Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Spooky Bats and Scaredy Cats

Director: Nathan Smith
Writers: Nathan Smith, Bryan Allen
Producer: Clifford A Miles
Cast: Ken Sansom, R Chase O’Neil, C Brock Holman
Country: USA
Year of release: 2008
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Porchlight)

Who doesn’t love a good monsterfest, a film that gathers together a whole bunch of classic monsters in one story? This specific subgenre can trace its origins back to the final three films in Universal’s Frankenstein series in the 1940s. House of Frankenstein went one better on the previous Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man by tossing Dracula into the mix. This formula was repeated in House of Dracula then spoofed in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein which also threw a Vincent Price-voiced Invisible Man in as a final gag.

The other two well-known monsterfests are The Munsters (in all its many variants) and Fred Dekker’s wonderful The Monster Squad. Van Helsing falls into the category too as does a 1990s TV mini-series which appropriated the House of Frankenstein title. And then there are the animated monsterfests. Series such as The Drak Pack, The Groovy Ghoulies and Gravedale High took advantage of the freedom which animation offered, where a monster character costs no more than a human one. But probably the two best animated monsterfests are the brace that were produced by the famous Rankin-Bass Studio: the stop-motion Mad Monster Party? (with its completely inexplicable titular question mark) and the lesser-known, cel-animated Mad Mad Mad Monsters.

Well, now here’s another one. Produced in 2007 and released onto DVD in time for Halloween 2008, this is a half-hour stop-motion film so packed with classic monsters that it’s difficult to find a subgenre that it doesn’t tread on. It’s not a great film in terms of script or characters but TF seems to like it and he’s the target audience much more than an old monster-geek like me.

Spooky Bats and Scaredy Cats concerns two children out trick-or-treating. Makean looks to be about seven or eight and is wearing a quite good vampire costume, which just about shoves this into the vampire subgenre because, oddly, that’s the one type of classic monster which is not included. Makean’s name is pronounced ‘Mac -KEE -an’. His sister Katie is about twelve and is dressed as a cat, complete with ears, tail, furry cuffs and ankles and a wide, 1960s-style belt that puts one unavoidably in mind of the very different (or maybe not so different) cat-suits worn by Emma Peel.

After Makean is scared by a mouse and a scarecrow in a cornfield (the mouse is wearing a puritan outfit for some reason), he and his sister walk into the village where they meet an elderly fellow called the Candleman. He has a wide-brimmed hat covered with lit candles and also a pet fish called Brunswick which floats in the air and is towing a small cart along the ground.

Here’s what you need to understand this film. Spooky Bats and Scaredy Cats is the second in a projected series of seven such tales under the banner Evergreen Holiday Classics. The first film in the series was called The Light Before Christmas and there is a trailer for both that one and this on the Spooky Bats DVD. This is why we are neither introduced to Katie and Makean (which is no real narrative problem as they’re generic kids) nor to the Candleman himself. This latter situation is a problem because the Candleman is entirely an invented character with no basis in legend or fiction so we have no references. Katie and Makean evidently know him but how, and who the jiminy is he? And, er, why does he have a pet fish that can fly? Presumably there is some background in The Light Before Christmas but the film-makers have forgotten that people who buy this disc won’t necessarily have seen the previous one (which is still available in the UK but seems to have been deleted in the States).

Also important to know is that the characters and settings are based on the work of James C Christensen, a Hugo- and Chesley-winning artist whose speciality is heavily-clothed figures in whimsical settings, often with a spiritual or religious element. And whose trademark is a fish, swimming through the air. I didn’t know any of this when I watched the DVD.

The Candleman asks the two children if they will deliver some invitations to his Halloween party, to which they agree, hoping to collect some candy along the way. And this is where all the monsters come in...

Among the recipients of invitations are a mummy (inside an Egyptian tomb), a werewolf, a plant-creature who is to all intents and purposes Swamp Thing, a zombie (we only see the cadaverous arm reaching from the grave), a family of ghosts, some giant carnivorous plants, the Grim Reaper, an old witch and finally ‘Frank’ - and we can all guess who that turns out to be. Along the way, the sceptical Katie who doesn’t believe in ‘spooks’ (the M-word is never used) comes round to her more paranoid brother’s way of thinking. The quest ends at the home of the ‘fire-headed pumpkin demon’ (or somesuch) with a selection of the ghouls advancing towards the two terrified children.

But... it turns out that this is actually the Candleman’s home and the ghouls are of course his friends, come for the party. So is the message that we should conquer our fears or that there is nothing to be afraid of? Is the message that spooks and monsters are real but friendly or that they’re not real? This isn’t the first animated special I’ve come across where, despite a general moral tone, the actual moral itself is rather fuzzy.

There are some very nice touches. In handing the invitation to the mummy, Katie accidentally rips his arm off and he picks this up to wave bye-bye (or rather “Bmm-bmm” - there’s a lovely gag at the end where Frankenstein complains to the werewolf that he can’t understand a word that the mummy says). Also, the scene with the ghosts has Katie repeatedly trying to hand over the invitation only for it to fall through the recipient's non-corporeal hand.

Where the film falls down is in its own uncertainty about whether it’s set in the real world or some magical fairyland. Katie and Makean’s costumes suggest that they are contemporary characters, especially as they collect their treats in plastic, pumpkin-shaped baskets. Their speech is contemporary too, as is the older sibling’s dismissive attitude towards her brother’s childish belief in the supernatural which is finally dispelled when the witch lends them two flying broomsticks to carry them to ‘Frank’s place’.

