot on location at Lyndhurst, a spectacular Gothic Revival mansion on the Hudson at Tarrytown, New York. Its narrow hallways, arched windows, vaulted ceilings and corkscrew staircases serve alternately as Dracula’s castle and the Witch’s lair.

In the end, the recalcitrant Witch is convinced to fly her broom and kickstart the Halloween celebrations by tear-jerking, trick or treating kids who profess their love for her and all things deliciously spooky. The credits roll as Hirsch and Hartley channel Saturday Night Fever on a Disco danse floor.

The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t earned four Prime Time Emmy nominations, singling out Mariette Hartley’s enthusiastic performance, producers Richard Bartley and Gaby Monet and editor Arthur Ginsberg, with an award going to Makeup man Bob O’Bradovitch for Outstanding Individual Achievement in a Children’s Program. O’Bradovich’s credits include The Werewolf of Washington (1973), Blood Sucking Freaks (1976), and doing Boris Karloff’s makeup for a 1962 TV adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace.

The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t was a TV staple for nearly twenty years. It was committed to VHS in 1992 under the title The Night Dracula Saved the World. Today, it survives on YouTube.

In 1988, John Schuck would gamely climb into the Frankenstein boots again, succeeding Fred Gwynne as Herman in a re-thread series, The Munsters Today, that somehow managed to run 72 episodes, two more than the original.

The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t on YouTube: Part One, Part Two, Part Three.


Peter Bernard said...

Tarrytown is up where The Headless Horseman was set. The cemetery with the bridge is real that the Ichabod Crane story takes place on, Washington Irving used to live upstate. I think that's so cool to set a story of a legend in a real location.

The Great Silence said...

I remember watching this the first time it showed as a kid. Even for that time I thought it was odd she made a demand of Dracula that they were to go disco dancing every night!