By Oli Ryder
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Dir. Henry Selick
Voices: Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Catherine O’Hara, Ken Page
Twas a long time ago, longer now than it seems, in a place that I’ve seen often in my dreams. For the review that you are about to be told, took place in the Odeon Screen 7 of old. Now you’ve probably wondered where my obsession with all things horror comes from, if you haven’t, I’d say it’s time you begun…
On a cold November morn of 1994, a young 5 year old me was taken to the cinema in place of attending some wedding or other. The experience was nothing new, for a minnow I’d already been dusted with the pixie dust diet of Disney films and the promise of the magic of cinema on a young child’s imagination was something I already devoured with great gusto. I was not to know of course, that this particular trip was to ultimately be the catalyst to shaping not only the kind of films I enjoyed but also my personality, how I lived my life and in a way, dress sense (if I can honestly be credited as having one).
Many forget that ‘Nightmare’ is of course a Disney film, something that, for a time a least, Disney tried to enforce themselves, the film representing the misunderstood teen who dresses in black and is made to stand in the corner away from the glowing warmth from Mickey Mouse and his posse. As a result, many were not expecting something that flew under the flag of dear old Uncle Walt to be so…dark, macabre and packed full of nightmarish creatures. Indeed, one of my first cinematic memories remains the cries of small children and the desperate stomping of feet as adults fled the cinema in a mad rush, trembling innocent bundles of virtue buried in their arms in a bid to escape the phantasmagorical images now burned into their retinas.
There was a small child who stayed though, one who stared goggle-eyed at the spectacle of this musical stop-motion masterpiece unfolding before him. A small child who, over time, amassed as much ‘Nightmare’ related merchandise as he possibly could, who would watch it religiously every year on both Halloween and of course Christmas and, much to the enduring embarrassment of others, could proudly sing every lyric of every song without any need for encouragement. This child still exists, still watches this film religiously every year, walks around with the soundtrack buzzing in his head all through the month of October and its magic has not aged a single day and still after 20 years of it being a part of his life, notices things he didn’t before. Me, I owe this film everything and I won’t ever forget it.
This is not to say that I wasn’t initial scared on a first viewing! Kids today are used to the happy-fun supporting features from the likes of Pixar, ‘Nightmare’ on the other hand, was accompanied by Tim Burton’s early short ‘Vincent’, the tale of a boy who wants to be Vincent Price, narrated by the great man himself. The dark German expressionism style and the chilling tones of Price were terrifying and the type of animation I had never seen before added an extra layer of disturbing quality. Perhaps this was a perfect sampler to prepare you for what was about to come, and make no mistake, there are still some pretty grotesque monsters in ‘Nightmare’! None of these cutesy ‘Monsters Inc’ bollocks, characters like the Clown with the Tear-Away Face or big bad Oogie Boogie himself are initially frightening and the sort of thing that no kids film would ever be able to get away with in this day and age for fear of being sued by overly-protective parents (‘Coraline’ a brilliant exception).
What sets ‘Nightmare’ apart, however, is that it has an enormous love for these creatures who would in all other incidents be resigned to the role of ‘bad guys’. The film’s hero is Halloween Town’s top scarer, Jack Skellington, a skeleton suffering a mid-life (or death?) crisis about whether or not his heart is really into scaring people anymore. We have a skeleton as a lead, a Frankenstein-like ragdoll named Sally as a love interest and a plot that centres around the creatures of Halloween Town hijacking Christmas. See, one of the main reasons I have a beef against ‘Monsters Inc’ is because it verges on ripping off the central notion of ‘Nightmare’, the creatures are not ‘evil’, it’s just their ‘job’ and even though their take on Christmas is both a hostile take-over and full of lethal ‘presents’, including a man-eating wreath, what they are doing is not malicious, it’s just their way of expressing themselves. Some may disagree…
‘Nightmare’ is truly a film that champions the ‘misfit’ or the ‘outcast’ and I think that it is for this reason that its fans hold it dear to their hearts with such fondness. It’s a Christmas/Halloween film that’s uniquely ours and does not belong to anyone else as they wouldn’t appreciate it properly. It has one of the greatest soundtracks of all time, composed by Burton collaborator, Danny Elfman , it somehow manages to perfectly balance on creating songs with both a Halloween and Christmassy feel. A song like ‘What’s This?!’ with a joyful upbeat bounce containing the lyric ‘There’s children throwing snowballs, instead of throwing heads’ is on the one hand gleefully dark and yet, as with the whole film, there’s a sense of indefinable innocence that means that no matter how ‘dark’ the film is wrongly perceived to be, it has a warm, fuzzy heart that beats through it. You only have to look at my favourite onscreen romance between Jack and Sally to know that there is a great deal of love in the film, running hand in hand with its more mischievous side.
I cannot think of any other film that straddles the labels of both a perfect Halloween and Christmas film with such ease. This film certainly engrained an absolute adoration for both seasons in my head and, of course, I watch it multiple times during both. I love the painstaking efforts that went into making the stop motion look so slick and that have not aged a single day. I was lucky enough in Florida to actually see the marvellous set of Halloween Town itself and short of seeing the film in 3D (one of the few enjoyable and worthwhile 3D experiences) or going on the fantastic ride at Disneyland California, it was the closest I’ll ever get to actually ‘visiting’ Halloween Town. A childish fantasy, I know, however it’s one that I’ve refused to give up on. The film embraces its audience in such a way that through the magic of Halloween that it creates, makes you feel like you’re a part of it and truly no other film effects me in such a way.
The film has been my cinematic ‘third arm’ my entire life. It plays nightly in my Cerebral Cinema and very rarely does a day go by when I am not reminded of it in some way. I could go on for hours about every single tiny detail that I love about it but I’ll finish simply by saying that it remains my very favourite tradition of watching it on Halloween. That and carving pumpkins which, for some reason, I always insisted on being called ‘Harris’ when I was younger and it’s stuck ever since!
I hope that this has given you some insight as to just how much the film means to me and if, somehow, you have never seen it or forgotten it, has encouraged you to seek it out!