Written by Jonathan Wojcik
Every Last Monster From
The Nightmare Before [REDACTED]
Who reading this website doesn't already love or at least begrudgingly respect this movie? Released when I was almost exactly ten years old, this story of sweet, innocent Halloween naively appropriating some other ghastly celebration combined Henry Selick's incredible animation genius with a premise and early conceptual artwork by a still-relevant Tim Burton, whose talent pretty much only ever really lied in character and set design, didn't it? Populated with grisly yet ultimately kind-hearted goblins and revenants, the setting of Nightmare is basically all I've ever wanted in a fantasy world, and without a doubt the first one I'd ever choose to step into.
It's hard to believe that when this film originally hit theaters, many reviewers panned it as either too morbid for children (there's such a thing?!) or merely a forgettable, niche curiosity. Over twenty five years later, Nightmare continues to be a best-selling Disney brand and a treasured Holiday classic around the world, even where interest in Halloween is somewhat scant at best.
There are even those who regard this forgettable, niche curiosity as so mainstream, it isn't even cool anymore, though the kind of person who shuns something because of its popularity with younger generations usually isn't the kind of person whose feelings and opinions are important. I am an absolutely shameless shill for this artistic masterpiece, and I will be no matter how bloated its fame may become. This is ultimately my true "Star Wars," the cinematic work upon which I can still hang onto every moment with breathless fascination, the one I would preserve above all others in the midst of a nuclear war, can analyze in painstaking depth and have spun elaborate, sometimes sordid headcanons I won't really get into here, which is probably a lie.
I wrote a rather weak "top ten" for Nightmare back in 2011, but 2015 has been a year of bigger, better revisits to old favorites, so we're going to do this right. We're going to leave no stone unturned and break down every monster in this movie. Every monster.
Let's start with our hero, or more accurately antihero. The king of Halloween town, its most beloved celebrity and allegedly the undisputed master of instilling mankind with terror and dread. Jack might very well be the most famous skeleton in our cultural consciousness, and I think we owe at least some of that to his instantly recognizable design. When I first saw the film as a kid, it never even "clicked" for me that Jack was supposed to be a human skeleton at all. He just seemed to be some unique new category of Halloween entity, a stick-figure ghoul as ambiguous as his modern wannabe, Slenderman.
My wife Margret saw the movie at an even younger age, and since we first see Jack emerge from a pumpkin headed scarecrow, she interpreted him as what a pumpkin headed scarecrow's skeleton looks like; that he was a pumpkin creature all the way up until the events of this film, when he burned all his flesh off just for one epic Halloween stunt.
I like that. I want to go with that.
Character-wise, the thing that makes Jack so memorable might be that this "master of fright" is actually such a sweet, innocent goofball. Like most of Halloweentown's citizens, he has a seemingly insatiable lust for causing fear, reveling in death, darkness and tragedy, yet there's no malice or cruelty in any of it; it's just all he knows, all he exists for, and was all fun and games until he began to grow emotionally exhausted by the tedium of year-round spookiness. I'm not sure the same could ever happen to me, but he has been at it for at least the century or two that we've been celebrating Halloween, surrounded by monsters who live and breathe horror 365 days a year without a break or any apparent interest in a break. Maybe, after long enough, even I'd get a little tired of it. Sometimes.
Through Jack's eyeholes, I can even see some of the appeal in this other holiday people are always on about. The gingerbread houses and sparkling lights are such a stark contrast to his grey and black world of twisted gargoyles and skewed tombstones, you can almost share his child-like delight as he falls hopelessly in love with everything the snow-capped elf village represents. He adores its conventions and motifs with all of his nonexistent heart, in a way most of us in Americe have long since buried under a steamy pile of capitalist greed flecked with undigested hunks of existential pessimism. Jack is an old, dead man with the wide-eyed wonderment of a six year old who doesn't yet grasp the inevitability of death.
What Jack doesn't know, and what he has to learn by the end of his adventure, is that loving something isn't the same thing as understanding it, and eagerness to have something isn't the same as responsibility.
Zero, for some reason, is always the very last character I ever remember. Maybe it's because he never does much but follow Jack around, or because I didn't find the idea of a ghost dog as tantalizing as the other monsters when I was a child, but I've definitely grown to appreciate Zero's design. The long, thin, toothless, skull-like head calls to mind the style of Fleischer-era cartoon ghosts, and many overlook that the little weirdo somehow has an entire lit Jack O' Lantern for a nose, jagged face and all.
The most interesting thing about Zero is probably just that he has his own tombstone in Halloween Town's cemetary, and we first encounter him when Jack calls him up out of his little doggie grave. Zero simultaneously has his own bed in Jack's house, so does he just like to wander back to his own buried corpse when Jack isn't watching him? For that matter, does he really even have a buried corpse, or was he "born" a ghost? If not, was he some kind of Halloween-land monster dog before he died, or is he the ghost of a dog from our world?
As a child, I have to admit I didn't care that much about Sally. She didn't seem like the most exciting monster in Halloween town, and her relationship with Jack felt like another tacked-on, irrelevent romantic sideplot, but over the years, I've come to like her more and more as both a concept and a design. A rag doll isn't something we usually think of as a Halloween monster, but that's exactly what she's billed as. A "rag doll" who happens to be sewn together from corpse flesh and stuffed with autumn leaves. She walks a little off-kilter, her face is sewn together just a little unevenly, and her appendages can operate independently of the rest of her. She's a highly original idea for a "spooky" creature, and executed with a lot of fun, subtle details to give her more character.
Eventually, I even came around on the movie's Jack/Sally ship, as it dawned on me how deeply it really ties into Jack's character and the entire storyline. Jack's spooky-scary exterior is the status quo of Halloween town, the only thing his fellow monsters relate to or care about, but there's another side to Jack that craves wholesomeness. Jack has a cheerful, optimistic interior that appreciates forms of beauty beyond putrid corpses or torture equipment, and in his world, this only leaves him feeling alienated and alone.
Sally really is the only resident of Halloween town that understands any of this. She clearly has some fun taking part in the Halloween festivities, but she doesn't seem to care at all about scaring people. Like Jack, she has a broader view of life, with room for both bats and butterflies, but with Jack bending to societal pressure and maintaining his boisterous Pumpkin King image, she, too, is left feeling alone in her nonconformity, afraid to approach him because she's sure he's out of her league and could have any ghoul he wants.
Jack believes his key to happiness lies in becoming someone else - Santa Claus - to achieve some sort of radical new "greatness," but all he really needed was someone who understood and accepted him for who he already is.
Though Jack is consistently referred to as the "king" of Halloween Town, it also has an elected Mayor, and I'm not sure exactly how that works. Maybe "Pumpkin King" is figurative, like "The King of Pop," but it's abundantly clear that Skellington, officially or not, holds the highest level of authority and that the Mayor's job is to handle all the public relations Jack finds too tiresome.
The Mayor is also a pretty fascinating monster in his own right. His head is just a rotating cone, with a "positive" and "negative" face on opposite sides. Normally, a monster like this represents some sort of "good side" and "evil side," or a shift between honesty and dishonesty; a visual play on being "two faced."
The Mayor, however, is none of those things. He has only one personality, and it seems to be an honest, well-meaning and good-natured one even if he's none too bright. His shifting faces are entirely aesthetic, indicating whether he's in a good mood or a bad mood, and it's just that he doesn't seem to have any neutral or in-between state. If he's not feeling cheerful, he's feeling terribly distressed, and he can flip between the extremes even mid-sentence.
Finkelstein is Halloween Town's resident "mad scientist," and in traditional fashion, has a broad understanding of both scientific and medical fields with no particular area of specialization. He's the creator of Sally, and spends the film building a replacement for her when she demonstrates a little too much independence for his liking. He's curmudgeony, controlling, bitter, and was almost the film's villain in an early draft, but he's still not entirely bad.
What I like about Finkelstein is how much he looks and feels like a monster that only exists to be a mad scientist. He's shaped like someone pulled a human skin over a cartoon duck, and I wonder how intentional that may have been considering the "quack" joke you can make. He's confined to an electric wheelchair, he has no apparent actual eyes under his black glasses and he can not only open up his head, but remove his own brain or parts of his own brain with no ill effect.
We're never given an origin for any of these beings, except that they are simply the people of Halloween itself. As far as we know, characters like Finkelstein may have just sort of coalesced out of human concepts. Finkelstein is quite possibly the embodied idea of mad science.
Finkelstein, of course, also has his own Igor to assist him around the laboratory, one of the most perfect little Igors you ever did see, right down to a slurred, exaggerated impression of Peter Lorre's speech patterns. It's more than a little sad that we as a society have come to accept short people with humps as a type of "monster," though I guess Igor is also fairly likely to be undead or even artificially created by the doctor.
The Grave Shadows
Now we're getting to the really fun part. We'll discuss our remaining major players later, but for now, we're going to take time to appreciate even the most incidental of Halloween Town's denizens. These shadowy figures are almost the first monsters we ever get to see, each projected on the face of what's presumably their own tombstone.
This basically brings us right back to the Zero dilemma. Like Zero, these appear to be spirits haunting their own tombstones, since these conjoined shadow-twins occupy their own special double-grave. There are a lot of tombstones in Halloween Town's cemetary, so do all of them house ghosts of some sort? Again, we have to ponder if there are actual bodies in any of these graves, and if those bodies were ever alive at all. Halloween Town could have just been generated with a cemetary full of weird, monstrous cadavers, with restless souls to match, or it could be that Halloween monsters eventually die just like we do.
This last possibility is all but confirmed later in the film, when Jack is mistakenly believed to be dead for real, and his fellow monsters actually grieve. This world of ghosts and skeletons apparently still experiences the true finality of death under special circumstances, and not all of them can come back as ghosts or they wouldn't have batted an eye at Jack's apparent destruction.
I suppose we'll just have to presume that death works different for every monster. Some are alive, some are undead. Some were alive before they became undead, and some were always undead. In every case, there are things that can put them down for good, but it doesn't seem like "old age" is on that list.
