Ray Bradbury’s Return to Tormenting Suburban Children in The Halloween Tree (1993)

There’s something instantly familiar about the spooky, vintage Midwest suburbs of the Ray Bradbury-penned feature Something Wicked This Way Comes, our current Movie of the Month. Even watching the film for the first time in my 30s, I felt as if it had already been in my life forever, despite my familiarity with Bradbury’s work typically falling solidly under sci-fi, not horror. The spooky bygone suburbs of the film felt very much akin to horror movies I had grown up with as a kid, titles like Jumanji & The Monster Squads, a setting that’s been evoked & praised in so many Ebert reviews I don’t even know where to start citing them. Apparently, it’s a setting Bradbury had mentally returned to often himself, a spacial & temporal locale he had framed many of his children-targeted short stories & novels in, despite only one being adapted to a major motion picture release. Something Wicked This Way Comes does have some Bradbury-penned company in its nature as a feature length adaptation, though, just not anything with the financial backing of a live action Walt Disney production. Instead, its closest spiritual relative in nostalgic suburb horror would be a made-for-TV animated feature, a much cheaper mode of entertainment all around.

The Halloween Tree looks like an animated recreation of Something Wicked This Way Comes’s exact tone & setting, though it feels slightly behind that work in every way. Its fantasy novel source material was written in 1972, ten years behind Something Wicked’s 1962 publication date. It was produced as a late Hanna-Barbera animation, while Something Wicked was working with Disney dollars, which go a long way. Even in its central themes, which more or less amount to a history lesson on The True Meaning of Halloween, it pales in comparison to the much more complex subject matter of its predecessor, which explores intangible subjects like fear & desire. It’s difficult, then, to think of The Halloween Tree as anything but a minor work by comparison, but that doesn’t mean it’s charmless or worth excluding from the Something Wicked legacy. Bradbury himself was at least invested in the work’s value, providing a storybook-style narration for its framing device. The hand-drawn animation is much more complex than most Hanna-Barbera productions are afforded. Speaking from a personal standpoint, I’d also say it was nice to see a plot structure usually reserved for The True Meaning of Christmas applied to a holiday I actually give a shit about. The Halloween Tree feels somewhat like a scrappy echo of Something Wicked (which was something of a bomb itself), but it’s got enough of its own charm & personality to justify its existence outside that superior work’s shadow.

The spooky Midwest suburb setting The Halloween Tree shares with Something Wicked really only serves as a framing device. A group of kids preparing to trick ‘r treat on Halloween night see their sick friend’s ghost running through the woods just outside their suburb. Following his specter, they bump into a creepy old ghoul (voiced by an unrecognizable Leonard Nimoy) who seems to be threatening to claim the boy’s soul as he succumbs to appendicitis complications. In the process of bartering for their sick friend’s existence, the children are mocked for not understanding the meaning behind their various Halloween costumes: a mummy, a witch, a skeleton, etc. Chiding them, “All dressed up for Halloween and you don’t know why,” the old ghoul takes them on a temporal road trip through historical Halloween-type cultural traditions that relate to their costumes. Vignettes touching on Egyptian mummification, Stonehenge, witch trials, Día de Muertos, and so on provide meaning to the children’s various costume choices as they inch closer to saving their friend’s life through bleeding heart negotiation tactics. Much like with Something Wicked, the resolution to the threat of death is much more saccharine than the stakes appear during the conflict but the film could still potentially haunt an audience who catches it at a young enough age. The two movies’ real connection, though, is the way Bradbury makes a small crew of suburban scamps feel as if they’re the only kids in the world, saddling them with the responsibility of waging a metaphysical Good Vs. Evil battle.

