Tommy Jose Stathes' Cartoon Roots series is an ongoing anthology of classic early animation, and its third installment is Halloween Haunts. Featuring 15 shorts originally released between 1907 and 1936 from the likes of the Fleischer brothers, Walter Lantz, and even Walt Disney, there's a good cross-section of mostly silent-era shorts with a few "talkies" thrown for good measure. The running theme is obviously all things spooky: serving up skeletons, spiders, spirits, haunted houses, and even a giant lobster, most of Halloween Haunts leans more towards light-hearted fun than nightmare fuel.
At the risk of oversharing with a total run-through, I'll just cover a few highlights and occasional misses. Things start of right with "The Haunted Hotel", a fascinating 1907 venture into stop-motion and live action directed by J. Stuart Blackton. It's a great little adventure that proved to be extremely influential and, not surprisingly, threw audiences for a loop with its ingenious effects more than 110 years ago. Another fine entry is Walter Lantz's "Just Spooks", a 1925 Bray Studios production starring the famed animator and his animated characters Dinky Doodle and Weakheart the Dog who lure him into a haunted barn. Two other Bray shorts from the Fleischers' long-running series Out of the Inkwell, "The Ouija Board" and "Koko Sees Spooks", feature mascot Koko the Clown; these aren't total knockouts but are worth seeing for the terrific Rotoscope techniques first invented by Max Fleischer for the series several years earlier.
"Pete's Haunted House", another Bray feature by Lantz from 1926, offers more great interaction between a live-action human and a hand-drawn character; in this case, it's sadistic "Uncle Walt" and Hot Dog Cartoons star Pete the Pup, who wouldn't feel out of place in a mid-1990s video game (he's got 'tude!). "Waffles and Don: The Haunted Ship" and "Tom and Jerry: Wot A Night" (no, not that Tom and Jerry) are similarly-themed Van Beuren shorts co-directed by John Foster in 1930-31, both featuring several music breaks and wonderfully stylized animation loaded with frights. My personal favorite from this collection, however, is a somewhat mysterious short titled "The Fresh Lobster": starring future voice actor Billy Bletcher as a man who's tormented in dreams by his own midnight snack, its exact release year is unknown but was likely produced during the 1920s. Highlighted by ingenious special effects that even hold up by today's standards, it's great fun...unless you're terrified of lobsters, of course.
They aren't all winners, however. "The Witch's Cat" is a 1929 short by Kinex Studios starring Snap, the Gingerbread Man: though it utilizes a few clever stop motion techniques, it barely runs four minutes and just doesn't seem all that substantial. Three Felix the Cat cartoons are here, but with increasingly weak returns: "Sure-Locked Holmes" and the first half of "Skulls and Sculls" feature imaginative visuals and a great overall atmosphere, but the latter devolves into a rather bland boat race that kills its momentum. The third one -- and the only full-color entry on this disc -- is "Bold King Cole"; it's an unremarkable (and kind of nasty) short that barely features Felix at all. But the worst short by far is Walt Disney's "Alice's Mysterious Mystery", a horrific entry in which hapless dogs are kidnapped and ground into sausage...but I guess it's OK because the bad guy dies. (This one's labeled a "comedy", by the way.)
Overall, though, Halloween Haunts is great fun for anyone who enjoys spooky cartoons from any year -- and while these shorts aren't quite as consistent as those from the first two collections (linked above), it's a safe bet that classic animation fans should enjoy digging through this buried treasure. As detailed below, these 15 shorts have been lovingly restored and curated as part of Tommy Jose Stathes' ongoing "Cartoons on Film" project...and while this Blu-ray was originally released in 2017, now's the perfect time to grab it if you haven't already. Disc details are provided after the full cartoon list below.
(15 shorts on one dual-layered Blu-ray)
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in their original 1.37:1 aspect ratios and window-boxed with rounded corners, each of these 15 shorts has been restored in 2K from their best known elements (usually 16mm). Although an unavoidable number of problems persist -- scratches, dirt, debris, telecine wobble, flickering, etc. -- and some shorts are in much better condition than others, it's obvious that a lot of love and care went into this project. Whether color-tinted or black-and-white, partial live action or completely hand-drawn, the majority of these cartoons appear remarkably good for the most part and, more than likely, with never look better on home video. Black levels and shadow detail are reasonably consistent, lines are smooth with no obvious aliasing, and in many cases the "handmade" elements (cut layers, stray lines, cel shadows) are left intact and not haphazardly smoothed over. Ironically, the worst-looking short is the newest: "Bold King Cole" (the lone full-color entry) looks to be sourced from less-than-pristine elements and it's possible that heavy noise reduction was applied. But overall, it's good news: whether you're brand-new to this era of animation or a seasoned fan, you'll likely be impressed with this Blu-ray's picture quality.
DISCLAIMER: The still images and screen captures on this page are decorative and do not represent the Blu-ray under review.
As shown on the list of cartoons seen above, eight of these 15 shorts feature new music tracks by Robert Israel (full score) and Charlie Judkins (organ). Although I'm not really a fan of the latter, at least these tracks sound rich and dynamic...but for whatever reason, they're presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 instead of a lossless format. Either way, these are modern recordings and, as such, don't suffer from age-related defects in comparison to the other seven shorts. And while the hiss, crackling, and pops on those original tracks can be a little distracting at times, such problems are almost expected and even add to the overall charm. No optional subtitles are included during the talkies, but there's very little dialogue.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The static interface features looping music and great artwork from the cover by Stephen DeStefano. It's authored like a DVD with no seamless menu transitions, but the only other options are for cartoon selection and extras, so it's no big deal. This two-disc combo pack arrives in a dual-hubbed keepcase with a short but informative Booklet full of notes about each cartoon, as well as two separate introductions by animation historian Jerry Beck and Cartoons on Film mastermind Tommy Jose Stathes.
Extras are limited to a user-operated Photo Gallery
of about four dozen newspaper clippings, reviews, and other press materials about the included shorts, as well as a screen of Credits
for this collection. Although it's not much on paper, these items (combined with the included booklet) at least attempt to place many of these cartoons in their proper context. In short, you'll learn a little something after the show!
If you're reading this, chances are you're familiar with the Cartoon Roots series or at least a casual fan of early animation...but even if you're not, Halloween Haunts is a perfectly potent gateway drug into this wildly creative sub-genre. Although some of these 15 shorts are much more interesting than others, we get a few absolute classics here and plenty of rarely-seen obscurities. Cartoons on Film's combo pack of Halloween Haunts is a terrific follow-up to their first two discs, as its solid A/V presentation (especially considering the source material and budget) outweighs the lack of bonus features. This one's obviously a labor of love and absolutely tailor-made for its target audience. Firmly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.