We all know that on every Halloween we put jack-o’-lanterns on our porches and window sills to ward off evil spirits intent on ruining the year’s harvest of trick or treat candy. Ask any kid who ended up with a bag full of pencils, toothpaste and loose candy corn and they’ll tell you their mom was too damn lazy to help carve a pumpkin that year. But how did that tradition begin? Like any good joke/holiday tale it all starts when a witch, leprechaun, vampire and angry billy goat walk into a barn.
Back in ancient times (early 1900s or so) when city slickers who failed to make it in the business world fled to the countryside to do something easy like farming, things didn’t always work out as planned for them. It wasn’t any better for their kids either. Crop failures blamed on too many crows and bad land would make any poor young hick who was probably worried he might have to eat his little sister if the winter got too harsh out there on the prairie, be an easy mark for a smooth talking pumpkin seed!
In an effort to upgrade their trashy scarecrow that wasn’t getting rid of the crows, they carve a pumpkin only to have it start complaining about it! As anyone who’s ever seen the other Rankin/Bass holiday special involving leprechauns, The Leprechauns’ Christmas Gold knows, these little buggers are such glory hounds, you can’t keep them relegated to a third tier holiday like St. Patrick’s Day. So it is that we learn leprechauns hibernate inside pumpkins as pumpkin seeds! (If you have a toddler at home, doesn’t this sound exactly like the sort of random ass story they would make up?)
The leprechaun-turned-seed animates the form of the jack-o-lantern headed scarecrow and knows from previous experience that it isn’t a bunch of noisy birds and not sacrificing enough first born that is bringing a blight to the land, but the local witch and her vampire husband (referred to as a warlock, but with his fangs and general countenance is clearly a dour Dracula rip off) who are trying to run the local farmers off their land.
But why? Is it because the land is a sacred site that they can use to open a portal to hell and unleash Satan on the earth? That would certainly be a high stakes encounter. But this is much more personal and thus even higher stakes! This demonic duo seeks no less than total domination of some prime land to retire on! Egads! If left unchecked, this could lead to shuffleboard courts, early bird buffets and nonstop Bingo!
The witch throws everything in her arsenal at Jack and his friends including hail storms, fire, ice and legions of ghosts! Jack has been there and done that though easily using his own magic to counteract it all. But Jack is also a bit of a showboat and it’s while delighting in fending off the ghosts that the witch uses it as a distraction so that her husband can kidnap the kids and hold them hostage in the barn!
In order to save the kids Jack is forced to leave the pumpkin and assume his leprechaun form while also giving up his pot of gold that is the source of all his magical power! All of this high drama really works if you try to forget that these creatures are using all their impressive magic powers to fight over some crappy farm land.
Jack would likely be disappointed to know that it isn’t him the audience ends up cheering for during the climax, but is instead the surly billy goat who rams the vampire in his ass and saves the day! And thus the holiday of Halloween is born! Or Halloween is saved! Or kids learn the value of trick or treating while accompanied by farm animals with anger management problems. Or it all amounts to pretty much nothing.
Jack O’Lantern was an episode of the Rankin-Bass show Festival of Family Classics which featured adaptions of such works as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Alice in Wonderland and legends like Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan. Where Jack fit in to all that I have no idea. It frankly felt like it was all made up on the spot, a spookily stinky stew of disparate kiddie friendly fantasy ingredients culled from other better thought out stories. If you are familiar at all with the traditional folk tale about the origins of the jack o’lantern and Stingy Jack, you’ll quickly wish you were watching an adaptation of that story instead.
Of course it’s possible that Jack O’Lantern could put its own entertaining spin on things, but unfortunately, what turns up on the screen isn’t successful in carving out its own take on pumpkin heads. Aside from the goofy-to-nonsensical story, Jack is such an arrogant prick he almost gets everyone killed, the vampire is played for comic relief as the whipped, long suffering husband, while the kids do nothing but stand around slack jawed just waiting to be put in danger. Where’s the character we can root for like when Rudolph just wanted to fit in with his peers? Or those misfit toys who just wanted to be wanted? Or that elf who dreamed of being a dentist?
And just to ensure it’s all an entirely dreary experience, the animation is the standard flat-looking ugly animation Rankin-Bass used for Frosty the Snowman instead of the famous Animagic process used in classics like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and even non-classics like the previously mentioned The Leprechauns’ Christmas Gold.
As a kid in the 1970s, this was one I don’t even remember watching unlike It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, Disney’s Halloween episodes or even The Fat Albert Halloween Special and if my undemanding 8 year old self couldn’t be lured into wasting 30 minutes in front of the TV on it, it must have been dire indeed!
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