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.