Thursday, 19 December 2019

The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper: A Christmas Peril/Fright Before Christmas

Last month, when I looked at Casper The Friendly Ghost's 1995 foray into theatrical feature stardom, I mentioned that the film later received a spin-off cartoon series, The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper, which, much like the film itself, I consider to be criminally underrated. In lieu of an actual theatrical sequel, I think that Casper fans got a pretty sweet deal with this series - it was developed by Sherri Stoner and Deanna Oliver, who also wrote the screenplay for the 1995 movie, and a number of the original cast returned to reprise their roles (see below). Stoner and Oliver had previously worked on such other Amblin Television shows as Animaniacs and Tiny Toon Adventures, and The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper plays recognisably like a cartoon within that same vein, in that it's every bit as smartly-written and subversive. So if you're wondering why it doesn't get half the publicity that those series do, it's because it aired on Fox Kids, which was something of a burial ground as far as zeitgeist was concerned. The series had a fairly decent run of it throughout the late 1990s, with a total of four seasons and fifty-two episodes under its belt, but it's fair to say that they haven't really seen the light of day much since. There were a handful of VHS releases in the 1990s, each with two episodes a piece, and the complete first season was distributed on two single-disc DVD releases in 2007, but the series in its entirety has never been made available on home media or streaming. Shame that, because as I say, I think it's a really fantastic cartoon and I wish it was better appreciated (much like the movie it's based on). In the meantime, I'm only too happy to step up and be its cheerleader.

The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper takes place after the events of the 1995 feature film. Following the disappearance of owner Carrigan Crittenden, Whipstaff Manor has become the full-time domicile of necromantic shrink Dr James Harvey and his teenage daughter Kat, who have learned to co-exist with the manor's resident wraiths, the amiable young Casper and his aggressive poltergeist "uncles", Stretch, Stinkie and Fatso (otherwise known as The Ghostly Trio). Casper is still struggling with the stigma of being living impaired, Kat is still struggling with the ignominy of being a less-than-ordinary kid, while Harvey is still struggling with the trials of being a single parent AND therapist to three disobedient poltergeists - he's given up trying to convince the Trio to "cross over" but still works with them in an effort to rein in their natural haunting tendencies, with as little success. The Trio are on loving terms with Harvey (although they really do love to wind him up) but are still inclined to scorn and subjugate Casper, and they do not get along with Kat (then again, few characters within the series do).

Here are a few notes regarding the series in general:

  • All four of the main ghosts are voiced by their original voice actors from the 1995 film - Malachi Pearson (Casper), Joe Nipote (Stretch), Brad Garrett (Fatso) and Joe Alaskey (Stinkie), although Jess Harnell took over as Fatso's voice in later seasons. Harnell, best known as the voice of Wakko Warner on Animaniacs, was also movie alumni, having previously supplied Casper's Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonation in the feature film.
  • The A-list talent from the 1995 film, unsurprisingly, did not return. Kat and Harvey were played by Christina Ricci and Bill Pullman in the original movie, but here Kat is voiced by Kath Soucie, who also voiced Phil and Lil in Rugrats, while Harvey is voiced by Dan Castellaneta, who never did anything else of note.
  • Casper now attends a school for young ghosts, where his classmates are Spooky (Rob Paulsen) and Poil (Miriam Flynn), two established characters from earlier incarnations of Casper who were not in the 1995 film. Spooky is a brash young wraith who is always keen to demonstrate his scaring prowess and enjoys showing up Casper, while Poil is an air-headed ghoul who is besotted with Spooky. Another addition is Casper's teacher, Ms Banshee (Tress MacNeille). She is a...banshee, strangely enough, meaning that she tends to raise her voice a lot, and she is greatly admired by the Ghostly Trio, who are constantly trying to impress her. Anyway, the concept of a school for young ghosts becomes hella depressing the instant you contemplate that these are all dead children who had their lives cut mercilessly short and are never actually going to grow up.* Worse still is the episode where Casper meets a family of 1960s hippie ghosts with two ghost babies, and you just know there is such a tragic backstory there.
  • Amelia, Carrigan and Dibs do not appear in the series (presumably because they all "crossed over").
  • A couple of characters who do return from the movie are Amber and Vic, the local popular kids and respective rivals of Kat and Casper. In the movie, they were played by Jessica Wesson and Garette Ratcliff Henson, and were low-level antagonists - Amber took a disliking to Kat and conspired to sabotage her Halloween party, while Vic feigned an interest in being Kat's date (much to Casper's chagrin) but was actually working in league with Amber. Their spiteful scheme was foiled by the Ghostly Trio, who scared them away from the manor. In the series, Amber (now voiced by Sherry Lynn) still looks down on Kat (and has three minions, all named Jennifer), and Kat is apparently still interested in Vic (again, to Casper's chagrin), despite him standing her up in the movie. Also, Kat's teacher is voiced by Ben Stein (grrr....). In the movie, Kat had another teacher named Mr Curtis, who was played by Wesley Thompson. Doesn't it just figure that they would get rid of their only African American character and replace him with Ben Stein?
  • Curiously, the series doesn't have an opening title sequence. In lieu of an actual intro, we dive right into the episode as the Casper logo flashes across the screen. With the end credits it varies - some episodes have an outro sequence set in a graveyard with Amusing Tombstones (not unlike those from the early Treehouse of Horror installments of The Simpsons - my favourite is Glen and Glenda occupying the same burial plot) while the "Casper The Friendly Ghost" theme plays, whereas in others the end credits are rolled out across the bottom of the screen during the final minute of the episode. The lack of intro really baffles me, given that they had an established theme song ready to go; all they had to do was throw some clips together and be done with it.
  • This shouldn't be too surprising given the Animaniacs kinship, but there is a LOT of fourth wall breaking in the series, compared to the movie, where the fourth wall breaking was fairly minimal (Stinkie looks at the camera twice, Casper winks at the camera at the end). Some of the more colourful elements of the film have been toned down a notch for television consumption, so that Stretch now says "heck" instead of "hell" and the Ghostly Trio no longer sing about beer. An awful lot of adult humour worms its way in regardless.

Given that we're already this far into the festive season, we may as well start with the series' Xmas episode, which first aired on December 21st 1996 and was released on VHS in 1997 by Universal Entertainment, alongside the episode "Three Ghosts and A Baby/Leave It To Casper". Each episode of The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper was divided into two main stories, with one or two smaller skits falling in between, and in this case the headline act is a segment called A Christmas Peril, in which the Ghostly Trio put an avaricious businessman in touch with his hidden vulnerabilities.

I have a theory that everything everywhere, provided it goes for on long enough, gets round to doing their variation on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol sooner or later. Disney did it, The Muppets did it, Animaniacs did it, Blackadder did it, and heck, there's even an official Animals of Farthing Wood version out there, somewhere, although you'll never find it. In addition, the studios seem to keep on cranking out new self-contained versions of the story to some capacity every year, whether we get Bill Murray, Kelsey Grammer or Guy Pearce donning Scrooge's nightcap. Why go to all the trouble of concocting a completely fresh and original Christmas story when the world clearly can't get enough of this seeing this exact same story regurgitated over and over? It may not surprise you to learn that Casper's seasonal episode was also a Christmas Carol variation, but if that strikes you as being a trite and overly cookie cutter route to travel, keep in mind that A Christmas Carol is a story about a man who turns over a new leaf following a series of overnight haunting from four ghosts, and Casper is a series all about the adventures of four ghosts, so in this case they were really only doing what the logic of their premise demanded. And this isn't your typical take on the Dickens classic either; when you have the Ghostly Trio spooking you along the path to redemption, you know you're going to have a particularly ghoulish time of it. That's another thing - not only is it a dead cert for Casper to pay homage to A Christmas Carol, but it's also a total slam-dunk in terms of which roles get allocated to which ghosts. It follows that Stinkie would be the Ghost of Christmas Past, as he's all about leaving offensive, lingering odors on whatever he touches. The imposing, indulgent Fatso is obviously our Ghost of Christmas Present, and finally Stretch, the scariest of the three, is a natural lock for Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. Note that Jacob Marley does not figure here, although he does show up in another episode, "The Boo-Muda Triangle", in which Casper, Kat and Harvey get lost in the Bermuda Triangle with the ghost of Bob Marley, who reveals Jacob to have been one of his ancestors (are you still not convinced that you were sleeping on one of the greatest animated shows of all time?). Ignorance and Want also don't come up, which isn't terribly surprising, given that most kid-orientated retellings (and many adult versions) tend to avoid them like the plague, on account of their being one of the more disturbing aspects of Dickens' story**, although personally I think they missed a trick in not using Poil and Spooky in the roles. Finally, the Ebeneezer expy's redemption arc takes us to an outcome so bitterly ingenious that I'm amazed that it had never been used before (or maybe it had - like I say, the variations on this story are so innumerable that I suspect I've only actually seen a tiny percentile).

"A Christmas Peril" opens by establishing that the Ghostly Trio aren't all that hot on the Christmas spirit. Aside from offering the occasional opportunity to spook carolers naive enough to linger outside the manor, the holiday as a whole is too gaudy and mawkish for their discriminating tastes. Ordinarily they'd be able to conceal themselves from the season within the cold, dark corridors of Whipstaff Manor, only now that they share the manor with a couple of tinsel-loving bone-bags, there isn't much refuge to be found in there either. Things are shaken up when the residents of Whipstaff are unexpectedly joined by another trio of ghosts seeking a slightly different kind of refuge from the outside festivities. They are the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, and, having tired of their seasonal gig of scaring money-grubbing misers into changing their ways, are hoping that they can lie low and bunk off on this particular Yuletide.

Kat: You're the guys who turned round Ebeneezer Scrooge? Please...

Past: We are! But he was easy compared to some of the others.

Future: There was that Nixon guy...three times we turned him around but it just wouldn't take!

To Stretch, Stinkie and Fatso, the notion of spending their Christmas scaring some fleshie fat cats sounds mighty enticing, and so they offer to fill in for their Dickensian house guests by converting whichever unsuspecting skinflint they were scheduled to go after this year. It transpires to be a greedy toy mogul named Ezra Hazard (guess that's a Hasbro reference), who purposely manufactures shoddy toys that fall apart when children play with them (so that parents will keep on having to shell out for replacements) and treats his employees like total refuse on the side. Yeah, Hazard's a baddun, but even for a man of his callousness, being spooked by the Ghostly Trio instead of the regular Christmas spirits is a disproportionately cruel twist of fate.

One of the reasons for A Christmas Carol's enduring popularity, I'll wager, is due to its timeless meditations on the nature of redemption, the potential for good in the very coldest of individuals, the inevitable discrepancy between the people we once were, the people we are now, and where we might be headed, and the tremendous difference a single person can make (when you think about it, the other enduring and much-parodied Christmas classic, It's A Wonderful Life, is basically a tweak on the very same formula). If you're hoping for such meditations here, then you're fresh out of luck. "A Christmas Peril" bears the unmistakable stamp of a Dickensian reworking written for jaded minds who don't really care for Dickensian reworkings, and the only tears shed therein are in response to getting a mouthful of raw onion rind blasted in one's eyeballs. "A Christmas Peril" is a very knowing take on the Dickens classic, one that trades on the viewer's (over) familiarity with the narrative in question. It knows that this is a story you've played out countless time before and possibly don't care to see again, and it repeatedly flags up whatever motions it goes through before desecrating them with joyous abandon. Hazard himself has a better grasp on the story he figures he's supposed to be getting than do the Trio, who have zero interest in the human element and are in it purely for the shits and giggles. Hazard deduces independently why his unscrupulous manufacturing policies might be having a detrimental effect on children's emotional well-being, as Stinkie distorts his childhood memory and makes it doubly traumatic by giving the young Ezra an angry skunk instead of a puppy, Fatso skips over his portion of the story completely, insisting that he's just there for the eats, and finally Stretch gives him the ultimate incentive to change by hitting him with the horrifying threat that when he dies and becomes a ghost, they'll make a point of hanging out with him for all eternity. This terrifies Hazard so much that, the following morning, he races to his workplace and declares that from now on, all Hazard toys will be made to last and all of his employees are in for generous Christmas bonuses. It sounds all well and good, except that he gets arrested, because security refuse to believe that the actual Ezra Hazard would say such things and assume that he's an imposter. Oh well, I'm sure his identity will be verified eventually. It's kind of a mean-spirited punchline and you've got to feel bad for Hazard, although it does raise an interesting point that most Carol adaptations brush over - what if the world isn't ready for this munificent new you? Sometimes people prefer the cold embrace of familiarity, rotten though it may be, over something as frightening as genuine change.

(Here's a hidden gag you might have missed - Hazard's tombstone in the future reads Admission: $25, Children: $26. Sounds like a steal by today's standards.)

In conclusion, "A Christmas Peril" is a lot of fun, although probably not the place to go for your fix of seasonal fuzzies (despite Stinkie's heartfelt declaration at the end that this is the best Christmas he ever had). But in that regard it's balanced out by its sister segment, Fright Before Christmas, which goes more sincerely for the emotional factor and has a positive message about forgiveness and tolerance. Just as every franchise everywhere eventually ends up doing a Christmas Carol variation, so too it's inevitable that they end up doing their variation on "A Visit From St. Nicholas". Here, Kat regales us with her account of how she and Casper kept watch on the night before Christmas in order to thwart the Ghostly Trio's scheme to scare Santa. Despite their best efforts, the instant he sets foot at Whipstaff Manor, Santa is abducted and terrorised by the Trio, but Kat and Casper  manage to locate and rescue him, whereupon he rewards them with a bounty of presents. When the Trio sees this, they suddenly regret their actions and implore Santa to share some of the seasonal joy with them. Kat and Casper urge Santa not to, but he forgives the Trio and gives them their share, reminding Kat and Casper that it's better to rise above one's petty grudges and be kind and magnanimous wherever possible. Also, Casper gets to do his Schwarzenegger impression again, which I assume is Harnell.

In addition, there are two supporting skits sandwiched in between:

Ms Banshee's Holiday Hits: A faux TV commercial advertising a seasonal record album performed by Ms Banshee in her ear-bleeding banshee voice. "Not since those singing chipmunks has there been a Christmas album so unpleasant!" Eh, still sounds better to me than Band Aid.

Another Spooky and Poil Moment: And now for a real head-scratcher. In its original broadcast form, this episode contained a different skit, "Good Morning, Dr Harvey", a musical sequence reminiscent of "Gee, Officer Krupke" from West Side Story, in which Casper grows suspicious when Harvey tries to persuade him to go scaring with his uncles. For some reason, on the VHS release this was swapped out with "Another Spooky and Poil Moment", which was originally included as the supporting skit to the episode "Paranormal Press/Deadstock" (this must have been a last minute rearrangement, as the trailer at the front of the tape does indeed list "Good Morning, Dr Harvey" as part of the package). One of Poil's recurring shticks is that she takes everything that's said to her super literally, so when Spooky suggests they soothe things over with an irate Ms Banshee by "taking her something pretty", Poil responds by taking Ms Banshee's pretty negligee. Guess which one of them takes the blame? It does feel distinctly out of place amid the rest of this line-up, in that it doesn't have anything to do with the festive season. But then, neither did "Good Morning, Dr Harvey".

The episode ends with an epilogue to the "Christmas Peril" segment, in which the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future finally get over their seasonal fatigue and regret that they didn't rise to the challenge of spooking the bejesus from a deserving victim. They decide that there's still time, and check out who their fallback option was. Turns out, it's some guy in Washington named Newt. Bless you, festive spirits! Bless us, every one!

* Having said that, there is an episode where we flash back to Stretch, Stinkie and Fatso's school days, and they are visibly younger. Which by all rights doesn't make any sense. The Ghostly Trio definitely didn't enter the world in spectral form; they make reference to the fact that they're dead in virtually every episode. So...don't ask me how it works. 

** Back when I was six, my class watched the 1984 adaptation with George C. Scott as Scrooge, and the Ignorance and Want scene was the one moment that genuinely scared me. A couple of years later, when I saw The Muppet Christmas Carol for the first time, I remember being really apprehensive toward the end of the Present segment, as I kept thinking, "Oh god, we're almost at the bit where he's going to open up his robes and reveal those horrible children!" I don't remember if I felt relieved or cheated that he didn't.

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire (aka Slightly Irregular...$45)

You're going to be hearing an awful lot about this episode today, on the 30th anniversary of what is arguably the most important Simpsons episode of all-time - the one that started it all (albeit was not originally intended to do so). So, I'll start by bringing up the one thing that nobody ever acknowledges about this episode - it has one heck of a horrifying title. I'm aware that it's a reference to the "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" lyrics of "The Christmas Song", a seasonal favourite penned by Robert Welles and Mel Tormé, and first recorded by Nat King Cole in 1945. It sounds positively gruesome when taken out of context, however. When this episode was released to home video in the early 90s (for a long time, I believe this was the only Simpsons episode available on VHS in the US, although more episodes were released to international markets), it bore the more generic but less threatening title of "The Simpsons Christmas Special" (which also appears onscreen in the episode itself). This was the title by which I knew it for years, and so when I finally learned of its official moniker I was more than a little taken back (not least because I wasn't overly familiar with the title's origins at the time). It's a peculiar choice of title, because it simultaneously conjures up images of warmth and homeyness but also pain and disturbance, which is perhaps entirely befitting for an episode that offers such a genial introduction to the Simpsons' world while forcing the characters to undergo all kinds of humiliating discomfort before they earn their feel-good ending.

Unless you fell off your own proverbial Christmas tree yesterday, then I'm guessing you already know the story of how this unassuming seasonal episode came to shoulder the burden and the honor of launching one of the most celebrated shows in television history, so I will keep this brief. "Some Enchanted Evening" was originally intended to kick-start the series, but the staff were so dismayed with how the animation turned out for that one that they sent it back to South Korean animation studio AKOM for an extensive revamping. The production delays meant that the series missed its intended fall premiere and was held back for a number of months, and the holiday-themed "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" was a beneficiary of this, being bumped to the front of the queue so that it could keep its obligatory December spot. Had "Some Enchanted Evening" not endured its infamous hiccup and the episodes aired in their production order, then "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" would have been the eighth episode of the series, although it does play convincingly like it was written to be the series opener, with Marge's Christmas letter deftly establishing who each of the family were for anyone who might have missed out on the Tracy Ullman shorts. I mean, if you're a particularly astute Simpsons viewer, then I think you easily could figure out it belongs slightly later on in the season, even without glancing at production codes or reading up on the series' history. The animation is notably sleeker and more refined than the next three or four episodes that succeed it, and what little Lisa gets to contribute conforms better to her post-"Moaning Lisa" characterisation than to the early stages of the season, where she still retained some of her Ullman rowdiness. We also get a mild continuity problem, in that Homer is already the plant's safety inspector, a position he would not acquire until two further episodes down the line, and there are one or two characters who show up casually over the course of the story who would have received more dramatic, personalised introductions had the episodes played in their correct production order (I am somewhat sorry that Skinner missed out on his intended debut moment in "Bart The Genius", which was so meticulously constructed). But otherwise it's a perfect transition into longer-form Simpsons.

On that note, it's worth pondering how things might have turned out if the initial animation for "Some Enchanted Evening" hadn't been such a far cry from the producers' visions, and it had opened the series the fall of '89 as intended? Would the show still have been such a runaway smash from the go? I have to admit that I'm not so sure. On the surface, it might seem like a no-brainer, given that it's still the exact same material, but then to quote some one-off character who wouldn't show up until Season 7, that's the problem with first impressions - you only get to make one. The obvious advantage that "Enchanted" would have boasted over "Roasting" as a debut episode is that, there, all five family members have important and functional roles to play in how the narrative pans out. It feels like it was purposely written to showcase how the Simpsons operated as a family unit, as opposed to just focusing on any one character and having the others support them. By contrast, "Roasting" is very much a Homer and Bart affair, with the female Simpsons being regulated to the sidelines, particularly during the second half, where they literally stay in the living room waiting for the boys to return from their long, dark journey into the desolate December night. And yet, in all other regards, "Roasting" does feel like a more appropriate starting point for the series, not least because it's a much warmer, gentler Simpsons offering than "Enchanted", which leaps head-first into surprisingly mean and cynical territory. "Roasting" may be the most consistently downbeat installment out of the original thirteen, but it's grounded by a tenderness that "Enchanted", by comparison, appears to be allergic to. There, things take a hair-raising turn when Homer and Marge go out and unwittingly leave the children in the care of master criminal Ms Botz (voice of the wonderful and much-missed Penny Marshall), a fraudulent babysitter who doesn't exactly radiate goodness even prior to dropping her ruse. But even before we get that far, we have a despairing Marge already at the point where she's prepared to dump her negligent husband, who sheepishly attempts to remedy the situation with a measly rose and a night at a seedy motel (complete with queasy-looking waterbed). From its would-be opener, the series wasn't making any bones about how fundamentally derelict the relationship was between Homer and Marge, nor just how repugnant their children were to anyone who didn't have the privilege of bearing them from their own loins (even if their rambunctiousness occasionally proved useful in apprehending dangerous home intruders). Although the show's brutal honesty about the family's flaws would go a long way in endearing them to legions of viewers, "Enchanted" has a particularly sour, sardonic tone to it that some might have found alienating straight off the bat. It feels as if the writers were still figuring out how to make the Simpsons dysfunctional without making them seem like the family from Hell.

"Roasting" already seems worlds apart from "Enchanted", in that it has a greater sense of emotional charity toward its characters. It's an all-round cosier slice of Simpsons the point that some viewers are inclined to brand it as cute in the pejorative sense. Notably, Warren Martyn and Adrian Wood of I Can't Believe It's An Unofficial Simpsons Guide don't dish out a whole lot of positives on this one, slating the opening pageant sequence in particular as "cutesy and all-American", while whole-heartedly praising the episode it displaced as series opener as "the perfect template". Nathan Rabin of The AV Club is more positive about "Roasting", but acknowledges that its status as a seasonal special does obligate it to be "unusually sentimental and nakedly emotional." I wouldn't deny that "Roasting" pushes for the heartwarming factor more forcefully than any its brethren, but it's no sugar-fest either; in fact, being a seasonal special also permits a certain level of drawn-out emotional despair that's also not matched elsewhere in the season. Oh sure, we'd see Homer pushed to a much lower point than this just two episodes down the line, when "Homer's Odyssey" sees him so overwhelmed by self-loathing that at one point he seriously contemplates hurling himself into a river with a rock affixed to his waist, but "Roasting" examines his feelings of personal failure and inadequacy from a quieter, less melodramatic stance that seems all the more convincing. The "realism of the first season" with which Martyn and Wood seem to have a problem is one of the episode's greatest assets, for "Roasting" revolves around a small, yet very relatable kind of festive crisis - the gloomy realisation that your Christmas is a far cry from the glitzy corporate ideal (epitomised here by Ned Flanders, who outdoes Homer's pathetic attempt at a light display with his blaring animatronic monstrosity, which now seems hilariously secular in light of the direction that his characterisation would go - can you imagine today's Ned favouring a display that says "Xmas" over "Christmas"?). This isn't the kind of crisis that could potentially break the family, as in "Homer's Odyssey", "Life on The Fast Lane", "Homer's Night Out" and the first act of "Some Enchanted Evening" - we sense here that the family do have Homer's backs and aren't going to begrudge him if he's unable to shower them with material luxuries - but it nevertheless carries a bitter sting that's sustained right up until the inevitable happy ending. "Roasting" is cruel and packed with suffering in the way that the most evergreen of seasonal stories always are - so long as there's light at the end of the tunnel, the world loves nothing more than a generous helping of human misery at Yuletide to remind us that there is hope in the darkest hour. To that end, Homer is pretty much the George Bailey of this particular story - the luckless guy who can't catch a break, despite his earnest efforts to provide for those around him. It also helps that it keeps a firm handle on that characteristic Simpsons wit, which prevents it from becoming overly sappy - for example, in a scene where Bart, having learned what Homer is putting himself through, makes a heartfelt profession of admiration for his father, which takes the form of a backhanded compliment. "You must really love us to sink so low."

"Roasting" sees an unexpected financial problem threaten the family's prospects of an opulent Christmas - Marge is forced to blow the full Christmas funds on having an unfinished tattoo removed from Bart's arm, while Homer doesn't get the holiday bonus he was anticipating (through no fault of his own either; none of the blue collar workers at the plant received their Christmas bonuses because Burns chose to prioritise the wallets of the upper management. Now there's a man begging to be beleaguered by three ghosts during the night). Rather than break the news of his failure and risk disappointing his family, Homer chooses to shoulder the burden alone, in the dim hope that he can still turn things around in the meagre time he has. "Roasting" finds Homer in a wholly altruistic mood - in fact, I'm not sure if there's another episode where he's quite this completely and utterly selfless from beginning to end. Which is not to say that he's without his faults - at one point, Homer is so wounded by the observation that he's failed even to supply the customary tree for the living room that he drives out to a private reserve and steals one, nearly getting himself gunned down in the process. And yet, his basic motives are so pure, and his struggles against the bum hand life insists on dealing him so unrelenting that he takes on a classic underdog status and retains the audience's sympathies throughout. Which is another reason why "Roasting" makes for a better starting episode than "Enchanted" - both of them cement Homer's status as the perpetual loser who couldn't, but "Roasting" casts him, and his relations with the rest of his family, in a much more favourable light than does "Enchanted". Both the humour and the anguish stem from the assorted indignities he's forced to endure to replenish the family's lost resources - the sequence preceding his aforementioned fir theft is a great example, with Homer driving past various tree vendors as "Winter Wonderland" plays, his (understandable) lack of festive cheer growing increasingly apparent with every unaffordable option on offer. It's a smart sequence for how wittily it undercuts the false merriment of a holiday centred around maximum spending. Of course, Homer is forced to serve that same consumerist culture when he takes a part-time job as a mall Santa, a gig that requires him to pretend to be jolly old Saint Nick and listen to the demands of gullible six-year-olds for numerous hours. The kids he meets on the job don't actually seem all that vile, but he also has to undertake a rigorous round of entirely superfluous Santa training, and finally when Christmas Eve comes he discovers that the corporate fat cats he expected to be his salvation have been bleeding him mercilessly dry the entire time - with a barrage of additional deductions applied to his paycheck, all he gets from his Santa gig is a piddling thirteen dollars.

Unlike "Enchanted", which gives us a preposterous, albeit genuinely threatening antagonist in the form of Ms Botz, "Roasting" doesn't have a traditional villain. The antagonism arises from the coldness of the world around and how painfully indifferent it is toward Homer's plight. His family are supportive, but not even the comfort of his own home provides much refuge. The modest exterior, stacked up against neighbour Ned Flanders' tastelessly extravagant display, is a reminder of his deficiencies as family patriarch, and the inside is later invaded by two of his least favourite individuals, who are intent on rubbing those deficiencies in his face in a more direct manner. "Roasting" sees the start of not one but two of the prevailing animosities of Homer's existence - his one-sided rivalry with Ned, and his mutual enmity with sister-in-laws Patty and Selma, who come to stay with the family for the holidays. Since Homer is so sympathetic here, neither of the opposing parties come across so well in their debut appearances. We don't get to spend a whole lot of time with Ned, but based on what little we have, Homer's resentment toward him here doesn't seem quite so unjustified - he's cheerful, honestly, to the point of smarm, and he doesn't seem to think anything of flaunting his material bounty where Homer can see it (Homer is possibly a bit hard on Todd, though). Ned would later transpire to be a miraculously lovely neighbour who didn't deserve Homer's ire, but in "Roasting" his single purpose is to make Homer look and feel inferior. Patty and Selma would likewise be better developed in the following season and would prove to be two of the series' more complicated characters, but throughout Season 1 their one defining characteristic was that they hated Homer and weren't willing to put up much of a front to the contrary. Unlike "Life on The Fast Lane", where they correctly predict that Homer will let Marge down on her birthday, the viewer knows that their criticisms here are uncalled for, since Homer really is putting his all into coping with difficult circumstances for the sake of his family. Still, their presence is a nice nod to one of the other bugbears of the holiday season - having to rub shoulders and exchange strained pleasantries with the relatives you would sooner give as wide a berth as possible.

"Roasting" acknowledges that the holiday season is esteemed as a time of sacred ideal, but that the reality is frequently quite different, particularly for jaded adults who've already downed one rancid mincemeat pie too many (and presumably, Homer isn't the only person in town facing such a crisis, since all of his colleagues at the plant were also denied their Christmas bonus). Amid Homer's woes as family breadwinner, we get sprinklings of the kids' eye view of the holiday, with Bart regarding the festive conventions with a mixture of healthy irreverence ("there's only one fat guy who brings us presents and his name ain't Santa") and wide-eyed awe, as evidenced in his words of encouragement to Homer: "If TV has taught me anything, it's that miracles always happen to poor kids at Christmas. It happened to the Smurfs, it happened to Charlie Brown, it happened to Tiny Tim, and it's going to happen to us." Bart is wary enough of adult authority to know that the whole Santa story they keep feeding him is a facade, but has far too much respect for the authority of the chattering cyclops to not believe in the intrinsic sanctity of the season. It's here that the episode tips over into its most openly self-conscious mode, with the reassurance that everything will be alright because the TV told us so. This is further underscored in the parallel moments involving the festive cartoon the rest of the family are watching in Homer and Bart's absence, in which the Happy Little Elves contemplate the possibility of becoming Sad Little Elves should Santa fail to find them through a blizzard of snow. The Happy Little Elves were one of these primitive staples of the Simpsons universe that were quickly discarded as the series proper began (a la Frosty Chocolate Milkshakes) - in the Ullman shorts and early episodes, the Simpsons would occasionally watch The Happy Little Elves, who were partly a homage to those Smurfs Bart mentioned earlier, but mainly a send-up of the kind of insipid, wholesome cartoon that The Simpsons itself decidedly was not. Itchy and Scratchy became the show's go-to whenever they wanted to make some meta observation about cartoon conventions or the animation industry in general, and references to the Elves became a lot more sparing after Season 1. Abe dismisses the cartoon as "unadulterated pap" as Lisa finds herself genuinely invested in the elves' hackneyed antics. As noted, Lisa isn't given a lot to do in this episode, but she does contribute my favourite moment, when she stands up for Homer against one of Patty's cutting aside, using that psychotherapist jargon that was her character's trademark at this point in the series. It's a wonderful Lisa bit, encapsulating her perceptiveness and sensitivity in a way that puts the adults' pettiness into perspective, and seeming doubly hilarious coming straight off her ingenuous reaction to the Elves cartoon, which Patty impassively directs her back to. "Roasting" does a nice job of showcasing the dual characterisation that Lisa had already developed over a relatively short space of time, after years of being something of an unknown in the Ullman shorts - hugely precocious, but still recognisably a child (it's not clear if Lisa buys into the whole Santa thing, but she's apparently naive enough to believe that sheer desire and restrained behaviour will get her something as fanciful as a pony).

Things work out for Lisa's favourite TV elves, of course, just as they eventually work out for our favourite TV family, but it seems a safe bet that the elves didn't have to attend a run-down dog track in order to obtain their Christmas miracle. On the episode's DVD commentary, there's some brief discussion of the producers' intentions to create a cartoon that was "full of trash", and that's another means by which "Roasting" manages to subvert the conventions of the seasonal cartoons it sends up - the latter half of the episode is characterised by a genuine air of squalor, which becomes more and more prominent as Homer and Bart's journey leads them ever deeper into the dingier side of Springfield's tracks. From the gaudy artifice of the mall's Christmas grotto to the cheerless grime of the employee reception to the dankness of the Springfield Downs, it really does feel like the most purposely drab possible backdrop against which to set a Christmas special (although there is a sweet exchange between a father and son who've made a tradition of not opening their presents until the eighth race). I acknowledged that we like our seasonal stories to have sufficient lashings of gloom (or what Bart describes as suspense before the miracle happens), but there are times when "Roasting" gets a little too knowingly dirty for comfort. By the time we get to the dog tracks, we find ourselves questioning if this is really the kind of place where Christmas miracles happen. As it turns out, no, at least not in the conventional sense. Homer is advised by Barney to put his thirteen hard-earned dollars on a betting favourite named Whirlwind, but instead backs Santa's Little Helper, a late addition with pitifully low odds because he interprets the dog's ridiculous-sounding name as a kind of prophecy. It all goes as disastrously as the odds would imply, leaving Homer deflated and Bart tasked with having to reexamine his entire worldview ("It doesn't seem possible, but I guess TV has betrayed me"). The two are reduced to having to scavenge through the litter outside the tracks on the slim chance of finding a dropped winning ticket, where they find themselves in the company of none other than Santa's Little Helper, whose abysmal performance has prompted his owner to abandon him. Having to share the gutter with the failed racing dog who dashed their final prospect of redemption is the ultimate confirmation of their status as perpetual losers, and yet the empathy Bart and Homer muster for this outcast animal opens up a whole new avenue of redemption, for there is a common solution to both the Simpsons' and Santa's Little Helper's problems. Their simple act of solidarity reaps a handsome reward, for when Homer arrives home with Bart and the dog in tow and attempts to break the news about his Christmas bonus, the family are so delighted to meet Santa's Little Helper that they scarcely care. The episode ends, then, with a heartening message about how unity among losers can make winners of us all.

Of course, a dog is for life, not just for Christmas...which the problem that this episode does inadvertently set up. Having brought this lovable dog into the family household for the sake of facilitating a happy ending, the series then had to contend with the fact that they were stuck with him. This may be the most contentious Simpsons opinion I'll ever express (way more so than my views on Homer and Marge's marriage), but I actually don't think that Santa's Little Helper was that great an addition to the Simpsons household in the long-term. Unlike Snowball II the cat, who is basically harmless (if understatedly morbid - see below), the show does intermittently keep trying to make episodes with Santa's Little Helper as the focal point, and they never really worked for me, to the extent that I'd rank "Bart's Dog Gets an F", "Dog of Death", "Two Dozen and One Greyhounds" and "The Canine Mutiny" as the weakest episodes of their respective seasons. Whenever I watch "Bart Gets An Elephant" or "Lisa's Pony", I'm always amazed at just how much more invested I get in the relationships the family forms with these one-off critters we'll never see again than I do their regular pets, who are mostly just taken for granted. But why carp? For now, things are wonderful, and I've no desire to close this celebration of the 30th anniversary of the series' first episode on a negative note.

Instead, I'll close with something else that most retrospectives on this episode are unlikely to do, with a word of appreciation for the forgotten family member Snowball II, who also receives her formal introduction in this episode (but would have made a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo prior in "Moaning Lisa"). Whereas Santa's Little Helper represents seasonal miracles and the possibility of new beginnings, Snowball II is a haunting reminder of the tragedies that have already occurred, her very name constantly evoking the predecessor who had met a horrible end before the series even began, and whom the viewer only knew second-hand via her unassuming replacement. Marge states in her letter that life goes on, but inevitably the scars of yesteryear will ride along with us. I realise that this is probably sounding decidedly negative, but what I'm saying is that Snowball II had always had her unique niche within the household, even if she never received much glory for it. It's not a pretty job, but someone has to remind us that the shadow of mortality is forever hanging over us.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Beasts '76: What Big Eyes (aka Never Trust A Man Whose Eyebrows Meet In The Middle)

All six episodes of Nigel Kneales' Beasts deal with the common theme of the savagery that still endures in human nature, although none have a more literal interest than "What Big Eyes" in the nature of human DNA and the strange and uncomfortable truths it potentially conceals. The antagonist of the story is a man with some highly unorthodox views on human evolution - he believes that wolves are the true evolutionary ancestors of Man, and that with a little genetic tinkering it might even be possible to reverse the process. "What Big Eyes" is a werewolf story, although not really, and that's what frustrates a lot of viewers about it. I get the impression that it's is one of the less popular Beasts installments, which I suspect has to do with its climax - it spends much of its 53-minute running time ostensibly building toward a traditional horror outcome that it ultimately doesn't make good on, opting instead for something far more muted and low-key, but which, I would argue, manages to be even more unsettling, particularly in terms of the bitter lingering aftertaste it leaves behind. Here's a major spoiler straight off the bat - by the end of the story our aspiring lycanthrope is revealed to be a crackpot whose reckless experimentation on his own body ensures little more than his own destruction. He fails to turn himself into a wolf. But he certainly does succeed in bringing out the raging animal in the person closest to him.

"What Big Eyes" has a number of parallels with "During Barty's Party" - once again, the dramatic thrust of the story rests on the interplay between a male and a female who share the same domestic space, the unsettled nature of their relationship being revealed against their preoccupation with a (mostly) off-screen animal (unlike the rats in "During Barty's Party", we do get a couple of fleeting glimpses of a wolf in this one, although I suspect it's actually a German shepherd). But Roger and Angie's emotionally stunted relationship looks positively genteel compared to this particular dysfunctional couple - the elderly lupine obsessive Leo Raymount (Patrick Magee) and his sheepish middle-aged daughter Florence (Madge Ryan), who runs an outwardly prosaic pet shop while her father toils away in the back rooms with altogether more disturbing pursuits (she is a wolf in sheep's clothing, although not in the traditional sense). A crucial difference here is that we experience their relationship from the perspective of an outsider, who enters the situation innocently and only gradually comes to understand what he's up against. The hero of the story is Bob Curry (Michael Kitchen), a young RSPCA inspector who often struggles to exude authority, which proves a problem when he takes on dubious exotic pet dealer Duggie Jebb (Bill Dean), whom he suspects of running a dodgy trade in unquarantined timber wolves. Curry's investigation leads him to Florence's pet shop, which he assumes is being unwittingly used as a cover-up for Jebb's operations, only to discover that the smoke, in this case, stems from one hell of a fire. For Raymount has indeed purchased a quantity of wolves from Jebb, for purposes that, like Curry, we suspect are none too savoury, and Curry's persistent interest in the case takes him to a grisly outcome, albeit not the one the viewer is primed to expect for much of the episode. Telling the story from Curry's point of view is a clever tactic which ensures that its actual purpose remains at arms lengths for much of the time, so that, like Curry, we don't quite grasp what was lurking there in plain sight until the very last act. It's this sly subversion that tends to frustrate a lot of people about "What Big Eyes", but also what makes it such an effective and unsettling piece of horror television - the revelation that Raymount's efforts to transform himself into a werewolf were little more than a smokescreen to the real terror of this story, the more implicit narrative involving Raymount's abusive and controlling treatment of Florence. When Curry first arrives at Raymount's domain, he is assured that there is no cruelty there, although it becomes evident that that isn't the case. As it turns out, there is a tremendous amount of cruelty happening in this establishment, both of the kind that Curry deals with (the wolves and various other animals Raymount is revealed to have vivisected for his experiments) and the kind that he doesn't (Raymount has, perhaps unwittingly, made Florence a test subject all on her own terms).

"What Big Eyes" plays a classic diversion game, whereby Raymount's conspicuous eccentricities draw attention away from Florence's more subdued presence, to the extent that we hardly register her at all for much of the story. This is where Magee's feverish, wild-eyed scenery chewing really comes into play - he seems, for all the world, like a man who's already two-thirds of the way through the transformation process from civility to savagery, and is about to tip over into a snarling fury at any moment. What Chris Newton of The Spooky Isles describes as his "slightly odd Shakespearean B-Movie performance" only adds to the eerie unpleasantness he radiates - pay attention to the way he gnashes his teeth while explaining to Curry the basis of his "Grandma vaccine". By contrast, the docile Florence at first appears to serve no greater purpose than to further accentuate his feral qualities by providing an easy outlet for his brutality. I think the really crucial line in the story, however, lies in a remark that Raymount makes early on of Florence: "One's offspring are a distorting mirror; they mock one with themselves. I have to remember I'm not that." At first, this appears to be indicative purely of Raymount's disdain for his daughter, and of his desire to elevate himself above his perceived inferiors by proving his scientific brilliance, but it also points to the idea of Florence being a reflection of the man who has raised her, our first hint that she is the character who perhaps bears watching.

This is further insinuated in Raymount and Florence's dual obsession with the story of Little Red Riding Hood, which Raymount holds up as a precursor to his own lyncanthropic ambitions. It is, as he tells Curry, not a fairy story but a "folk memory", the implied subtext being that Grandma and the Big Bad Wolf were actually a single entity, two sides of the same coin, and the titular heroine was lured to a gruesome demise by her very own kin. The Grandma/Wolf analogy is itself double-edged - on the one hand, it acts as a warning that the most seemingly benign of characters might harbour more troublesome impulses (which in this case would point toward Florence and not Raymount), while also hinting at the darker nature of Raymount and Florence's relationship. Keep in mind that the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, a story dating as far back as 10th century Europe, is popularly interpreted as a rape/seduction analogy, with the wolf being a sexual predator who persuades the readily-manipulated heroine to wander off the beaten track. In the version that most people are familiar with today, both Red and her grandmother escape the clutches of the wolf, but earlier versions of the story had a far bleaker ending in which the wolf devours the heroine and no woodcutter ever arrives to save the day. Traditionally, the story serves as a warning against stranger danger, but Raymount's retelling contains a disturbing subversion, in which the real threat is revealed to have been lurking within the supposed safety of the heroine's family all along. Raymount acknowledges as such when he states (somewhat bizarrely) that no child could have been taken in by the flimsy disguise of a wolf in a nightcap - in actuality, Red was betrayed by the one she trusted; Grandma herself was always the disguise. As Raymount recounts the story to Curry (and Florence listens in with an eerily infantile reverence), he does so with a seething sensuality that becomes all the more chilling when viewed with the hindsight of Florence's final revelations.

Once you pick up on that subtext, then Raymount's "Grandma vaccine" takes on multiple meanings. There is the very literal sense in which Raymount has been injecting wolf blood and spinal fluid into his own body, in the hopes that it will enable him to undergo his own lycanthropic transformation  - a reckless endeavor which, ultimately, causes him to die of septicemia. But there is also the symbolic sense in which he has been poisoning Florence over the years, both in his implied sexual abuse and in the relentless psychological trauma he has inflicted on her, to the extent that quite the slavering beast has been swelling up inside her in the form of her repressed anger and desperation. When Curry asks Raymount who he has been using as a human subject in his experiments, Raymount responds, "Who is the most available?", by which he only ostensibly refers to himself. There is no evidence that Raymount has subjected Florence to any of his Grandma vaccines in the literal sense - certainly, he is a man far too obsessed with his own brilliance to be willing to share the honors of lycanthropic transformation with a being as far down the food chain as Florence - and yet the implication is that Florence has been his ultimate experiment, albeit inadvertently. It's here that we can draw parallels between Florence and the wolf Curry later discovers caged in Raymount's yard, which Raymount has forced to share in his fate by injecting with his own fluids. This is a link that Florence herself makes explicit at the end of the story when she likens her father's treatment of her to that of the animals he vivisected ("All my childhood, cut out of me and thrown away!") and in her description of their relationship, which resembles that of a master and dog than a parent and child ("I was faithful! I was submitted!").

The various other caged animals seen all throughout the story (both in Florence's pet shop and Jebb's yard) have their own duality, symbolising both Raymount's hypothesis about the untamed beasts that lies dormant in the human shell, and Florence's own domination and entrapment by her father. At the end of the story, when Curry returns to the pet shop for the final time, he finds the place in complete disarray, with all of the cages smashed and most of the animals absconded (save from a lone kitten which continues to linger on the shop floor). Clearly, there has been some kind of grisly new development in Curry's absence. The obvious assumption, of course, is that Raymount has returned from the dead in lupine form and wreaked the prophesied havoc, but the wreckage quickly transpires to have been Florence's doing; having finally seen her father for what he was, she has flown into a bestial rage of all her own, destroying his research tools and everything else in the vicinity. The cage doors have been opened and the animal is now unleashed, and it's here that we finally get the transformation we were promised earlier on in the plot, just not in the form we would have expected. The twist comes in the revelation that it was always Florence who had the capacity for real ferity, the result of having endured a lifetime of metaphorical Grandma vaccines from her father, and as the end-product of Raymount's body of work, she is effectively becoming the werewolf in his stead. The resulting rampage contains nothing as exotic or fantastical as actual lycanthropy, but it is every bit as gruesomely nightmarish. Ryan's performance throughout this sequence is both startling and authentically distressing, as we witness Florence bringing her howling anguish to the forefront for the very first time. As she leans over Raymount's concealed body, she slips into a recital of the "transformation" sequence from Little Red Riding Hood, much as her father had previously done with Curry, and her own facial features are seen to contort with a rabid frenzy that blows his own gnashing recital clean out of the water. A distorted mirror indeed, for Florence is now more of a wolf than Raymount could ever have hoped to have been.

"What Big Eyes" ends on a pessimistic note, suggesting that Florence will never be free of her father's influence, even after his death. In the final moments, she thinks she sees him stirring beneath the sheet covering his body, and her anger morphs into high elation, as she joyously proclaims that his promises were true after all. Curry pulls back the sheet to reveal Raymount's lifeless body underneath, whereupon Florence recognises that he is in fact dead, but chooses to cling to her delusions, insisting that, "Just for a moment, it was true," while continuing to stare adoringly at her father. The closing shot, which pans across the ravaged pet shop, shows the lone kitten from earlier atop the counter, freed from its cage but willfully confining itself to a plastic container, implying that Florence will ultimately remain indebted to her despicable father, opting for the comfort and familiarity of her veneration over the possibility of escape.

Oh yes, and in his review on The Spooky Isles, Newton does also point out a fairly glaring problem with this episode. After Raymount dies of septicemia, you can very visibly see him breathing right after. You would do well to ignore that.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Casper: Lucky Enough To Be A Ghost

Earlier this year I got very hung up on the topic of musical numbers that were at one point destined for big screen glory but were ultimately deemed luxuries and abandoned on the cutting room floor. Well, Casper also has one of those, and fortunately this one hasn't stayed sealed away inside a vault for the past quarter-century. The excised song, "Lucky Enough To Be A Ghost", was to have been performed by The Ghostly Trio about midway through the film, during one of Harvey's attempted therapy sessions. It looks as if it would have been an enjoyable sequence, but it wound up being jettisoned purely because the animation required would have been so complicated as to risk putting the film over-budget. The sequence was filmed, with Bill Pullman doing his bit, but animation for Stretch, Stinkie and Fatso was only created for the initial, non-musical portion, which director Brad Silberling had still hoped to incorporate into the final edit. In the end, everything within the sequence was given the axe - although, if you are particularly eagle-eyed, you can still pick out a couple of moments from it in the theatrical trailer. I'd note that there are also two call-backs to the sequence that survive in the final cut:

  • During the scene where Kat goes outside to talk to Vic, she mentions that her dad "kind of hit the ceiling" when she asked him about the party. As it turns out, she meant that literally.
  • Later, when Harvey is at the end of his tether, Stinkie observes that the situation "calls for drastic measures", to which Fatso responds, "You think we should break into a song?" (Of course, if you were unaware of the excised musical sequence, you might assume that this was a callback to an earlier moment where the Trio taunted Kat with a corrupted version of "It's My Party" by Lesley Gore).

The unfinished "Lucky Enough To Be A Ghost" sequence has since shown up as an extra on DVD releases of the film (where you can watch two different versions - one with just Pullman, the other an animators' reference with stand-ins for Stretch, Stinkie and Fatso), with Silberling explaining that it was eventually deemed that the movie could get by without it, as the Trio's penchant for pranking Harvey had already been established from the earlier moment where they pretend to have summoned Amelia. From a strictly narrative standpoint, this sequence is entirely dispensable, since it doesn't tell us anything important and/or that we don't already know. It's also not as though the Trio shed any light on their own personal backstories (something that goes untouched on in the film), they just make psychotherapy puns (among the most questionable of which is Fatso's claim to be bulimic - unless he is indeed getting at the fact that ghosts automatically lose whatever food they ingest), although obviously it saddens me that we missed out on a whole extra sequence with Harvey and the poltergeists. It isn't essential to the story, but it does further expand on our sense of the Trio coming around to Harvey (at this point, they are plainly tormenting him because they like him, and what a willful target he is for their shenanigans), while simultaneously grinding down his every last speck of resolve. Its greatest narrative function, though, is in foreshadowing Harvey's own encounter with the perks of being a ghost, and the release it potentially offers him from his living DEATH. After all, the Trio opens the song by turning Harvey's therapeutic posturing back on him ("Too bad about your wife!"), a reminder that the assumptions he makes about ghosts are all thinly-veiled expressions of his own deepest despairs. (Stretch, Stinkie and Fatso, meanwhile, couldn't give a toss about the judgements of the outside world.)

Although we'll never get to see the "Lucky Enough To Be A Ghost" sequence fully animated, the above version with only Pullman has value all of its own in that it provides insight into just how deranged the acting process was on this film - when you keep in mind that Pullman and Ricci spent much of their screen time interacting with non-existent co-stars. It's why I don't think the work in Casper is anything to be sniffed at - they had me willing to believe that the ghosts and humans were rubbing shoulders within the same physical space, and that takes more than just cutting edge technology. All of the flashiest visual trickery in the world wouldn't have meant anything if the human cast weren't willing to act their hearts out into the void.

Friday, 29 November 2019

Beasts '76: During Barty's Party (aka Woodwork Squeaks and Out Come The Freaks)

There's something about the motif of a rat in the walls that lends itself compellingly to horror. Even as a rat fancier, I suppose I can comprehend it - the house stands for domesticity, cleanliness and safety, while the rat indicates wildness, contamination and volatility. Ostensibly, there's nothing out of the ordinary about a non-human visitor worming its way, uninvited, into your domain - it happens every day - and yet it suggests an unraveling of our control, both personally and as a species, a breakdown of the imagined barrier between civilisation and chaos. When I covered the "Night of The Rat" segment of the 1983 anthology film Nightmares earlier this year, I noted that the purest example I had seen of this motif occurs, strangely enough, in a Disney film, Lady and The Tramp (1955) - there, the rat is a foreign interloper, a frightening disturbance in Lady's pristine bourgeoisie paradise, one that intuitively understands that the Achilles heel of this clean-cut, perfectly ordered world is to be located within the baby's crib. Other examples from more conventional horror, such as the aforementioned Nightmares and Of Unknown Origin (1983), are more ambiguous in their treatment of the murine encroachers, using them as a foil or reflection for highlighting what's already squalid or debased about the lives of their human protagonists. Willard (1971), meanwhile, aligns its images of rat invasion with the uprising of the social misfit lashing back at a system that has rejected and subjugated him. In all cases, the rat might bring out the worst in the human (or vice versa, in the case of Willard), but the real hazard was lurking right there within the walls of the human psyche all along.

One of the most creative depictions of the ongoing battle between man and rodent for domestic dominance is the fifty-minute nail-biter "During Barty's Party", an installment of the British horror anthology series Beasts, which was first broadcast on ITV throughout the autumn of 1976. Written by Nigel Kneale of The Quatermass Experiment fame, Beasts consisted of six self-contained tales linked only by the common theme that they all involved animals - or, more accurately, the part of Man that's still very much in touch with his animalistic ancestry. "During Barty's Party" follows a terminally anxious housewife, Angie Truscott (Elizabeth Sellars), who every day is left to fend for herself in her remote Hampshire home while her hard-headed husband Roger (Anthony Bate) heads out to the office. So overwhelming is Angie's solitude that she routinely tunes into the titular "Barty's Party", a local radio show hosted by Barty Wills (voice of Colin Bell), a smarmy disc jockey of the Smashie and Nicey ilk, just to hear the sound of another human voice. On this particular day, Angie is having an especially stressful time of it, leaving her so distraught that she's committed the ultimate transgression and attempted to contact Roger at work. When Roger gets home, he's not amazingly sympathetic toward Angie, angered at the impression she may have given of their home life to his colleagues at his office, which gives us a neat little snapshot into their relationship dynamic. At first, Angie has trouble articulating quite what's gotten her so on edge, but gradually reveals that there are two key disturbances that have been gnawing away at her in Roger's absence. The first is the swanky sports car that's been stood vacant in the local vicinity for much of the day, its door hanging wide open; Angie suspects that it's been abandoned, but finds something inexplicably unsettling about the scenario. The second is the rat that's gotten into the house and is still periodically scratching away beneath the floorboards. Roger is quick to dismiss Angie's concerns as hysteria and produces a perfectly rational response for her every perturbation, a battle of sensibilities that only intensifies as the evening goes on and Angie discovers, with a little assistance from Barty, that there may be a horrifying connection between the two occurrences, one that potentially spells curtains for herself and Roger.

Being a rat fancier does put me in rather a paradoxical position when it comes to rat-related horror; as sub-genre it fascinates me but my sentiments for the animal in question obviously do impede my ability to feel afraid of them. Whenever a rat scarpers into view, it's inevitable that I'm going to see my own pets in them, not enmity. To that end, "During Barty's Party" achieved the impossible, in that it did leave me feeling somewhat alarmed at the Truscotts' mounting rat infestation. But then, "During Barty's Party" takes a unique approach, in that we never see a single rat throughout the full fifty minutes of running time. We hear the occasional scratching beneath the floorboards, which snowballs as it becomes apparent that the Truscotts' four-legged nemesis isn't working alone, ultimately swelling into a cacophony of shrieks as the rats really get down to business. But they manage to stay out of view for the entire duration. "During Barty's Party" is a minimalist horror that works by making clever use of what we don't see, and by keeping the rats entirely off-screen, the threat they pose becomes more abstract in nature, to be the point that, let's face it, this isn't really a story about rats, is it? Oh, they're out there alright, and they present a very real, immediate problem for the Truscotts, but Kneale's script appears to be tapping into a much deeper existential threat than simply the nightmarish prospect of a rodent infestation getting wildly out of hand. This is more about what becomes of you when the rest of the world turns its back on you and refuses to validate your existence, so that, for all intents and purposes, you cease to be. "During Barty's Party" is a study in isolation and its erosive effects upon the human psyche, with the rats becoming a manifestation of that void beyond the Truscotts' property - they are nothingness, abandonment, oblivion, the dead, nihilistic space that is persistently taunting Angie with its vacuity, and threatens to claim Roger and herself for its own. The deserted sports car parked outside has a more direct connection to the rodent rampage, which ultimately dawns on Angie, but for much of the piece it too is a symbol of that desolation - an empty, inert object where some form of life should be, perhaps even a terrifying preview of a world in which humans no longer exist.

For the bulk of "During Barty's Party" we never leave Angie and Roger's living room; the outside world remains almost entirely unseen, so that it too becomes part of the unknown. Among the scant exceptions are the opening shots of the episode, which show us the inside of the abandoned car, complete with close-up shots of the novelty items adorning the interior - a keychain shaped like a human skull and a gear stick cover shaped like a cat's head. Both are clues as the calamity that has already occurred, even before the sound of disembodied screaming kicks in - the skull is an obvious signifier of death and decay, while the cat, mortal enemy of the rat, becomes a totem for the absent occupants, a subtle hint that the food chain has been subverted and that the predator has become the prey. The Truscotts themselves own a dog, Buster, but by the time the story begins he has become yet another absent component, having absconded from the property the instant he caught wind of what trouble was headed their way. Roger does admit to feeling some concern about the dog, dismissing him as "stupid", although even this early on in the narrative it's hard to dispel the inkling that Buster may be the most sensible character in this entire equation. Roger's contempt for his dog's faculties, for the rats' status as scavengers and for his wife's anxieties establishes him as a man with an assured sense of dominion over his perceived underlings, both animal and human, an assumption that will inevitably shatter as the rats persist in throwing their combined weight around.

The subversion of predator-prey relations is a recurrent theme in eco-horror, for it plays on the fear that our position as dominant species may not be as carved in stone as we'd like to think, and that a simple change in environmental factors could tip the balance drastically in another creature's favour. There's a lot of talk throughout about about regular rats and how they are not to be underestimated (true, although the story Angie shares about their supposed co-operative egg-stealing techniques is one that I've heard many times before and do find rather suspect), so what would happen if the rats were to use that ingenuity in a highly organised way against us? In that regard, "During Barty's Party" plays like a darker take on Robert C. O'Brien's 1971 novel Mrs Frisby and The Rats of NIMH (adapted, albeit loosely, into the animated feature The Secret of NIMH in 1982), in that the rats are implied to be a strain of "super rats" who, as a knock-on effect of Man's relentless efforts to assert control over the animal kingdom, have developed not only an immunity to poison but an awareness of their immunity. Unlike the rats of NIMH, who only wanted to escape the shadow of Man, these sophisticated murines are highly vindictive and quite ready to declare war on the bipedal giants who trapped and poisoned them for eons. Roger persists in asserting the rational - that the rats' behaviour is instinct-driven and they do not possess the reasoning capacities for the ideating of something as complicated as war - for most of the narrative, as Angie's own gut instinct paints an increasingly persuasive picture of the possibility that the rats may be actively conspiring against them. But "During Barty's Party" is less about the formidableness of nature than it is the fragility of human wisdom and composure when faced with looming destruction. We know that Roger is setting himself up for a fall from the start, when he boasts about "throwing all of [his] professional expertise into gauging, assessing, evaluating the problem with that car." As it turns out, his cerebral outlook is his sole defence in the face of disaster, and an entirely flimsy one at that - all he can do is deny over and over that the apocalypse is happening, until the barriers have completely come down, at which point, he reverts to instinct and becomes almost animalistic in his response to the crisis, shrieking and staggering across the hallway on all fours. By contrast, the ostensibly irrational Angie proves more level-headed and resourceful, even if her powers too are ultimately futile.

In his review of the episode on The Spooky Isles, Chris Newton proposes that the rodent infestation is entirely imaginary, it being "a metaphor for the cracks in a loveless marriage where the lonely housewife drinks too much and the husband is more concerned with his career than his relationship." I would not disagree that Roger and Angie's unequal marriage is a key facet in this overall landscape of nihilism, or that the absent car owners, insinuated to be a pair of youthful lovers, offer an ominous echo to the barren state of our protagonists' interactions. In fact, they might even be Roger and Angie at a much earlier stage in their relationship, before things turned sour (the fate of the motorists is never made clear, but it's heavily inferred that they parked their car and slipped into the bushes to copulate, only to be viciously mauled by the legions of rats they unwittingly laid down among). From that perspective, the rats could represent the stagnation of a marriage that has lost momentum ever since the offspring fled the nest (the Truscotts have a daughter, Kate, who left them to get married), the poisoning and contamination of marital idealism. But I personally believe that Kneale is using the rats to convey a much broader indifference than that concerning the tepid relations between Roger and Angie, the implication being that humankind will ultimately doom itself against the rodent uprising through a fundamental lack of co-operation and communication - in that regard, the rats clearly have them beat.

This is where the titular Barty comes in, for he provides Angie of the illusion of an intimacy with an outside world that, in reality, would never notice if she lived or died. Angie clearly gets little alleviation from the overbearing void whether her husband is there with her or not, and it seems that there are a few other candidates willing to afford her the acknowledgement she requires - in addition to the absent Kate and Buster, Angie's mother would sooner talk about her own troubles than listen to her daughter's, and their neighbours the Gibsons are away. On a regular day, the voice of Barty becomes a substitute for human connection, a means of staving off despair by filling in the empty space, but at the climax of the story Angie uses him as a more literal lifeline, when she becomes desperate enough to call into Barty's show, after police have already dismissed the Truscotts' problem as one for the exterminators to handle in the morning. Barty assumes the role of spokesperson for the external world to whom Angie reaches out for help and validation in the midst of catastrophe. We sense straight off the bat that Barty is unlikely to provide such refuge (keep in mind that "art", which features twice in "Barty's Party", is an anagram of "rat"), and it is indeed Barty who finally damns Angie to oblivion. Although Barty initially treats the story as a joke, he does appear to grow genuinely concerned as Angie's situation grows more and more dire and her distress magnifies, and promises that he will send help - unfortunately, the rats bite through the telephone wires, severing the Truscotts' sole means of communication with the world beyond, just before Angie is able to give Barty her address. The radio remains intact, however, so the Truscotts can still hear Barty as he assures them that he did at least garner Angie's full name and that his production team will spearhead a search for anyone living in the Hampshire area with the name Angela Prescott. All the Truscotts can do is scream in vain at the blathering Barty as it becomes evident that the outside world will never find a trace of them. Crucially, Barty has doomed Angie in his failure to validate her existence - by failing to accurately memorise her name, he denies her the affirmation she seeks, the authentication of herself and her predicament, and her assimilation into a broader body of connected people. As far as the wider world is concerned, she does not exist, and her cries for acknowledgement have fallen on deaf ears.

The end of the story offers an unexpected development - the Truscotts are cornered in their bedroom, with seemingly no prospect of escape, when the rats fall abruptly silent. Angie and Roger hear the sounds of human voices outside and realise, to their relief, that their neighbours the Gibsons have returned. Confirmation, then, that the rats were nothing more than the products of a particularly oppressive bout of isolation, an illusion easily shattered by the emergence of other human figures from the void? That's what Kneale undoubtedly wants us to think, but unfortunately, the Gibsons' last-minute appearance amounts to nothing more than a passing flicker of false hope. As we soon discover, the rats have halted their attack on the Truscotts simply to go outside take out the Gibsons, after which their rampage on the Truscotts' property immediately resumes. That the rats make a point of destroying the Gibsons first may be their most sinister course of action throughout the entire story, since it implies that they want the Truscotts to feel completely cut off and alone in their final moments. The helplessness of both parties against this oblivion is a chilling reminder of just how flimsy are the ties that bind, even among those living in a close proximity. Fact is, they could not depend on their own neighbours to save them in a time of crisis.

As the story closes, it is Barty who gets the last word, for the sounds of the radio can just about be discerned above the onslaught of shrieking rats, and he has one final comment for Angie in an effort to prop up his own ego: "Now we're doing all we can, but still no positive results. One or two cynics here are even using the word "hoax". Well, that's happened before. Poor old Barty being conned and being set up ridiculous. But I don't want to believe it. I've got faith in human nature. So before our handover, I'll just say this: Angela, sweetie, I hope you really do exist." Not any more, she doesn't.

Saturday, 23 November 2019

Casper (1995): All of Harvey's Friends Are Dead, But That's Okay

Since I broached the subject about a month ago, let's talk about the time that Casper, that unusually benevolent, pint-sized wraith who'd previously starred in a series of theatrical cartoons from Famous Studios in the 1940s and 1950s, and later a series of comics by Harvey Comics, received his own big screen feature adventure, courtesy of Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, Steven Spielberg's production company. Casper was directed by Brad Silberling and released on May 26th 1995, at a time when computer-generated effects were beginning to gain more of a commanding presence in cinema - we were only a few months away from the release of Toy Story, the first fully computer-animated feature film, and for now Casper represented a major breakthrough all of its own, in boasting the first leading character to be created entirely with CGI and integrated into live action settings with flesh and blood co-stars. The beginning of the end, you might even say? Much as Casper is a misunderstood ghoul, I think Casper is a misunderstood flick, one that's easily dismissed as being little more than a playground for its flashy visual effects but has quite a bit more going for it than that.

Our story opens with Carrigan Crittenden (Cathy Moriarty), a gold-digging would-be socialite who is chagrined to discover that her late father has left all of his fortune to various wildlife charities and all she got from the deal is Whipstaff Manor, a condemned seafront property in the town of Friendship, Maine. She has a change of heart, however, when her long-suffering personal assistant Dibs (Eric Idle) discovers a hidden document in with the deeds, indicating that Whipstaff Manor actually harbours a secret wealth. Accessing the property proves to be another matter entirely, for while long devoid of human life, Carrigan hadn't banked on it being haunted by four ghosts. Casper (voice of Malachi Pearson), the ghost of a 12-year-old child, is the lonely misfit of the household, and is constantly bullied and subjugated by the other three, a malevolent poltergeist posse known as the Ghostly Trio (whom Casper identifies as his "uncles", although their living identities are not expounded on further). Heading the trio is the spindly snarker Stretch (Joe Nipote), who is the meanest and most intelligent of the three - there's also Fatso (Brad Garrett), an obtuse glutton, and Stinkie (Joe Alaskey), a vulgar prankster. Barely tolerated by his fellow specter, except as a dogsbody, Casper has an innate curiosity about reconnecting with the living, but finds little sympathy there either, for most people become shrieking wrecks at the mere sight of him. When Carrigan and Dibs show up at the manor, Casper tries to befriend them and gets the classic reaction; worse still, they attract the attentions of the three poltergeists, who really give them something to scream about. Carrigan enlists various forces to rid the manor of the ghosts, but to no avail - after burning through the best (cue clever cameos from Don Novello as Father Guido Sarducci and Dan Aykroyd as Ray Stantz), she turns to the rest, and finds Dr James Harvey (Bill Pullman) a parapsychologist and self-proclaimed "ghost therapist", who purports to be able to convince ghosts to stop haunting by directing them through their "unfinished business". Harvey's commitment to his work has rendered him a pariah both professionally and socially, not least because his obsession with helping ghosts move on from whatever's pinning them to this mortal coil is very transparently rooted in his own inability to let go of his deceased wife, Amelia. This ostracisation has spread to his teenage daughter Kat (Christina Ricci), a girl without a friend in the world, in whom Casper may finally have found a kindred spirit.

I was ten years old when Casper first hit. I went to see it and was as blown away by it as any film I had ever seen back then. I dug the visual effects, I found many of the individual sequences to be tremendously exciting (particularly the sequence where Harvey faces off against the Ghostly Trio), I got a little tearful during all the third-act pathos, and I give extra special props to the lady in the seat behind me who gasped indignantly at the part where Carrigan looms over Dibs and yells, "THE BITCH IS BACK!" It's a very memorable experience from my early days of cinema-going. I held such fond, loving memories of this film that I was slightly taken back, some years later, to discover that Casper is not exactly what you'd call a universally beloved flick, with many being inclined to regulate it to the same junkyard of trash 1990s live action cartoon recreations as Richie Rich and The Flintstones (there was a time when The Addams Family and The Addams Family Values used to be cast on that pile, but people have decided that they like those movies after all). As with Benji The Hunted, it's a case of this film's fanbase consisting predominantly of myself and Roger Ebert. For as little respect as this film is afforded, every time I revisit it I am reminded of why I loved it so much as a child and have the living snot disarmed out of me all over again. Firstly, the visual effects have stood the test of time - some of the CGI might seem a tad rudimentary to modern eyes (naturally, the ghosts based on cartoon characters look a whole lot better than those based on real people), but Casper and the Trio are still all so fantastically fluid and expressive in their individual movements and mannerisms, and, as with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, it's a film that benefits immeasurably from the sheer believability with which the ghosts and humans appear to interact. More importantly, the film has heart, although for me personally that heart lies less in whether Casper and Kat will overcome their social and physical differences than it does in Harvey's whole arc, his quest for reaffirmation and the unexpected solidarity he discovers in the Ghostly Trio. Bill Pullman, I think, is wonderful in this film - god knows, I wasn't a fan of that other special effects blitz he was in around the middle of the decade, but here he's truly adorable as Harvey, a socially paralysed dork whose earnest demeanor barely conceals the deep existential despair underpinning his day-to-day being. Some find Moriarty's performance as Carrigan to be overly theatrical (no doubt that she's trying to out-cartoon the cartoon ghosts), but I think she's a fun and underrated villain with some good dialogue.

Having said all that, I can understand why some people would struggle with this film. It is rather a peculiar mishmash of elements - a goofball special effects extravaganza with conspicuously morbid undertones, and a whole lot of touchy-feels. It's a silly live action cartoon that strives to be a little dark and dirty (but isn't a dark comedy, despite its occasionally flippant approach to to the issues it raises) and ultimately wants to say something meaningful about life and death, love and loss, grief and letting go. The end result is film dealing explicitly with grave subject matter that flitters through such a dizzying variety of tones - zany, sentimental, and at times a mite mean-spirited - that as a concoction it becomes somewhat grotesque, and I think that's what alienates some viewers. Personally, I suspect the film's offbeat style and its upfront grappling with the issue of mortality - not least, the mortality of its target audience - has an awful lot to do with what endeared it to me as a kid, but I appreciate why some might find its discordant treatment of the subject off-putting.

Among the film's detractors were our friends at Halliwell's Film Guide, who praised the "spectacular" visual effects but found the film "tasteless in its attitudes to life and death". I've pondered what, specifically, would stand out as so tasteless about it, and I will confess that as fervidly as I'll defend this movie, there is one aspect of it that I do not like, and which has never sat well with me, and that is the entire manner in which Carrigan's arc is resolved. See (SPOILERS!), Harvey's hypothesis that ghosts are bound to the living world by some kind of "unfinished business" turns out to be entirely astute. Most ghosts are held captive by an unfortunate paradox, whereby they are driven by a strong sense of purpose but fated to lose all conscious awareness of who they were, somewhat impeding their ability to fulfill that purpose; should a ghost actually complete their unfinished business, however, they will "cross over" into the afterlife, from which ordinarily they cannot return. With Kat's help, Casper remembers that in life he was the son of a renowned inventor named McFadden, and between them they uncover the "Lazarus", a project that McFadden had been working on following the death of his son, with the power to restore a ghost to a life, but was never able to utilise due to his being declared insane and presumably dying in an institution somewhere. Casper and Kat manage to activate the Lazarus, but discover that, due to the limited quantities of life-giving fluid, the machine only has the capacity to be used once. Meanwhile, the poltergeists have gone out for a wild night on the town, taking Harvey with them, and Carrigan and Dibs seize the opportunity to infiltrate the manor, but are unable to access the vault reputed to contain the treasure. However, they stumble across the Lazarus and, learning of its capabilities, Carrigan steals the fluid, musing that it would be so much easier to break into the vault if one of them were a ghost and had the ability to float through walls. She then attempts to murder Dibs, promising to later restore him to life using the Lazarus, only to get herself killed in the effort. So she becomes a ghost and uses her newly-acquired spectral powers to crack the vault and seize the chest of treasure within, much to the protests of Casper and Kat. Dibs shows up and attempts to betray Carrigan, intending to keep the treasure for himself and leave her permanently stranded as a ghost - she responds by punching him and sending him flying through the window of the manor, presumably to his death. Kat and Casper then quiz Carrigan on what her unfinished business is. Carrigan triumphantly declares that she has none, now that she finally has what she came here for...whereupon her spirit is hijacked by an overpowering light that proceeds to obliterate her. Realising her error, Carrigan desperately pleads that she has plenty of unfinished business, but it's too late - the powers that be clearly heard her, and there are no take backs.

With Carrigan gone, Casper and Kat reclaim both the fluid and the chest, and we get our payoff to the whole treasure saga, which is that - PSYCH! - there was no treasure. Turns out, that hidden message on the deeds all boiled down to a gigantic misunderstanding. It was simply a leftover prop from a role-playing game that McFadden used to play with Casper. And what was actually in that treasure chest? A worthless baseball. Well, not entirely worthless, in that it holds tremendous sentimental value to Casper: "It's autographed by Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers! My favourite player!" That, folks, is our punchline.

So yes, we were in textbook MacGuffin territory all along with this whole treasure business, in that the treasure itself (or lack of) has no actual bearing on any of the plot resolution, and is there purely to give Carrigan her motivation for doing all that she does. The revelation that she got her panties in such an ungodly twist over a meagre baseball is clearly intended to be humorous, but falls flat - not so much because it's a weak punchline to such a pivotal arc, but because it seems like awfully flippant payoff in light of the fact that two people just lost their lives in pursuit of this non-existent treasure. (Technically, Dibs' fate is unknown - it's possible that he survived, although I can't say I'm loving his odds.) On that note, Casper and Kat deliberately goaded Carriagn into professing that she has no unfinished business, knowing full well what would happen if she did, so...arguably, you could say that they murdered her. Perhaps "murder" is a concept that only applies to corporeal beings, but at any rate they destroyed her ghost, and seem quite remorseless about the entire affair. And over what? A baseball signed by Duke Snider. (Okay, the fluid as well, but I'm still not comfortable with the fact that this was still a major factor in what such a dramatic life and death struggle came down to.)

I get the intention, of course. Carrigan and Dibs were victims of their own avarice, obsessiveness and superficiality. The whole purpose of the alleged treasure turning out to be something as inconsequential as a baseball (even one autographed by Duke Snider) is to make a point about how ridiculous and misspent those aspirations were from the start. Casper pushes the argument, with all the cold-blooded ferocity of the Coen brothers' Fargo (1996), that the pursuit of personal and material gain will inevitably coax out the mindless, self-destructive monsters in us all, a struggle that in the end is absolutely not worth the bloodshed. For the treasure to be a beloved personal item of Casper's, and the map part of a bonding ritual he once shared with his father, likewise provides a clear contrast of values, with Carrigan's grasping rapacity playing off against Casper's guilelessness. It isn't too much of a stretch to infer that Whipstaff Manor does contain a treasure, but it's not one that Carrigan, who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, can actually use. It's also certainly not that stupid baseball. It would be easy enough to argue that the actual treasure lay in love and friendship, but I would go a step further and suggest that the real treasure to be unearthed at Whipstaff Manor is life itself. After all, we have the Lazarus, and that is a pretty remarkable find. Another reason, I suppose, why Halliwell's might find the film's outlook on life and death "tasteless" is the entire plot point of the Lazarus. We have a machine that can subvert the natural order and bring the dead back to life, and while the film does take a dim view on those who would abuse such a device for nefarious purposes, no one questions the broader ethical ramifications of McFadden's god-playing aspirations. But then the purposes of the Lazarus are largely symbolic. This is a film about a ghost who's been dead and lost for some time and who, through his experiences at the manor, finds a renewed purpose and, with the restoration of his life, a better understanding of how to live it. All of that does indeed apply to Casper, but it applies doubly to Harvey who, as I've already indicated, has the most compelling arc out of the cast. What you need to bear in mind about Harvey is that he is already dead before the movie begins - he is not a ghost in the literal sense (although he does become one later on in the film), but he exists as a figurative ghost, one who has become disconnected from life because he is so heavily fixated with holding on to the past. Harvey is unprepared to confront the future until he feels he has been reconciled with what fate has forced him to leave behind; over the course of the film, however, he gains a new perspective, one that enables him to see a way through his grief and insecurity (ultimately it is Harvey, and not Casper, who is restored to life via the Lazarus), and rejoins the living, through the acceptance he finds among the dead. The treasure at the manor, then, is the possibility of a brand new dawn, of new hope and momentum following loss.

It's easy enough to draw parallels between Carrigan's fanatical pursuit of the phantom treasure and Harvey's relentless quest to be reunited with Amelia, whom he doggedly believes to still be out there in the form of a ghost. In both cases, we have characters who are clearly damaging themselves for the sake of something they suppose to be there on the basis of only conjecture and assumption. But the most compelling analogue for Carrigan's disturbing final demise lies with Casper himself. For he, like Carrigan, was cut down at the height of his exaltation, and by his own steadfast refusal to relinquish personal acquisition. His memories of his past life finally restored, Casper recounts to Kat how he became a ghost - he had begged his father to buy him a sled, and when his father relented, Casper was so delighted that he went out into the snowy landscape and played with it to a dangerous degree: "I couldn't stop, I was having so much fun. Then it got late, it got dark, it got cold. And I got sick. My dad got sad." The whole notion of a sled embodying the tipping point between a lost innocence and an altogether more tumultuous twist of fate is of course evocative of Orson Welles' much-admired classic Citizen Kane (1941), to an extent that I presume can only be deliberate. Whereas Kane's final gasp on his deathbed was a lament for the childhood sled he regretted leaving behind on the road to power and success (that is, a yearning for the simpler, gentler life he could otherwise have led), Casper's downfall came in his unwillingness to be parted from his own beloved sled. Casper wished to remain where he was, in that moment of carefree happiness for all eternity, oblivious to the fact that the world around him was already changing. Casper aspired to freeze time, and himself became frozen, literally and figuratively, forever stranded in spiritual limbo in the form of a living impaired twelve-year-old. Casper's grasping comes from a more innocent place than Carrigan's, but both were ultimately misdirected by the assumption that everything they would ever need was right there in their hands, and that all they had to do was to keep a hold of it. The message, in both cases, is that anyone who tries to grab hold of life and bend it to their will does so to their own detriment.

A common connection linking Casper's predicament to all of the main humans is the sensation that life is something that is out there and is passing them by. Carrigan believes that she could be living the high life if she could just get her hands on the treasure inside the manor. Kat, having been forced to relocate so many times owing to her father's nomadic lifestyle, has never had the opportunity to settle within any one community and form any real connections or a sense of belonging; she is a kindred spirit to Casper because she, like film, feels afloat, an empty shell without an identity or any firm relationship with the past, the present or the future. Kat, unlike her father, aspires to move on from their family's tragedy, but feels guilt in doing so; at one point, she discloses to Casper her fear that she is starting to forget her mother. And finally we have Harvey, who is the most living impaired of them all, having died a clear emotional death with the literal death of Amelia. Harvey has become a ghost, not unlike the ones he professes to be helping, driven to walk the Earth by an unfinished business that he has no means of ever fulfilling. When Kat challenges her father on his unrelenting conviction that Amelia is now a ghost, he insists that, "She is, she has unfinished business," without articulating what that business might be exactly, making it painfully evident that he projects his own lack of resolution and devastation at having had his marital bliss cut short onto his deceased wife. Harvey spends his present pining for the past and mourning the cancelled future, all while attempting to avoid facing up to the abyss of uncertainty that lies ahead. Harvey, like Kat, has lost his connection to the wider world; on the journey up to Friendship he makes it clear just how devoid his own life is of friends. His relationship with his daughter represents his only strong and stable association with another human being, and Harvey is all-too aware that Kat is already a teenager and beginning to move in her own direction. Kat will grow and change and Harvey, who feels unable to progress, understands that the time will come when he inevitably will be left behind. Harvey does not attempt to stop Kat from growing - as a character, he simply doesn't exude that level of authority. His reaction to Kat's incoming puberty is one more of disconcertment and deflated powerlessness. He permits Kat to hold a Halloween party in the manor for her new classmates and to make plans to bring a date, but the knowledge that Kat's attentions are shifting toward the outside world, coupled with his weariness at being unable to fix the manor's ghost problem, pushes him into a state of deep despondence, or what the Ghostly Trio refer to as a "fleshie breakdown."

Harvey forges a re-connection with life, ironically, through his connection with three dead guys. The Ghostly Trio begrudgingly allow Harvey to remain at the manor after he defeats them in a confrontation, but are largely unreceptive to his efforts to counsel the scaring tendencies out of them. However, when the poltergeists learn of Harvey's longing to be reunited with Amelia, Stretch makes him a proposition - they will help him find Amelia if he agrees to convince Carrigan to leave them alone. Harvey agrees, but at first it's not clear if either party intends to uphold their side of the bargain, particularly as the Trio immediately seize the opportunity to play a cruel prank on Harvey. Nevertheless, as time goes by the poltergeists grow to feel a genuine affinity for Harvey, who in turn begins to admire the camaraderie between the Trio, their zest for their afterlife, and their ability to exist unburdened by either the pains of the past or the fear of the future. They are not concerned that life is out there and is passing them by, for as they see it, life is something that is severely oversold. As Harvey observes, "You say, I'm a ghost. You look life in the face and say, I don't need you!" As a result, he revises his previously-held view that ghosts are inherently out of place in the land of the living. To be a ghost is to exist without resolution, and Harvey comes to see that as indicative not necessarily of a disordered despairing, but of a tremendous adaptability. It is the ability to keep enduring, long after the world has written you off as past your expiry date. The poltergeists become his salvation, but this in itself nearly takes a dark turn, when the Trio, having extended their esprit de corps to Harvey, conspire to kill him so that he can truly become one of them, reasoning that they would be doing him a favour by putting him out of his misery. They are unable to go through with this, however, when Harvey tells them how much their acceptance means to him and announces his intention to defend their right to continue haunting the manor, and it dawns on the Trio that murdering the only fleshie willing to accept them as they are would be a heinous thing to do. (This is another reason why you will never convince me that this isn't one of the greatest family movies of all-time - we reach a point in the narrative where we get a sequence dedicated to an explicit display of heartfelt love between a man and three malevolent spirits, which is exactly the kind of mind-blowing awesomeness that made my own ten-year-old spirit soar.)

The Trio considers subjecting Harvey to a brutal initiation ceremony.

Unfortunately, Harvey meets with an accident on his bender with the poltergeists, falls into an open trench and dies anyway. His moment of death is, somewhat gallingly, played entirely for laughs, although there is great pathos later on when Kat encounters him as a ghost and realises that he has already forgotten her, thus turning the tables in their relationship dynamic. Now, Kat is the one in danger of being left behind. Some might feel there is a slight discrepancy here, as Harvey seems to forget about his past life as soon as he becomes a ghost, whereas Carrigan clearly remembered what she was doing within the brief time she had. You could chalk that up, if you so chose, to the respective mindsets of the characters when they died (since Carrigan was very determined, and fixated on the prospect of becoming a ghost in order to infiltrate the vault, even if she intended for the experience to be Dibs', whereas Harvey was in an intoxicated state and fairly oblivious), but from a thematic perspective I would argue that Harvey's amnesia works primarily as a means of illustrating his personal dilemma. For Harvey, there is immense attraction in being a ghost, and in the ability to shed all conscious awareness of the life he leaves behind - upon surveying his new spectral form, he declares, "I'm free! I've never felt so good in my life." It offers Harvey a release from his grief, and the opportunity to discard all traces of his former identity and no longer be burdened (at least knowingly) by any of the personal attachments or obligations he held during life, dulling him to the hurt of anything that might have come before, or may have threatened to happen in the future - as Casper had earlier mused, "When you're a ghost, life doesn't matter that much any more." This freedom from his personal demons has, however, come at an obvious cost to Harvey, in that it also means having to sever himself from everything that once gave his life fulfillment and meaning. And yet, in the end his bond with Kat proves too powerful, and he discovers that he cannot follow his poltergeist friends all the way down to the hedonistic line. Kat gestures to him with her pinky, replicating the "pinky swear" that she and Harvey had made earlier in the film and reminding Harvey of their physical and emotional connection. At this point, Harvey gains an awareness of his situation, and is devastated on realising the barrier that has been driven between himself and Kat. Casper comes to the rescue, and allows Harvey to take his place within the Lazarus, even if it means forfeiting his only prospect of ever again becoming one of the living.

Harvey is literally restored to life via the Lazarus, but his resurrection also signifies his coming alive for the very first time in the film, in that he has finally figured out how to move forward while grappling with feelings of grief and uncertainty. If to be a ghost is to exist without resolution, then to be alive is to live with impermanence, and Harvey realises that both are vital qualities in order to navigate in a world where the past and the future alike are so ill-defined. He emerges with a fortified commitment toward Kat, understanding the importance of always being there for her, even as she continues to move in her own direction - this much is evident in his encouraging her to join the Halloween party as he stands back and lingers upon the sidelines. This reaffirmation of his parental responsibilities does not, however, negate the lessons he learned from his experiences with the poltergeists - thanks to the Trio, he has a renewed sense of belonging and a greater resilience to the capriciousness of life. He is truly a man who has learned how to live with the specter of mortality hanging over him. Unlike the ghosts, he is not able to look life in the eye and declare that he does not need it - his obligation to Kat keeps him grounded, and willing to weather life's heartbreaks for her sake - but he does end up rejecting the ideal of a pristine, perfectly tied-up life, which he assumed had been lost with Amelia but likely never existed in the first place. As we learned from Casper's sorry backstory, life is not for the grabbing, pinning down and safe containing, and anyone who strives for such an existence would be as misguided and bound for destruction as Carrigan over that fictitious treasure. Harvey understands that in order to carry on he must be prepared to live with the holes that can never be filled, the cracks that will always be visible and the questions that may never be answered. Crucially, he remains present for his daughter but retains his friendship with the Trio, indicating that he now has his own individual new path ahead of him, in addition to backing up his daughter as she sets off down her own.

Of course, Harvey does get resolution, of sorts, when Amelia (Amy Brenneman) shows up at the end of the film, having been summoned by the Ghostly Trio, who let her know that Harvey was searching for her (thus fulfilling their end of the bargain and demonstrating that they they are truly Harvey's friends), although she does so largely to call Harvey out for projecting his own feelings of deficiency onto her ("I have no unfinished business. Please don't let me be yours.") She appears not as a ghost, as Harvey had always anticipated, but as an angel (Stinkie had effectively told Harvey this much earlier on, when he said of Amelia, "she's always been an angel to me"). I'd note that, for the most part, the film tries to avoid explicitly aligning itself with any specific branch of religiosity, hence why it remains so vague on the issue of what afterlife the ghosts actually "cross over" into, but making Amelia into an angel is something of a necessary evil in order to clearly illustrate that she's transcended the worldly attachments and appetites that keep both the ghosts and humans tethered to the living world.* Amelia does not yearn for anything more from life, because she feels that she already experienced the best it had to offer within the time she had, however truncated. We also need to account for Amelia's Blue Fairy-esque ability to turn Casper into a living boy; in gratitude for his willingness to put her family's needs above his own, Amelia grants him his wish, albeit with a major limitation - she can restore Casper to life, but only for a single evening. Casper accepts this arrangement, and takes the opportunity to join the Halloween party downstairs and share a dance and ultimately a kiss with Kat (in his living form, Casper is played by a young Devon Sawa, who is very effective in the role, in that he does emit this distinctly spooky, otherworldly quality). Compared to his previous rapacity over the sled, Casper now appreciates that the defining quality of life is its impermanence - ultimately, all things must pass, and all he can do is go forth and take advantage of the time that he has. Meanwhile, Amelia reinforces to Harvey the necessity of living with uncertainty - when he admits that he doesn't know what he's doing, she responds, "What parent does?"

This being a 90s Hollywood blockbuster, Casper ends, inevitably, with the reaffirmation of the traditional family unit. Harvey may be a single father tasked with raising a teenage daughter by his lonesome, but Amelia assures him that she'll still have a part in this, as she'll be watching over them all the while; furthermore, she tells him that the time will come when they'll all be together again, indicating that their marital and familial bonds will ultimately endure, the restoration of the family guaranteed as the restoration of an intrinsic cosmic order. (Actually, in spite of Amelia's parting remarks, I like to think that when Harvey dies for the second time he'll stick around with his friends the Ghostly Trio and fulfill his obvious destiny to make them into the Ghostly Quartet - they're the ones we've spent the entire movie watching him get close to, after all.) The final scene, however, shows Kat and Harvey at the abandoned Halloween party, once again deserted by the outside world,  as they privately continue the celebration with Casper and the Ghostly Trio, the six of them now all functioning together as the world's most unconventional family. The closing image, then, is one of unity among pariahs, social outcasts who are all quite happy and comfortable with themselves because they have one another's affirmation. The issues are not entirely cut and dried - the Ghostly Trio may have come through for Harvey, but there is nothing, beyond that final image of unity, to indicate that their relationship with their nephew has improved (Casper and the Trio actually interact surprisingly infrequently throughout the film, for they are each so tied up in Kat and Harvey's respective narrative strands). Moreover, there is an unspoken sadness in the implication that the dance and the kiss that Casper was able to share with Kat constitute the full extent to which their puppy love is ever likely to go. For as long as he remains a ghost, Casper is doomed to stay twelve years old forever, while Kat, as Harvey and Amelia jointly acknowledge, is already a teenager, and the gap between them is only going to widen as time goes on and Kat progresses ever deeper into puberty. Eventually Casper, like Harvey, will have to deal with the inevitability of Kat moving on and leaving him behind. But then that's for the future to bear out. All we have now is the present.

Here are a few of my more random observations:

  • The Lazarus worked, I assume, by using that "primordial soup mix" to recreate Harvey's body from scratch. In which case, his old body is presumably still out there, lying at the bottom of that trench in a bloodied, mangled state? That's a grim thought.
  • On the subject of bodies, if we're to assume that Dibs did indeed bite the dust when Carrigan sent him hurtling through the window (and we have every reason to believe he did), then presumably his dead body is still lying right there outside the manor while all those kids are inside partying? Again, grim. The first teens to sneak out into the grounds for a quick spliff are in for the shock of their lives, never mind one of the dancers morphing into a ghost before their eyes.
  • Aside from the whole business with Carrigan and the baseball, there's only one other notable nitpick I have (well, actually two - Ben Stein irritates the hell out of me, and I'd sooner he wasn't in this movie at all, but he's only there for about a minute and we get his part out of the way nice and early, so I suppose I can deal with it). That's that Fatso somehow knows Harvey's name during the "Three Musketeers" portion of their confrontation, before he formally announces it to Stretch during their plunger/golf club clash. Now, the Trio had already had that moment where they possess Harvey by crawling inside his head and warping his self-perception (a light-hearted nod to that horrendous face-peeling sequence from the movie Poltergeist), so you could argue that they'd gleaned some personal information from within his mind. All the same, it does somewhat undermine the impact of Harvey's triumphant response when Stretch challenges him as to who he thinks he is: "Dr James Harvey, your therapist!"
  • Let's touch briefly on a pet peeve of mine about 1990s cinema in general - the theme songs. While it had long been commonplace for Hollywood movies to come with their own tie-in pop numbers (that way, you could have a hit single on the side and promote further awareness of your picture - synergy, people!), I think it was around the time of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves onward that we started to see a trend wherein all Hollywood theme songs became arbitrary power ballads that were only very tenuously linked to the content of the movie itself. Gone were the days when a theme song actually bore the name of the movie in the title and was very clearly, unambiguously about the movie in question (eg: "Ben" by Michael Jackson, and "Pet Sematary" by Ramones, which may have been one of the last of its kind). The problem with these 90s theme songs is that they were, in most cases, entirely interchangeable - you could swap the theme songs for Con Air, Up Close And Personal and Armageddon and they all would all make every bit as much sense. Casper was no exception, with "Remember Me This Way" by Jordan Hill filling in the honors. This one at least ties in with the film's key theme about learning to let go and accept impermanence; obviously, the lyrics apply to Harvey and Amelia, but I suppose they also encapsulate Casper's awareness that he can't actually accompany Kat on her journey through adolescence. Nowadays, movies seldom get original theme songs at all - why create something new, when you can play to the nostalgia crowd by pulling out something familiar and retro? - so against my better judgement I find myself becoming wistful for the days when we had all these music videos consisting of a singer standing around idly while a bunch of clips from the movie played.

Finally, Casper never got a proper sequel. One was apparently scripted, and the film was certainly enough of a box office success to have justified it, only instead they decided to go the DTV prequel route, and plans for a theatrical sequel ultimately fizzled. It did, however, get a spin-off animated series, The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper (as was also standard procedure in the 1990s), which served as a direct sequel to the movie. If I do say so it was pretty damned excellent; in fact, it might even get my vote for most underrated animated series of the 90s. If you don't believe me, then I'd advise you to check out "Three Ghosts and a Baby", which is the episode where Harvey accidentally hypnotises Casper into reverting to an infantile state and the Ghostly Trio end up having to care for him. Trust me when I say that you're in for the funniest eight minutes of your life.

* In a way it also acts as a nice segue into Silberling's following film, City of Angels (1998), a remake of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire (1987), which reexamined the issue of mortality, this time from an angelic perspective.