THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)

FANGS OF ST. NICHOLAS

I didn’t like this film much when I saw it in a theatre. It seemed a tad too mean-spirited and macabre, and it was hard to buttonhole. Was it a Christmas movie or a Halloween movie? Or was it just the frothy spawn of several fevered minds that somehow transcended and included both holidays? Watching it again a decade later, I appreciated the creativity and the imagination required to bring it to animated fruition.

Tim Burton’s name is above the title, and it was his film even though he did not direct it. This was confusing for much of the public, and most of us still consider it a Tim Burton film. Back in the early 80’s, Burton had worked for Disney as an animator. He contributed work to THE FOX AND THE HOUND, and more work to THE BLACK CAULDRON. In 1981 he wrote a poem, and he titled it THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. He made several drawings to accompany it. No one at Disney, however, felt it was a “suitable” concept; not saleable. As a Disney employee, he had to leave the idea, the poem and the drawings with them when he left for greener creative pastures. Whatever you create, compose, or draw while at Disney, stays at Disney; a kind of corporate double standard that has plagued creative employees ad infinitum.

In the late 70’s, Burton attended Cal Arts. While there, he met and became friends with Henry Selick. Five years later, they were both working at Disney. In 1982, they collaborated on a short stop-action film the Burton directed called VINCENT. Stop action animation is where one creates a three-dimensional figure, kind of a doll, and then slowly, very slowly one begins to move the limbs, clicking the film one frame at a time. The result is a very life-like appearance and movement, although it is terribly time-consuming. One could make drawings of the character much more quickly. Stop action animation was the pervue of Willis H. O’Brien in THE LOST WORLD (1925), and in 1933 he gave us KING KONG. Most of us grew up with the Ray Harryhausen stop-action effects in scores of great films. It was an inexpensive and effective way to create the monsters and creatures needed to thrill us and fill us with a sense of wonder.

I have not been a big fan of stop-action animation outside of the Sci-Fi/horror genre. I have never warmed up to Claymation or puppetry either. I loved the hard drawn animation, the hardcore class Disney films, and the pale imitators from other studios, like Dave Fleischer’s GULLIVER’S TRAVELS done in 1939. I still marvel at the complexity and beauty of the new VG computer animation. Pixar and Disney and Don Bluth have knocked my socks off. Films like Hironobu Sakaguchi’s FINAL FANTASY; The Spirits Within (2001), and this years POLAR EXPRESS directed by Robert Zemeckis, fill us with awe and amazement.

When I read that NIGHTMARE took three years to complete, and that it had a 15-20 million dollar budget, I began to re-view it with new eyes. I could see that yes, the character Behemoth did resemble the B-actor, Tor Johnson. I could see that many objects were, or appeared to be, real. Real glass and real wood with the comic figures posed midst them. I could see that there was a three dimensional sense to the film that truly did give it a kind of bizarre beauty that had never before been accomplished. Roger Ebert applauded,” the strange and new landscapes; never seen before.” Burton and Selick were influenced by the 1920’s German Expressionist films like THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920), NOSFERATU (1922), and Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS. There was a lot of twisted angles and strange geometry on all the sets. For me, even though the set pieces were interesting, I think Burton created much better art design for the sets of BATMAN (1989), SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999), and the droll remake of THE PLANET OF THE APES in 2001.

Tim Burton has become a player, a minor shaker in a cinematic world of titans. Teasing us with FRANKENWEENIE in 1984, becoming more bizarre with PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE in 1985, he revved things up with BEETLE JUICE in 1988, and he hit his stride with BATMAN in 1989. He continues to share his unique vision with us. Since 1971 he has only completed 21 projects. I liked SLEEPY HOLLOW, giving Johnny Depp another hit, and I was intrigued with BIG FISH in 2003, appreciating Albert Finney and being bored by Ewan McGregor. I loved the art design in his PLANET OF THE APES, but somehow the film disappointed me. Maybe it was the casting of Mark Wahlberg in the lead that stifled it. Tim Roth was brilliant though, and it was a treat to see Charlton Heston do a cameo as a dying ape.