To be honest, if I weren’t watching this film on Alli’s recommendation during our Movie of the Month conversation or I wasn’t aware of Bradbury’s involvement, I’m not sure The Halloween Tree would have immediately reminded me of Something Wicked This Way Comes. My mind likely would have gone more readily to Over the Garden Wall, a recent animated story that shares The Halloween Tree’s religious reverence for Jack-o-Lanterns & Halloween costuming. The similarities shared with Something Wicked are not at all difficult to reach for, however. By the time the gang of suburban tykes reach an abandoned circus where the attractions are haunted by an evil magic, Bradbury’s wicked fingerprints are detectable all over it. The most immediately noticeable difference in this version of his aesthetic is that one of the kids is a girl, which feels out of line with Something Wicked’s distinctive boyhood POV. That detail was apparently added in its adaptation from book to screen, a smart choice that helps broaden its appeal. For anyone looking to introduce children to horror as a genre, you could probably do no better than a double feature of these two Bradbury-penned works after a long night of trick ‘r treating under suburban streetlights. He’s got a welcoming touch to his spooky children’s fare that should prove to be invitingly universal, even if the settings are so consistently specific it’s difficult to tell them apart from work to work.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the Ray Bradbury-penned Disney horror Something Wicked This Way Comes, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its Bette Davis-starring predecessor, The Watcher in the Woods (1980).

-Brandon Ledet

The Jetsons & WWE: Robo-WrestleMania (2017)

Look, I’m solidly, repeatedly on record as being a fan of WWE’s recent team-ups with long-dead Hanna-Barbera properties. Two Scooby-Doo crossovers (WrestleMania Mystery & Curse of the Speed Demon) and one Flintstones detour (Stone Age SmackDown) into this newborn era of Hanna-Barbera pro wrestling cartoons, I haven’t had a single sour experience yet. The larger than life personalities of “WWE Superstars” entering the far-out worlds of Bedrock dinos, fake ghosts, monster trucks, and Scooby Snacks is a perfect fit, especially since WWE likes to maintain the illusion of producing PG content despite building its entire empire on “fantasy violence.” WWE’s fourth collaboration with Hanna-Barbera, while not my favorite crossover so far, is no different in the way it delivers the absurd, over the top fantasy violence goods in a cartoon setting. The Jetsons & WWE: Robo-WrestleMania is the first new Jetsons content produced in nearly three decades, a feature that might mark a lowpoint in terms of that property’s overall quality, but still had me giggly over the way it handles a very specific kind of larger than life absurdity that only a pro wrestling cartoon can deliver.

This is one of those situations where an IMDb plot synopsis is all the information you really need to know if you’d be interested: “A snowstorm freezes Big Show solid for decades. When he finally thaws out, Elroy and George help him build wrestle bots. When Big Show uses them to take over their city, the Jetsons go back in time to enlist help from WWE Superstars.” Well, technically, that synopsis isn’t exactly accurate. You see, The Big Show doesn’t build wrestle bots himself; he overtakes pre-existing robots with his wrestling prowess after discovering in horror that World Wrestling Entertainment has evolved into World Wrobot Entertainment (the second “w” is silent) while he was frozen, making his livelihood an obsolete practice. There’s a dual level of fantasy going on here: one where The Big Show is currently in contention to be the World Heavyweight Champion (those days are long gone) and one where WWE is still thriving 100 years in the future. Whatever automated dystopia pro wrestling slips into is likely imminent too, as the wrestling bots featured in the film are mechanical versions of current superstars: Robo-Roman Reigns, Robo-Seth Rollins, Robo-Dolph Ziggler, etc. I guess there’s a third level of fantasy at work too, you know, the one where lil’ Elroy Jetson invents time travel for a middle school science fair. That aspect of the film can’t really compare to the spectacle of human vs robot pro wrestling, though. Really, what could?

