It’s the most magical time of year, a time for candy corn, horror movies, pumpkin damn everything, and taking walks into the brisk October evening to declare, “What a wonderful night for eyebrows!” As fans may remember, but most probably forgot, the holiday-ruining Grinch returned to illuminate everyone’s television in the 1977 late October special, Halloween is Grinch Night! (also released as It’s Grinch Night and simply, Grinch Night).
Directed by the legendary Chuck Jones (Gremlins actor, Gremlins 2 sequence animator, and creator of childhood), How the Grinch Stole Christmas! aired on CBS in December 1966, cementing itself as one of the quintessential Christmastime tales. With horror icon Boris Karloff lending his voice as narrator and Grinch, the mega-popular animated short still airs annually.
Of course, it received a live-action makeover by Ron Howard to start 2000 off with a bang, but let’s not start on that horror movie.
The Grinch Takes an Evil Turn
Eleven years after the 1966 original, Dr. Seuss exhumed The Grinch from his festive tomb for a special centered on everyone’s real favorite holiday, Halloween is Grinch Night! However, this time it aired on ABC and Grinch was voiced by Walt Disney’s Captain Hook himself, Hans Conried. Though, much like the original film, Thurl Ravenscroft helped in providing song vocals.
This Halloween short was directed by Gerard Baldwin. The director would go on to create countless animated projects and eventually become the supervising producer of Digimon: Digital Monsters, and—to get really nerdy—produce Bionic Six.
From the opening credits, the film immediately sets itself apart from the enjoying-hot-cocoa-with-grandma vibe of its progenitor. The opening is an assault of bombastic imagery of bright flashes and garish colors, all accompanied by a loud, pounding score.
Any kids huddling down in front of the tube would be immediately accosted by a sensorial overload that’d make the Halloween III: Season of The Witch villain giddy.
The fa-la-la chorus’ of yuletide revelry has been properly replaced by the freaky-deaky tidings of Halloween—though Halloween is never mentioned, and Grinch Night may be an unrelated observed holiday in Whoville—but let’s not get stuck in the semantics of a 1977 Television special.
Dusk falls upon Whoville and its denizens are going about their peaceful Whovillian ways when the shadow of Mt. Crumpit falls upon the land and a once-a-year, sweet-sour wind blows across the gentle town and all the Who’s in Whoville fearfully flee into their homes.
It’s here that we meet the hero of the story, Euchariah, a more average boy than the sickly adorable Cindy Lou Who. He also has astigmatism, which he describes in scientific detail, pushing this into the educational genre of children’s media. But back to that wind.
In a classically Seuss manner, it sets off a word-play replete chain reaction involving the animals surrounding Whoville, and their ruckus has one outcome: it annoys The Grinch, who declares, “It’s a wonderful night for eyebrows.”
In Grinchian parlance, that means it’s Grinch Night, a yearly occurrence in which our famed villain brings Hell to The Who’s for all the racket that’s inflicted upon him by this sweet-sour wind. The fact the Who’s have no control over the weather isn’t important, because in typical abusive relationship-like fashion, the Grinch is just taking his anger out on them.
So, commanding Max to fetch his “Wagon of Paraphernalia” (great joke), Grinch sets off down the mountain. Max, it should be said, is in absolute existential agony, and physical agony since he’s regularly whipped. And, wow, this is depressing.
Max even gets a song that acts as his internal monologue, where he dreams of being a puppy again, free of misery. Long gone is the cute tête-à-tête of Max being the ying to Grinch’s yang. Instead, the poor pup is a sorrowful figure at the mercy of a megalomaniacal monster. Happy Halloween, kids!
If you haven’t gathered, The Grinch is ridiculously cruel and malicious here. I won’t ruin what he does, as it’s best left to experience. But beyond a couple of enjoyable moments, you are meant to despise him. He’s not comical, and you never get the sense there’s any good in him. He’s just purely and simply evil.
Around the time Max is contemplating throwing himself from the top of Mt. Crumpit (I assume), young Euchariah ventures out of his home and is swept away in the wind. Interestingly, Euchariah does not go out to confront the Grinch. Instead, the kid literally needs to go out and use the Euphemism (when you can’t say “bathroom” on TV, you might as well make a joke of it), and just accidentally ends up on the mountain.
He has no intention of doing anything courageous, but in a very subtle moment after being confronted with the Grinch, he takes it upon himself to do the only thing he can, delay his descent toward Whoville for as long as possible and save everyone.
Admittedly, yes, Euchariah’s plan is to simply waste the Grinch’s time. This isn’t the most exciting special ever, but there’s brilliance in what Seuss is going for and the comedy that comes with trolling such an icon.
Eventually, the Halloween villain has had enough and unleashes the contents of his wagon upon poor Euchariah. What follows— well, just go watch it. Suffice to say, the Grinch has a wagon full of acid and is planning to unleash horror on Whoville.
Pretty sure this is a Jacob’s Ladder situation, and he’s sending Euchariah straight down that ladder. Some of the best music in the special is found during this “Spook’s Tour” (as one of the songs is titled), including my favorite, “Members of the Un-Human Race.”
Until home video releases, watching any of this on increasingly degraded VHS recordings must have been a horror unto itself. A montage of monsters, surrealism, flamboyant mind-bendiness, ghastly harmonies and every idiosyncratic fright that 70s’ drug-induced animators can fit into 30 seconds. This is where the special earns its place in the Halloween pantheon.
