Welcome back 90s hounds! What’s this? I’ll tell you what! This week we welcome back Cameron McCulloch-Keeble who goes back to 1993 to look at a film that is… well, is it a Christmas film or is it a Halloween film? (The answer to that question is “Yes”, Ed.)
It’s The Nightmare Before Christmas!
In many ways, The Nightmare Before Christmas is gothic musical perfection and yet in many ways, it’s a confusing masterpiece. It’s a film filled to the brim with grim and grotesque yet ornate imagery. It’s a soundtrack that’s catchy and simplistic but also manages to hit deeply emotive moments. It’s a film produced by Disney yet widely embraced by Goths and counterculture the world over.
But one question has dogged the existence of this eerie fairytale since its very inception: is The Nightmare Before Christmas a Halloween or a Christmas movie?
For this leg of our 90’s Movie Challenge, I decided to take a different approach. It was a cold night in October, days before the festival of all hallows. Spicy peppers and warm red chorizo were stewing down in the dimmed lights of my kitchen. The stage was set and Danny Elfman’s signature tones began to drift out into the ether.
Boys and girls of every age… I was reminded instantly why this movie has the legacy and impact it does. The swelling movements of the orchestra combined with the obvious influence of modern song progressions. The delicate and compelling performance of Catherine O’Hara contrasting and complimenting Elfman himself as the voice of the iconic pumpkin king. Jack and Sally, Naughty and Nice, Trick and Treat, a perfectly imperfect duo.
For the next leg of this review I watched and listened to some of the versions of Nightmare that have permeated since its original release, specifically Nightmare Revisited and clips from the musical tours from the late twenty-teens. October had not long passed and the nights were drawing in. A storm was threatening the UK’s first winter snow of the year and Danny Elfman, Brendon Urie, Patrick Stump and some of their other less savoury contemporaries were filling my ears and heart with spooky winter cheer.
What’s This? I was struck by the different interpretations of this festive classic, all of which carry their own validity. The live shows enhanced the orchestral elements and “classical musical” feel. Whereas on Nightmare Revisited, Panic! At The Disco, Fall Out Boy and a range of classic goth-rock artists brought out the darker side of the show. Ornate instruments punctuate grim lyrics sung by delicate, jazzy voices. It demonstrates just how far Burton’s classic went without really truly straying from its home ground.
Finally, Dear reader, it’s the 1st of December and the final leg of this review is underway. A re-watch of the film itself. The first doors of advent calendars are being cracked, decorations are being put up and the first snow has mostly melted away but its winter chill has very much remained.
It’s striking how visually distinct Nightmare is on a rewatch, its stop motion animation comes across as a thousand times more charming than janky. Burton’s almost caricatured art style makes characters, settings and individual props stand out far more than some of Nightmare’s animated peers. It’s equally striking how visually distinct each element of the winter season is. Halloween town is dark and desolate, Christmas town is bright and oversaturated but neither is overly unwelcoming. Both are hugely distinct, each in their own way, just like Jack is to Sally, just as The Mayor is to Oogie, and so the dichotomy continues.
So, to the question at hand, Is The Nightmare Before Christmas a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie? Put simply; it’s both. It’s Halloween and Christmas all in one. It’s filling roast dinners and a bag full of candied sweets. It’s twee as all hell but just dark enough to not leave a saccharine aftertaste – after all who doesn’t like a good ghost story before Christmas? It defies expectations enough to be neither one nor the other and I think that’s why it is, after all, so beloved. So next time you’re visited by a reminder of the pumpkin king, be it a fleeting memory or a piece of oh-so-Disney merchandising, remind yourself “it’s both” and continue to enjoy it. As ever you were supposed to.
Next time, for our penultimate 90s Movie Challenge, Chris Lupton takes us back to 1990 for a look at a harrowing tale of child abandonment and ultra-violence.
So get those booby traps ready because – AAAAARRRRGGGGHHHH! It’s Home Alone!