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Empire List #327: The Nightmare Before Christmas

You know you have a cult hit on your hands when a movie inspires fashion. Walk into a rock or a Goth clothing store and odds are you will find hats or t-shirts with motifs from Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Leave it to that Vincent Price obsessed director to come up with a movie where the monstrous citizens of Halloween Town take over Christmas. Each of his creations are animated not by computer but via stop-motion, the process in which objects are moved inch by inch and then recorded to give the illusion that inanimate objects are moving by themselves. It also works as a musical, with music and lyrics provided by long-time Burton collaborator Danny Elfman.

Released in October of 1993 as “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas,” despite being directed by Henry Selick, the film worried Disney executives because of it might be too scary for young children. I guess my parents thought the same thing since I had to discover that nightmare by myself. It wasn’t too difficult. Flip through your TV channels around October and odds are you will find it playing right after “Beetlejuice.”

But for the full experience, buy the DVD or Blu-Ray to get the informative behind-the-scenes. It turns out animating plastic figurines inch by inch is a lot of work. Best of all, the DVD comes equipped with some of Tim Burton’s early movies. These include “Vincent” an animated short about a young boy obsessed with Vincent Price, and “Frankenweenie” a reimagining of “Frankenstein” featuring a young boy in suburbia who brings his dog back to life.  

“The Nightmare Before Christmas” opens with the camera zooming down to a forest where trees contain doors to towns that represent each holiday. As we zoom in on the door of Halloween Town, we meet its inhabitants in a musical number called “This is Halloween.” Their official leader is the mayor (Glenn Shadix) who, like most politicians, has two faces. The man in charge of Halloween is Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon), a tall skeleton with a round skull head who wears a suit and a bow-tie.

After this particular Halloween Jack is feeling bogged down by the routine of his work. He tells the undead musicians in the streets this was great Halloween just like the year before, and the year before that, and the year before that, etc. While wandering aimlessly in the forests, he finds the trees with the doors to each holiday and is particularly intrigued by the one for Christmas Town.

Once in Santa’s land, Jack is amazed by the lights, the food and the presents. Could this be the change he has been looking for? After a series of scientific experiments in which Jack unsuccessfully attempts to understand the meaning of Christmas, he convinces the monsters of Halloween Town to do their own version of the holiday by kidnapping Santa and delivering their own brand of presents. These include rat hats, possessed dolls, snakes, and shrunken heads. Seeing children open these presents may make you laugh, depending on your sense of humour.

No doubt about it this is a movie with a weird plot. How could Jack ever think this was a good idea in the first place? Moreover, how come Jack had never heard of Christmas before? Don’t these people ever visit other holiday towns? And for that matter, is there a Hanukkah town?

But now I am digging too deep. The point of this movie is to create visually unique landscapes for two of the world’s most famous holidays and then watch what happens when the creepy one takes over the cheery one. Since Tim Burton grew up watching horror movies in the sunny California suburbs, so I am sure he must have imagined that scenario plenty of times.

What makes this work is the stop-motion, the visuals and the music. Halloween Town is populated with vampires, monsters, ghosts, witches, and of course a mad scientist called Dr. Finkelstein (William Hickey). Their town is grey and cloudy, just like any regular October night really. By contrast, Christmas Town has that comfortable December snow, bright colours, and Santa’s cute little helpers singing Christmas carols. It all looks gorgeous and you appreciate it even more once you see how difficult it was to set up each frame.

The music is catchy and will fit right in at your Halloween party. If you’re a hard-core fan, try the 2006 re-release featuring Fall Out Boy, She Wants Revenge, Panic! at the Disco, and Marilyn Manson.

The stop-motion tradition lives on with movies like “James and the Giant Peach,” “Corpse Bride,” “Coraline,” and next year’s “ParaNorman.” Happy Halloween.


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