So, in the early 90’s, Tim Burton was bankable, and of course all the studios went a’courtin’. He decided that was an opportune time to make NIGHTMARE. Disney still owned the rights to it. They greenlighted the project with the proviso that they could release it under their “Touchstone” banner. Burton agreed, and things got rolling, but he soon realized that he needed someone else to direct it. So he approached his old friend, Henry Selick, and asked him to helm the film. Selick jumped at the opportunity. He had left Disney in the late 80’s and in 1986 he had set up his own design company. He revamped the Pillsbury Doughboy commercials. He won awards with the Ritz Cracker commercials. He won a Clio award for his MTV spots. He was more than prepared to jump on the NIGHTMARE train and pour the coal to it.

Selick understood that he needed to take stop-action animation to new heights. He was given 36 months and 20 million bucks in order to deliver the goods; and “deliver” it he did. He created his “special” crew; 8 producers, 28 people in the Art Department, 24 people in the Sound Department, 46 people in Visual Effects, and 200 others in the miscellaneous crew. He dubbed this conglomerate, Skellington Productions. What they created, carefully supervised by Burton, has certainly become a classic of the genre. I read where they only averaged about one minute of completed film per week. The finished film ran 76 minutes.

Danny Elfman, who had collaborated with Tim Burton on several of his earlier films; like the various BATMEN, and EDWARD SCISSORHANDS in 1990, did the music. He, also, sang all the songs for the lead character, Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King. Since 90% of all the dialogue was “sung”, he ended up doing more of the voice work for Jack than Chris Sarandon did, who was hired to read the spoken dialogue. The critics were split asunder as to the quality of the music and the songs. The film really was a musical, an operetta. It did not have inserted musical numbers like most of the other Disney classics. It was mostly musical, with a bit of inserted spoken dialogue. The songs were a bit too Gilbert and Sullivan for me, and not enough Elton John; like in THE LION KING (1994). I never found myself humming or remembering any of Elfman’s rather esoteric and lackluster tunes. I pined for the catchy phrasing and zippy pace of several fine Alan Menkin tunes on display and presented in several Disney classics; tunes like THE COLOR OF THE WIND.

Tim Burton, of course, wrote the treatment, the story. Michael McDowall did the adaptation. He had worked on BEETLE JUICE. Caroline Thompson, who for a time dated Danny Elfman, wrote the screenplay. She also wrote scripts for THE SECRET GARDEN (1993), BEETLE JUICE, and EDWARD SCISSORHANDS. Her script for NIGHTMARE had just enough adult references in it, to make it palatable for grown-ups accompanying their kids to the movie. The script was more like the “Book” of a musical; just dialogue filler between songs. I wonder if she and Danny Elfman collaborated on any of the lyrics for the songs?

What has emerged is a wonderfully wicked and twisted fairy tale. It was like someone had let Gahan Wilson create his verson of the Brothers Grimm. And it owed a lot to Dr. Seuss, and his HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS. It burst upons us lean on sweetness, and laden with the darkness of early fables. Most fairy tales and fables, when traced back to their roots, were dark and bloody and heavy-handed. Over the centuries we’ve let Madison Avenue and Walt Disney douse them with saccharine, and blunt many of their lovely barbs and thorns.

Santa as Narrator: ‘Twas a long time ago, longer than it seems in a place perhaps you’ve seen in your dreams. For the story you’re about to be told began with the Holiday Worlds of auld. Now you’ve probably wondered where holidays come from. If you haven’t, I’d say it’s time to begin.

The film’s plot is quite inspired. All the holidays have their own dominions, worlds, or “Towns”. There exists an enchanted forest, and the doorways to each of these worlds are there in the thick trunks of trees. There is a cute moment in the movie when Jack’s henchmen, Lock, Stock, and Barrel are sent out to abduct Santa Claus, “the big creature in a red suit”. They get sidetracked in Eastertown, and they returned with a giant “pink” Easter Bunny.

Our protagonist is the Pumpkin King, Jack Skellington. He is tall, bone thin, and elegantly dressed. Ebert felt that he dressed and moved like Fred Astaire, and granted there were a few moments when Jack would strike a dancer’s pose and those long pinstriped legs would seem Astaire-like. After a very long succession of successful Halloweens, Jack as King of the Mardi Gras, Voodoo royalty, had become bored.

