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This is a Halloween double feature: A joint movie review 

     I had two unique cinematic experiences this past week: The Film Society’s screening of Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas,” accompanied by The Minnesota Orchestra. Both are horror, musical, cult films in extensive conversation with what has come before. Rocky Horror’s” opening number abounds with references to B-Movie science fiction; Nightmare” recontextualizes Halloween iconography, not only within Burton’s visual style, but also through its signature chimera of holidays.

         In Rocky Horror,” fiancés Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon) and Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) have their car break down in a rainstorm and investigate a nearby castle looking to use a phone. The knowing implementation of genre tropes, paired well with the opening parodic musical numbers, are explosively interrupted once Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry), the “transexual from Transylvania,” hits the scene. The film is frenetic, introducing one plot point after the other, but what it lacks in coherence, it more than makes up for in fun. This is reflected in the interactive component of this screening: certain traditional viewing practices have arisen from its cult status. Newcomers to the picture, “Rocky Horror Virgins,” were marked with a lipstick V; everyone got up and did “The Time Warp.” People were less interested in the Rod Sterling-esque narration of Charles Gray’s criminologist as much as they were in his lack of a neck. Audience interjections were always encouraged, and always hilarious.

         As many other musicals are, “Rocky Horror”is super dry of meaningful dialogue, the sparse substance of which made audience comments less distracting generally. The musical numbers are short on character exploration but double down on entropy. The choreography isn’t super tight, but “Rocky Horror” understands that dancing in a number should sell an idea more than insist on robotic accuracy… and the ideas are fun, freedom and individuality. Amidst our many type characters, Frank-N-Furter seems the most fleshed out. On the one hand, he’s an unhinged horror antagonist. On the other, he bears a human core, insisting on breaking molds and getting us to view the virtues of pleasure. Our straight couple leaves the castle with their worldviews and sexualities torn to colorful ribbons. Curry’s performance is what cinches it, his eyes always sparkling with Frankenstein-esque electricity, but as fun as it is to watch him dance and sing, there’s just not enough of him simply talking.

“The Nightmare Before Christmashas a more straightforward story. Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon), the king of Halloweentown, having grown tired of his yearly macabre revelries, encroaches upon Christmas. The film’s calling card is Selick’s detailed and dark brand of stop-motion animation. The characters are ugly but rendered so fluidly and expressively that the eyeball remains fixed on all its oozing and rhythmic rigor mortis. The Minnesota Orchestra’s masterful playing reignited my love for this soundtrack, intricately crafted by Danny Elfman (who also provides Jack’s singing voice). Many times, the varying implementations and distortions of character-associated leitmotifs illustrate more about Jack and co. than the lyrics of their songs, which at times tell more than they show. While the opening clarinet flare of “Oogie Boogie’s Song” was, as expected, sublime, it was actually “Kidnap the Sandy-Claws” which won the prize for best orchestral rendition here. That skeletal xylophone diabolically emphasized the song’s mischief in skin-crawling fashion.

         The biggest surprise on this rewatch was length, clocking in at an hour-fifteen. It has a similar song to scene ratio as “Rocky Horror,” which earns it a few more points for being better paced. The characters mostly sing by themselves, meaning the film’s primary mode of communication is monologue. What’s worse is that the absences in certain character sketches feel especially apparent, where the budget had to play executioner on the cutting-room floor. Oogie Boogie (Ken Page) felt sadly hollow this time around. He’s a horror film’s manifestation of 1930’s sin: dice, gambling and sleazy jazz. He’s an ingenious design, but has no clear motive, and what’s more, there is an implied previous relationship with Jack which is neither explored nor explained.

         However, “Nightmare brings a lot to the table aesthetically and expressively that, at times, fills in the holes of its character work. Like in “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” the animation does a lot of heavy lifting in allowing what is being sung about to be shown on the faces of its iconic cast. Sally (Catherine O’Hara), as much as I love Oogie Boogie, is my favorite. Many of her scenes are void of both dialogue and singing, allowing the instruments to paint a picture of her thoughts and feelings. Many of the film’s best moments are those in which she desperately pleads with Jack to abandon his Christmas project, to which he comedically misinterprets her warnings. It perfectly encapsulates their romantic relationship, with Jack’s incapacity to see how much she cares for him. As with all other things within this expressive stop-motion world, it’s a shame we don’t get more of her. 

         Connections between “Rocky Horror” and “Nightmare” go beyond my pet peeves in musical writing, however. Both tell stories of an exploration of the new. For “Rocky Horror,” it takes the form of an expanding sexuality and openness to pleasure. Jack’s foray into the new in “Nightmare,” per contra, is an encroachment, a borderline colonial pursuit. “And why should they have all the fun? Christmas should belong to anyone. Not anyone, in fact, but me,” he sings at one point. He wants to share something new with his Halloween neighbors but appropriates it and dissects it rather than making meaningful contact. “Jack’s Obsession,” the song in which he reduces Christmas via the scientific method, is, in a way, the antithesis of “Rocky Horror[‘s]” request: “Don’t dream it, be it.” Jack’s dream of taking Christmas apart for himself devolves into a nightmare, when he could have simply invited his friends to touch the snow themselves. Discovery can be a fragile exercise: it can enable freedom when embraced or go terribly wrong when refracted through the lens of the familiar.

Rocky Horror: 3.5/5

Nightmare: 4/5

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