But the village that we see is straight out of the Brothers Grimm via Hollywood, a mittel-European-influenced, 18th century hamlet. There is even a brief glimpse of the lower half of a giant, also out trick-or-treating. When the Candleman (who is very obviously a magical character, even before we notice his fish) sends the kids off on their errand, he summons an old-fashioned carriage without horses or driver, of which Katie blithely comments, “This must be one of those new steam-powered carriages.”

You see the problem? The film’s core is the acceptance by modern, cynical Katie that magic and the supernatural are real, yet she and her brother evidently already live in a quasi-historical world riven with magic and fantasy. This robs the film of its essential dichotomy. Not that five-year-olds like TF are going to mind.

The animation is very good although there is something about the alternate heads of the Candleman figure which means that his mouth movements don’t exactly match his words. I don’t know if this is a problem with the bar-sheeting (see, I know my technical animation terms!) or whether some of the dialogue was changed after the animation had been done. Nevertheless, the designs, the sets, the costumes are all impressive and where digital effects are used they are effectively integrated into the story, such as creating the mist-covered swamp.

Another five Evergreen Holiday Classics are planned: A Cozy Valentine, Shamrocks Leprechauns and Shillelaghs (for St Patrick’s Day), Independence - What a Day! and films based around Easter and Thanksgiving. These are all summarised on the series’ website although it’s notable that the synopsis of the Halloween film is different to what we see here. In November 2008, just after Spooky Bats was released on DVD, The Light Before Christmas opened theatrically in some IMAX theatres.

The company behind the Evergreen Holiday Classics is Tandem Motion Picture Studios, a Utah-based animation studio run by brothers Chris and Nathan Smith. Nathan Smith directed Spooky Bats and wrote it in collaboration with Bryan Allen although curiously Chris Smith doesn’t seem to be credited anywhere. Allen, Smith, producer Clifford A Miles, executive producer Michael R Todd and James C Christensen share the ‘story’ credit and Christensen also gets ‘based upon characters created by’ which seems fair enough. I’m guessing that Todd uses his middle initial to differentiate himself from the Barnsley-born animator who was technical director on Ratatouille, The Incredibles and Wall-E, although I suppose that they could be the same bloke as his bio says he has also working on Disney’s aborted Snow Queen feature (as well as Shark Tale, Reign of Fire and Spider-Man).

Cliff Miles, who also handled voice direction, has worked on a wide range of other projects include the world’s largest dinosaur museum (very rich in fossils, Utah). And in that vein it looks like Tandem’s next film isn’t another Candleman short but a feature called Pangea which will be the first film ever to mix dinosaurs with elves! It’s all about a ‘water elf’ called Nemonie who teams up with a dinosaur called Gobi to search for treasure on the prehistoric supercontinent (Nemonie is also the title used on a trailer on the Tandem Studios website).

Argentinean production designer Nebel Luccion was responsible for translating Christensen’s distinctive style into 3D with the assistance of wardrobe designer Patricia Walton. Visual effects supervisor Mathew Judd has worked on the likes of Lake Placid, Deep Blue Sea, The World is Not Enough, Minority Report and Mission: Impossible II as well as a large number of games and some military training simulation programmes.

Leading the voice cast is Ken Sansom as the Candleman. He has been the voice of Rabbit in Winnie the Pooh films and TV series since the late 1980s; his other credits include Herbie Rides Again, 1983 TV pilot The Invisible Woman and the voice of Hound in the Transformers TV series. R Chase O’Neil (Katie) was born in March 1993 (not October as the IMDB has it) and started her career in 2000 with a small part in a TV movie based on the JonBenet Ramsey case, progressing to war drama Saints and Soldiers and ice skating film Go Figure. C Brock Holman (Makean) was in a 2003 production called A Pioneer Miracle which was directed by cinematographer TC Christensen (I don’t know if he’s related to James C).

The werewolf, the witch and Frankenstein are voiced respectively by Joel Bishop (who was also in Saints and Soldiers and that JonBenet telemovie as well as Stalking Santa and Cyber Sleuths), Mary Parker Williams (Don’t Look Under the Bed, Firestarter 2) and Christopher Miller (who could be one of several actors of that name).

The other element of note is the music by Lisle Moore, who has previously scored trailers such as The Missing, Haunted Mansion and Cold Mountain as well as various Playstation games. Specifically, there is a song midway through the film as Katie and Makean fly on the broomsticks which is an utterly shameless rip-off of The Nightmare Before Christmas (complete with “Halloween! Halloween!” chorus). The aping of Danny Elfman’s music is so blatant that it frankly spoils and cheapens the production as a whole, which is a shame.

One final point to note is the running time which according to the DVD sleeve is 65 minutes. In fact, Spooky Bats and Scaredy Cats runs only half an hour, the rest being padded out with the two trailers, a short (but surprisingly good) look behind the scenes of the production... and half a dozen public domain Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoons. That’s a bit naughty, although we should blame the distributor, not the producers.

While it has its faults, mainly in the story department, Spooky Bats and Scaredy Cats is a nicely produced little special which has enough fun for its target audience and enough monsters gathered in one place to get adult fans excited.

MJS rating: B+
Review originally posted 7th December 2008.

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