Speaking of which, Halloween Town is also haunted by a number of good old fashioned, whispy Halloween specters whose beautifully animated, two-dimensional bodies differ dramatically from Zero. This seems like it's only an artistic decision, but it's fun to imagine that maybe Zero just isn't quite as far along into ghostliness as these guys, still just a little bit more tangible.
The ghosts seem easy to overlook as characters in their own right, since they absolutely only appear during the two biggest musical numbers - "This is Halloween" and "Making Christmas" - which is a shame, because I'd have loved to see these cartoon spooks floating around town and interacting with other characters between their off-Broadway performances.
The Monster Under the Bed
An enigma even among Halloweenfolk, we meet this monster only momentarily in the introductory song, and only get to see its eyes and teeth, strangely animated by computer rather than stop motion. The effect does not age as gracefully as anything else in the movie, but this sort of only serves to make the bed-lurker even creepier than it was ever intended to be. It's so jarringly out of place that it manages to stick out even in this film as eerily dream-like imagery.
The Man Under the Stairs
Though I'm going roughly in order of appearance, I'll be using whatever scenes gave us the clearest view of these characters, and we can definitely make out more of this cutie during the "Town Meeting" musical number. Despite his official name, there isn't anything particularly man-like about this hodgepodge creature, who boasts an almost platypus-like face full of gnarly teeth, bulging eyeballs, a bad comb-over with spiders stuck in it, an accordion-like neck and a hairy body with actual snakes for fingers.
Strangest of all, the Man Under the Stairs has no legs, but a tapering body attached to a tiny, wheeled metal platform. It almost looks like they stopped building the puppet and decided to use him as-is, but the platform is already there in conceptual sketches, too, and it really captures the kind of wacky, goth-kid thinking that originally endeared anybody to Burton's productions, before they turned into empty vehicles for Johnny Depp's puppy-dog eyes, though this is one design actually finalized by another very talented artist, who also seems to have done several of my other favorite characters...and a tragically unused garbage creature.
Mr. Stairs is one of the most ecclectic critters in Nightmare, but in a way that feels authentically like someone's childhood monster, a thing that really does only exist to hide under staircases and clutch at people's ankles. This lends further credence to the idea that Halloween Town somehow brings monsters to life directly from the human subconscious, just as the holiday worlds themselves must materialize through collective belief.
Of course there are vampires in Halloween town, four of them that we know of, and though they're more or less your generic fang-toothed, pointy-eared, black-caped Nosferatu, they're easily my favorite cinematic examples since Orlok himself. Their glazed-over eyes, curious proportions and soft, melodious speech are unsettling enough as it is, but downright spine-tingling to imagine in any more serious context. Think about these pale, glassy-eyed things begging to enter your home with their squeaky little voices. It's infinitely creepier than probably any other cinematic vampire out there.
Even when Nightmare throws the most common, classic monsters at us, it does so with a memorable flair that could only have come from good old pre-Wonka Burton.
The Harlequin Demon
A fan favorite and one of mine as well, Harley is the one Halloween Town resident you really can't compare to anything else. Like Stairs Guy, he gives the impression of a child's bad dream, a chimeric mix of monstrous features that could be waiting to leap out of a bedroom closet at any moment.
Harlequin is so named for the three striped tentacles on the top of his head, but little else about him is very clown-like. He has green, frog-like hands, his arms are bushy clumps covered in strange quills, his barrel-shaped body is covered in either feathers or large scales, and his saw-toothed mouth, perhaps his second most noteworthy feature after the tentacles, opens all the way around his head, which bobs up and down in his huge, bowl-like underbite on only a thin pillar of muscle.
Harlequin's most memorable role comes in Making Christmas, when he fashions hats by smashing dead animals with a hammer and brags about his brilliance. It only goes on for about ten seconds, but it feels like enough to flesh out this zany whatsit with as much personality as any of our star characters. He looks great, and he is great. He's the complete package.
And he's MINE. BACK OFF.
Like the vampires, this is one of my favorite iterations of an otherwise conventional horror icon. The Wolfman doesn't do that much, but he looks so damn cool with those long, pointed jaws and bleary yellow eyes. You can almost mistake him for some sort of rat creature, and many people do, until he finally lets out a baleful howl.
The Wolfman also has an interestingly inconsistent voice. Most of his few lines are in a harsh snarl, but he sings a single line in the beginning of Jack's Obsession that sounds more mournful, haunting and whispery. He really seems to put his heart into it, like he wishes he had a whole song to himself, and I wish he did too.
The Melting Man
Oh my gosh, here he is! My #1 babe. Melting Man is without a doubt the most disturbing being in town, an almost mute and unusually small humanoid whose flesh is perpetually sloughing off like candle wax but neither dwindles in volume nor sullies his fancy white suit. How does he even work? Add to that his bright yellow, inhuman eyeballs and three-fingered alien hands and you've got the film's second loosest use of the word "man" since the one of Under the Stairs fame.
If you look closely enough after This is Halloween, you can see Melting Man clasping his hands and staring lovingly up at Jack. Jack seems to get real touchy-feely with Melty, too, ostensibly so the animators could have fun animating the strands of goop coming off in Jack's hands, but I dunno, I think there's something there. Someone sticky and slimy is probably pretty novel to someone made of bare, dry bone, right? And vice versa? I kind of assume Melting Man doesn't have any skeleton of his own, so maybe he kind of longs for Jack inside him. Not that way! The innocent way! The "wearing your amorphous boyfriend as a suit" way! Together, they could form a whole tarman!
