A Howling Halloween Adventure For The Whole Family!
I am not a big fan of Halloween. It is not a holiday that I choose to observe. It is hard for me to work up a lot of enthusiasm for a holiday that encourages little Johnny and Susie to transform themselves into ghouls, demons, and axe murderers and roam the neighborhood polishing their skills at panhandling, extortion, and petty vandalism.
However, with summer officially over and life beginning its swing into fall, it is inevitable that the studios release a few kid-oriented titles in the "spirit" of the season. From Fox Home Video comes When Good Ghouls Go Bad, based on a story by noted kiddie-horror scribe R. L. Stine.
Facts of the Case
Danny Walker (Joe Pichler) is having a rough time adjusting to his new home in Walker Falls, Minnesota. The other kids pick on him, the girls ignore him, but the worst is yet to come when he learns of the legend of Curtis Danko. Curtis was an eighth-grader who died under mysterious circumstances on Halloween night 20 years earlier. As a result the townspeople believe there is a Halloween curse on the town, and no one is allowed to celebrate this holiday. This means no decorations, no costumes, no trick-or-treating.
Now, I would guess that most of us consider Halloween a fairly minor holiday, and if it were banned we might not even notice. Not so in the Walker family, where Danny, his dad James (Tom Amandes), and his grandpa "Uncle Fred" (Christopher Lloyd, Taxi, Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, Back to the Future). Danny's dad has dreams of reopening the old family chocolate factory, but can't do it if there is no Halloween. (Apparently, the profitability of the enterprise depends on whether or not this one small town in Minnesota celebrates Halloween, never mind the rest of the world or the other, more major, holidays.)
With this prologue, Danny is caught up in a wild adventure featuring lots and lots of zombies (the non-brain-eating kind, unfortunately), a cursed statue, and his family honor. Along the way, there are romantic subplots for him, his dad, and of course Uncle Fred, even though poor Fred becomes one of the aforementioned zombies.
The strongest aspect of When Good Ghouls Go Bad is the cast. It goes without saying that Christopher Lloyd is the strongest; he could read the phone book and make it seem like a hilarious adventure. However, the young actors in the cast pleasantly surprised me. Child actors are always a dicey proposition. They are quite often terrible; Jake Lloyd in Star Wars: Episode I comes to mind. Others, like Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense are incredibly talented actors, but somehow fail to register as real kids. Somewhere in between we have Joe Pichler's performance as Danny Walker. Pichler simply does a good job of being a kid in a bizarre situation, and I found him very likeable and real on screen. Similarly, Brittany Byrnes does a good job in her role as Dayna, Danny's love interest. Again, neither of these two gives award winning, dazzling performances, but they are above all else believable, and that is a major accomplishment. Finally, I should mention Tom Amandes in his role as Danny's dad. He is fairly bland and unremarkable, but bears an almost eerie resemblance to a young Jimmy Stewart.
Fox presents When Good Ghouls Go Bad in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture quality is actually quite good, better than I expected for a direct-to-video kids' feature. Blacks are strong and solid, and shadows are appropriately dark and detailed. Colors are crisp and vibrant, and details for the most part are clear and distinct. There does appear to be some occasional edge enhancement and/or ringing artifacts, and some of the stronger reds and oranges look like they might bleed a bit. One recurring flaw is that the entire palette seems skewed a bit towards bright pumpkin oranges, and this shows up in flesh tones that frequently look just a bit reddish or orange, especially later on. To be fair, this is relatively infrequent, and most of the colors in the movie look very nice. There were no blips or flecks that I saw.
Audio comes in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround. There really is no use of surround capabilities that I could detect; for the most part this is a front-and-center audio mix that would sound just as good using the internal speakers in your television. Dialogue is clear and easy to understand, and there are some sound effects that come through nice and clear as well.
Extra content on this disc is limited to an 11-minute behind-the-scenes featurette. If you by chance decide to watch When Good Ghouls Go Bad, you will want to save the featurette until last as it contains a lot of "spoiler" information. The featurette is pretty standard stuff, including interviews with the actors and director, and an explanation of what everyone was trying to accomplish. I found it interesting that a number of these supposedly all-American characters were played by actors with apparent Australian accents in real life; the actors in question did a good job for the most part of mimicking flat, atonal Midwestern speech patterns. Granted, they don't actually sound like they come from Minnesota, but no one in the movies ever has.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite the good performances and good intentions of everyone involved, When Good Ghouls Go Bad is a mess. There are more plots and subplots than you could shake a stick at, few of which make any sense at all. Even the title of the movie makes no sense in relation to the story.
One of the least believable story elements is a recurring theme of how much people love Halloween, and how much they miss it. The devotion that Danny's dad and other characters show for this holiday comes across as obsessive and slightly creepy. Indeed, James Walker makes an impassioned speech in favor of Halloween in front of a town meeting, and to hear him you would think that Halloween was as important as Christmas, the Fourth of July, the Superbowl, and Oscar night all rolled into one. He makes it sound…meaningful, which is probably the spookiest thing in the whole movie.
As much as I like Christopher Lloyd, and as much as I liked the child actors in this movie, I really can't recommend it to anyone. The plot is convoluted and nonsensical and will probably give most viewers a headache trying to figure out why characters do what they do. I know there needs to be more good, clean entertainment available out there for kids. When Good Ghouls Go Bad may be fairly clean and inoffensive, but it is poorly written and constructed. Parents looking for a family-friendly movie to watch with their kids should look elsewhere and find something with an intelligent script and coherent plot.
Guilty! The people who wrote this script and made this movie are guilty of wasting the efforts of Christopher Lloyd and a lot of promising child actors. I sentence them to spend Halloween night chained to a tombstone in a graveyard under a full moon, covered with honey and hungry ants.
We stand adjourned.
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