Eleven years after the triumph of 1966’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Dr. Seuss and The Grinch returned for the weirdly obscure, oddly brutal 1977 prequel Halloween Is Grinch Night. It’s a surprising mostly forgotten Halloween non-classic, that nearly destroyed the great reputation of the original. That said, Halloween Is Grinch Night is not without its kitschy charms. Because there’s a very high chance you’ve never seen this movie, here’s what it’s actually about. After you’re done reading this, feel free to make your own call as to whether or not you’ll watch it. Obviously, some Grinch-y spoilers from 1977 are ahead.
In 1977 Boris Karloff was too dead to return as the narrator and the Grinch so he was replaced by Hans Conreid who was famous(ish) for playing the voice of Captain Hook in the 1953 Peter Pan. While Karloff imbued the Grinch with the soul of a black-and-white Universal monster, Conreid gives the Grinch a kind of evil closer to a serial killer. This Grinch is edgier and not exactly in a good way.
Dr. Seuss himself once again wrote the teleplay and lyrics but Sesame Street veteran Joe Raposo wrote songs that favor a quantity over quality approach. Halloween is Grinch Night crams nine songs into a padded half-hour that collectively aren’t a tenth as catchy as “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” The legendary Chuck Jones was replaced in the director’s chair by the more affordable Gerard Baldwin and the budget seems to have plummeted despite the extraordinary success of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
But the underwhelming follow-up’s biggest problems are tonal and conceptual. How the Grinch Stole Christmas? is one of the great fish-out-of-water tales. It thrived on the juxtaposition of Christmas wonder and innocence and glowering green horror. Without that sweetness and holiday cheer, Halloween is Grinch Night is oppressively dark and disturbing. To be clear, Halloween is Grinch Night isn’t just too dark and intense for children. It’s also too dark and intense for adults as well.
The mind-boggling miscalculations begin with making a Halloween special that seemingly has nothing to do with Halloween. Halloween is never mentioned. No one goes trick or treating. It’s largely devoid of Halloween signifiers beyond a vaguely autumnal color scheme. Really! We open in a happy Whoville whose contentment is shattered by a Sour-Sweet wind that announces the imminent arrival of the Grinch on his ultimate night of devastation and destruction, Grinch Night.
Grinch Night is like a Seuss version of The Purge except instead of everyone getting to commit whatever crimes they’d like for one magical evening only the Grinch gets to do crimes but he has total freedom to do so. They don’t come right out and say it, but you get the sense that if the Grinch wanted to start killing the residents of Whoville, they’d have no choice but to take it because it’s the Grinch’s special night and he has dark, murderous power over the Whos. In theory, this could retroactively make his redemption in the original movie better, but it doesn’t.
The Grinch uses this evening to do things like hunt the last remaining member of a race of adorable, fantastical creatures so that he can wipe them off the planet for eternity. He also likes to terrorize his dog, Max. In “How Many Times”, the most affecting song, Max sings a sorrowful, emotionally devastating lament about how he wishes he could return to a state of innocence and be a puppy playing under the golden, life-giving sun but is instead doomed to be the physically and emotionally abused slave of a monster.
The suicidally depressed Max refers to himself as a slave. That’s how he sees their relationship: The Grinch is a slave master and he’s a slave. It bears repeating here that Dr. Seuss himself, AKA Theodor Geisel, wrote this.
The only Who who isn’t terrified of tangling with the Grinch is Euchariah, a little boy who keeps taking off his glasses so that he can’t see how horrifying and hopeless the world around him is. When the precocious moppet approaches the Grinch he hurls him into a surrealistic Daliesque nightmare realm of kaleidoscopic horror. It’s psychological warfare with a small child with poor vision but the kid manages to defeat the Grinch in the most anti-climatic possible fashion.
He points out that the Grinch invariably goes in with the sour-sweet wind and consequently must go out with it as well and that the sour-sweet wind had passed so he better skedaddle back to his mountainous fortress of solitude.
The Grinch is defeated by what is essentially a technicality. The Grinch didn’t learn anything. He didn’t experience any moral growth or have his heart grow many sizes. He just ran out of time. The clock ran out and he had to call it a night. And so, the “movie” just sort of ends. For such a fearsome force, the Grinch is defeated awfully easily.
BUT. Halloween is Grinch Night is not without its misguided charms. It’s full of Seussian wordplay and sometimes striking character design and animation. And the very nightmarishness that’s so off-putting also makes it distinctive and bold in a way other prequels are not.
It’s not easy following something as beloved and revered as How the Grinch Stole Christmas but Halloween is Grinch Night fails as both a companion piece to that timeless classic and on its own terms. And yet, if you start watching it, it will impossible to look away.
Halloween is Grinch Night, streaming
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s no official streaming channel that has Halloween Is Grinch Night. That said, the entire movie is on YouTube. (For now!)
The original How the Grinch Stole Christmas, streaming
The beloved 1966 original animated How the Grinch Stole Christmas is streaming “free” on Peacock.