I can accept Sally digging her talons into Jack, but how can you look at Jack's interactions with Melty and not get at least slightly on board what I just now dubbed the gumbones ship?
I recently talked a bit about my growing love of traditional Halloween witches, and Halloween Town's are once again my favorite incarnations of the trope. There's just two of them, though they're so prominent it really feels like there are more. You've got a witch so bony and elongated she almost looks crane-like, while her little friend has a more pelican-like muzzle and a bulbous, warty nose.
Interestingly, Tim Burton established a rule early in production that Halloween Town "had no magic," so I guess these girls don't actually cast spells, but ride their brooms through some sort of elaborate biochemical reaction.
The Hangman Tree
Another of my favorites, Hangman Tree is one of the very few spooky, haunted trees I've ever seen as an actual "character" in anything, despite how common they are in Halloween imagery. The tree's only major lines are everybody scream, everybody scream, but it's easily one of the most memorable verses in the intro song. How can you forget those words delivered by an entire massive, walking tree lurching through a graveyard, with multiple dead people swaying from its branches by nooses? This may even be one of Halloween Town's most morbid residents, when you really think about it, though the little skeletons seem perfectly content to be hanging there.
Said skeletons oddly look like they come from an entirely different movie than Jack, which was another source of my childhood confusion. These are clearly human skeletons...I think. Their limbs are rather a bit more noodly, and their bones are awfully drawn-on looking. They almost have a Day of the Dead Sugar Skull look to them I never even noticed before.
The Clown with the Tearaway Face
Okay, this guy is the legit scariest resident. No contest. Spooky Halloween clowns are a dime a dozen, but this screeching, unicycle-riding, jagged-toothed joker has a special gimmick he's all too eager to show us in the opening song...
What even is a tearaway face? I mean, I know what it is, it's literally a face that can be torn off, but he says it like it's already a well established concept, like a tearaway face is just something a clown should have.
If the clown had a bare skull or even a bloody, gory mess under his removable mug, it honestly wouldn't be half as nightmarish as the black, empty void he actually shows us, or the fact that his voice drops several octaves as long as his face is off. Dear god. What does he even tear his face off for? I guess he's just another resident that lives solely for the thrill of freaking you right out.
The Corpse Family
Consisting of a corpulent mama carcass, a lanky cadaver dad and a pudgy little dead child, the corpse family wouldn't stand out much from the town's other assorted undead if they weren't so uncomfortably human nor so decrepit. Whereas the town's other undead are more whimsical and muppet-like, these three look almost jarringly detailed and grimy, not to mention the fact that Corpse Kid's eyelids are sewn shut.
The Bat Kid
They call this little critter "Bat Kid," but we're obviously seeing something at least a little more peculiar than that, aren't we? They're a humanoid with an oversized head, blood-red eyes, a devil's tail and membranous wings so big that they walk on their wingtips instead of on their feet, and we never do see if they can even use them to fly.
What I always notice about Bat Kid is their uniform stony grey color scheme, which makes me think that if they're any particular monster, it's probably closest to a gargoyle. The way they're detailed even looks more chiseled from stone than the fleshy textures of their fellow monsters, including that blunt, spiky hair.
Another weird and ambiguous monster, these green-skinned, bat-nosed, bug-eyed ghouls are obviously named after Mr. Hyde, but he was only the malevolent counter-personality to Dr. Jekyll. There's no precedent for anything just called a "Hyde" like it's some sort of species, and there's three of these things, hiding under one another's hats like a certain rhyming feline who refuses to leave and will ruin your beautiful house.
Maybe the Hydes just sort of represent the nebulous concept of a sketchy stranger. Anybody can seem creepy to somebody else, under some set of circumstances, and some people are creepy all the time.
These guys actually boast one of my single favorite little moments in the movie, during Making Christmas, when they're appropriately enough assembling a nesting doll as a holiday gift...at the center of which is a scorpion the tiniest Hyde knocked out with a hammer. Hilarious.
The Devil Guy
The "devil" of Halloween Town used to be one of my least favorites of its monsters, but with his huge eyeballs and weirdly bird-like profile, the design has really grown on me, and the very nature of this monster is especially fascinating. We know that this isn't really, literally Satan or even really, literally a "demon" at all. He's a mortal, biological creature who exists as part of Halloween Town simply because a red devil happens to be an icon of the holiday in the minds of many humans, a physical manifestation of an idea, just like everything else that exists in Halloween Town. He's not even truly evil, and as we established earlier, wouldn't have any genuinely supernatural powers we might associate with the prince of darkness.
He's just a guy who was born looking and acting like the devil, or rather, like popular culture's impression of the devil, but all he really wants is to live his spooky life and enjoy spooky parties and whatever else a physical manifestation of an idea of the embodiment of evil might do with itself. Golf? I feel like he probably likes golf.
