Once Upon a Midnight Scary (1979)

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.
I've had a few emails about it, but this is not one of those specials that spawned even a minor cult following; it never had a very wide release as a video, and probably won't be on DVD any time soon. There's a reason for this, of course: it's not very good. Even at its best, it tends to seem like b-rate community theatre. It's a shame, really - a Vincent Price Halloween special OUGHT to be one for the ages. But this gives the impression that it was thrown together very quickly on very little budget; most of the budget was probably spent on the handful of blue screen effects.

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.


Brigid N. Burke said...

OK, you probably posted this awhile ago, but I have to comment...

I remember watching this special on TV at a friend's house--at the time, it piqued my interest. The fact that I remember the special to this day, and this is almost 30 years later, says something of its impact.

I managed to obtain a copy of the VHS tape, and was amazed at just how crappy it really was. I'm not sure why it appealed to me so much at the time. I've read all 3 books represented, and these adaptations are 3rd rate at best. I was actually disgusted by the House with the Clock in its Walls knockoff--it does no justice to the book whatsoever. It's one of my favorite books of all time, and this adaptation is misleading about the plot at best.

In any case, on the plus side, it gave me a bit of childhood nostalgia, and I had to laugh at how easily I was entertained at the age of 7...

Thanks for posting the synopsis--I think you're right on in your comments.

C-Man said...

Happy Halloween!!!!

Anonymous said...

I'm looking for a Halloween show - I think it was a TV special that was from the 80s. It was about 2 kids, I believe a boy and a girl, who have to stop something from happening on Halloween. I think it takes place in a New England-type town, and there are some scenes in a graveyard.

I believe the kids have to stop a witch from getting her hands on a powerful locket, otherwise she will be able to raise the dead or take over the world. Sorry it's a really vague recollection I have. Also, I believe they have to stop the witch (or whatever it is they are battling) by midnight on Halloween. I think the kids may be following clues as well, and may also need to find a specific grave in the cemetery. Again - sorry for being so vague! I thought maybe this was The Midnight Hour or The House with a Clock in Its Walls, but neither are. Help?

Adam Selzer said...

Hi, Anonymous! That sounds like The Midnight Hour to me (unless it's Mr Boogedy)

Anonymous said...

Awww. You tube videos aren't working anymore. :( And I can't get this stupid capcha right. This is my 4th try... try an easier safeguard.

Unknown said...

I was 8 years old when this originally came out on TV. I remember I took Mr' Price's advice, and READ THE BOOKS. Glad I did, too! "The House With a Clock In Its Walls" is only the first book in a long series starring Lewis Barnavelt, Uncle Johnathan, and the friendly witch next door (left out of Price's version), Mrs. Florence Zimmermann. John Bellairs died in 1992, and another author, Brad Strickland, finished Bellairs' unfinished works and even continued writing more stories using the original characters (and did a fine job of it, in my opinion). In all, Mr. Bellairs had 3 series of kids gothic horror/mystery books: the "Lewis Barnavelt" series (starting with "The House With a Clock In Its Walls"), the "Anthony Monday" series (staring with "The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn"; the series is only 4 books long), and the "Johnny Dixon" series, which starts with "The Curse of the Blue Figurine". I enjoyed the stories as a kid, and STILL enjoy them. In fact, I am now reading them to MY kids (ages 9 and 10).

Incidentally, Disney made a movie in 1978 called "Child of Glass", somewhat loosely based on "The Ghost Belonged To Me". Not a bad movie in its own right, for a made-for-tv movie from the late 1970's, but the book was still much better.


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