|Vincent Price in a Halloween special. Man, what a wonderful idea! Why weren't there more of those? Nobody ever played "evil" quite like Vincent Price. Unfortunately, he never seemed shy about attaching his name to inferior products and films. When asked why, he once said "because I am tremendously fond of eating." Gotta respect the honesty.|
Our sensibilities regarding what's scary and what isn't have changed over the years. You never see guys in cowls and capes with cartoonish evil laughs in scary movies any more. In fact, half the time, Price's mannerisms come off not so much spooky as, well, really, really...flamboyant. You know what I mean.
Here, in this made-for-TV special from the late 1970s, he sort of splits the difference between evil and flamboyant as the between-segment narrator, introducing three stories based on books and making a few subtle suggestions that the viewers go read the books on which the segments were based. Each segment ends with Price saying some variation of the phrase "was the ghost real? You'll have to go read the book to find out!" Even Ramona Quimby, Age 8, thought THAT was a pretty lame way to get someone reading.
In many ways, this thing plays like one of those after-school specials that were common at the time; visually it looks very much like them, in fact, and the lessons about reading are so pervasive that I half-expected Captain O.J. Readmore to show up.
Anyway, there are three segments. The first is a scene from "The Ghost Belonged To Me" by Richard Peck (an author I recently heard giving "kids today are stupid because they don't speak Latin" keynote speech at "kid lit" event). It's a rather unsuccesful piece; it's clear they're trying to cram a lot of story into a five minute slot. It does have one thing going for it, though - when the ghost first shows up, she's awfully spooky. However, as she whines and acts emo enough to give Moaning Myrtle a run for her money, she loses some of her spookiness.
Next up is perhaps the clumsiest of all takes on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod looks as though he was supposed to be playing Riff Raff in Rocky Horror, but took a wrong turn at the intersection, went to the wrong theatre, ended up in a community production of Legend of Sleepy Hollow. He acts really, really spastic. And, while most adaptations have to expand on the story, this one trims it down. There's a short scene where Ichabod flirts with Katrina and gets threatened by Brom Bones, then a LONG scene where Ichabod rides home, talking to his horse, giving a sort of play-by-play of the ride (which is not that exciting). Then the headless horseman shows up and ends up throwing his head (a regular, flesh and blood head) at Ichabod. But was it a real head? All they find the next morning is a smashed pumpkin. What happened to Ichabod? You'll have to read the book!
For the record, Price is being sort of a dick here, since the book WON'T tell you what happened. Sure, Washington Irving made it pretty clear that the horseman was Brom Bones in disguise and that the "head" he threw was a pumpkin, but it actually sort of leaves it open-ended (the evidence is pretty overwhelming, but is not considered conclusive by Irving or the locals).
Both of these short pieces are pretty bad. I would say that the acting was bad, but that isn't really fair - the actors simply play as through they're on stage, not TV, with exaggerated voices and gestures. Still, a lot of this reminds me of nothing so much as Troll 2. ESPECIALLY the eccentric wizard in the next segment, who reminds me a lot of Grandpa Seth.
The real showpiece of the special is the long(er) adaptation of John Bellair's perennially popular The House With a Clock In Its Walls. It, too, sort of seems to be skimping on atmosphere, and the script is dismal. As with the others, they spend a lot of time showing the characters talking to themselves. It's better than the others, mainly on the basis of being MUCH longer, giving it a bit more breathing room. Still, this cool book deserved better. Some studio with a big budget could probably do a really wicked version of it.
The (somewhat rare) VHS version includes a few previews for other shows, mostly in the form of what appears to be just the opening couple of minutes of the shows themselves. Most of them look distinctly unenticing. Some look okay, actually, but I imagine they were made by the same place that did this one, so I won't be buying them.
Still, it's probably good for the nostalgia factor, even just on the basis of having that "after school special" vibe. Just seeing things in that style can bring back memories for those of us who grew up watching them.
The full version is now on youtube.