Why do all witch’s curses clock in at 300 years? The Salem Witch Trials were near the end of the 1600’s and Disney got it right on the money by releasing Hocus Pocus in 1993, 300 years after the trials ended. And yet, I’ve watched two other witch movies this October, Necropolis (1986) and ParaNorman (2012), and they both specifically state that it’s been 300 years and the witch is back, baby! I guess it’s just a nice round number, but they could stand to shake things up a bit:
Ominous music. Fog drifts across the sky and the only light we see is the full moon. A wolf howls in the distance...and a title card reading “37 years later” pops up. That’s some scary shit, right? ...............right?
Well anyways, I’m sure the horror-obsessed title character Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Road) would have much to say about the lore of witches, zombies, and awesome low-budget horror films, but he’s a bit too busy pulling a Haley Joel Osment and seeing dead people.
ParaNorman began as an idea by Chris Butler (a writer on the excellent Kubo and the Two Strings), who grew up on a steady diet of horror movies, particularly zombie films. While some films featuring those brain-eating zombie bastards are just pure fun (Burial Ground, Dead Alive, Return of the Living Dead), many reflect the world in which we live and present a subtle social commentary through popular entertainment. George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is still the gold standard, but films like Fido, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, Nightmare City, and Shaun of the Dead inject critiques about our modern world. Butler, along with his co-director Sam Fell (Flushed Away), joined forces with Laika, the daring production company behind Corpse Bride and most notably, Henry Selick’s gloriously scary Neil Gaiman adaptation, Coraline. Their uniquely macabre house-style bodes well for ParaNorman’s design, which is a sharp mix oblong angles, dark imagery, and a fascination with death and what comes next.
The main theme of ParaNorman, besides redemption and acceptance, is bullying. Aggression towards anything that’s different is often the defense mechanism of willfully ignorant people and there are a helluva lot of ignorant people in Norman’s hometown. His parents and sister don’t understand him, the townsfolk look at him with apprehension, and his classmates? Oof. A particularly nasty customer is large moron Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Superbad), who resembles Moe from “Calvin and Hobbes.” He writes “Freak” on poor Norman’s locker and after an explosive experience in the bathroom, vows revenge on the little guy. “You’re dead! D-E-D, dead!” Norman’s a loner, but he soon fosters a friendship with the rotund Neil (Tucker Albrizzi, Tim and Eric ‘I-Jammer Kid’), a curly-haired doofus who loves eating and more eating. Also eating. Along with Norman’s stuck-up, eternally horny sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air), Neil’s musclehead brother (Casey Affleck, Gone Baby Gone), and Alvin, they take a wild ride straight to the world of zombies and witches.
The story takes place in Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts; an appropriate setting where the local community relishes its rich history of slaughtering innocent women and even men by selling witch memorabilia and opening fine eateries with names like Witchy Weiners. You can even try your luck at The Lucky Witch Casino. You’d think a child who can talk to the dead, at least the ghosts who are still roaming the Earth, would be a big draw and this kid would at least have his own public access show, but negatory on that communique, chief. He’s a total outcast and spends his days watching schlocky old horror movies and talking to his grandmother (Broadway legend Elaine Stritch), who happens to be dead.
Norman’s nutty, hobo uncle Mr. Prendherghast (one of our finest character actors, John Goodman) passes away and needs Norman to perform a ritual which has been done every year for three centuries: read a story to keep a witch who was executed three hundred years ago from coming back and resurrecting the dead. Of course, Norman doesn’t make it in time, because otherwise there’d be no movie, and zombies do indeed come back in all their decrepit glory. Butler and Fell felt that live-action zombies might’ve been too scary for young children, so stop-motion animated corpses give the filmmakers much more creative control of how frightening to make their walking undead. The whole town rallies against the invading zombie horde, with one very enthusiastic woman uttering the outstanding line, “Kill ‘em in the head!” Of course, things are much more complicated and the zombies don’t wish to harm anyone, although the way they chase after Norman and his friends does feel a tad on the aggressive side. Instead, they want Norman to end the curse by confronting the witch, whose fearsome visage hovers above the town as a black, purple, yellowish-green eyed cloud monster.
I have a certain kinship with ParaNorman as it was shot with the then-revolutionary Canon 5D Mark II camera, a piece of equipment I own and have shot films with. It’s likely the use of this digital cinema game-changer kept the film’s budget of 60 million dollars relatively low. A three-year process, the film went on to gross over 100 million dollars worldwide, a respectable number that certainly fared better than Butler’s follow-up, the entertaining financial flop Missing Link (2019). The film was nominated for both the Oscar and BAFTA for Best Animated Feature, but it was bested by Brave, which is surprising considering Brave isn’t regarded as Pixar’s finest hour and if not for the presence of Wreck-It Ralph, the admittedly dark but very cool ParaNorman could’ve won.
