Halloween specials are still common occurrences in modern TV, but I miss the heyday. I miss the Halloween specials of my formative years. I miss the ’90s. I miss TINY TOONS. And, significantly, I miss NIGHT GHOULERY, the Halloween special no one ever remembers. What was NIGHT GHOULERY? What was TINY TOONS? What was the ’90s? Read on, dear friend.
The dominant ethos of the 1990s was, if one can recall correctly, a casual air of satire. It seemed to me that much of entertainment sought to deconstruct itself. This is especially evident in movies like Wes Craven’s 1996 classic SCREAM, a slasher movie to feature characters who knew about slasher movies. SCREAM operated as a slasher that, cleverly, addressed the cinematic clichés of slashers from within. It sought to simultaneously prop up and tear down everything we loved about the genre.
And that was much of what ’90s pop culture achieved. All the wars were at an end, the country was rich, and none of the old stories were working anymore. As such, all pop media tended to function as a deconstruction of itself. As a gradually aging hipster, whose formative years occurred during the era of Blind Melon, I have personally found this ethos to be healthy and edifying. It implies that one can enjoy a thing while still acknowledging its faults and its place in the pop canon. It’s okay to simultaneously love something and find it utterly ridiculous. The current dominant mode of thought – here about the year 2016 – seems to be complete and utter earnestness; daring to eschew popular opinion invites a previously unknown tide of rancor. There was a time when eschewing popular opinion was common and zesty. Now popular opinion is more or less holy writ, and dissenters are heretics.
But during the 1990s, we had no problems picking at the scabs of convention, and placing your tongue in your cheek was encouraged. No place was this more clear than in our children’s entertainment. Much of Saturday morning became a fourth-wall toppling adventure that still looms large in the consciousnesses of the kids born in the late ’70s and early ’80s (are we still called Generation Y?). And no show did it more refreshingly than TINY TOON ADVENTURES, a hip, friendly, utterly cheeky cartoon show that ran from 1990 until 1993.
TINY TOONS features characters who lived in a placid cartoon world, but who would spend just as much time off-set as on. Characters would frequently visit the show’s producers and writing staff, demanding explanations. They were a smart bunch of appealing kids, those Tiny Toons. That they resembled – rather directly – old Looney Tunes characters only helped.
The Tiny Toons presented several “horror” episodes throughout their run, although NIGHT GHOULERY was their only devoted Halloween special. It made it to the airwaves just under the wire, too. NIGHT GHOULERY was the 100th and final episode of the show, and was produced three years after the show had effectively gone off the air, after the crew and most audiences had already graduated to ANIMANIACS. NIGHT GHOULERY was intended to be a Halloween release in 1994, but didn’t actually air until May 28th, 1995. We haven’t seen Buster Bunny since.
NIGHT GHOULERY is not a final whimper, but a grand closing number for TINY TOONS. Running a full hour in length, NIGHT GHOULERY features some of the best animation, storytelling, and gag-writing the series ever saw. It’s nearly equal to the splendors of HOW I SPENT MY VACATION in terms of quality and hilarity. Only it has the bonus edge of being, in certain stretches, legitimately disturbing. It’s rare that a kiddie Halloween special be as periodically scary as this one. There was a sophistication at work.
The special was constructed – as the title implies – like an episode of Rod Serling’s NIGHT GALLERY, featuring the various characters wandering through a purgatorial painting hall, using the images as kickoffs to the various vignettes.
There were nine vignettes in all, most of them poised as spoofs of recognizable horror stories (à la THE SIMPSONS Halloween specials). THE TELL-TALE VACUUM was a spoof of Poe’s favorite story with an appliance in place of the milky-eyed old man. SNEEZER THE SNEEZING GHOST is a modern spin on CASPER (but better than that obnoxious movie). DEVIL DOG ON THE MOORS evokes Holmes. FUEL is a clever comic redux of Spielberg’s early flick. DANIEL WEBFOOT AND THE DEVIL features an intended Satanic judgment that goes awry. HOLD THAT DUCK is Abbott and Costello reiterated. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DULL spoofs advertising as company men beset Gogo Dodo. FRANKENMYRA features a Frankensteinian little girl resurrecting a cute pet. And A GREMLIN ON A WING is well-known to fans of Shatner and THE TWILIGHT ZONE.
The most striking thing about NIGHT GHOULERY is its tenacious cling classical morality tales. There was a time when horror stories were all meant to be cautionary tales, and no story would end without a sinner coming upon violent – and often supernatural – retribution. You’d see this in TALES FROM THE CRYPT. Lead characters would be regularly punished for their unseemly avarice, lust, and vanity. NIGHT GHOULERY, being kid entertainment, doesn’t have the same sort of bloody violence, of course, but many of the stories still deal with a dark, almost unduly harsh level, of cosmic punishment.
In the first story, for instance, Plucky Duck murders a vacuum cleaner (he bodily rends an obnoxious appliance) and is forced, as his punishment, to act as the vacuum cleaner in turn. There’s something unbelievably disturbing about seeing Plucky being pushed around the floor, face first. The DANIEL WEBFOOT segment plays with an unexpected devil encounter. And what happens to Elmyra is unsettling.
The best segment, however, is FUEL. In it, Calamity Coyote finds himself facing off against a giant truck, lost on the back highways of a desert backdrop. It’s essentially an evocative horror retelling of old Wile E. Coyote cartoons, but with Calamity as the Roadrunner, a truck as the Coyote, and no assurance that the Roadrunner will escape unscathed. And while it’s scary and atmospheric, it’s also hilarious. Indeed, many of the gags can only be achieved via animation, which is no easy feat. In the show’s best gag (and I apologize for spoiling it here, but it must be shared), Calamity temporarily flees the truck and takes shelter in a scary truckers’ bar. He looks around at the clientele as he enters and sees a long string of mean-looking loners, hunched over their drinks, eager to scowl at him. His eyes scan the room, and finally rest on… the truck itself, fit awkwardly into the corner of the bar, also hunched over a drink. It’s one of the best visual gags from a show that was rife with excellent ones.
I have long-sought an affordable video copy of NIGHT GHOULERY, and it seems to have been lost to time. One can indeed order VHS copies of the show, but they run into the hundreds of dollars for their rarity. Conventional video websites like YouTube have segments, songs, and clips, but the entire special is nigh-impossible to secure. It’s like Gary Larson’s THE FAR SIDE TV special, the CRASH-TEST DUMMIES animated pilot, or DEFENDERS OF DYNATRON CITY. Lost animated specials that are amazing to behold, ripe for cult worship, and not celebrated enough, but somehow swallowed in the vacuum of obscurity.
Perhaps NIGHT GHOULERY struck the wrong balance for audiences. It was too silly to be scary, and too horrifically off-putting to be truly kid-friendly. To quote Hunter S. Thompson, it was too weird to live, and too rare to die.
Surely there are enterprising ’90s nostalgia buffs in the world, however, who have indeed unearthed it, and are secretly enjoying it in the back corners of the internet somewhere. It is a comfort to think that, even in the age of media ubiquity and easily-shared common pop culture experiences, cults can still exist. I invite you into the cult of NIGHT GHOULERY, the wonders of TINY TOON ADVENTURES, and the best Halloween special you never got to see.