Halloweentown (1998)

Halloweentown. Directed by: Duwayne Dunham. Starring: Debbie Reynolds, Kimberly J. Brown, Judith Hoag. Runtime: 1h 24 min. Released: October 17, 1998.

Truly, Halloweentown is the classic Disney Channel Original Movie. It was the fourth to premiere on the network as a DCOM, but it feels like the one that started it all. I’d watch it every Halloween when I was a kid. Watching it now, I don’t know why I stopped that tradition.

The story’s simple. On her 13th Halloween, Marnie Cromwell (Kimberly J. Brown) learns from her grandmother Aggie Cromwell (Debbie Reynolds) that she’s a witch. Well, Aggie wants to tell her she’s a witch but Marnie’s mom, Gwen (Judith Hoag), wants her to live a normal human life.

Marnie really finds out she’s a witch by eavesdropping. In teen rebellion, Marnie and her brother Dylan (Joey Zimmerman) stow away on a flying bus when Aggie goes home to the titular Halloweentown. Their little sister Sophie (Emily Roeske) also tags along, unbeknownst to them. There, they help their grandmother against a dark force that’s threatening Halloweentown.

First of all, the settings are great. I hadn’t seen this film for… a while. The last time I watched this was at least before 2012. Anyway, the sets in this are great and revisiting Halloweentown is such a cool thing. The way they dress up the real town of St. Helens, Oregon, really makes it become Halloweentown. It’s believable they’re in another world where everyday is Halloween.

The monsters here also look pretty good. I know none of them are real, but it’s about convincing the audience, mostly kids, watching that they could be real. There are a couple costumes that look bizarre, like half-human, half-dog people in an aerobics class. There’s also a brief glimpse at a Cyclops character. It’s literally just a person with a papier-mâché head on with an eye painted on it. It’s great for the laugh, and all the Halloweentown characters look really good besides them. One notable one is a skeleton, Benny the Cab Driver. He’s just animatronic, but he looks good and he’s still funny.

The Mayor, Kalabar (Robin Thomas), is one of the more interesting human characters. He’s also trying to make sense of what dark force is threatening Halloweentown. Citizens become evil, like how monsters were perceived in the “Dark Times,” and then they disappear altogether. When we find out what’s doing this, it’s a shadowy figure who looks like a mix between a goblin and a scarecrow looking-thing.

By the way, the made-up history of why Halloweentown was made and why these monsters were essentially exiled to another world is interesting and well-written by Paul Bernbaum, Jon Cooksey and Ali Marie Matheson. Aggie explains that in the Dark Times, humans and monsters lived together but hated each other, as the humans tried to destroy the monsters and the monsters tried to make the humans’ lives miserable in response. Thus, they made Halloweentown. Aggie also explains that Halloween became a thing because the humans copied their traditions, and as she puts it, “Mortal see, mortal do.” Watching as a kid, that made-up history is so believable and really cool. Now, I’m an adult (well, arguable) and that history’s still cool to me, and the themes of classism is really interesting. The way that history works into the main conflict is also very smooth.

Speaking so much of Aggie, Debbie Reynolds is great as the character. She’s a legendary actress, but I really know her best as Agatha Cromwell. And revisiting this now, it’s nice to see that pretty much all of the acting is surprisingly good for a TV movie, and it’s so nice to see that the actors are actually passionate about this, especially Reynolds. Kimberly J. Brown is always great as Marnie, too. She’s the most excited one of the kids learning that she’s a witch because she’s always been interested in the occult and now it makes sense why. As much as this is just a Halloween story, it’s a coming-of-age story for Marnie.

Dylan and Sophie are good characters, too. It’s Marnie’s show, but Sophie’s there for the cuteness factor and Dylan has a few good moments, too. The story line is well-structured and moves at a quick pace. I usually have problems with these Disney Channel Original Movie endings, but this feels more eventful than most of them. The budgets just don’t allow for a big climactic battle with big effects.

Most of the effects look pretty good, actually, like Aggie floating down from the bus looking like a Halloween Mary Poppins, and the magic in general looks fine. Flying buses, on the other hand, don’t look as good but that’s expected for a TV movie. The make-up for the monsters look good. As for any horror here, there’s more of a focus on the comedy but the main villain looks pretty creepy. Also what’s happening to the characters when they disappear is eerie.

