|Often, you see, people email me asking for help in locating some Halloween special that lingers vaguely in the back of their memory - they remember a few details, and they remember loving it, but if they don't have a tape, they never remember quite enough for them to figure out what the title was. Four times out of five, that turns out to be Leach's 1978 classic Witch's Night Out, which aired on NBC that year before going on to become an October staple on the Disney Channel in the 80s and TNT in the 90s. You see our main post on it here. I once compared it to McDonald's Pizza: so many people of my generation remember encountering it once in some far-flung McDonald's in a city they were passing through, but we can never quite remember which city it was.|
It was released on video once or twice, but is long out of print. With the small cult following that's grown up around the special over the years, demand for the tapes ran high. I've seen VHS copies go for upwards of a hundred bucks. Deleting comments offering to sell bootleg DVDs took up quite a bit of my time some years (and a few of the bootleggers have quite happily told me they were making a pile off of them before I took their posts down).
Unlike most of the long-lost specials, the copyright holders were vigilant about taking the special off of youtube and streaming sites, where it would sometimes be posted without permission. Now and then I've tried to embed a version of it here, and I always got "cease and desist" orders. I didn't argue. Though some posters out there really, really got ticked off that someone would stop them from pirating something, I respected the claims of the copyright holder and hoped it meant that they planned to do something with it.
|Well, folks, after all these years, it finally happened: the creator, now known as Jonathan Rogers, found out about the little cult following a year or two ago (I like to think this site helped) and, according to a facebook post last year, watched his hand-drawn cartoon for the first time in thirty years, then started plans in motion to bring it back into print. The video clip on the left is a trailer for the new edition.|
Some time ago, Jonathan (Leach) Rogers teamed up with James Cross to form Cross-Rogers, which has now released an official DVD - fully remastered for the first time, with a crispness that was probably not apparent even in its very first broadcasts. Surely those boxy old console TVs didn't make it look as sharp and vibrant as it does here.
Now, I've sometimes mused that maybe we didn't need a fully-remastered version of this special. The VHS tape I watched for years was fuzzy, but it's not like I was watching an HD version back in 1987, when I first saw it. And the animation is wonky and stylized and a bit crude anyway, right?
Perhaps I was just afraid that any change would mess with a nearly-perfect experience or something. You know that Hawthorne story about the person who tries to remove one splotch on something otherwise perfect and wrecks the whole thing in the end? It's like that. Maybe the murkiness and mysterious origins were part of the cartoon's charm.
I needn't have worried, though, because, except for the fact that the dust and scratches in the print are more noticeable now, the DVD is stunning. Watching it now, the colors absolutely POP in a way that they never did before, and the backgrounds, in particular, are bright and crisp. I'm seeing things in the background (and even the foreground) that I never saw before. Looking at the trailer above will probably be sufficient for most people, but here are some side-by-side comparisons of the cartoon as it appears now (right) next to the same shot in the bootlegs:
This, folks, is absolutely essential. If you're among the many who dropped a few bucks on a bootleg DVD or even downloaded an avi for free someplace, you owe it to yourselves (and the creators, of course) to put a few bucks into upgrading.
The DVD set also features a comic-book version of the story (on-screen only; you can see it on the new website, witchsnightout.com), as well as ten bonus cartoons, mostly very old ones featuring some sort of Halloween theme (like a 1950s Popeye short). Of particular interest is a fascinating 1920 Felix the Cat short in that stunning black and white (seriously black and white - there's hardly a shade of gray in the whole thing) that was common in those early toons of the "Scratchy runs afoul of an Irishman" variety. Also of note is a "Meany, Miney, and Mo" short - a "Lonesome Ghosts" type of clip in which three chimps run into hijinks in a magic shop (though my first time watching the first few minutes I was holding my breath and cringing, certain that it was going to turn out to be alarmingly racist any second now).
Cross/Rogers is also releasing a remastered edition of the 1974 Christmas feature, The Gift of Winter, whose existence is the only thing that keeps WNO from being a true "standalone" feature. Their website even announces plans for NEW material featuring these characters (apparently starting with a Thanksgiving special), of which I'm of mixed feelings. Part of the charm of the original is that Witch's Night Out, unlike most of the cartoons on this site, wasn't tied into a larger series or licensed characters or "multimedia properties." It seemed to come out of nowhere, create a world that existed only for twenty-five minutes, and then vanished into our memories. It was, in every sense of the world, a "special," not just a "Halloween episode." On the other hand, though, I really WOULD like to have action figures or PVC figurines of all these characters, ya know?
This seems to be going around a lot lately - a number of long-lost VHS bootleg favorites are coming back this year (including Mr. Boogedy, about which more later), and I think that this may be The Year of Witch's Night Out on this blog. I tried to interview Jon for the site last year after interviewing Tony, the guy who played Small, though it sort of fell through the cracks. This year I hope to talk more with as many people as I can find. There may have been some value to having the whole thing stay in the woodwork, a quaint little mysterious cartoon that seemed to come out of nowhere, leaving no clues to its origin, but if it's coming out of the woodwork, lets do it right!
Cross/Rogers has started out strong on this front. Though Jean and Jon, the creators, have been divorced for years, they reunited for a couple of "making of" features that the company has posted to youtube, pulling back the curtain on this cartoon for the first time.
Here's one of Jean Rankin showing off some of her original background art:
And an 18 minute clip of Jean and Jon talking and reminiscing. Jean says she couldn't stand to watch "Gift of Winter" for years, and both reveal that they were sort of embarrassed by their early work for years; "all our animation friends thought it was %^@;*," says Jon. Both have warmed up to it over the years, though. "Now, people think it's kinda cool."
This is a fascinating watch today (particularly if you're like me - a creator of all sorts of flops that you sort of want to disown now and then). Watching the two of them reminisce about a now-bygone era of animation is just wonderful: