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The Bootleg Files: The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t

BOOTLEG FILES 707: “The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t” (1979 TV special with Judd Hirsch and Mariette Hartley).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: A VHS video release only.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Something is holding up a DVD and Blu-ray release.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not a priority.

So, how was your Halloween? If you wish the holiday could go on a bit longer, then you came to the right place because we are digging up one of the silliest productions centered around October 31.

Originally conceived as a one-shot special for children, “The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t” is a work of wonder – when viewing it, you have to wonder how it ever got the greenlight for a network broadcast. Mixing hefty chunks of camp and knockabout with some odd hints of social commentary in a compact half-hour, it is too dumb to be easily dismissed but too infantile to be happily embraced.

The production opens in Dracula’s castle, where the vampire’s hunchbacked servant Igor (played by “Laugh-In” star Henry Gibson doing a Karloff voice) is watching old horror movies while eating popcorn off a tray. Dracula appears in the form of Judd Hirsch, sporting a terrible Lugosi accent and kabuki-worthy make-up. Dracula learns from a television news report about a rumor that Halloween is facing cancellation, with the Transylvanian count being blamed for this crisis. Dracula is angered over these claims and has summoned his monster army to plan a defensive strategy to rescue his reputation and keep Halloween in place.

The monsters arrive and they are quite a bunch of misfits. The Frankenstein monster (John Schuck) is only interested in tap dancing, while the playful Warren the Werewolf (Jack Riley) arrives from Budapest, albeit without a Hungarian accent. There is also a mummy and a zombie, but neither of them gets any dialogue, and a witch (Mariette Hartley) whose job is to ride her broomstick over the moon at the start of Halloween night.

However, the witch has a surprise to share: she is quitting because she is unhappy over her limited role in Halloween and with Dracula’s command of the monsters. She is also miserable at being viewed as physically hideous. “I’m tired of getting all of those ugly girl jokes,” she whines before unrolling a scroll of demands that must be met if she is to be part of the Halloween tradition.

Dracula is angry with the witch and orders the monsters to grab her before she marches out. There is a silly silent movie-style chase in Dracula’s castle, with the characters zooming in and out of doors in a long hallway, and the action then switches to the witch’s castle where the pursuit continues. More nonsense continues: the witch brings a painting of the Three Musketeers to life, Dracula shrinks into a tiny bat to slip under a door (only to get clobbered by the witch when he turns up) and Igor swings through a window to catch the witch. However, the unlikely arrival of two witch-loving kids dressed up for trick-or-treating softens the witch’s heart – she agrees to fly over the moon, but insists that her demands are met. Dracula grumpily agrees, and the special ends in typical late-1970s style: on a disco dance floor!

Even by the standards of the era, “The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t” is an astonishingly cheapjack production – it looks like the cast sneaked into a studio after hours, hastily dressed a few sets and ran around until the director yelled “Cut!” The script was written by Emmy-winner Coleman Jacoby, but he never quite gets the balance between kid-friendly and adult-wise. Thus, we have Dracula berating the werewolf for agreeing to do a razor commercial and the Frankenstein monster for his dance obsession because of “that movie” (an obvious reference to “Young Frankenstein”), but we also have lame sight gags with the mummy constantly tripping over his bandaged feet. Mariette Hartley gets the best material as the witch – there is a nifty blink-and-you-miss-it gag when she deposits her broom in the castle’s broom closet – but the special effects of her flying are among the lousiest tricks put on camera.

And poor Judd Hirsch. He tries too hard to be funny and always misses the mark, especially when he is insulting the friendly and charming monsters in his squad. He has unfunny running gags of flying face first into closed windows and doors, and the scene where he is supposed to shrink is achieved with his chanting “teeny tiny bat” while slowly kneeling below the camera’s view. Halfway through, his Lugosi accent slips – and that’s too bad, because the vampire would have been much funnier if he carried Hirsch’s natural Noo Yawk dialect instead of a third-rate Lugosi mimicry. The other actors are wasted, but John Schuck seemed to enjoy the Jack Pierce-inspired make-up, as he would later play Herman Munster in a “Munsters” reboot.

ABC broadcast “The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t” on October 28, 1979. The production would later win an Emmy Award for make-up in the children’s program and get three other nominations including Outstanding Children’s Program. Someone must have liked it, as it would be rebroadcast on ABC and later on the Disney Channel. It wound up on a VHS video release with a strange new title called “The Night Dracula Saved the World.”

To date, however, there has been no DVD or Blu-ray release. Its absence from those channels is strange – maybe the powers that be feel it is too corny for today’s kids. For those who recall this special with fondness, there are several unauthorized postings on YouTube taken from the VHS edition. But, of course, a Halloween special in November is a case of bad timing, so bookmark this one for viewing next year.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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