A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: October, 2017

“R.L. Stine’s Mostly Ghostly: One Night in Doom House” (2016)


R.L. Stine’s impact on the kiddie cultural zeitgeist can’t be overstated. Though often written off as an ironic nineties-stalgia icon, Stine and his work have transcended generations, so much so that new entries in the popular “Goosebumps” series are still being released to this day. But not all efforts to extend the author’s hair-raising brand have met with such successful results, as evidenced by the Mostly Ghostly franchise. Their own array of preteen page-turners before taking the cinematic leap, these movies demonstrate what happens when Stine’s family-friendly “humor and horror” formula backfires miserably. With both jokes and jolts of the laziest order in tow, the flicks have nestled themselves firmly into the most vanilla of niches, rocking no boats and getting about as many emotional responses from viewers with their material. Thanks to a more pronounced feisty streak and slightly improved production value, the saga’s newest installment, One Night in Doom House, has a leg up on its predecessors, but what hints of inspiration it does have are all but drowned out by the most generic frights this side of a dollar store Halloween aisle.

By the looks of things, Max Doyle (Corey Fogelmanis) is your average high schooler. He puts up with bullies, hangs out with girlfriend Cammie (Sophie Reynolds), and entertains his friends with the occasional magic show. But little do the living know that Max’s closest confidantes are really brother-and-sister spirits Nicky (Blake Michael) and Tara (Olivia Ryan-Stern), who lend a hand with our hero’s homebrewed hauntings. Alas, he’s been slacking off in helping the two track down their missing parents, so he opts to seek help from a pro in TV ghost chaser Simon Drake (Jamie Kennedy). Unfortunately, Simon’s been possessed by Phears (Adam Tsekhman), a wicked spook whose attempts to conquer our world have been stymied time and again by a certain, supernaturally-inclined trio. But now, he’s closer than ever to completing his fiendish goal, and if Max wants to stop the ghoulish invasion, he’ll have to unlock the chilling secrets of his town’s eeriest estate: Doom House.

It’s an easy jab to take at any film whose script isn’t up to snuff, but watching One Night in Doom House really does seem as though its first draft is unfurling before our eyes. In addition to the fits of wide-eyed mugging serving as placeholders for where actual gags ought to be, the story’s focus is in constant flux, changing its mind on what it’s about and introducing what come to be important plot details on a moment’s notice. How much bearing Doom House itself has on matters tends to waver from scene to scene, and we’ve skedaddled past the halfway point by the time some heretofore unmentioned artifact is abruptly granted narrative precedence. Having sat through the previous two Mostly Ghostly outings, I expected a lax commitment to continuity as part of the package here, but even members of the flick’s grade-school target audience will pick up on its outright sloppiness in no time. Whether this is more Stine’s fault for penning an inherently crummy book to begin with or the work of writer/director Ron Oliver’s meddling in the adaptation process is a matter of debate, though in either case, the movie’s ADD-addled storytelling and out-of-touch humor do it no favors. From the requisite goofball family dynamic to the stock bully archetypes, we’ve seen each sitcommy second of One Night in Doom House a thousand times before, and instead of perking things up with some modern, subversive touches, Oliver kicks up his feet and rubber-stamps his way to the end credits.

Even those inclined to give kid-geared productions a degree of leeway may be hard-pressed to find something positive to say about One Night in Doom House. The special effects are chintzy, the kindergarten-level scares are nothing to shriek at (oh, no, not a…coffin!), and the cast’s collective disinterest is palpable. Tsekhman does what he can to act through the Phears get-up, and Kennedy at least looks to be having fun putting on his bad guy face, but the other performers seem to have taken being cast in a family fright fest to mean that all of them should adopt a zombie’s verve. This applies doubly so to Fogelmanis, a photogenic youngster who’s nonetheless responsible for one of the most detached performances in film history. Whether Max is racing to prevent an undead apocalypse or cheering on Cammie during dance practice, Fogelmanis’ delivery retains the same monotonous cadence no matter what, in what I can only assume was a bet with the dolly grip to see how quickly they could get through every shot. All that said, there are the odd qualities that, if anything, help One Night in Doom House come out ahead of the first two Mostly Ghostly joints. Once in a while, an endearingly spooky shot will work its way onto the screen (like the so-phony-it’s-awesome haunted house model featured in the opening credits), and in the thankless role of Cammie’s best friend, Vivian Full exhibits a slightly off-kilter personality that you end up wishing had caught on with and roused her fellow castmates to action.

I won’t pretend that “Goosebumps” was some flawless paragon of children’s literature, but there’s still an affection for the property that neither One Night in Doom House or the Mostly Ghostly name in general can ever hope to achieve. While the film stops short of selling its soul and turning into a complete corporate shill, it’s a stinker regardless for a whole other set of reasons, namely a screenplay and an ensemble that share the same allergies to risk-taking and discernable personalities. Failing to both deliver the nostalgic goods for long-time Stine buffs and stand on its own spine-tingling merits, Mostly Ghostly: One Night in Doom House isn’t fit to haunt the collection of any self-respecting horror-holic.

“Halloween Is Grinch Night” (1977)


On the whole, my relationship with prequels, sequels, and their ilk isn’t unlike that of the Thing’s blood and some hot copper wire. I’m always open to being surprised, but usually, yours truly is left with no real desire to know where characters in what felt like otherwise complete stories came from or where they’re going. That said, 1977’s Halloween Is Grinch Night had me curious as to the other kinds of shenanigans Dr. Seuss’s crotchety Christmas crank enjoyed getting himself into. Is there an off-season when he lets Whoville be, or is raising havoc a full-time gig? Just how mean did the green grouch get before his heart swelled three sizes? This half-hour TV special sets out to show what happens on the one time of the year when the fiend’s powers are at their apex, but those expecting mythic results had best get ready for a rock in their proverbial trick-or-treat bags. Make no mistake, Halloween Is Grinch Night is Seuss through and through, with the author’s trademark lingo and moral lessons in fine form, yet its efforts to spin a somewhat more esoteric yarn are its downfall, depriving it of the profundity and personality that helped Mr. Geisel’s other tales leave such impressions.

Fall has come to scenic Whoville. Leaves fall, children play, and the townspeople shuffle about in their typically mirthful manner. But with the changing season comes an occasion that strikes terror in any Who’s heart: Grinch Night. The sour-sweet winds and growling Gree-Grumps summon the Grinch himself (voice of Hans Conreid) from his lair atop Mount Crumpit, compelling him to carry out his yearly mission of terrorizing the populace below. But as he begins to plot his latest campaign of fear, an unlikely adversary pops up in the form of young Euchariah (voice of Gary Shapiro). Separated from his family by a terrible whirlwind, the Who lad plops down right in the Grinch’s path, seeing firsthand a mere sample of the surreal sights he plans to unleash upon the village. With little time until the sneak arrives in Whoville, Euchariah takes it upon himself to spare his loved ones from further frights — even if it means experiencing the worst of what the Grinch has in store.

While the eponymous holiday is never actually mentioned, Halloween Is Grinch Night still brings its autumnal A-game when it comes to its visual palette. Whoville is awash in those oranges and golden browns liable to give most folks the warm and fuzzies, if the barren trees and creepy critters dotting the scenery didn’t already put them in a fall state of mind. Plus, Seuss purists will be pleased to see the character designs closely mirror the style of his original illustrations, as opposed to, say, the Chuck Jones makeover the Grinch got for his classic Christmas caper eleven years prior. But even if the Who masses looked entirely different, the essence of Seuss is still carried on here through the imparting of a sound message worth taking to heart for audiences of all ages. Halloween Is Grinch Night concerns the virtues of confronting what scares us over letting paranoia rule our emotions; as his family cowers in their home, Euchariah is busy getting to the bottom of just what it is that the Grinch does that has the whole town so skittish. All of this seems to be building towards a conclusion that reassures us of how what we fear most rarely lives up to what our vivid imaginations conjure, yet because the special passes on providing a clear frame of reference, the lesson’s delivery feels a little muddled. A scene or two of Euchariah’s fellow citizens perpetuating the Grinch’s reputation with inflated anecdotes would’ve rendered his climactic peek behind the curtain more satisfying, but hearsay is unfortunately the order of the day. We’re supposed to tremble before the Grinch apparently just because he’s the Grinch (and because he’s a jerk to flowers, too), though considering what a hammy buffoon he’s made out to be even while on the job, most of our boots will remain decidedly unquaked.

