11) Bimbo’s Initiation
Back in the 1930s “Bimbo” was slang for tough guy. Amazing how times have changed, eh? This 1931 short centered on Betty Boop’s dog whom had that very unfortunate name. It was part of Fleischer Studio’s “Talkatoon” series and it’s a cartoon that is really out there. A strange underground cult, the “Do-It-or Die” organization decides for reasons unknown, that they want little Bimbo to be a member of their weirded-out group. These kooks wear burning candlesticks on their heads and taunt the little dog with the relentless query, “Wanna be a member? Wanna be a member?” When Bimbo declines, he’s put through a trial of surreal and nightmarish tortures. Not only does the poor mutt have to face corny skeletons, doors of doom, hungry knives and a series of spiked converging walls, he has to put up with Betty Boop showing up to do a dance number. Keep an eye out for what is perhaps the best gag in the show as Bimbo’s shadow is beheaded. It should also be noted that this cartoon had the distinction of being seen in Joe Dante’s creepy episode of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Maybe it’s because the toon is in the public domain. Or more likely it’s because it is truly a twisted and unnerving slice of animation.
10) Mickey and the Mad Doctor
It may be a bit surprising to some that the wholesome world of Disney has many scary cartoons in its vaults. This early 1933 Mickey ‘toon is a good example. It begins fittingly enough, on a dark and stormy night. While Mickey is inside his home tucked away bed, his faithful dog Pluto braves the weather and the oppressive darkness outside in his ramshackle doghouse. Cold hearted if you ask me. A sinister black-cloaked figure abducts Pluto, whose mournful howls alert Mickey. The mouse follows the trail to a castle resting upon a large skull. A nameplate at the castle door indicates this is the residence of one Dr. XXX! (Sadly, the doc is not a pornographer, but simply your run-of-the-mill mad scientist) Pulling on the demonic doorknocker, Mickey is literally swallowed by the castle. Once inside, Mickey stumbles about in his search for Pluto. The mad doctor drags the terrified dog into a crazed laboratory that would make Dr. Frankenstein- if you’ll pardon the expression, green with envy. Meanwhile, Mickey has his hands full with a gaggle of smart-ass skeletons. This sequence provides a really splendid gag where a staircase turns into a series of coffins. There’s a true sense of danger in this cartoon, even if it does – BIG SPOILER COMING — use a cop-out “it was all a dream” conclusion.
9) Shiver Me Timbers
Popeye the sailor along with his gal Olive Oyl and Wimpy in tow, stumbles upon a beached ghost ship. They know it’s a ghost ship because it’s a decrepit, tattered mess and because there’s also a big sign posted on it that says so. Nevertheless, Popeye decides he wants to “investigates” because he doesn’t believe in spooks. Not surprisingly, no sooner have the trio boarded the vessel, does it right itself and head out to sea. At first, the spirits are playful, teasing and confusing the two-fisted sailor with a harmless game of “musical planks.” But then things rapidly get vicious. In an act of hellish cruelty, Wimpy is tormented by phantom hamburgers he cannot eat. Truly unsettling. Olive falls into a vat of flour and is mistaken by Popeye and Wimpy for a ghost. In a disturbing turn of events, Popeye beats the hell out of her before he realizes what’s happened. Does he apologize? Does he feel remorse? Hell no! He simply says, “I told ya there was no such things as ghosts!” But the sailor man couldn’t be more wrong. The spirits come down hard on Popeye and his pals, unleashing their supernatural worst. In a particularly interesting bit of business, Popeye bests a group of ghosts by luring them into a freezer and turning them to ice. But of course in the end, Popeye must eat his spinach to finally win the day. He busts up a gang of skeletons and turns them into dice (get it?) and even beats the ocean itself into submission.