Behemoth is a rather more interesting character than you might have thought at first glance. Most of the monsters hearken back to magical folklore, early horror literature or classic cinema, but with his latex gloves, overalls and an axe lodged in his head, Behemoth brings to mind more modern, sadistic horror imagery, like the splatter villains of the 80's and onward. He would fit right in alongside Jason or Leatherface, hunting down and murdering a band of middle aged actors the audience is supposed to believe are teenagers.
Behemoth, however, is as sweet and gentle as anyone else in town. Like the devil guy, he only looks the part of something malevolent, otherwise spending 99% of his screentime staring straight forward in silence until he's finally overwhelmed with excitement at the sight of a "BUNNY!!!" It just takes him a few more moments of silently standing and staring to figure out that's what he's looking at. What a sweetie.
This one-eyed goblin is such a simplistic, but beautiful little design, isn't it? That vivid, green-yellow eyeball really pops, in the artistic sense, from his otherwise minimalistic and drab body. His only line in the whole film is "JELLIED BRAINS," but it's a damn good line to have. I love how many lines this movie ultimately gives to so many of its most minor characters; we end up knowing what a whole lot of these creatures sound like and even get some vague glimpses into their personalities and interests. Not that I have any idea what "JELLIED BRAINS" tells us about Cyclops, except that it's a food he must either like or dislike a very great deal.
Where do you suppose Halloween Town gets things like brains for dinner? We never really see any animals they could come from, and the residents seem too nice to be eating one another. Of course, in Halloween town, brains might as well grow on trees or fall from the sky.
You can't have Halloween without mummies, and Nightmare's single bandage-wrapped cavader is one of the cutest in popular culture. He's so, so tiny, and with only one little yellow eyeball peering from his wrappings. It's centered on his face, so it doesn't seem like the underlying physiology is quite like a human. I wouldn't be surprised if this is another of those mummies that just disappear if they're unraveled, or maybe he's just full of corpse dust. He seems to be the best friend of Corpse Kid, so he's either a child or a child-like tiny man, but we don't see any other mummies, so I guess he's also an orphan.
I'm so glad this roster of creeps includes a humanoid fish. They are a delight every single time they rear their slimy heads, and Halloween Town's resident Deep One is even one of its few explicitly female monsters, to boot! It's a shame there aren't more, but I'm glad one of them is a scaly gill-woman, and her design is just cool as hell, with her oversized webbed hands and a facial structure right between that of humanoid and piscoid. You may have also noticed she has fish boobs, but they're not the usual perky ones slapped on even some of the least mammalian monster girls. They might even just be another pair of fins or gill flaps or something.
This scene we're looking at is also interesting because we have a whole gaggle of ghouls fawning over Jack with what's blatantly lust for his hot bod, but while they push those few female monsters to the front of the scene, the vampires and Wolfman are in on it too, and Wolfman in particular looks like he's thinking some filthy, filthy thoughts. He's got ideas for those bones no other canine has ever been depraved enough to fathom.
The Zombie Band
These street performers are the only monsters credited in the movie as "zombies," even counting the corpse family, and I really love how goofy they look. Their shrunken, mummy-like aesthetic is closer to the image we had of "zombies" in cartoons and comics before the days of survival horror video games and post-apocalyptic TV dramas. It's hard to pick a favorite of the trio, especially as cute as the head saxophone player is, but I really like the oft-overlooked guitarist, with his even less natural body proportions and simple noseless ball of a face.
What is the deal with that guy in the guitar, though? He doesn't look anything like the other zombies. He has the most realistically human face of any Halloween denizen, and he speaks just once in the whole movie, just "a-one-and-a-two-and-a" before the band tackles Jingle Bells. What role does he play in the band, exactly? It seems like the guitar is actually fashioned from his little casket. Isn't he kind of in the way, too? Guitars are hollow for a reason.
We're getting into the really obscure ones here, my favorite of which is the town gatekeeper, fleetingly visible only a couple times in the film. He's a squat humanoid in a bowler hat and a trench coat, hiding everything but his huge, raven-like beak, though whether he's just a beaked monster or an actual bird monster is impossible to judge. I'm not even sure which I prefer, really. Halloween Town could definitely use a bird guy, but there are also merits to beaks on non-avian creatures. He could even be a reptile, right? Like a fat, flightless pterosaur?
I guess he's probably supposed to be a raven creature, what with Halloween and all.
I like how the only reason we know of for this community to even be gated at all is probably Oogie Boogie.
One monster present only in the immediate aftermath of the intro number, you can spot Frankenstein's Monster on the left again, in front of the Mayor's car. Nothing about him looks particularly remarkable as far as Frankenstoids go, and when he does get mentioned anywhere, he's chalked up to an "Easter Egg." That seems unlikely, since Frankenstoids are basically public domain anyway. It feels more likely that this was another hasty addition that they just didn't find another use for, but if you want me headcanon explanation, he was probably one of Finkelstein's early experiments that didn't really work out, and only Jack's Halloween bash could pull him out of his lonely, secluded funk long enough to make a public appearance before his dad showed up.