The film is stuffed to the brim with references to horror and even grindhouse films. Possibly the most fabulously specific horror reference arrives when Neil wants Norman to come out and play hockey. The Halloween theme plays and Neil, wearing a white hockey mask, stands in the backyard staring upwards as laundry blows in the wind, just like Michael Myers, with a slight Jason twist. The opening riffs the now-famous psychedelic “Feature Presentation” title card re-introduced by Rodgriguez and Tarantino in Grindhouse. The crappiness of the opening movie-within-a-movie, enhanced by an appropriately synth score and a visible boom mic, made me nostalgic for the days when I would watch old monster movies with my dad and read my Crestwood Monster Series books.
There are many delightful touches and some surprisingly adult snatches of dialogue. Highlights include:
-The film impressively eschews making anyone or anything pretty for most of the run time. Norman’s mother and father (played with gusto by Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin), along with pretty much every human character, either has a huge belly and a tiny chest or a huge chest and a tiny waist.
-Norman informing his mother that he’s been watching “sex and violence.” Whoa dude.
-Anna Kendrick can be a divisive actress, but I’m still a fan, especially thanks to her highly entertaining autobiography, although why she wrote one this early in her career is a bit baffling. Still, her running commentary throughout the film and her snippy attitude is always very amusing. Her conversation with a friend about how much she likes someone but also thinks they’re a loser explains a great deal about her character’s vanity and self-consciousness. Her response to Mitch having to put clothes on results in a whiny wince from the boy-crazy teen.
-Alex Borstein makes a small, but memorable appearance as the drama teacher from hell. A clever touch is a cast on her left wrist, indicating carpal tunnel syndrome. “You stink of illiteracy!” One of the funniest throwaway sequences is the army of parents filming the school play and the students giving a tone-deaf performance of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.”
-Many of Neil’s lines are pure gold. “Don’t make me throw this hummus! It’s spicy!” Regarding his dead dog: “He was hit by an animal rescue van. Tragic and ironic.”
-The creepy imagery is just spooky enough to appeal to younger viewers. Coraline is much scarier, but the witch’s face in the clouds, the initial appearance of the zombies, a jagged, talking face in a tree, and even some haunted toilet paper are properly creepy.
-Possibly the most darkly funny scene involves Norman trying to wrench a book out of his dead uncle’s hands. It veers dangerously close to being grotesque, with Prenderghast’s body being slammed into things like it’s Weekend at Bernie’s and then crushing Norman; his long, dead tongue slathering goo all over the boy’s face.
-The final reveal of Mitch’s sexuality is a surprising and clever twist, but unimportant. The twist aspect works because during the entire film, Courtney is trying to come on to Mitch and we assume that he’s too thick to get the message. When she compliments his deltoids, the lunkhead responds, “I’ve never used deltoids in my life, I swear! You can test me.”
-Alvin claims he can pick locks, then grabs a “Crime Prevention” placard and smashes a door to gain entry. Later, he’s pissy that they’re locked in a library (hall of records) while an adult video store is right across the street. Wow, it’s weird to think that video stores still existed in the early 2010’s.
-A brilliant sight gag involving a local desperately waiting for his “Greasy BBQ Chips” to drop from a vending machine as the zombies approach. It reminded me of Lenny waiting for his coffee to finish while the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant was having an old-fashioned fire drill.
-The final sequence between Norman and Agatha the witch is dazzling and the most heartfelt in the film. Although it’s easy to sympathize with the boy early on, most of the emotionality keeps viewers at arm’s length. Norman’s attempt to help the young witch is the closest the film comes to an emotional heft that’s missing throughout most of the first half.
There are a few little touches that don’t particularly matter. Neil claims to have IBS, but despite the comic possibilities, scatological though they may have been, nothing ever comes of it and it just seems like a throwaway gag. Norman’s relationship with his grandmother results in a sweet little scene about being true to one’s self, but you expect her to help out in the finale. Speaking of spirits, they pretty much disappear after the opening scene. Since they’re basically non-effectual, this is fine, but it might’ve been interesting to utilize them in some way.
Children’s Christmas movies dominate the cultural landscape while child-appropriate Halloween movies are certainly plentiful, but far more limited. ParaNorman admirably goes for a kiddie vibe but features slightly more adult language and situations, which I always appreciate. My favorite children’s films are the ones that don’t dumb things down for the audience and ParaNorman is anything but dumb. Except Alvin. That’s dude’s a fuckin’ tool.