8) Hair-Raising Hare
Did you ever have the feeling you were being watched? That’s what the great Bugs Bunny is wondering at the start of this classic Chuck Jones directed cartoon. And indeed, Bugs is being watched. Watched by a Peter Lorre look-alike creep who sends out a sluttish mechanical female rabbit to bait him back to his castle of dread. As is so often the case in these type of stories, the lure of sex leads to pending doom and horror. As Bugs follows the mechanized harlot into the dark abode, the evil scientist quickly locks the door behind him. Bugs quips, “You don’t need to lock that door, mac. I don’t wanna leave!” That’s before he’s introduced to the scientist’s other little friend… the one kept behind door marked MONSTER. Of course we’re talking about the big old orange hairball monster with a penchant for tennis shoes. Much later he’d be christened “Gossamer” but here he is a nameless terror. Bugs’ reaction to seeing him- a prolonged scare take- is animation gold. It’s followed by a brilliant gag which allows Bugs to utter his trademark “What’s up, doc?” line by way of breaking the fourth wall. Soon Bugs is doing the fan favorite fey manicurist routine, dipping the monster’s patties into water booby-trapped with mousetraps. It’s no surprise that Bugs gets the best of the hairy monster…even if the thing keeps coming back again and again. It is finally the suggestion of the eyes of the people in the audience watching him that finally re-re-disposes of the hairy threat.
7) Transylvania 6500
All though this cartoon came pretty late in the Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies cycle, it remains a standout. It boasts rich, impressionistic backgrounds and a genuinely funny script. Bugs finds himself lost in Pittsburgh, Transylvania. Upon his arrival, he is observed by a delightful two-headed vulture. “Who is that delicious young creature, Emily?” the bird asks itself with one head. “Doesn’t he look sweet and crunchy, Agatha?” it respond s with the other. Bugs opts to check at a nearby hotel for directions. The hotel in question is actually the castle of Count Bloodcount, a goony vampire. The count persuades Bugs to spend the night, after all, rest is good for the blood. As Bugs attempts to doze off, he reads through a magic words and phrases book, picking up a pair of powerful words, abracadabra and hocus-pocus. This makes way for a hilarious routine in which Bug nonchalantly hums a little riff, inserting those two words at random and turning the count back and forth from bat to man… at the worst possible moments for him. Give it a look and just try not to smile when the count declares himself a vampire and Bugs counters with, “I’m an umpire!”
6) Pink Plasma
Traveling through the Transylvanian Alps, The Pink Panther decides to spend the evening in an old castle. A sign post claims it is a Transylvania Lodge and boarders are welcome. But behind that sign lies another. This one reads: Danger! Vampire Castle. This particular sign also happens to be accented by a kooky laughing skull. The unwary panther enters the castle and encounters a variety of creepy near misses. In the cellar, he stumbles upon the vampire’s casket. Mournful, the panther duly buries it while a horde of stunned rats look on. When the vampire awakens, he is understandably peeved. He is the usual “man” seen in Pink Panther shorts and his vampire get-up is especially comical. He spends the course of the cartoon attempting to put the bite on the cool cat to no avail. A running gag has the vampire falling into the castle moat where a waiting shark is ready to chow down on him. The year was 1975, and I needn’t point out that Jaws was everywhere.
5) Broomstick Bunny
It’s Halloween night 1956 and rotund Witch Hazel is deathly afraid of getting pretty as she grows older. She peers into her magic mirror and inquires as to who is the ugliest one of all. The bored swami within the mirror responds with exactly the answer Witch Hazel wants to hear: She is indeed the most ugly one of all. Meanwhile, Bugs Bunny, having discovered what a “good racket” the Halloween business is, has donned a grotesque witch mask and is out trick or treating. When he comes knocking on old Hazel’s door, she mistakenly takes him for another real witch…one far uglier than she. Hazel can’t stand it. She quickly schemes to turn her competition into a gorgeous specimen by spiking her tea with beauty potions. When Bugs removes the mask to take tea, Hazel is shocked to learn he is a mere rabbit. But as it happens, there is one ingredient missing from the brew Hazel had currently been concocting. A rabbit’s clavicle. Bugs is aghast. “That old babe means to do me serious hurt!” he astutely observes. In the end, Hazel accidentally drinks the magic tea and is transformed into a Kim Novak-type hottie. The swami from the mirror gets one look at this transformed gal and lustfully gives chase to the screaming babe. I’m not too proud to admit that I would too.
