100 Film Favorites – #87: The Halloween Tree
(Mario Piluso, 1993)
We’ve come to the first made-for-TV film on this list. It won’t be the last. If you don’t think TV-movies are kosher for consideration on a “favorite films” list, you’ve been warned.
The Halloween Tree is an animated adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s 1972 novel of the same name. The film was produced by Hanna-Barbera for the Cartoon Network (which had only been on the air for about a year at the time), and the screenplay was written in part by Bradbury, who also provides narration in the film.
The film tells the story of four young friends who meet up to Trick-or-Treat one Halloween night. When a fifth friend, Pip, fails to show, the kids head to his house, only to find Pip being taken away in an ambulance. The group becomes more confused when they see Pip, or at least a transparent version of him, sprinting off into the woods nearby. Following this apparition through the forest, the children come upon an ancient, spooky house. The house is owned by the mysterious Mr. Moundshroud, voiced by Leonard Nimoy. Moundshroud is a Halloween fanatic, and is thoroughly disappointed to find the children less than well-versed in the mythology of the holiday.
In his garden, Moundshroud cultivates the titular “Halloween Tree” – a massive tree bearing thousands of carved, glowing jack-o-lanterns like fruit. Suddenly, the Pip-ghost bursts from hiding, shimmies up the tree and seizes a pumpkin bearing a carved likeness of his face. Moundshroud promptly flips out, yelling at Pip to give back “his property.” The specter of Pip nevertheless soars away into the Halloween sky bearing the pumpkin. Moundshroud prepares to pursue him, then invites the children to come along and help him search for their friend. Things go from weird to mind-bendingly insane when Moundshroud whips together a patchwork of living circus posters into a massive kite and uses it to fly him and the children into the portal through which Pip has just gone.
So begins a whirlwind tour through the history of Halloween. In the course of their hunt for Pip, Moundshroud and the children stop in different countries and eras which correspond to the origins of the children’s respective costumes. They witness mummification in ancient Egypt, pagan rituals at Stonehenge, and Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico. All the while, it becomes more and more clear that Moundshroud is a/the personification of death…a fact which the children don’t seem to grasp until the very end. Will the kids find their friend before Moundshroud does? Will the light in Pip’s “pumpkin soul” go out?
For years, The Halloween Tree was shown annually on Cartoon Network in October. This stopped sometime in the 2000s, however, and the film lapsed into semi-obscurity. For a long time, the film was in the same boat as Beanstalk, Countdown entry #93, in that it was unavailable on DVD and had only ever received a limited VHS release. However, since summer of 2012 the film has been available on DVD through the Warner Archive, a “Manufacturing On Demand” DVD service. Basically, the Warner Archive is an online service through which one can order a DVD copy of an obscure film or TV program in the Warner Bros. library. That specific film is burned onto a DVD just for you and shipped. It’s an interesting idea, and Warner Brothers’ success has inspired other studios to adopt similar “M.O.D.” models for selling DVDs of their lesser-known or out of print programs. An obvious benefit of these programs is that it will be easier to purchase copies of obscure films. On the other hand, it will make my collection of obscure VHS tapes less impressive and important. So many mixed emotions right now.
If you do track down The Halloween Tree in some format, here’s a suggestion for a drinking game:
-Do a shot whenever the characters fly in a new way. From kites, to brooms, to gargoyles, to bats, they find five or six different ways to fly from place to place in just a little over an hour.
-Drinking whenever Wally (the fat kid dressed as a monster) says “Oh my GOSH!” is probably not a good idea. He says it some 15 times (15 1/2 if you count the one solitary “GOSH!”). Also, it kind of sounds like there’s a sixteenth in there when the kids get blown off Moundshroud’s porch by spooky wind, but the jury’s still out on that one.
The Halloween Tree is easily among the best Halloween specials out there. It’s an interesting (if somewhat superficial) lesson on the history of Halloween and various cultures’ views on death. The highlight for me are the various passages narrated by Bradbury himself. His descriptions of the town, the woods, Moundshroud’s creepy house, and the Halloween tree itself are so spookily well-delivered that it’s a let-down when Bradbury’s narrations become less frequent later in the film. Clearly Bradbury and the other filmmakers put a lot of love into adapting his book for the screen.
Ray Bradbury died just last year, having lived to the ripe old age of 91. In 2007, a Halloween tree was dedicated in his honor as part of the yearly Halloween decorations at Disneyland. Bradbury and his pumpkin tree have themselves become a part of the history of Halloween.
Brian Terrill is the host of television show Count Gauntly’s Horrors from the Public Domain. You can keep up with Brian’s 100 Film Favorites countdown here.