Jack: (singing) And since I am dead, I can take off my head, to recite Shakespearean quotations.

He wanders muttering, accompanied by his trusty canine, Zero, the loyal ghost dog with the bright shiny nose. He nearly succumbs to despair. He wanders aimlessly and soon is out of Halloweentown, and walking deep in the enchanted forest in unfamiliar terrain. He soon discovers the Doorways of Perception, the gateways to the various holidays. Intrigued, he picks the door to Christmastown, and he steps into the darkness of the trunk. He falls like Alice down the rabbit hole, and lands in a snowbank. Christmastown glitters below him, illuminated with all the bright colorful bulbs of that season. One thing bothered me, though, about this plot device. If all those doorways were in the forest, where was the tree that had the entrance to Halloweentown? How did, or when did Jack emerge from that dominion and enter the forest? Did the enchanted forest simply exist on the peripherary of all the Towns? And I wondered how the deuce did he get back out of Christmastown, laden with all his Yule souvenirs; where was the exit? Perhaps, using my own imagination, Jack wandered into the forest again, on the edge of Christmastown, and then he discovered the tree trunk with the entrance to Halloweentown? Oddly, this obvious glitch did not make itself evident during the story boarding or script reviews.

Jack: (singing) There’s children throwing snowballs/ instead of throwing heads/ they’re busy building toys/ and absolutely no one’s dead.

Jack falls in love with the uniqueness of Christmas, and he decided to take its traditions back with him to Halloweentown. Meanwhile the stalwart denizens of Halloweentown have missed Jack during his sojourn. They count on him for counsel.

Mayor: Jack, please, where are you? I’m only an elected official here. I can’t make decisions by myself.

After Jack’s triumphant return resplendent with Christmas paraphernalia, he decorates his drab rough hewn home with the bright babbles of Yuletide. But somehow it doesn’t work. He read every book written about Christmas, but still he doesn’t get it; or at least he doesn’t get the sanitized cheerful version that Hallmark has promulgated for centuries.

Mayor: How awful our Christmas will be!
Jack: No, how jolly!
Mayor: Ooohh. [looking really depressed] How “jolly”.

Back in the halcyon year of 1967 when I was in the Navy, and the Viet Nam War was raging, I spent my first Christmas alone, and I wrote down my own ambivalent feelings about the season.

C R I M S O N T I D E

It’s Christmas,
And all the children are awed and hushed
By the crystalline pain
Found in the faces of Christ
On all those ivory and gold crucifixes
Hanging everywhere.

Each year under aluminum trees,
Scented with fir spray,
On a day
Linked somehow to the Germanic St. Nicholas
And the Tannenbaum,
And the snows of Scandinavia,
As well as the sands of Judea;
And to shepherds in rags
With their sheep and goats
And spindle-legged camels,
And to kings and angels and wise men
In their bright clean silks,
Standing in dung,
Bringing shiny gold
To lay at the feet of a silent babe,
Whose mother shivers in the straw,
Feeling cold and weak in the darkness
With the strangers,
We celebrate.

Santa Claus cracks a cruel whip
And magical reindeer from Lapland,
Freshly castrated
By the teeth of unblushing virgins
Defy gravity
And pull a huge silver sleigh
Across the skies of the world.

Jolly Santa always wears a red suit,
Fringed with white ermin,
Stretched over his girth like the skin
On a German sausage;
The white of the polar caps,
The red of life’s blood,
Of revolutions, poppies, wounds
And flags;
And of the Christ;
His hot blood
Steaming in the cups
That priests drink from.

The identical crimson stuff
Both poured into jeweled goblets
And raked into the yellow baked earth
Of the Roman arenas.
On His day,
And before,
And after;
When men were prodded with glowing irons
To do battle with other men
And with beasts;
While from nearby hillocks
On their own crosses,
Some could see clearly
The steel meathooks
Attached to plumed braying donkeys
Dragging the corpses of the cowardly
And the fallen
Out the Porta Libitina;
No bellicus
On their blackened bleeding lips,
No prayers,
As the holiday crowds cheered,
Sat peeling grapes
And waving handkerchiefs.