4) Lonesome Ghosts
Mickey, Donald and Goofy are very early prototypes of the Ghostbusters here. They’re the Ajax Ghost Exterminators. When a quartet of phantoms find themselves bored and in dire need of delivering a good scare, they call Mickey and Co. to come out and “exterminate” their old haunted house. Venkman, Stanz and Spengler- no, I mean Mickey, Donald and Goofy show up carrying a hilarious bunch of ghost-chasing tools which includes shotgun, fishing net and fire axe. They’re not even through the door when the phantoms begin their ghoulish brand of torment. The phantoms employ breaking dishes, boards and trombones to jolt the ghost-chasers. Each one of them figures in a nice set-piece and the cartoon has a nice twist ending. What I came away with most after watching this cartoon was that Mickey is ineffectual, Donald is intelligible, and Goofy is a complete idiot. And those four funny phantoms? They should have starred in more cartoons.
3) Cobweb Hotel
Another bizarre offering from the Fleischer Brothers, this toon opens with a raspy voiced Spider singing about his cozy little hotel while we get horrific glimpses of the terrors contained there within: Moaning flies caught in webbed bedding and flypaper glue. The hotel is all a front to ensnare flies (albeit really stupid ones) to keep the hideous spider’s belly full. A newlywed couple promptly arrives to spend the evening. Mr. I. Fly is a punchy little fellow. Seems he’s a “Flyweight champion.” And good thing too, for when the spider’s terrible plan is revealed, it takes all his strength to tackle the fiend and even then, it’s not quite enough. His new bride is actually the one who saves the day. Be on the watch for a particularly chilling moment in which the spider, laughing sadistically, clips Mr. Fly’s wings leaving him helpless. It’s a very dark and inventive cartoon which captures the feel of old dark house films perfectly.
2) Fraidy Cat
Sometimes you just have to wonder about the genesis of a cartoon. The set-up of this one is simple enough. Porky Pig has bought a creepy old mansion and is spending his first night there with his cowardly cat Sylvester. The rub of course, is that the house turns out to be haunted. Okay, I’m with you so far. But what makes this tale so damned macabre, so utterly twisted is that the house is not infested with ghost or demons, but with mice. Homicidal mice. Crazy, bloodthirsty little bastards that wear executioner masks, carry axes, knives, nooses and who (it would seem) probably off one poor cat while tormenting poor Sylvester to the point of madness. Porky plays the straight man to all of Sylvester’s frantic, terrified antics and in another turn of unexpected events, he actually (unwittingly) sentences the cat to his doom. The result is one of the most chilling scenes ever depicted in a mainstream cartoon. Sylvester is haplessly taken to the basement by the murdering mice. We do not see or hear what these fiends do to him. We only see several hours pass on the kitchen clock. When Sylvester re-emerges, he is in an unnerving zombie-like state. His fur has turned a ghastly shade of pale white. His eyes are soulless pits and he can only produce a soft, mournful mewing sound. Cheezus! It is a creation that could give the great Lon Chaney a run for his money.
1) Trick or Treat
Even if this could be considered a Disney morality play, it’s still a wickedly good cartoon. Boasting a catchy theme song, this short manages to catch the spirit and atmosphere of All Hallows Eve perfectly. On Halloween night, old Hazel (a real witch of course), witnesses Donald Duck cruelly playing pranks on his three nephews and offering them no treats for their troubles- despite hording a cup board full of them. Taking a quick liking to the boys, Witch Hazel vows to aide them in getting their just desserts from Uncle Donald. In a fantastic bit of animation, Hazel stands before a bubbling cauldron and conjures up potent brew to use on the selfish old Donald duck. “Kids,” rasps Hazel, “This stuff is loaded!” Never the less, the belligerent Donald locks away the treats and swallows the key. Angry now, Hazel casts a gruesome spell on Donald’s feet and he quickly learns a hard lesson concerning the rules of Halloween night. To quote the classic theme song: When ghosts and goblins by the score, ring the bell of your front door, you better not be stingy.