Amazingly, I don’t have a lot wrong with this and I’m trying not to be biased with all my nostalgic love for this film. There are some cheesy moments, and I think a character named Luke (Phillip Van Dyke) is the cheesiest thing about this. Also the main sub-plot of Marnie’s mom, Gwen really wanting her kids to be humans is murky. She’s caught between two worlds because she married a human, so the kids are half-human, half-witch/warlock, so in that way it’s a bit interesting. But the motivation for shoving it down their throats that they have to be human isn’t clear.

I think it just lends to a message of kids being able to make their own choices. Marnie puts it well. “If you want to give up your roots, that’s fine. I don’t and it’s not right for you to try and make me.”

Other than that, I honestly think it’s the best TV movie I’ve seen. The production value is great, the actors don’t phone it in, and everyone looks like they’re giving it their all. I just loved this as a kid and I think it’s really cool to know that I love this nearly as much watching as a 24-year-old. It’s time for me to start watching this every Halloween again.

Score: 80/100

Mom’s Got a Date with a Vampire (2000)

Mom’s Got a Date with a Vampire. Released: October 13, 2000. Directed by: Steve Boyum. Starring: Matt O’Leary, Laura Vandervoot, Caroline Rhea. Runtime: 1h 25 min.

I’ve watched two Disney Channel Original Movies lately (the other being Under Wraps) and they both open with a movie-within-a-movie. For this one, Mom’s Got a Date with a Vampire, it sets the tone for the film but it’s not a movie-within-a-movie you’d actually want to watch.

The real plot concerns the Hansen family. Children Adam (Matt O’Leary) and Chelsea (Laura Vandervoot) want to go out on Saturday night but they’re grounded. To escape their punishment, they set their mom Lynette (Caroline Rhea) up with a random guy named Wolfspane, which is really the first red flag.

They go to a supermarket to get their mom to meet “Wolfspane” and find a Pierce Brosnan look-a-like named Dimitri (Charles Shaughnessy), who is actually Wolfspane but doesn’t want to tell the kids that.

He invites her out on Saturday night, so Adam will be able to go to see the Headless Horsemen perform at the Harvest Festival and Chelsea will be able to go to her date. Problems arise when the youngest sibling, Taylor (Myles Jeffrey), notices that Dimitri is a vampire.

The first funny thing about this film is how dated it is when it’s watched in 2019. The kids don’t look online to find a date for their mom or even look on Tinder for vampires and their victims. They look in the classifieds of their local newspaper.

I know match.com was a thing in 2000, so it’s just a little funny to me. They look in the classifieds, find a guy named Wolfspane and don’t think it’s shady at all. “They’re all pre-checked by the newspaper,” Adam tells Chelsea. I think them all being screened by the newspaper is B.S. when a guy named Wolfspane slips through. He just sounds like a vampire. He likes long walks under the moonlight, hates Italian food (the garlic) and hates turtleneck sweaters (worse access to your neck).

The characters aren’t bad. Adam’s a vampire movie junkie, and the films he watches give him knowledge he uses throughout, like about how to get someone out of a vampire’s trance. Half of his tips make the film rather predictable. The brother-sister dynamic with him and Chelsea is fine, but some dramatic moments are cheesy. Caroline Rhea is good as Lynette, who’s scared to put herself out there after a divorce. Her eventually finding herself again and what she used to like to do is nice characterization for a TV movie.

Mom's Got a Date with a Vampire article

Charles Shaughnessy and Matt O’Leary in Mom’s Got a Date with a Vampire. (IMDb)

The worst character is the vampire, Dimitri. He’s simply boring and uninteresting. He’s a smooth talker and seemingly charming, but he’s dull. Without the vampire trance and British accent, most people will see right through it. He’s not scary, either.

There are some cheesy effects and editing when the film attempts something close to horror. It could spook kids, but no one else. There’s an effect where he walks up the side of a building, which doesn’t look bad. His transformation into a vampire bat is actually pretty good. However, they use like all the budget on the transformation so when he actually flaps away it looks really bad.

The concept of the kids having to save their mom from a vampire – a mess they got her in the first place – is fine. They don’t have to save her alone, either. They’re helped by a vampire hunter named Malachi Van Helsing (David Carradine). He has a history with Dimitri, so it’s funny that neither notice each other at the supermarket, even after Malachi walks every aisle.

