The Halloweentown Saga - Part One

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

The Disney Channel launched April 18, 1983, and despite, the backlog of Disney cartoons, television shows and films, the new cable channel still needed more content to fill its proposed 16-hours a day schedule. In December 1986, it would extend to 24 hours a day, like other cable channels and needed even more.

The plan was to balance the programming with one-third existing Disney material, one-third original programming and one-third material that had been acquired from outside sources but was in "keeping with the Disney identity and values."

At first the original programming consisted of half hour television series both animated and live action as well as specials. However, in keeping with the tradition started by the original Disney weekly television show on network television, new movies made especially for the channel were created.

The first new film that premiered in October 1984 was the sports-themed Tiger Town and it earned the channel a Cable Ace award.

Originally these were called Disney Channel Premiere Films but starting in 1997, they were re-branded as Disney Channel Original Movies (DCOM). They were often released on home media formats like VHS and DVD within a year of their airing on the channel.

Halloweentown started as a single movie and became a successful seasonal franchise.

Some films were so popular that they spawned sequels to create a franchise including High School Musical, Camp Rock, Teen Beach, The Descendents and more including Halloweentown.

For many people, the mention of "Halloweentown" immediately conjures the image of Halloween Town where Jack Skellington lives in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). However, for many young people the word meant a community populated by all the creatures of that spooky holiday who often owed their safety to a family of witches in a series of four DCOMs.

The premise of the series was that fantasy beings associated with Halloween like witches, warlocks, vampires, werewolves, mummies, ghosts, zombies, cat people, living skeletons, goblins and other similar creatures all live together in this town to avoid persecution from "The Mortal World." Humans have vague memories of the creatures that used to live among them and so mimic them by dressing up in costumes on Halloween.

The residents of Halloweentown can only visit the world of humans on Halloween and only with magical aid. The later films expand on when they can visit. In Halloweentown, witches and warlocks appear human and are the only ones in the town who can do magic which is hereditary in their families.

The films revolve around the Cromwell-Piper family. Agatha (nicknamed Aggie and played by Debbie Reynolds) Cromwell lives in Halloweentown but her daughter Gwen Piper (Judith Hoag) married a human mortal she met on Halloween and forsook the fantastic world and her magic. She is widowed and raising her three children Marnie (Kimberly J. Brown), Dylan (Joey Zimmerman) and Sophie (Emily Roeske) as completely human and they have no awareness of their magic heritage.

Halloweentown (1998)

Marnie Piper (Kimberly J. Brown) is a 13-year-old girl who can't understand why her mother will not allow her or her two younger siblings to participate in any Halloween activities. Her grandmother Aggie (Debbie Reynolds) shows up for her annual Halloween visit and reads the children a bedtime story about a place called "Halloweentown".

Later that night, Marnie overhears an argument between her grandmother and mother and discovers they are all witches. Aggie needs to train Marnie in using her powers or she will lose them. In addition, Aggie needs help with uncovering why citizens of Halloweentown are disappearing.

When Aggie leaves to return home, Marnie and her siblings follow her onto a magical bus and arrive in Halloweentown. Aggie agrees to train Marnie but needs to first take care of a mysterious hooded demon she has seen in her cauldron who threatens the town. Marnie's mother arrives but she and Aggie are frozen in time by the demon just like the missing citizens.

In order to defeat the demon, a talisman must be placed in a large jack-o-lantern in the center of the town. The demon turns out to be the mayor, Kalabar, who is bitter than Marnie's mother married a human mortal instead of him. He intends to take over the mortal world.

Marnie drops the talisman inside the jack-o-lantern which weakens Kalabar and unfreezes all his captives. The entire Cromwell-Piper family use their combined powers to defeat him. Aggie decides to stay in the mortal world and train her grandchildren.

Halloweentown II: Kalabar's Revenge (2001)

Marnie has spent two years being trained by her grandmother Aggie. During a Halloween party, Marnie tries to impress a cute new boy by showing him her grandmother's secret room. Shortly afterwards, Aggie senses something wrong in Halloweentown.

Accompanied by Marnie, they discover that the town and its residents have all been turned into a dreary, dull mirror-image of The Mortal World with all the creatures now human.

The boy Marnie was trying to impress named Kal was the son of Kalabar and he has stolen Aggie's spell book from the secret room to prevent Aggie from helping against the effects of his Grey Spell.

Aggie tries to find her spare spell book in Halloweentown but it has been sold by a junk dealer to Kalabar. Aggie becomes another victim of the Grey Spell while Kalabar's son attempts to turn The Mortal World into a monster movie. A handsome golem is sent to distract Marnie's mother at a party from helping out. At the party, all the guests are transformed into various monsters based on the costumes that they were wearing.