Yes,
The children are thankful
For the birthday of Jesus;
Even though it’s not,
And it is hard for them to understand
That Christ was flesh,
And St. Nick was Nordic lore
Gone commercially berserk;
For they can hear the lovely bells,
Squeeze their many brightly wrapped presents,
Chew their chocolates,
And dream their dreams;
And they have been told
Repeatedly
That on this special day
The poor are always given
Bread.

Glenn Buttkus December, 1967

Unhappy, Jack Skellington had an epiphany. He could kidnap Santa Claus, and he would take his place. Halloweentown would take over Christmas, and from his perspective, he would fix it and improve it. The citizenry were elated, and everyone scampered about making macabre toys; vicious jack-o-lanterns that would pop out of jack-in-the-boxes, pre-crashed cars, toy ducks already peppered his shotgun holes, bat ornaments that would come to life and flit about in people’s homes, woolen pythons that would devour Christmas trees, and more.

Catherine O’Hara did the voice for Jack’s girlfriend, the lovely patchwork Sally Shock. O’Hara, a very busy actress since 1976, has appeared in 50 films. I like her as Calamity Jane in TALL TALES (1995), and she did a nice turn this month on television, playing Gigot’s girlfriend in TNT’s THE WOOLEN CAP.

Dr. Finkelstein: Sally, that’s twice this month you’ve slipped deadly nightshade into my tea and run off.
Sally: Three times!

Sally was constructed/created by the evil scientist, Dr. Finkelstein, who was a crippled tin version of an insane Donald Duck. He had metal cap bolted over his massive brain. He gets around in a wheelchair, and he was Sally’s ward and master. She hated him. It was implied that he had his way with her regularly. William Hickey did the voice work for Dr. Finkelstein. His distinct tones fit the character perfectly. No one can elongate a syllable like Hickey. Paul Reubens did the voice for henchman, Lock. To his credit, there was little of Pee Wee in the characterization, although one had to listen carefully to pick out his voice over the din of the pack.

[Pushing Sandy down the pipe]
Shock: I think he might be too big.
Lock: No, he’s not. If he can go down a chimney he can fit down here.

Jack: And one more thing—leave that no-good-account-Oogie-Boogie out of this!
Barrel: Whatever you say, Jack.
Shock: Of course, Jack.
Lock: Wouldn’t dream of it, Jack.

Ken Page did the voice work for Oogie Boogie, and he was a fairly frightening boogieman, with a propensity for gambling. This film might be a little too intense for those under five year olds. Ed Ivory did the voice of Santa Claus.

Jack’s master plan entailed replacing St. Nick, disguising himself in a red and white suit as Sandy Claws. But in his perverted off-center way he ended up creating a sleigh made from a coffin that was pulled by skeleton reindeer, and his great sack of presents full of special Halloween toys.

Things almost started off hopefully, as his trusty dog, Zero, led the way up out of the fog [created by Sally to thwart the effort.], lighting the path with his very own shiny nose. The terrible toys attack the children and their parents, and Christmas is literally turned on its head. Soon the authorities are called.

Police Officer: Attacked by Christmas toys? That’s strange, that’s the second toy complaint we’ve had.

Thenn the Army is called in and ordered to shoot down the demonic imposter, to blast that infamy right out of sky; which they finally do. All’s well that ends well, though. Santa is released from captivity, and he saves Christmas moving at supersonic speeds. Jack and Sally fall in love, and spoon beneath a harvest moon. All the holidays return to their pristine state; no more confusing cross-dressing or town transcendence.

I did like the film better after the second viewings, but its dark and twisted vision still left a bad taste in my mouth, like rusty metal. I prefer my Christmas movies bittersweet to sweet; just a sentimentalist I guess, a sap for the season. Some might arguer that NIGHTMARE is more a Halloween movie, that it really is not a Christmas film. It just happens to deal with “Christmas” as part of its plot. Whatever it is, it certainly will not measure up to say, A CHRISTMAS STORY, or THE POLAR EXPRESS, which is my new favorite Yuletide film.


I gave this movie a rating of 2.5 stars
Glenn Buttkus 2004