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Of kids and monsters

If you’re a fan of animation, or a young child or parent of same, and assuming that you like your horror movies (if not, may I politely inquire what the bloody hell you’re doing here), then you’ve been spoilt for choice at the cinema recently. Three spooky kid-flicks have been playing the multiplexes, and eight-year-old TF Simpson and I have been checking them out on your behalf.

      There is, of course, nothing new about kid-friendly animated spookfilms. The grandaddy of the subgenre is Mad Monster Party, a 1967 stop-motion monsterfest notable for the involvement of Boris Karloff and the non-involvement (despite popular belief) of Forry Ackerman. Produced by the Rankin-Bass company who were on a role with their animated Christmas specials, Mad Monster Party featured Karloff as the voice of ‘Baron Boris von Frankenstein’, a puppet clearly modelled on the actor. All the usual monster suspects are present, including Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, a werewolf, a mummy, the Invisible Man yada yada yada.

      Well, I say 'all the usual monster suspects' but there was nothing really usual as this was pretty much the first full-on monsterfest of this sort. Universal’s 1940s monsterfests had never corralled more than four or five characters tops. The full panoply of public domain, pop-culture monster icons had never been brought together except in Halloween comic strips - and indeed there was a comic-book aspect to MMP with character designs by Jack Davis and a script by Harvey Kurtzman, both of Mad magazine.

      There was a sort of follow-up a few years later, a cel-animated Saturday morning special called Mad, Mad, Mad Monsters which I used to have on a rare VHS. Then over the years, there have been a number of spooky animated kid-flicks, especially once we reach the straight-to-video era. The Scooby-Doo franchise alone accounts for about half of the titles in this particular sub-genre, and if you have never seen the likes of Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island or Scooby-Doo and the Loch Ness Monster, then you’re missing a treat. They feature the full Mystery Inc gang, absolutely no Scrappy Doo and the sort of self-aware in-jokes that have come to define the series in its 21st century incarnation. Props too for a couple of very enjoyable Alvin and the Chipmunks cartoon adventures: ...Meet Frankenstein and ...Meet the Wolfman. Predating the CGI-meets-live-action theatrical features, these are great fun and made with real affection for the monster characters.

      On the big screen, we’ve had the classic The Nightmare Before Christmas (often mistaken for a Tim Burton film although Timbo only produced - it was directed by Henry Sellick) and the less-than-classic The Corpse Bride. This actually was directed by Burton but it’s so bland and unmemorable that I literally cannot recall a single thing about it, nor can I be arsed to wander over to Wikipedia and find out. A couple of oddities which are more memorable than The Corpse Bride, but which you might nevertheless have forgotten, are Monster House and Igor. The former is rather weird, based on the premise: what if the actual house was the monster? Not in a metaphorical, Usher-style way but really, honestly, an actual monster house. Hence the title. I’m not convinced it completely works.

      Igor I know doesn’t work at all. Hopes were high as this also had a ‘high concept’ premise: taking the stock ‘hunchback assistant’ and making him the star. But the characters are uninteresting and the film fails to use whatever cultural currency it should have, probably because, when you think about it, the hunchbacked assistant just doesn’t have much cultural currency beyond existing. A good voice-cast fails to lift this above the category of ‘curious oddity’. We should probably also acknowledge Wallace and Gromit in Curse of the Were-Rabbit, a Hammeresque tale of mind-transference and quasi-lycanthropy (surmounted by a King Kong pastiche finale) which is of course absolutely cracking.

      So, moving onto the current crop, how do they stand? First out of the starting blocks was Paranorman which pretty much created its own mythology, albeit maintaining the tradition that every town in New England has a history of witch trials. Norman is a young lad who sees ghosts everywhere he goes; walking along the main street, he says hello to a succession of accident/murder victims whom no-one else can see or hear. It turns out the statutory ‘crazy old guy’ is Norman’s uncle who has been keeping the town safe from the vengeance of an executed witch and must, after his accidental death, pass on the task to his nephew.

      Attempting to read from a special book in a graveyard, Norman accidentally raises the zombified corpses of the 18th century townsfolk who condemned Agatha Prenderghast to death three centuries earlier. The zombies over-run the town and eventually Norman and his friends are cornered in the town hall. Norman discovers that Agatha Prenderghast was actually just a little girl and pacifies her restless spirit, freeing the town from the hordes of living dead prowling the streets.

      Paranorman has well-defined, sympathetic characters, a smart script and lovely stop-motion animation. The humans and zombies are nicely designed, there’s a great mix of laughs and thrills, and a strong moral sense to the story. It’s not a classic but it’s a satisfying film with some great gags that kids will only get when they’re older. But it has a key flaw, which you might have spotted. The opening stuff, with Norman seeing all the ghosts of the town, has no connection with the main story whatsoever The whole ‘ghosts of main street’ thing promises a completely different film to the curse’n’zombies story that we actually get. Good fun nonetheless, and the second best of the three 2012 animated horrors.