Marnie is able to free Aggie but they are trapped in Halloweentown. Contacting her siblings in The Mortal World, the Piper children are able to develop a new spell that opens the portal between the two worlds permanently.

Marnie confronts Kal and takes both spell books from him and breaks his spells. Kal is sent away never to return.

Halloween High (Halloweentown III) (2004)

Originally intended as the final film in a trilogy, it is the last Halloweentown film to feature Kimberly J. Brown as Marnie and Emily Roeske, who retired from acting after making this movie, as Sophie.

As Marnie starts a new school year, she proposes to the Halloweentown High Council to allow her to bring a group of Halloweentown students to her own high school in The Mortal World to create better understanding between the two worlds.

The Council worries about the Knights of the Iron Dagger who have sworn to destroy all things magical in the human world but permit Marnie to take the students when she bets all the Cromwell magic that her plan will work. If not, her entire family will lose their magical abilities on midnight of Halloween.

The Halloweentown students are magically given human appearances so they can blend in as exchange students from Canada. Aggie becomes a substitute teacher at the school to keep an eye on things. At first fearful, the students at Marnie's urging gradually join sports teams and other school activities, making new friends in the process.

Unfortunately, odd things begin happening including the students briefly reverting to their real appearances at a mall and a disappearance of one of the students. Aggie starts to develop a romance with the school principal who turns out to be the last Knight of the Iron Dagger. However, he only knew about the students real identities because of Dalloway, the head of the Halloweentown High Council, who wants to keep Halloweentown isolated.

The students use the Halloween carnival to show what their lives in Halloweentown are really like and the mundane tableaus in the haunted house end up boring the humans. Dalloway brings the prop monsters in the displays to life and Flannigan incites a mob to corner the new students who eventually reveal who they really are.

The crowd accepts them and Flannigan renounces his knighthood and accepts Aggie. Dalloway claims the Cromwell magic but when Marnie's mother shows the Council the events of the evening, they return the Cromwell magic and imprison Dalloway. A portal opens in the carnival haunted house and crowds of children from Halloweentown cross over to enjoy the festivities with the children of the human world.

Return to Halloweentown (2006)

Marnie (now portrayed by Sara Paxton) is 18-years old and decides to change her college plans and attend Witch University in Halloweentown on a full scholarship because of her previous good deeds.

However, at the school, students are forbidden to use magic and instead study more mundane historical subjects. While she makes new friends, she also makes three new enemies called the Sinister Sisters, a group of spoiled, manipulative mean girls. Marnie finds a box with the name "S. Cromwell" on it and learns it contains a magical amulet only a Cromwell can use to control anyone which is why it is locked away.

She journeys to the past and discovers that the "S" stands for "Splendora" which was her grandmother's original first name and meets with the young witch who gives her the key to the box.

Marnie's principal and Professor Grogg are members of a mysterious group called Dominion and they steal the gift. The Sinister Sisters turn Marnie's brother into a dog to force her to use the amulet so they can control Halloweentown. The brother will stay a dog once Halloween passes if he is not turned back.

Marnie tricks them and destroys the amulet. The agents of Dominion and the Sinister Sisters are captured by an undercover detective of the Anti-Dominion League and they are all stripped of their magic and arrested.

It turns out that the amulet was not really destroyed and Marnie's brother finds that she left it for him in a book and it now belongs to him. Supposedly, this event could spawn another sequel.

The reason for Kimberly J. Brown not appearing in this final film is shrouded in controversy with multiple conflicting explanations.

The official Disney explanation was that Brown was filming another film Big Bad Wolf (2006) about college students encountering a werewolf at the time and there were scheduling conflicts between the two productions.

However, according to Brown those conflicts had been resolved, "Well, let me just say that I wanted to do the fourth one and was fully available for the shoot. Nothing makes me happier than playing Marnie. Disney decided not to use me for the fourth one, I don't know why. I was definitely disappointed not to do it. Ultimately … it's a decision that came down to Disney and I don't know specifically."

Paxton, who replaced her in the role, was clueless why Brown was not cast. She said, "(Disney) asked me if I was interested in playing Marnie and I said I was. It sounded like a lot of fun. I don't know [what happened to Kimberly J. Brown]! I just know they called me and said, 'Do you want to play Marnie?' and I said, 'Yeah!'"

Paxton had just finished filming Aquamarine (2006) for 20th Century Fox. She sang in the film and had signed a record deal with Epic Records. It had been rumored that Return to Halloweentown might be done as a musical like High School Musical that was released that same year, which may be one of the reasons the actress was cast.

Executive producer Sheri Singer stated about the re-casting: "That was not something we wanted to do. We could not come to terms that we felt were fair. We just weren't able to. We couldn't make the deal work."

