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The Worst Witch (1986)
And then there's this oddity, a TV-movie co-production between Central Independent Television and HBO from a children's book series by Jill Murphy that became a traditional special on the Disney Channel up through the 90s.
Best described as a female-centric version of Harry Potter, the story concerns an accident-prone pre-teen witch (Fairuza Balk, yes, from The Craft, ha ha) whose misadventures at a Witch Academy land her in the middle of an evil conspiracy and into the good graces of the Good Witch's leader, the (unfortunately named) Grand Wizard.
Said Wizard, incidentally, is played by the great Tim Curry in full-on high-camp vamp mode, which seems to be most of the reason this is remembered today. Check it out.
Mad Monster Party (1967)
Rankin/Bass animation studios was best known for making stop-motion Christmas specials for TV, but in 1967 they tried taking the act to the big screen with this animated comedy send-up of the Universal Monsters. It wasn't exactly a hit, but it found new life revived as a special and, subsequently, as a cult classic.
The plot: Dr. Frankenstein invites the usual assortment of public domain movie monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman, Gill Man, Invisible Man, Hunchback, Dr. Jekyll and "It" the giant gorilla) to a party announcing his retirement and naming his nerdy nephew as his successor. The new kid is too nice for the monsters' liking, so they plot a coup.
The truth is it kind of drags at points, but when it's on it's kind of a uniquely trippy delight. It's very mid-60s, with topical inside jokes, fourth wall-breaking and Phyllis Diller as a celebrity guest voice. Think of it as the Austin Powers version of The Nightmare Before Christmas, and it even makes for a great party movie. R/B eventually did an official TV special follow-up, Mad Mad Mad Monsters, which few people recall.
Mercury Theatre's War of the Worlds(1938)
Yes, technically, a radio special. But given that this is probably the most famous Halloween Event ever, and possibly still the biggest broadcast prank ever pulled, how can it not rate a mention?
Here's what happened: On Halloween Night, 1938, Orson Welles (yes, that one) and his fellow members of the Mercury Theatre radio show decided to stage a radio play adaptation of H.G. Wells' alien invasion classic War of The Worlds. Ever the showman, Wells' gimmick was to stage the first two-thirds of the play in the form of a live news broadcast, with a news anchor reporting on an invasion of Earth (New Jersey, specifically) by ray-gun toting Martians. Listen to some of it. By all accounts, they did a good job.
Too good, actually. Though stories as to the extent of the phenomenon vary wildly, it was soon discovered that many people tuning in either briefly or only partially to the broadcast believed what they were hearing was an actual news report - and some had either gone into hiding or taken to the streets to fend off what they thought was an actual Martian attack. Reports of the confused citizenry promoted a national mini-outrage, and though the controversy turned him overnight from radio's boy genius to an international celebrity, Welles was ultimately called before Congress to offer an explanation and apology to the American people.
The special had a far-reaching effect on not only American culture, but on the entire world. Adolf Hitler cited it as an example of American decadence and gullibility, and to this day some conspiracy theorists believe that it was actually a secretly-funded experiment in psychological warfare. To date, the only broadcast special to achieve similar infamy was the BBC's infamous classic, Ghostwatch.
Happy Halloween, everyone!
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you've heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.