There are those out there who’ll take umbrage with any insinuation that Halloween Is Grinch Night isn’t freaky enough, seeing as how one of the most surreal sequences ever associated with Seuss is contained within its frames. Euchariah’s last stand involves getting up close and personal with the menagerie of monsters in the Grinch’s “Paraphernalia Wagon,” and to the short’s credit, it’s one creatively kooky scene that’ll leave a quizzical stare on anyone’s mug. On the other hand, it’s pretty much the only truly memorable chunk of the special, with the rest of the running time dominated by narrative white noise. Halloween Is Grinch Night leaves a lot of its storytelling duties to the soundtrack, a bad move considering the surprisingly robust bounty of tunes, how closely they’re strung together, and how many of them sound essentially the same. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Seuss was on autopilot here, but there’s a definite air of playing things safe, of undermining the impact of his own themes by not challenging viewers enough with what’s seen or heard. Conreid (who voiced Thorin in Rankin-Bass’s The Hobbit that same year) proves quite welcoming whilst donning his narrator hat, though his turn as the Grinch is a touch shaky. He didn’t have a snowball’s chance of matching Boris Karloff’s iconic portrayal, and his performance isn’t bad in and of itself, but in choosing to skew “silly” over “sinister,” he makes the character come across less as a master of mischief and more akin to Charles Nelson Reilly with a head cold. On the bright side, Shapiro helps give us a plucky little hero in Euchariah, taking care to never sound too cutesy and selling us right off the bat on having the stuff to stand up to whatever the Grinch can throw at him.

Featuring neither the stirring sermonizing of The Lorax or The Cat in the Hat‘s semi-anarchic charm, Halloween Is Grinch Night isn’t much more beyond an innocuous footnote in Dr. Seuss’s legacy. With its seasonal atmosphere and appealing animation, the reasons as to why this has evolved into a nostalgic favorite aren’t lost on me, though, ultimately, they aren’t strong or plentiful enough to prop up the many patches of homogeneity that threaten to send even the most stalwart of souls to sleep. Its lack of cynicism remains refreshing and doesn’t count for nothing, but Halloween Is Grinch Night could’ve stood to have a kitschy edge to help hammer its points home.

“Casper: A Spirited Beginning” (1997)


Like “Street Sharks” and OK Soda, Casper was a big idea of the ’90s that didn’t really pan out. Based upon everybody’s favorite cartoon ghost, the film’s release came heralded by the aggressive marketing campaign and myriad product tie-ins of what surely had to be a box office smash. But as respectable as its receipts were, the flick performed below expectations, enough so that Universal jumped ship on a proposed sequel and handed the franchise to Saban Entertainment for a fast, thorough cheapening. 1997’s straight-to-video Casper: A Spirited Beginning sands off what edge and mystique its predecessor possessed, jettisoning its surprisingly somber ruminations on the acceptance of death and cutting-edge special effects in favor of cranking out a grating punfest laden with the era’s most half-assed CGI. From its scripting to its blending of live-action and animated characters, the degree to which a complete lack of care has infected nearly every aspect of this production is downright inexcusable. Casper wasn’t great, but it knew when and how to handle its younger viewers with a grown-up touch; A Spirited Beginning, however, holds nothing but contempt for its audience, its wellspring of creativity nothing more than a bottomless pit of fart jokes and desperate pop culture references.

When you die, you don’t go to Heaven — apparently, you hit the rails, instead. This is where young Casper (voice of Jeremy Foley) finds his newly-incorporeal self, on a literal ghost train bound for haunting school in the afterlife. However, he’s not too keen on spending his eternity spooking the daylights out of people, though that doesn’t stop folks from heading for the hills anyway when he arrives in quaint Deedstown ahead of schedule. But the fledgling phantom soon comes across a confidante in Chris (Brendon Ryan Barrett), a kid totally enamored with all things supernatural. He even introduces Casper to Stretch (voice of James Ward), Fatso (voice of Jess Harnell), and Stinky (voice of Bill Farmer), a trio of mischievous spirits who take the little ghost into their very own old dark house and start teaching him the tricks of the scaring trade. Unfortunately, trouble begins to brew on multiple fronts, as the specters must not only avoid lord of the dead Kibosh (voice of James Earl Jones) and his otherworldly wrath but also save their mansion from being torn down…by Chris’s workaholic father (Steve Guttenberg).

It’s easiest to view Casper: A Spirited Beginning not as a prequel to the 1995 film but rather as the launching pad for whatever the hell Saban had planned for the property. The setting’s been changed, actors like Ben Stein and Rodney Dangerfield show up in cameo roles different from those they had the last time around, and Casper’s tragic backstory is altogether swept under the rug. For as many family-friendly traits as the first movie embraced, A Spirited Beginning doubles down on them, yet a more kid-oriented tone isn’t necessarily a bad thing to pursue. Setting out to engage grade-schoolers with something less frightening is understandable, but future Bratz maestro Sean McNamara’s brand of sanitized storytelling strips away virtually all heart and emotion in the process. While Casper’s quest to find a family over having to frighten everyone away isn’t without its endearing qualities, darn near everything involving the “fleshies” is the stuff of Disney Channel nightmares. Rather than develop Chris’s frustrations at seeing his one living parent be so distant physically and emotionally, the matter is mostly breezed over with some melodramatic shouting and the inclusion of a ridiculously unmotivated love interest in Lori Loughlin’s teacher. All of this is in the service of getting to the next dead-on-arrival gag as soon as possible, a succession of toilet humor, Mission: Impossible parodies, and poor Richard Moll getting drenched in gallons of gunk that buries one’s patience six feet under before the first act is over.

On the other hand, I don’t know why I was expecting Casper: A Spirited Beginning to give a hoot about its script when what’s partially an effects-driven production can’t be bothered to cough up remotely appealing visuals. This isn’t to denigrate the quality of the movie’s CG animation, which had no chance of being up to the first one’s par and, to be honest, could’ve turned out much worse. But once one catches onto how poorly the cinematography and special effects have been integrated — how often the illusion of movement is faked by randomly swirling the camera about while Casper and company remain stationary — the absence of effort embeds itself into your brain, ruining all pretense of whimsy the flick had hoped to impart. If anything, at least the voice actors try as they can to keep things lively, as Foley gives us a likable enough Casper, the new Ghostly Trio performers match the original ones fairly accurately, and Jones’s booming timbre nicely perks up an otherwise generic villain. The same, however, can’t be said for the live-action ensembles, which comes evenly split between bored paycheck-cashers like Guttenberg or supporting players such as Michael McKean mugging up a storm and serving only to embarrass themselves in the attempt. Then we have Barrett, who isn’t without talent (and apparently left enough of a mark on the powers that be to have him voice the title ghost himself in 2000’s Casper’s Haunted Christmas) but obviously wasn’t given the best direction with his line readings. Whether he’s supposed to be sad or enthusiastic, Barrett’s energy and delivery are at Roberto Benigni levels from beginning to end, which would be reassuring if it didn’t mean Chris so frequently crossing the annoying brat line.

Regardless of its objectives and how passionately the filmmakers went about fulfilling them, Casper: A Spirited Beginning did little to extend the character’s pop culture shelf life. Another live-action/animation hybrid followed the next year before the franchise went full cartoon eventually, and while the ’95 flick is still enjoyed by certain nostalgic circles, there’s no such love for the quickie cash grab that tried hitching a ride on its ectoplasmic coattails. Casper: A Spirited Beginning is a frivolity that’s not about to cause irreparable harm to the growing minds that do take it in, but don’t expect it to value strong moral lessons any more than it does making sure that Junior sees those Power Rangers toys not-so-subtly nudged into frame.