      The weakest of the three - and I realise that I am flying in the face of received opinion here - is Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, his stop-motion feature-length remake of his own 1984 live-action short. This is one of the most ironic films I’ve seen for a while. The message of most Frankenstein movies is that digging things up and attempting to create something new and vital by bolting unconnected bits of other things onto them is generally a bad Idea. Yet this is exactly what Burton has done. A lot of critics are charmed by it. I can only assume that they haven’t seen the original - an utterly delightful film, featuring sympathetic characters (Paul Bartel as the teacher, Shelley Duval as the mom) and a cute dog – which gets right everything that the remake gets wrong.

      In the feature, ‘Sparky’ is an ugly hound to start with and only looks worse when reanimated. It’s difficult to love him and very difficult to sympathise with the blandest collection of barely animated non-characters I’ve seen for quite some time. Pretty much everyone looks the same, with staring round eyes and tiny slit mouths which give their faces no expression. In The Nightmare Before Christmas, the inhabitants of Halloweentown were extreme caricatures of the humanoid form, twisted and distorted in a way that would have given a 1960s Yugoslavian cartoonist pause for thought. Jack Skellington himself had something like 50 different heads, giving him a wide range of facial expressions. Young Victor Frankenstein and his friends barely blink.

      The 30-minute film works because it is basically the 1931 Universal Frankenstein, all done in suburban miniature. For example, the climax takes place not in a windmill but in a miniature windmill – on a crazy golf course. The feature is set in somewhere called ‘New Holland’ apparently just so that Burton can justify having a big windmill next to the town. Talk about missing the point. Crazy golf miniature windmill is a clever, cute and affectionate pastiche of the original; actual big working windmill is just exactly the same thing.

      The morality is all screwed here too. The essence of the Frankenstein legend is that the creature, which we routinely call the monster, is not a monster. He is an innocent, seeking only love and acceptance, confused by the fear he inspires. The Frankenstein Monster only becomes monstrous as a reaction to the hatred and anger of the townsfolk, who have a knee-jerk phobia of the inhuman other. The short Frankenweenie captures this perfectly: Victor’s neighbours fear and hate the dog, but when Sparky rescues Victor from the burning crazy golf windmill, the people see that their fear stemmed from their own prejudices. Just because Sparky looks weird, doesn’t make him a monster.

      Fast forward three decades and, in order to stretch this half hour story to 87 minutes, a snip has been made at about the 25-minute mark and a vast amount of new and entirely unrelated stuff inserted. Victor’s schoolmates copy his experiment (thus contradicting the premise that he is a loner with his own unique view of the world) and their reanimated pets all turn into monsters which try to destroy the town. So now we have turned the vital force of the lightning – despite the school teacher specifically explaining how lightning and nervous impulses are both forms of electricity – into a random magic spell that can not only restore life but also morphologically distort or gigantise creatures, and almost always makes those creatures evil. We have actually justified the townsfolk’s fear of the dog.

      The townsfolk forgive Sparky not because he has shown himself to be loyal and good and kind but because he has saved them and their town from destruction by an army of monsters. The final five minutes switches back to the short’s story with the townsfolk working together to re-reanimate Sparky, except that the cute gag at the end – a poodle with a Bride of Frankenstein haircut - has been moved to much earlier. Frankenweenie reminded me slightly of the awful Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie (judicious googling should bring up a cache of my legendary, epic review which sent shock waves throughout Disney). Burton has picked bits and bobs from his source material and reused them in order to tick some sort of boxes rather than considering how and why they actually worked.

      This self-remake isn’t as bad, or as insultingly stupid, as his ‘reimagining’ of Planet of the Apes which has a place, along with theHitchhiker’s film, the Fiennes/Thurman Avengers picture and The League of Extraordinarily Bad Scripts, on my personal list of The Worst Films Ever. The only laughs come from the Gamera parody (misidentified by most critics as a Godzilla spoof) and the guinea pig. The film is full of movie references but all they do is emphasise how much better those other films were. And when one of those films is Ghoulies 2, you know you’re in trouble! Also, the movie is so full of sparks, smoke and other CGI effects that the charm of the animation is entirely lost and, had I not known beforehand, I would have assumed this was an entirely CG movie. Plus the 3D, as is traditional, adds not one iota of interest or entertainment (but quite a bit to the ticket price). Just extra work for the animators to make something we don’t care about that we are forced to pay extra for. Please God let the bubble burst soon.

      Ironically a 3D viewing of the third film probably would have added value because Hotel Transylvania is a fast-paced comedy with characters zipping at high speed along castle corridors or through the forest. This is a crazy, energetic, enormously entertaining romp; a monsterfest which corrals all the archetypal ghouls and creeps for, well, a mad monster party. A human dude blunders into the proceedings and Dracula must do everything he can to hide the fact, especially from his eligible daughter.

      Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky, the mad cartoon genius behind Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls and Samurai Jack, Hotel Transylvania positively sparkles with wit, slapstick, characters, situations and comedy, while maintaining a positive moral message and plenty of laugh-out-loud gags. It sparkles where Paranorman only shines and Frankenweenie splutters then goes out. If you only watch one animated horror film this year, this one’s my pick.



MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.