The film wants to save the standoff for the end. I’ve found with these Disney Channel Original Movies the endings aren’t very exciting. This one stands out as one of the less exciting finales, as they just use a lot of slow-motion to make it look like something more is going on. I think this is one of the lesser DCOM’s anyway, but it’s still not bad. Admittedly, the fact that much of the story structure follows Adam’s fake vampire movies is kind-of clever, and those endings didn’t seem very good, either.

Score: 50/100

Under Wraps (1997)

Under Wraps. Released (premiered): October 25, 1997. Directed by: Greg Beeman. Starring: Adam Wylie, Mario Yedidia, Clara Bryant. Runtime: 1h 35 min.

When people think Disney Channel Original Movie, ones like “Halloweentown” or “High School Musical” stand out. But today, I’m reviewing the true original DCOM, “Under Wraps,” the first to premiere on the network as the re-branded Disney Channel Original Movie.

A local museum curator and grump, Mr. Kubat (Ed Lauter), dies and Marshall (Mario Yedida), Gilbert (Adam Wylie) and Amy (Clara Bryant) decide to see what weird stuff the old guy had in his basement. They find more than they bargained for when there’s a mummy named Harold (Bill Fagerbakke, Patrick Star on “Spongebob Squarepants”) chilling in his sarcophagus.

As far as these DCOM Halloween movies go, they’re rarely scary. They just have spooky monsters and usually make for decent Halloween movies. “Under Wraps” is easily the least scary of them all. But that’s not this film’s intention (or usually any of the DCOM Halloween movie intentions). This mummy is just funny and entertaining. There’s some good fish-out-of-water humour and slapstick comedy that made me think of Jim Carrey. The makeup is decent for Harold, too.

Some of the humour’s childish, but again, that’s understandable for a Halloween TV movie made for kids. I’m still a kid at heart so there’s some okay enjoyment to be had here. Certain sub-plots aren’t always interesting. For example: Marshall’s Mom (Corinne Bohrer, and that’s literally the character name) is dating a new guy named Ted (also played by Bill Fagerbakke) and Marshall isn’t coping with it well after his parent’s divorce.

It’s not super interesting while watching but it was probably put in because it would be relatable for any kids watching it that may not be handling divorce well. It handles it fine in that respect and the attempt at developing a character is welcome, as they don’t try with anyone else.

Basically, Marshall likes horror movies; Gilbert’s spooked of his own shadow; and Amy is… Well, she’s not well-developed and she’s there for an eventual schoolyard crush, and her mom (character name simply Amy’s Mom) is selling Kubat’s house so she’s their way into the basement to find Harold.

The friendship with Marshall and Harold is a highlight. The main plot of the film other than just three kids hanging out with a mummy is they have to get him back into his sarcophagus before Halloween ends. If they don’t, he’ll turn to dust and his soul would be lost, as a horror shop owner named Bruce (Ken Hudson Campbell) tells the kids. He’s a horror shop owner but also an exposition fairy.

Under Wraps featured

Bill Fagerbakke in “Under Wraps.”

The villain and the main conflict is weak and there’s a dumb twist that’s too silly to not talk about. It’s really the stuff you’d see in a TV movie like this, so SPOILER WARNING! Basically, the Kubat guy is still alive. He faked his death because he was going to go to jail for tax evasion. He’s trying to sell the sarcophagus but wants Harold because a real-life mummy is real valuable. Of course, the kids don’t want Harold being sold to one of his shady buyers. They really dress Kubat as a gangster interested in arts and culture when they show he’s the villain. END OF SPOILERS!

The acting’s fine for the kids, and when Marshall fake cries it’s the only bad moment. If they’re doing random hijinks, they’re completely passable. The teleplay by Don Rhyme is fine for what it is, but character development, plot structure and the conflict is shaky at best. The mummy makes up for it by being funny most of the time, and without him being so amusing this would have been a lot worse.

I think the best writing is a movie-within-a-movie called “Warthead IV” that Marshall adores. The monster looks like the Toxic Avenger and there’s some funny, cheesy overacting. But when the monster crashes through a window and puts the Movie Dad (Tom Virtue, Steven Stevens on TV’s “Even Stevens”) near a spinning knife in the garbage disposal is the closest this comes to horror. It’s campy and looks like a fun movie, and I would watch it. It’s one of the better moments of the film.

Score: 60/100