The Jetsons’ presence in Robo-WrestleMania is secondary at best. Besides the initial thrill of having the long dead television show’s iconic theme music (a cheap pop that’s later repeated for a gag where WWE Superstars are similarly introduced) as well as the dead-on impersonations of the new voice cast, the Jetsons mostly just provide an appropriate backdrop for the robotic & time-traveling hijinks of the much more interesting pro wrestling personalities they mix with. A lot of the property’s “women be shoppin'”/men are workaholics humor feels uncomfortably outdated in a modern context. Rosie the sarcastic robot maid remains the only fresh & amusing aspect of the original Jetsons dynamic. She gets in some great lines here about how “If [The Big Show] makes a mess on the carpet, I am not cleaning it up” or about how Robo-Roman Reigns really turns her on/pushes her buttons. I also appreciated a gag where George accidentally wins a wrestling match and when asked to provide his in-ring name, he bills himself as the amusingly generic Future Guy. Again, though, it’s mostly just the Jetson’s futuristic setting that provides anything of value for the WWE Superstars to bounce off of, but it’s a context that pays off nicely

The biggest surprise of Robo-WrestleMania​ is how much effort The Big Show put it his vocal performance. I didn’t have much confidence in watching a kids’ film starting the lug after suffering through the abysmal (even by WWE Studios standards) Knucklehead. He plays a great heel here, though, anchoring the film with the larger than life, enraged growl of a classic decades-old wrestling promo, redundantly declaring himself to be “the world heavyweight championship of the world.” I’d even dare say there’s an ounce of genuine pathos to the way the living giant feels physically awkward in an automated future where his body & his profession are essentially now obsolete. I even wonder if that robo-wrestling angle was a mode of sly writer’s room commentary on the way pro wrestling has been morally sanitized & made less physically risky in the PG, publicly traded modern era. There’s some similarly satirical jabs at Roman Reigns’s persona here: he charges his fist as if he’s gearing up for his patented “Superman punch” only to fire off an autograph for a fan; Rosie only likes his robo-version for his good looks; his robo-version’s stilted, mechanical delivery of his “Believe that” catchphrase sounds oddly reminiscent of some of his on-mic botches in real life; etc. For the most part, though, Roman and the rest of the WWE Superstars take just as much of a backseat as the Jetsons do. This is The Big Show’s, uh, big show and he delivers surprisingly strongly in that animated spotlight.

I was mildly, pleasantly amused by Robo-WrestleMania just as I have been with all of these Hanna-Barbera pro wrestling crossovers. Still, I feel like the opportunities presented by these cartoon backdrops aren’t being fully exploited to match the inherent absurdity of the wrestlers who populate them. Besides the wrestling robots & off hand references to Seth Rollins’s frequent claim that he’s “The Future of WWE,” the 100 years in the future setting of Robo-WrestleMania isn’t pushed to its full potential. Imagine all of the places a cartoon about a time traveling pro wrestlers could go; I’d argue this movie settled on the least interesting one. Thinking about the self-aware psychedelia of what could pop up in a New Day cartoon or how much weirder a Jetsons crossover could’ve been if it were produced while Stardust was still with the company (something I’ve called for in every review of these damned things so far) makes me mourn for the things that could be if these crossovers strayed a little further from the wrestling ring and a little deeper into the personas of the weirdos who work in it. The Jetsons & WWE: Robo-WrestleMania is admirably silly as is, though, and it works remarkably well as a redemptive palette cleanser for The Big Show, who really needed it after the dregs of Knucklehead.

-Brandon Ledet

Scooby-Doo! & WWE: Curse of the Speed Demon (2016)

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three star

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I’ve gone on record as enjoying the first WWE/Scooby-Doo collaboration WrestleMania Mystery (the Flintstones collaboration Stone Age SmackDown was even better), but was a little skeptical that a sequel could find much more room to play around with the concept of a Scooby-Doo pro wrestling picture than what’s established in the original. The first film brings the gang to WrestleMania where they meet a bunch of famous “WWE Superstars” at the company’s biggest annual event & help solve the mystery of an improbable specter threatening to ruin the spectacle, in this case a bionic ghost bear (seriously). I expected a sequel would simply repeat the same exact scenario with a fresh batch of pro wrestlers & lazily call it a day, but Curse of the Speed Demon accomplished much more than that on the creative end. Recognizing that its larger-than-life cast of musclebound characters don’t necessarily have to live in a wrestling ring in their animated form, Curse of the Speed Demon picks an entirely new context for them to flex muscles & deliver promos in: off-road monster truck racing. The sequel to WWE’s original Scooby-Doo collaboration plays less like an animated pro wrestling picture & much more like a little kid’s imagination as they smash together Hot Wheels toys in a sandbox.

Instead of attending a second WrestleMania, Scooby & the Mystery Gang find themselves at Muscle Moto X, an impossible Vince McMahon startup that combines monster truck mayhem with dirt track speed racing. (Though, I guess if McMahon were to start a dirt track monster truck racing division of his brand, that name might not be far off, considering the long-gone XFL.) The film gets further & further away from realistic versions of what off-road pro wrestling monster truck races might look like (as unrealistically goofy as that starting point is on its own), eventually just says “Fuck it.” and indulges in some Mario Kart-type cartoon race tracks you’d find doodled in an eight year old’s dream journal. Much like the ghost bear of the last Scooby-Doo/WWE picture the proceedings here are mucked up by an otherworldly threat, in this case a literal speed demon known as Inferno, which may or may not be someone involved with the company trying to sabotage the success of Muscle Moto X. Although the wrestlers are not in their usual squared circle habitat, they’re more than willing to bodyslam & tussle with Inferno on the dirt track until the demon’s true identity can be revealed. WWE personas mix with Scooby-Doo’s harmless, trademarked stoner humor and, viola!, you have an enjoyably campy kids’ picture that captures the spirit of pro wrestling without all that pesky pro wrestling getting in the way.

Of course, as a pro wrestling fan, a lot of the fun of indulging in disposable trash like this is in seeing beloved WWE performers doing their thing in animated form. For the most part, the contributions are enjoyable, if not predictable here. Michael Cole & Seamus do their usual thing: inanely providing play-by-play & interspersing action with unprompted shouts of “Fella!” respectively. Paige bounces some of her mall goth sarcasm off the similarly difficult to read Lana & Rusev, which is an interesting dynamic that would likely never occur in a wrestling storyline. In-the-ring high-fliers Kofi Kingston & Los Matadores defy gravity in some really goofy cartoon logic. Vince, HHH, and Stephanie McMahon present a human face for the company & A-Lister The Miz constantly points to the absurdity of the whole ordeal in lines like “Another monster attack? Really?” & “Strangely enough, I’ve been mauled by a monster on a midnight jog before,” referring to events of the first film. It’s the more over the top characters who really steal the show, though. The Undertaker is especially game, gravely reading lines like “Rust in Peace” [to his deeply mourned, irrevocably smashed vehicle] or gleefully driving a souped-up, sandwich-shaped food truck & saving the day with a sausage link lasso. It actually makes sense that Taker would be in the center of this film’s story, given that the auto-performer Grave Digger is pretty much the monster truck version of the wrestler & I suspect that exact dynamic is what the film was initially built around. Taker fills the role well, bouncing off the Mystery Gang’s comedic sensibilities (with the voice of Velma now filled by half of Garfunkel & Oates, Kate Micucci, and Shaggy being the eternally imprisoned in the role Matthew Lilard), but he’s not the most interesting player in the game. That would be the Rhodes family.

