Following the closure of Under The Gun Review in 2016, the site's longstanding tradition of Halloween adoration and criticism continued on at Substream with another round of 31 Days Of Halloween. This year, I contributed a piece on Halloweentown, a secretly depressing Disney Channel Original movie. My thank you to Brian for letting me take part.
Of all the holidays celebrated worldwide, no single day is loved by the Substream staff more than Halloween. With October’s arrival, the time has finally come to begin rolling out a slew of special features we have prepared in celebration of our favorite day.
31 Days Of Halloween is a recurring column that will run throughout the month of October. The goal of this series is to supply every Substream reader with a daily horror (or Halloween-themed) movie recommendation that is guaranteed to amplify your All Hallows’ Eve festivities. We’ll be watching every film the day it’s featured, and we hope you will follow along at home. Reader, beware, you’re in for a… spooky good time!
Day 19: Halloweentown (1998)
The year is 1998 and I’m sitting in front of the television in my pajamas watching a Disney Channel original movie because Mom said it was okay. I’d watch Halloweentown at least once every year after that for the foreseeable future—at least until we left town for the countryside and lost our cable hookup. Now the year is 2016, a goblin and a witch are running for the Oval Office, I have the Internet (which is way better than cable TV), and I don’t need Mom’s permission to watch TV before bed in my jammies or otherwise.
It’d probably been about a decade since I’d seen Halloweentown last, meaning I’ve never watched it with any respectable level of critical awareness in regard to filmmaking. That doesn’t mean I’m surprised to find that this movie is pretty corny; I’m just reeling at the revelation that what scared me in this TV movie as a kid isn’t what scares me now, but that I’m freaked out at all.
Halloweentown is the story of three children: Marnie Piper (13), Dylan (12), and Sophie (7). It is Halloween night and the neighborhood is enjoying some trick or treating and the festivities All Hallows’ Eve brings to normal kids. Trick is, the Piper kids aren’t normal. They’re stuck inside because Mom says so. Marnie, a supernatural enthusiast, is bummed out about that. Dylan, a dork, doesn’t seem to mind so far as he’s left alone with his book. Sophie just stares out of the window, ominously mentioning that someone is coming. That someone, arriving on a magical bus that flies through dimensions is their grandmother, Aggie Cromwell (played by Debbie Reynolds), who is a true witch. She is only able to visit her Earthly family on Halloween night while the portal is open, so visit she does with a Mary Poppins bag full of Halloween decorations and candy for the sheltered youth of the household.
Cue plot: The kids are put to bed with a bedtime story about Halloweentown, a place full of monsters and warlocks living in harmony with each other, away from the mortal world. As Grandma nearly lets it slip to the kids that this place is real, Mom arrives to shut down the party and the two matrons retreat to the kitchen to discuss matters (primarily Marnie and her training as a witch which must begin before her 13th year is up). Yeah, turns out witchery runs in the family; Grandma is a witch, Mom is a witch, Marnie is a witch, and Sophie is a witch. Only Marnie is in immediate danger of losing her powers forever unless she gets some practice, which is just how Mom wants it. Marnie overhears everything from the hall.
So here is where the story really takes off. The kids all sneak onto the bus and follow grandma through dimensions and space to Halloweentown. They meet the mayor, who ends up being the evil Kalabar (whose demon form scared the shit out of me as a kid) as well as the friendly townsfolk. The group make friends and with their grandmother start work on a potion to revive those poor souls frozen by Kalabar in the abandoned movie theater. Mom shows up and both she and granny get frozen as well, leaving it all up to the kids. The story really isn’t too bad, all things considered. Still, it’s the underlying theme that surrounds Marnie that haunts me more now than a scary warlock in a mask.
See, Marnie loves witches. She studied them before she knew she was one. She wants terribly to be a great witch like the Cromwell women before her. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the talent. This is foretold by her brother during story time.
Sophie: [Pointing to witch on broomstick picture book] Look, it’s Marnie!
Aggie: Well there is quite a resemblance. [She flashes a knowing smile] Perhaps Marnie has a secret life we don’t know anything about.
Dylan: Well if she is a witch, she’s got the weird part down pat. It’s just the magic powers she’s missing.
Aggie: Have you cast any spells or flown through the night sky?
Marnie: No. The truth is, there’s nothing special about me.
Woof. We learned in the first scene that despite her interest in history and the supernatural, Marnie gets average grades in school. It seems clear that she has confidence issues. Her desperation to be more than who she is clouds her mind. She’s inadequate through and through, but after learning about her family’s heritage, refuses to believe it any more. This thought only becomes more depressing as the audience learns that her younger sister Sophie actually does have powers that she can use where Marnie can’t.
Clues to indicate that Marnie sucks as a witch, but that Sophie is actually more promising:
- Sophie shares Aggie’s ability to sense beings approaching.
- Marnie explains to a skeptical Dylan all of the bizarre things that happen in their house that indicate magic. She has deja-vu, books fly off of shelves when Marnie has a tantrum.
- Marnie and Dylan sneak onto the back of the bus unnoticed. Sophie sneaks on through the front unnoticed.
- Aggie’s gate is locked. Marnie tests her powers for the first time. Nothing happens. As she and Dylan argue about this, Sophie effortlessly turns the lock into a frog and opens the gate.
- Sophie has an uncanny ability to remember spells on the first try where Marnie cannot.
- When Mom arrives, she says that Marnie isn’t a witch. When Marnie flat out asks her later, she’s pulled aside and hushed so that Sophie can’t hear. Marnie doesn’t wait to hear what her mom has to say now assumes that she is. “I am a witch, all of this weird stuff has been happening to Sophie. Did that stuff happen to me?” It did, but Mom used the past tense.
- Sophie can sense Kalabar’s curse on the townspeople on sight.
- Sophie wears a really cool witch's hat the whole time and has a supernatural candor with animals.
- Marnie is unable to light Merlin’s talisman until Sophie physically touches it.
It’s painfully obvious that whether she showed signs or not in her youth, Marnie has clearly lost the ability to become a powerful witch. The subsequent sequels rewrote the book on all of that, but in Halloweentown, Marnie is a loser. It’s really quite sad and just might hit home for anyone who aspires towards something, but just can’t quite get there. Inadequacy wasn’t something I picked up on at age twelve. It wasn’t until I watched a kid’s movie in my mid-twenties that I picked up on the real horrors of Halloweentown: Not everyone is who they seem and not everyone can be who they want to be.
More of my entries from the 31 Days of Halloween series: