TV's lost Halloween classics: 6 specials from beyond the grave

Joal Ryan
A scene from 1967’s Mad Monster Party? (Credit: Lionsgate)

You’ve checked in with The Simpsons‘ latest “Treehouse of Horror.” You’ve paid your annual respects to It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Now what?

Here’s your viewing guide to a half-dozen high-quality, off-the-trick-or-treat-path Halloween TV specials of yesteryear. (Please take note of the deliberate use of the phrase “high quality.” The Paul Lynde Halloween Special will not be discussed here except in passing, specifically to note that you can find the whole strange thing on YouTube; look for rock band KISS at about the 26-minute mark. You’re welcome.)

Though cult favorites all, these shows have fallen out of the regular TV rotation — but they deserved to be rediscovered. Settle in.

1. Mad Monster Party?
In another time, this 1967 Rankin-Bass production — available on DVD and for rent on streaming services like Amazon, Vudu, and Google Play — was anything but an obscure-ish gem; it was rerun on TV every October as sure as Rankin-Bass’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was rerun every December. But it didn’t have the rep of Rudolph; it was actually a failed theatrical release that found its way to syndication. But no matter, it’s a stop-motion joy starring the voice of the Boris Karloff and an all-star collection of classic-monster characters, from Dracula to the Werewolf. To be honest, it’s a little slow, but Phyllis Diller’s cackle really never gets old.

2. Winter of the Witch
No less than the The New York Times covered the cult of this once-upon-a-time classroom staple from 1969. “The film, now easy to track down on the internet, is being discovered by a generation of adults in their 30s and 40s with a fervor more typically associated with locating a long-lost relative than a kiddie movie,” the newspaper reported in 2011, and accurately so. As its title suggests, Winter of the Witch is technically not a Halloween special, but: one, it’s got a witch, and two, it’s got a blueberry-pancake scene that’s as eerie as it is psychedelic.

3. Halloween Is Grinch Night
If Mad Monster Party? has lived in the shadow of Rudolph, then this animated special has been absolutely buried by Dr. Seuss’s other holiday classic, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Did you even know this existed until now? Did you know that it has existed for 40 years? (It premiered in 1977, about a decade after the primetime arrival of the Yuletide Grinch.) Did you know it won the Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Special? Did you know that it’s fine seasonal TV in its own right? If not, check it out. The music by Joe Raposo, best known for his Sesame Street classics, is lovely, and actor Hans Conried is an able storyteller in place of Karloff, who was the voice of the original Grinch holiday cartoon and who died in 1969.

4. The Night That Panicked America
This TV movie about Orson Welles’s infamous radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds premiered on Halloween night 1975. (Welles and his team put on their show on Oct. 30, 1938, hence the story’s Halloween association.) The movie, featuring a host of 1970s primetime stalwarts, including the young John Ritter, is a solid dramatization of unfounded public panic that still has resonance today. As a bonus, it features a restrained screenplay by sci-fi/fantasy favorite Nicholas Meyer (Time After Time, Star Trek II, Star Trek IV, and Star Trek VI).

5. The Worst Witch
The Tim Curry Halloween movie for the whole family, about a boarding school for aspiring broomstick types, also boasts the fabulous Diana Rigg, Fairuza Balk (TheCraft), the post-Facts of Life Charlotte Rae, and production design that screams HBO in the mid-1980s. (Yes, we know The Worst Witch was a British coproduction, but then again, that’s what HBO originals looked like in the mid-1980s: things that were not quite of Hollywood.) In any case, the movie is a charming reminder of those simple days before the Hogwarts Express rolled into the creative space.

6. The Halloween Tree
This animated, feature-length, Emmy-winning, made-for-TV version of Ray Bradbury’s novel of the same name was a seasonal staple of the Cartoon Network in the 1990s and into the 2000s. Animation giant Hanna-Barbera, a sister company of the network, produced the special, now on home video and available for rent via Amazon and Google Play. You know you’re in good hands, so to speak, when the great Bradbury is the first voice you hear. (Leonard Nimoy is no slouch as the neighbor you don’t want to run into on a dark and stormy Halloween night, Mr. Moundshroud.)

[Editor’s note: A version of this story was originally published in October 2014.]

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