I think there’s great camp value potential in WWE’s collaborations with the Hanna-Barbera brand that’s not quite fully realized yet at this third-film-in juncture. Curse of the Speed Demon finds a lot of goofy room to play with its basic “super stars & super cars” concept, like in the Michael Cole-shouted line, “Only The Undertaker could fly a sandwich out of the jaws of oblivion!” However, I think they could push the cartoon absurdity even further, as evidenced by the way the film uses the Rhodes brothers Goldust & Stardust. Because the temporal demands of production necessitate that these collaborations will be behind on current WWE storylines, Curse of the Speed Demon brings Goldust & Stardust back to the delightful heights of their absurd, magical “Cosmic Key” era of promos, which I believe was back in the late summer of 2014. Including other now-outdated storylines like The Authority (or, for that matter, the now departed from the company/galaxy Stardust and, even more sadly, the departed from this mortal coil Dusty Rhodes) is a little awkward, but the magic of The Cosmic Key silliness suggests an even more out-there kind of goofery the company could reach for, with all of the characters’ magic dust &strange hissing. At the end of my review for the first Scooby-Doo/WWE film I suggested that I’d like to see a Stardust Meets the Jetsons picture (something that’s pretty damn unlikely now). I want something like Huckleberry Hound in a New Day unicorn & rainbows cartoon. I want to see the concept pushed to the point where Hanna-Barbera characters meet WWE performers in their own strange worlds nestled in their gimmicks instead of their profession.

Curse of the Speed Demon starts to hint at that go-for-broke cartoon logic potential by giving Goldust & Stardust so much strange screen time (along with their now deceased father, which was about as sincerely touching of an inclusion as you could expect from a Scooby-Doo pro wrestling feature) & by removing the action from the wrestling ring in favor of an outlandish monster truck racing setting. I say push it even further. Much like the works of Mario Bava & Dario Argento (who I’ll admit I’m only referencing for the absurdity of it), the mysteries at the heart of Scooby-Doo are not nearly as important as the style in which they’re told, which is typically a campy take on old-fashioned haunted house horrors. There’s a lot of room for playing within that dynamic while sticking to kayfabe in the in-the-ring gimmicks of folks like Stardust or the Undertaker or The New Day or, hell, even the Wyatt Family (who I loathe to watch due to their monotonous promos, but could totally work in a haunted house cartoon). Curse of the Speed Demon finds the right tone of the cartoon-wrestling hybrid I’m describing in certain moments (The Miz putting the speed demon Inferno in a figure four leg lock or the Undertaker tombstoning him come to mind, as does the film’s basic premise, which feels like something I might’ve come up with while riding my WWF Big Wheels as a kid). It just needs a little more of a push into that detached-from-reality direction for this cartoon WWE Universe to really stand out as a memorable campy delight. As for now, they’re doing some surprisingly amusing work & I’m sure a lot of the wrestling-obsessed kids out there are eating it up, which is good enough to keep my attention for now.

-Brandon Ledet

The Flintstones & WWE: Stone Age SmackDown (2015)

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threehalfstar

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As I noted in my review of Scooby-Doo! WrestleMania Mystery, professional wrestling & animation were practically made for one another. Their shared love for campy violence, garish costumes, and corny jokes make them a heavenly pair. Crossing over the WWE brand with characters from the classic Hanna-Barbera universe is even more of a genius move, as it allows for some of wrestling & animation’s most over-the-top personalities to coexist in a single space. Characters like Scooby-Doo, Barney Rubble, The Undertaker, and “The Devil’s Favorite Demon”/”See No Evil” Kane are ridiculous enough in isolation. When they share a screen it’s downright magical (in the trashiest way possible). In Scooby-Doo! WrestleMania Mystery this pungently cheesy combination allowed for John Cena’s superhero strength & Sin Cara’s apparent ability to fly match the Mystery, Inc. gang’s seemingly supernatural monsters (in that particular case a “g-g-g-ghost b-b-b-bear”). In The Flintstones & WWE: Stone Age SmackDown the combo not only connects both The FlintstonesHoneymooners-style comedy and the WWE’s complete detachment from reality with their roots in working class escapism, it also revels in the most important element in all of wrestling & animation, the highest form of comedy: delicious, delicious puns.

