[31 Days of Horror Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan] Day 25 – Halloweentown (1998)

Director: Duwayne Dunham
Cast: Debbie Reynolds, Kimberly J. Brown, Judith Hoag, Joey Zimmerman, Emily Roeske
Screenplay: Jon Cooksey, Ali Marie Matheson
84 mins. Rated TV-G.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t watch Halloweentown as a kid. I lived in a part of the country where the Disney Channel was apparently part of some expensive cable package that my family just didn’t have. With that, I just didn’t grow up with Halloweentown. My wife did. Several of my friends did. I didn’t, so when Halloweentown comes up in conversation about best films to watch during this time of year, I don’t really have much to add. Well, I bought the first two films with the intention of watching them with my wife during the Halloween season, so let’s discuss this Disney Channel Original favorite.

Marnie Piper (Kimberly J. Brown, Bringing Down the House, Friendship!) is 13 years old, practically an adult in her own eyes, and yet, she’s never been able to take part in Halloween. Her younger siblings are the same way, and their mother, Gwen (Judith Hoag, Armageddon, Finding You) has never given a reason. It seems this year will be no different, but when Marnie’s grandmother, Aggie Cromwell (Debbie Reynolds, Singin’ in the Rain, In & Out), arrives for her yearly Halloween visit, Marnie learns the truth: she and her sister Sophie (Emily Roeske, 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain, Fell’s Redeemer) are both witches, and this is Marnie’s last year to begin training or her powers will be gone forever. She follows her grandmother home aboard a mystical bus, and they are whisked off to Halloweentown, a magical locale full of witches, warlocks, and humanoid creatures of all varieties. It seems like a wonderful place to Marnie, but there is danger brewing in Halloweentown, and her family is in grave danger.

Watching this film in my early 30s is perhaps not the right time to see it. Halloweentown feels to me like The Goonies: if you missed it when you were the target audience, it may be lost on you. I don’t want to completely hate on the film because in many ways it is similar to shows I grew up on like Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? but without anything actually scary.

Debbie Reynolds is absolute magic as Aggie Cromwell. It seems that, if nothing else, she understood the assignment and infused the role with an enthusiasm rarely given to television movies in the 90s. Her time with bright and shiny Hollywood pictures would have led me to believe her to be “Bigger” than this movie, but she treats it with the same respect she would have given to any role, and that’s part of what makes her so emphatically entertaining in the role.

As for the children in the film, none of these performances are offensive, but all three of the Piper children are played with a We’re-in-a-Disney-Channel-movie-so-we-need-to-enunciate-in-a-way-that-makes-everything-light-and-bubbly-at-all-times-so-the-young-viewers-will-not-get-too-anxious-of-the-danger-we’re-in kind of performance. Perhaps believability was never possible in a film like this, but I was always invested in Harry Potter’s magical world for its characters and the danger they were in was palpable enough to allow me to enter their world.

I liked the aspect of Halloweentown that actually dived into the macabre specifically the flavor of the town and its people. I wish it were portrayed with a semblance of childlike fear, just enough to give a minute amount of spookiness to the finished product, but I liked the town and its various residents, particularly the unnerving skeletal taxi driver, Benny. As I said before, all of these characters within the town would have been even better if the film had any real scares, even as far as mood goes.

And that’s the film’s biggest problem for me. It’s not scary, and I know what you’ll say next. You’ll tell me that this is a kids movie and that it can’t be that scary for children, and you’ll tell me that nothing in it is meant to scare ME, but here’s the thing: this film is fearless. There’s nothing even remotely spooky going on in this movie. Let’s compare it to aforementioned Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, as I still watch both of these shows during the Halloween season for nostalgia and a bit of lighthearted amusement. Both shows cease to scare me, but they scared me quite a bit as a child, even someone like me who watched Halloween at age 4, who has grown up watching the Adult Horror from a young age. The scares in Goosebumps and Are You Afraid are mild, to be sure, but they are there, and they worked just enough on me as a child to get some thrills out of them and then wash myself clean of them after 30 minutes. I’m not asking for Halloweentown to be remade into a film like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (but Disney, if that interests you, call me), but it’s extremely obvious that this film was not intended for even slight fear, which is odd because I figured putting a director like Duwayne Dunham (Now You See It…, Tiger Cruise) at the helm would be akin to a little bit of eerieness at the very least, as he had directed a couple episodes of Twin Peaks, a show that consistently delved into eerieness. Again, not asking for a Twin Peaks Halloweentown (but again, Disney, call me), but I want something, anything, to tell me that this wasn’t just a Christmastown movie reskinned with a Halloween aesthetic.

No, I didn’t hate Halloweentown, but I didn’t love it. I thought it was simply okay, a bit of a letdown for a film with such a fervant following (St. Helen’s, Oregon, where the film was made, has a month-long Spirit of Halloweentown festival every year), but I don’t think I’m the target audience for this anymore. Maybe I just missed the boat, but it’s my goal on this site to educate and give my opinion on any film, and I try to see every film through the intended lens. I ask myself, “What is this movie trying to be and is it successful?” It’s one of the first things I think about when I see a movie, and it’s as important to me as entertainment value. For me, Halloweentown is intended for children, and I feel like it works well enough at what it’s trying to be that I won’t hate on it. It’s just a movie that, even were I a young child, seeing it for the first time, I would’ve been “Meh” on it. It’s fine, it’s inoffensive, but you won’t ever see me choosing Halloweentown over the more solid Hocus Pocus in terms of family Halloween fare. That’s all.

2.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

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