There's one more creature in this scene that may or may not be unique. It's difficult to tell, but I swear this shape doesn't match up quite right with anyone else, with what I'm seeing as a bulbous, smooth head and at least one horn. Maybe it's one of the other characters from an odd angle, or my mind is playing tricks on me?
The Reaper and the Apple Hag
This same shot is the only clear view we ever get of these two townspeople, sitting in plain sight but almost as overlooked as the gatekeeper. On the right, we've got what seems to be a reference to the climax of Snow White, a ghostly-pale crone holding an apple we can presume is tainted with poison. Though this film is owned by Disney and they could have gotten away with a more overt cameo, I appreciate her more unique design, with her unsettlingly tiny head and serene yet penetrating face. The diguised form of one evil queen from one fairy tale doesn't seem quite like the kind of concept big enough for Halloween Town to bring to life, but what if that isn't quite all she represents? What if she embodies the persistent myth of tainted Halloween treats, which once reached near-hysterical levels and still looms over the Holiday long after it turned out to be a lie spun by a murderer?
Moving on from that uplifting thought, we've got her companion the reaper, the classic scythe-wielding specter we all know and love. This particular reaper sports the shadowy, faceless look I've always found ever-so-slightly cuter than your skull-faced reapers, though that's a pretty close competition.
It's interesting to think about what he really represents, isn't it? Devil guy is at least a manifestation of a distinct entity humans believe in, but the Grim Reaper is a more metaphorical personification of death, so this monster is a personification OF a personification. A living symbol of an abstract symbol. What does he do? He can't actually reap human souls, can he? Then again, if any inhabitants of Halloween Town used to be living beings in "our" world, this might be the guy who's job is to find them and guide their souls to their new home. Maybe he seeks out those rare individuals who could truly be happy spending their entire eternity living and breathing Halloween in a village of zombies and witches.
That Weird-ass Curly Hill
What is the deal with this thing? It's one of the biggest icons of the movie, and looks like little more than the rest of the twisted, gothic scenery until it actually uncurls itself for Jack to step across. Is it alive? Is it sentient?
This scene was one of those shown in the film's television ads, and was instantly mesmerizing. I remember actually asking another child, who had already seen it in theaters, what he could tell me about this thing, and for some reason his answer was simply "that's the living mountain."
The "living mountain?" I'd eventually realize he had pulled that out of his ass as children typically do when presented with a question they don't really have an answer for, but I believed it was an official name just long enough that it still sticks with me.
What really makes "The Living Mountain" stand out so well is that there's never really anything else quite this surreal in the entire movie. It wouldn't seem as strange if we saw a few more examples of Halloweenland shifting and moving like a living creature, but this is all we ever get, just this one unexplained coil of earth that acts almost like a gigantic tongue or tentacle. Maybe it doesn't even move of its own volition, maybe it's just some sort of power Jack can somehow exert over the landscape and only ever uses once that we've seen, but I still can't get "the living mountain" out of my head, so "living mountain" it is, even if it's quite obviously only a hill, at best. Are you going to tell a giant dirt tentacle it's not big enough to be a mountain? I didn't think so.
I told you I'd review EVERY monster and that's just what we're gosh-darned gonna do, including this dead chicken that we only see long enough to hear it crowing. It doesn't even follow the correct anatomy of a chicken's skeleton, so it either wasn't a living chicken at any point or it was some sort of Halloween monster chicken before it decomposed. In any case, it's good to know there are more undead animals besides Zero. I'd love to learn more about Halloweenland's fauna. Are there more skeletal chickens out there, or just the one?
Lock Shock, and Barrel
It's an almost impossible decision, but I increasingly feel like my favorite song in this movie is actually "Kidnap the Sandy Claws," because it's just so sadistic, not just lyrically, but with a crazed, infernal tone to the intrumentals I can never get out of my head, and it tells us all we need to know about these little shits. There's almost no build-up to their appearance before Jack calls on them to fetch the real Santa, but they almost immediately steal the show as they dance around their tree fort, packed with weapons, explosives and implements of torture. They're our first look at anything resembling actual malice among Halloween's citizens, and they're only little kids.
...At least, they're ostensibly little kids.
The only explanation ever offered for the trio is that they're "Halloween's finest trick-or-treaters," and they certainly look, act and sound like children, but their faces are only more monstrous under their masks (a confirmed reference to the Twilight Zone episode, The Masks), pale and corpse-like. Lock, the one dressed as a Devil, appears to have a real, fully functional tail, and Barrel, the tubby skeleton, had three-toed, almost frog-like feet. It's possible that they simply congealed out of the collective sugar-rush and innately sadistic streak of human children, but I also like the theory that they were just some nasty little brats who died doing what they love, either from poisoned candy or when a particularly brutal prank backfired, and spend their afterlife in an endless state of Halloween mischief.
Of course this is a "monster," why wouldn't it be?! The bathtub is Lock, Shock and Barrel's loyal steed, which apparently springs to life as soon as all its water is drained. There isn't a whole lot else you can say about it, but I thought it deserved unique acknowledgment, and so does that gorgeously tasteful bathroom area. I'd kill for some grey, fish-bone walls. Look at that duck.
