New for 2013: See our interview with Tony Molesworth, who did the voice of Small!
Witch's Night Out belongs in the collection of every fan of Halloween specials, and generates more emails than any other special on this site by a wide margin.
Witch's Night Out is one of my favorites - it's a "special" in the purest sense of the word. Though a few of the characters had appeared in a "winter" special a few years before, this one-off show creates an entire world that exists for 27 minutes, then vanishes forever. It's not promoting a toy line or comic strip. It's not a spin-off of a movie or TV show. The goal was not to sell toys, but to make a cool show.
Only a handful of specials existed in a world of their own like this, and very few did it well enough to function as more than just nostalgia when you watch it as an adult. Perhaps moreso than any other Halloween special, Witch's Night Out is watchable year after year, thanks to its snappy script, unique visuals, and fine job creating a distinctly Halloweenish atmosphere, as it tells the story of Small and Tender being turned into real monsters by the old witch who lives in the local haunted mansion. It was first aired on NBC in 1978 and was a staple on the Disney Channel around Halloween from 1983 up until some point in the 1990s. It's among the most fondly remembered of all Halloween specials that didn't involve an already-famous comic strip character, and one of fairly few that's just as good as you thought it was when you were eight.
It's also notable for having introduced "PLOT B" of Halloween specials.
PLOT A, of course, is that the "witch" in the old house turns out to be a sweet old lady who gives great candy to trick-or-treaters.
PLOT B, however, ends with everyone disco dancing. Paul Lynde had already ended his special with a disco party, but this is the first time when it was really a way of wrapping up a plot.
Disco endings would be a staple of specials for some time, lasting well into the 80's - even Strawberry Shortcake was not immune from Disco Fever in the 80s (years after the rest of the world had moved on, of course), but this was the one that started it all (though, to be fair, could could argue that it was virtually a tie with The Devil and Daniel Mouse, which has a disco party early on and ends with folk rock).
Plot C, for the record, is where there's a character who doesn't love Halloween in the beginning and changes his or her ways by the end. I'd say that at least half of all Halloween specials fit into one of those three.
It's easy to bash Witch's Night Out for its animation - the characters, as you can see, all all monochrome. Some sources say they were originally all the same color, in fact, and the different shades were a later addition put in for later airings (I've been unable to confirm this; I suspect people are mistaking for an early 70s take on Legend of Sleepy Hollow). And most of the characters (everyone except Bazooie, in fact) have names like "Small," "Tender," "Nicely," and "Rotten."
However, if you can look past that (or call it "distinctive" or something, which you can), this is a great special. The style mixes well with the writing and makes it entertaining year after year. Clearly, a lot of talent went into this special (a good many of the people who made this were working on SNL or Second City at the time - Gilda Radner is the witch, and Catherine O'Hara is Malicious). The adults at the party are especially funny, with their mundane - and entirely realistic party banter ("they just don't put this kind of construction into houses anymore”). I also love Goodly's enthusiasm for prioritizing, delegating responsibilities, and creating "definitive experiences," and Malicious's food (chocolate gefilte fish, garlic taffy apples, and other stuff that's probably now available at your local fusion restaurant for seventy bucks). Goodly, in particular, fascinates me - he was way ahead of his time. He would fit right into this age when manufacturing memories became such a business. Cookie companies now say things like “we don’t sell cookies, we sell memories.” Theme parks have signs at the entrance saying “let the memories begin.” It all strikes me as sort of dishonest. Is a memory “genuine” if it was so thoroughly set up to become a memory?
Special notice should be given to the pacing of the story - in a feat almost unrivaled in the field of Halloween specials, Witch's Night Out doesn't seem too short or too long. So many half hour specials seem like they're cramming a feature-length story into a shorter time frame; that's better than the hour-length specials that go on way too long, but still - there's something to be said for getting it just right.
Witch's Night Out hasn't been broadcast in a while, though there's a fairly recent (1995) VHS release out there. It can be a bit expensive to buy , but it DOES pop up on youtube from time to time (the copyright holders are pretty hardcore about getting it taken down when it's there), and VHS rips sometimes turns up on bootleg DVDs. The DVDs and torrents are invariably rips of the VHS; they aren't in perfect quality, but, given the animation and style of the thing, I really doubt that a big remaster would make THAT much of a difference (though I'd love for them to prove me wrong). It's not like we watched this in crisp, sparkling Hi-Definition in the 80s, anyway. The VHS copies look exactly the way I remember it. As a side note for those who want to be real geeks, many releases and broadcasts leave out a bit at the end where Rotten wants to be transformed into a saint.
|I'm counting it as a standalone special, but, technically, it's part of a two episode series; there is an even lesser-known prequel, The Gift of Winter, a 1974 special which featured some of the same characters (Small, Tender, Bazooie, etc), but was in most ways inferior to Witch's Night Out. It's not nearly as smartly written, and the dialogue is VERY 1974 ("it's good to be free / it's good to be me" - that kind of stuff..). But WNO fans may enjoy seeing a few more antics of the characters they've seen year after year, and GIFT OF WINTER has the added benefit of counting Dan Akroyd among the voice cast.|