For all Grinch’s attempts to send Euchariah into a fit of madness, the kid shakes it off, showing he is not affected by the smoke and mirrors of Grinch’s cruelty. The young boy points out that the howling Hakken-Krakk’s have stopped, as has that sweet-sour wind.
Grinch Night is over and, defeated by a nearly blind child, our villain retreats. Though, he is sure to remind us that one day, that sweet-sour wind will blow once again.
Grinch Night must be appreciated for its unwavering “no” in the face of borrowing anything from How the Grinch Stole Christmas! From a design point of view, nothing resembles the original special.
The Cinematography of the Musical Horror
Certain aesthetics make sense based upon seasonal and tonal differences: the color palette is more fall based, and the use of Halloween colors is strong; Mount Crumpit is transformed into a looming nightmare, all orange with splashes of black, like something you’d expect a dark wizard to inhabit; Whoville is smaller in scale and its residents more normal and less abstract looking; and the Grinch, himself, is more in line with Suess’ original artwork, with a darker palette.
This time out, Chuck Jones and MGM’s big pockets didn’t handle the production, instead, handing off to other old Warner Animation stalwarts: Friz Freleng and David H. DePattie, and their studio, DePattie-Freleng Enterprises. A studio that would one day be purchased by Marvel, but at this point, they had many established years on them and handled a few Seuss specials, such as The Cat in The Hat and The Lorax.
DePattie-Freleng had been accustomed to lower budgets and minimal resources and seemed to go with the mantra: If it’s going to be cheap, if it’s going to be grungy, then damn sure make it interesting. Which explains the use of color, bizarre imagery, and other sleights of hand tricks to make the special more visually dynamic, while simultaneously having next to nothing going on.
From a musical standpoint, it hops between low-key to a sudden baroque of twisted merriment. While memorable, the songs are treated more like an after-thought, not given as much breathing room as You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch and the like are afforded.
That’s despite the music being handled by Joe Rapaso, most famous for Sesame Street, and would go on to do music for a few other Suess productions. Numbers such a Rapaso’s The Grinch Is Gonna Get You more than deserve reverence amongst horror fiends.
Halloween Is Grinch Night rises above many of its issues. Acting as more a fable or short anecdote, it’s perfect for a Halloween horror watch-list based on its kooky merits alone, but there is something more interesting going on within the confines of those jaggedy 25 minutes that plays up that fable quality.
Dr. Seuss is not going to write a one-off starring one of his most famous creations without something to truly say. While the messaging of this special is not particularly in your face, it’s there.
Early on, Euchariah tells his Uncle that the coming threat of The Grinch isn’t so bad once he takes his glasses off and can no longer see it. His Uncle tells him to put those glasses back on and face the truth. You can hide from it, pretend it’s not there, but the reality of any situation needs to be faced, especially when it’s terrifying.
Remember how over-the-top unpleasant The Grinch has been so far? Here is Seuss taking a symbol known in pop-culture at that point as lovable and turning him into a tyrant, a dictator, and in Max’s case—an abusive parent, a literal slave driver. But why?
In 1989, a lone individual stood at Tiananmen Square, blocking a line of tanks the Chinese Government sent to enforce martial law. Staring those monstrous machines down, he inspired countless others by becoming emblematic of resistance. Yes, this comparison sounds nuts, especially as this event hadn’t taken place at the time this special aired, but a piece of imagery in the film serendipitously connects to it.
Numerous times, Euchariah halts The Grinch’s wagon by standing in it’s path, blocking the evil dictator’s descent toward his town, where The Grinch plans to unleash all manner of horror on the peaceful Who’s, for no other reason than to just be cruel.
The ever-ornery children’s character is transformed into a stand-in for oppression, power structures, and abuse. A cruel overlord who—just for the hell of it—will chase down a Wuzzy Woozoo (the last of its kind, as stated), destroy the environment, beat his dog, and take unrelated frustrations out on innocents. He’s everything wrong with the world.
Euchariah’s shift from bystander to savior has no fanfare, he just realizes what he has to do, telling The Grinch that he can scare him all he wants because he knows it’ll buy Whoville time. In the end, Max, having seen Euchariah stand up to his master, breaks free and leaves with the boy. The Grinch’s power is as much an illusion as the contents of his wagon, as Euchariah has revealed.
Perhaps it’s a reach, but there’s no more appropriate a Halloween tale than one which empowers kids to look fear in the eye and say, “You’re not scary.” A message we can all get behind these days.
But the sweetest trick to such a holiday treat? This forgotten Halloween gem, with its acid trips, anti-totalitarianism allegories, animal cruelty, and deconstruction of a beloved holiday hero—won an Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Special. An accomplishment its predecessor did not achieve. Take that Christmas!
Where to Watch the Halloween Special
If you’d like to gather the family around the Halloween tree and subject them to the harsh horror of The Grinch breaking bad less than a year after his heart grew three sizes, it’s not hard to find a free version on YouTube. However, a remastered edition of Halloween Is Grinch Night was included as a special feature on the recent Ultimate Edition Blu-ray of How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
And in doubly good news, also included is a remastered The Grinch Grinches The Cat In The Hat, which—somehow—also won an Emmy. But if you’re a true die-hard, find an old weathered VHS release and convince your kids it’s cursed! It most likely is, anyway. That’s the magic and horror of Grinch Night, after all.