The Living Toys
As the citizens of Halloween cobble together their own imitation of not-Halloween, a number of the toys and decorations show signs of sentience, and my favorite of them is easily the wooden duck, who even gets to sing a line of "Making Christmas" as the vampires finish painting its bullet holes and beady eyes. What child in the world could ever not treasure this fanged, bleeding Anatid under the tree on something something's morning?
The most famous of the Halloween toys, however, is this vampire mouse doll, originally intended to look like Mickey until Disney higher-ups demanded it be less recognizable. As soon as the doll is picked up by a human child, its head spins around and it begins to fly, supposedly to terrorize and menace its designated human target, though we never really know if any of these toys are as dangerous as they appear. They could just be after aggressive hugs.
A Jack-in-the-box is the last animate toy we get to see, but we can assume most if not all other toys were similarly malevolent, and we're just left wondering the true nature of their animation. Are they haunted by ghosts? Or does anything made in the image of a "creature" come to life in Halloweenland? I guess that can't be, since there are plenty of inanimate gargoyles and other sculptures around town. How intelligent are these toys? The duck is at least conscious enough to contribute to a song. Santa Claus had damn well better have found a nice, new home for these things when he rounded them up.
Another moment everybody seems to remember fondly, I rather wish this wasn't the only plant-based monster in the movie - how cool would it have been to see a Burtonesque take on Audrey II in Halloween Town? - but at least there's one at all, and a carnivorous wreath with prickly, holly leaf tentacles is definitely a unique one. Someone ought to tell Jack, though, that Santa doesn't normally deliver decorations, let alone on the night itself.
I love how goofy this huge, stripey serpent looks, more like a sock puppet or one of those sandworms from Beetlejuice than a reptile. I also feel like this is by far the funniest of the gifts concocted by Halloween Town. Corpse dad is just feeding the snake a whole pile of human skulls with bows and holly on them, and it's implied to be their equivalent to a holiday stocking. How exactly are the recipients of this gift supposed to enjoy those skulls? When the snake defecates? Or is it just stuffed with festive skulls for the sheer principle of it?
We get to see Dr. Finkelstein actually build and animate some skeletal reindeer for Jack's sleigh, and all he really does it electrify them to get them both alive and defying gravity. You know what I think? I think Finkelstein doesn't even have any real technical knowledge of any scientific principles. I think he believes he does, but the power of Halloweenland is such that his experiments work however he expects them to work. If he thinks a bunch of dead stuff should come to life and fly when he hooks it up to tesla coils, well that's just what's gonna happen, just so Halloweenland can have its token mad doctor.
Our very last monster, the last one actually introduced in the film, is good old Oogie Boogie, but before we get to the bogeyman himself, let's run through some of his more noteworthy "pets," or whatever you want to call them, like this extremely tiny, striped worm-lizard with little nubby front limbs. It's such a cool, menacing looking serpent, but small enough to slither through dice pips. That is SO tiny. That is so precious. It's really only thanks to Boogie that we know Halloweenland must have a pretty rich biome of minute reptiles and invertebrates.
The bats in Boogie's lair are, interestingly, the only bats we ever actually see in the whole movie. You would expect there to be hordes of them flapping around, at least in the backgrounds, but apparently they just hang out in the bogeyman's underground casino, they're sapient enough to sing back-up chorus for him and their bodies change to gnarly skeleton patterns under UV lighting. You know what would be amazing? If Disney actually made life-size versions of these bats as Halloween decorations, complete with the blacklight reaction. Oh my god. PLEASE.
Oogie's lair is also populated with a number of these angular skeletons, which look like they're carved out of wood, but also react like living beings throughout his musical number, so just what the heck are they? Are they actual skeletons of anything, or are they artificial skeletons that came to life like the various holiday toys? It seems almost as if things are imbued with life in this environment so long as they're expected to be.
Oogie has a number of deadly gadgets around his dungeon, but these mechanical slot-machine gunmen also seem to have their own actual "personalities," if only when they're accidentally disarmed and appear to react with surprise. I also just realized that these are visual puns on "one-armed bandit," an actual slang term for slot machines.
In the final scene of the fantastic Oogie Boogie Song, Santa Claus is surrounded by a bevy of two-dimensional animated figures, and they could just be some sort of "special effect" in the casino, but that would be boring. I see no reason why these can't be supernatural beings like the shadow-ghosts from the film's intro, perhaps even the spirits of other monsters Oogie has killed, since it's pretty heavily implied that he does, in fact, kill his fellow Halloween creatures and even eats them.
My favorite of the bunch is on the left, resembling the Flatwoods Monster with a skull face. It rather eerily drags itself forward on its skeletal forelimbs, as its cloak undulates more like a worm than anything else. Its skull doesn't even face where it's going!
Technically, we first see Oogie Boogie in the opening song, when he introduces himself as "The Shadow on the Moon at Night" and spews a cloud of bats at the screen. It's a cutely melodramatic first impression we never even know is going to be our "villain" until at least two thirds into the running time, and if Lock, Shock and Barrel stole the show when they broke into song, it's Oogie Boogie who actually runs off with it.