Let’s just get the list of Stone Age wrestler puns out of the way early. The Flinstones & WWE: Stone Age SmackDown features the likes of CM Punkrock, John Cenastone, Brie & Nikki Boulder, Marble Henry, Daniel Bryrock, Rey Mysteriopal, and Vince McMagma. CM Punk & Mark Henry even adapt their catchphrases to the Stone Age setting, calling themselves “The Best in the Prehistoric World” & “The World’s Strongest Caveman” respectively. Daniel Bryan makes no adjustments to his go-to “Yes! Yes! Yes!” chant (not a lot of room for wordplay there) but it’s put to great comical use anyway. Speaking of refusing to play along with the Stone Age puns, The Undertaker appears in Stone Age SmackDown simply as “The Undertaker”. I’m not sure if they had problems working a great pun in there (Try it at home. It’s a tough one.) but the side-effect is kind of charming anyway: it makes it seem as if The Undertaker has been alive forever, just sort of skulking around graveyards, waiting for a wrestling match.

In the Scooby-Doo crossover the WWE Superstars are already world famous and idolized, even more so than in reality; they even have their own WWE City complete with a Mount Rushmore style tribute to the championship belt. In The Flinstones crossover they’re just working class Joes (with impeccable physiques) that live milquetoast lives before a wrestling promotion is built around them. The wrestling promotion in question is FFE (Fred Flintstone Entertainment). Fred builds the enterprise from the ground up as a get-rich-quick scheme meant to fund a couples’ vacation to Rockapulco. As a WWE stand-in, FFE does a great job of poking fun at itself. At one point Fred is giving a pep-talk to his Superstars, urging them to “tear each other’s heads off . . . in a family-friendly way, of course,” satirizing WWE’s self-contradictory brand of PG violence. FFE differs in WWE in other ways, of course, as it’s a very small organization just trying its darnedest to put on a good show for the folks out there in the audience, which is a far cry from the real-life juggernaut’s billion dollar industry. There’s a good bit of blue-collar workplace humor towards the beginning of the film that recalls the The Flintstones’ Honeymooners roots and that vibe carries on nicely into the mom & pop wrestling promotion Fred creates once the plot picks up speed.

The only thing Stone Age SmackDown gets horrifically wrong from the original Flinstones series is Barney Rubble’s voice. The other characters aren’t perfectly imitated, but they’re at least passable. Barney is just not the same person at all, trading in his dopey baritone for a nasally “wise guy, eh?” voice that feels like a violation of the original character’s nature. The rest of the film is pretty much on point, though. In addition to the rock puns & working class humor mentioned above, the movie features enough Rube Goldberg contraptions, dinosaurs as appliances, visual gags (“We’ve got bigger fish to fry” is a pretty great one that you can probably imagine without the image), and swanky-kitsch music that feel true to the original cartoon. In a lot of ways, Scooby-Doo! WrestleMania Mystery brought the Hanna-Barbera characters to WWE’s world and Stone Age SmackDown is almost an exact reversal, with pro wrestlers making the time-traveling journey to Bedrock. There are a few modern updates to the Flintstones’ visual language (like wall-mounted TVs and computer tablets), but they don’t do much to distract from the show’s classic charms. In fact, the digital HD update provides the format a very vivid, vibrant look that intensifies the original series’ pop art appeal immensely.

Even though the movie is mercifully short it still makes time for fun tangents like CM Punkrock’s world-class promos, history’s first cage match (between The Undertaker & Barney Rubble of course), and some absurd sexual leering at “The Boulder Twins”. It’s a much quicker and less complicated film than the Scooby-Doo crossover and all the better for it. Plus, I really need these crossovers to work out long enough to get that Stardust Meets The Jetsons movie I’ve been clammering for. I desparately need that to happen so, as Fred puts it in Stone Age SmackDown, “Let’s yabba dabba do this” y’all. Keep these goofy wrestling cartoons coming.

-Brandon Ledet