When I first saw Oogie Boogie as a child, I assumed he was supposed to be a "ghost," since that's basically what he looks like, albeit a ghost made out of sewn-together burlap, and while a fat, burlap ghost crawling with worms and insects is an interesting concept, Oogie is something quite a bit weirder than that. Specifically, he's supposed to be a "bogeyman," which is strange, because in the traditional sense of the word, plenty of other Halloween townsfolk should qualify as "bogeymen" as well, most of all Jack Skellington, whose unlife revolves around finding new, inventive ways to strike terror into the hearts of mortals. Sure sounds an awful lot like bogeying, Jackie boy.
Oogie Boogie, however, is an outcast of Halloween Town, apparently banished by Jack himself for reasons that are never made perfectly clear. Jack is literally described at one point as having "devastated the souls of the living," local children routinely play with implements of torture and everybody cheers when their solstice presents send humans screaming for cover, but this "bogeyman" appears to be almost universally feared and shunned. He scares things that only exist to perpetuate fear, and the mind boggles at what depravity he could have engaged in to earn his status as a monster among monsters.
What we do know about Oogie is that he loves gambling, he has an inexplicably human-like libido if his weakness for Sally's legs is any indicator, and he has a lot of little mouths to feed. He's pretty explicit in his intention to devour both Santa Claus and Sally as part of his "snake and spider stew," and it's an incredibly grisly thought, even for Nightmare. If Jack had been a moment too late to the rescue, Santa would have not only died boiling to death, but his flesh would have been shared by both a talking sack of millipedes and his undead child henchmen, who previously mention in song how much they love their master's cooking. While the people of Halloween probably inflict their share of psychological scars on unsuspecting humans, Oogie is the only one shown to inflict deliberate pain and presumably even murder sentient beings for sheer pleasure, fully knowing that what he's doing is cruel.
In Oogie's ultimate showdown with Jack, we at last discover that he's not just a sack-like monster infested with worms and beetles; he's nothing but an assemblage of invertebrates, somehow forming a single mind and personality so long as they're all held in one place. So many questions. How and why, exactly, do these collected organisms form the personality we know as Oogie Boogie? When did it begin? How is this what a "bogeyman" is?
Oogie's mind noticeably deteriorates as his component animals disassemble and plunge to their deaths, stuck in a loop of crying "my bugs! My bugs!" until all that remains is one vivid green, scurrying earwig, squeaking unintelligibly in terror as it flees the scene.
Santa Claus stomps the remaining insect under his boot and grinds it to a pulp for good measure, which is ultimately the most brutal act in the film. We've seen ghouls and monsters of every variety, but Santa Claus ends up the only character in this feature to actually ever kill anything on-screen, and that earwig was either the original, true form of a sapient entity or an innocent, ordinary insect newly freed from its assimilation into that entity. In either case, I really didn't think Kris Kringle had it in him.
One of the most compelling details of Oogie, and the easiest to miss, is that he introduces himself in his song as "a" bogeyman, rather than "the" bogeyman, so we have to wonder if there there others out there. If so, is it normal for a bogeyman to be a conglomerate superorganism, or do their physical forms vary?
In the latter case, I could believe that our Oogie is a bogeyman embodying the common human fear of "creepy crawlies," while other bogeymen may manifest from entirely different phobias. Again, though, this would seem to be what all the other Halloweenfolk are for; we've already seen creatures who must have coalesced directly from the fear of clowns, of death, of the devil, decay and even sea creatures. Perhaps they really are all different varieties of bogeymen, which technically wouldn't conflict with any on-screen dialog.
On the other hand, it's a lot of fun to imagine what other bogeymen might be like if they really are their own rare, special category of monstrosity.
...And just like that, we're all out of stop-motion spooks to discuss, but I sure did find a shitload to say about these guys, didn't I? It's hard to believe the sheer volume of content, the overwhelming level of detail and world-building crammed into a running time of only 75 minutes, with a brisk pacing that still finds time to slow down and savor its visuals. Nightmare gives us so, so much to chew over in so little time, introducing us to more characters and concepts than you might find in a whole trilogy of less adventurous animated features.
And yet, for all the richness on display here, I'm still left yearning for so much more.
I know there have been a couple of video games, some Kingdom Hearts appearances and some Disney Theme Park shows, and I know they've all had their moments, but this movie has been a wildly successful, globally beloved classic for over two decades now.
...Where the hell is the spin-off series? Comic books? Novels? More video games? It feels like there must be a thousand more stories Halloween Town could tell us, or at least one good one per townsperson. What does Harlequin Demon do when he's not crafting hats? How does a typical day go for the Hangman Tree? What does the Hyde's home life really look like?
You know what I'd love?
A kid show.
I mean a little kid show. A Halloween Town cartoon series on Disney Channel for the same audience as Octonauts or Yo Gabba Gabba. I'm serious. I don't even care if it's in cheap looking CG. I would watch the ever-living hell out of a show in which Jack sings a song to Corpse Kid about the magic of reading or Melting Man is taught a valuable lesson about putting away his toys. It could work. Children have consistently proven that they can handle darker, weirder shit at much younger ages than we like to credit them for. I think we're all ready to learn about sharing from a physical manifestation of the devil and a fish with tits.
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