Return to Halloweentown director David Jackson said, "The character she played was younger than the actress actually was by enough years that we felt like as a collective group that it was better to recast someone who was younger. It kind of came down to that."

He added that it was also felt that the original audience who knew Brown in the role had grown up and was no longer the demographic for the series and that the story was not reliant on the first three installments. However, Joey Zimmerman, Judith Hoag and Debbie Reynolds were retained from the first three films.

In fact, Millicent Martin had been cast to take over the role of Aggie Cromwell because Reynolds had an existing conflict, but when it got resolved Reynolds was hired and a new part was written for Martin.

The Return to Halloweentown premiere was the most-watched DCOM ever among adults 18 to 34 (1 million viewers) and adults 18 to 49 (1.9 million).

"This fourth movie in the Halloweentown franchise continues our incredible streak of stellar ratings, not just for the premiere, but across the weekend, and across all demos, including adults," Disney Channel Worldwide president of entertainment Gary Marsh said. "For kids and families, the unique 'spooky-funny' sensibility coupled with extraordinary casting, music and special effects, helped build this into one of the premiere movie franchises on television."

The movie's debut finished second only to ESPN's October 16 Monday Night Football coverage of the Chicago Bears come-from-behind win against the Arizona Cardinals, which tackled an 11.7 rating and some 14.2 million viewers. That same week reruns of Halloween High (ranked No. 8) and the original Halloweentown (ranked No. 11) also scored high with viewers.

However, the film did receive and continues to receive criticism for not casting Brown in the role of Marnie with many Disney fans not caring for Paxton's interpretation of the character.

The Halloweentown franchise captured the spirit of Halloween in a way that other films have not and is still much beloved even today.

The story of Halloweentown was created by Sheri Singer and her husband Steve White who were executive producers on the film. The idea came from Singer's step-daughter who asked her "Where do all the creatures from Halloween go the rest of the year when it's not October 31st?"

The pair pitched the idea as a made-for-television movie to NBC. After The Wonderful World of Disney programming ended in 1991, Disney transitioned into a six-movie deal with NBC. NBC was initially interested in the concept but then after Paul Bernbaum was brought in to write the actual screenplay, the network decided it was "too young" despite Bernbaum's adding some genuine spookiness. Bernbaum said, "It got really scary sometimes."

So, naturally, since it was considered as being for a young audience, they took the idea to Disney and the studio also passed on it. However after the success of Under Wraps (1997), the first officially branded DCOM, about three 12-year olds who discover a mummy, the Disney Channel re-considered the proposal.

Now that the idea was at Disney, it was readjusted with additional writing by Jon Cooksey and Ali Matheson to appeal to an even younger audience by making it lighter in tone. Bernbaum would be a writer on all four of the films.

Writer Paul Bernbaum had named Marnie, Dylan and Sophie after his own children. Aggie was the nickname of actress Debbie Reynolds' late friend, actress Agnes Moorehead, who had played a grandmother witch on the television series Bewitched.

"We were able to be very whimsical. We needed to create these really interesting characters," Singer said. "They were fun and slightly scary, but not too scary."

Rather than build a city set on some studio back lot, the production chose St. Helens, a small town outside of Portland, Oregon, to stand-in for Halloweentown. Because of a volcano that had erupted in 1980, it had become mostly a "ghost town" so the locals were welcoming to the crew because it generated much needed income.

Singer recalled, "They were so grateful to have us there and so easy to work with. We had a good crew up there and it fit the demands of the movie. We made all these storefronts. It was really fun and became very iconic."

Director DuWayne Dunham remembered:

"The Disney Channel was just starting to make these kinds of family movies. I had come in and met with them and they gave me this project called Halloweentown. It was very well-written, it just was big, because it was written as a feature.

"We spent some time trying to keep the integrity of the story but get it down, where we could afford to make the movie. We tried to populate this story with some real funny characters: Benny, the taxi driver was pretty funny. And we had the two-headed coffee-drinker. One of my favorites was the big fat guy who went in the steam room and shrunk up, and came out real skinny. We just did funny things like that that kept it light and entertaining, and really kept the story moving.

"It was a fun, fun shoot because we were in this little town, up north of Portland, Oregon. The town was kind of deserted. We took over the whole town square, everything. It was ideal — like shooting on the back lot."

Dunham fell in love with the color scheme of St. Helens, and admitted they got lucky, seeing as how the film budget was so small. The filming was done in five weeks during the hot summer of 1998.

Robin Thomas, who played the movie's villain Kalabar, had to be taken to a local doctor after blowing out his vocal cords during the confrontation scene at the end of the film and it took a week to recover.

With no body microphone, Thomas said, "I was having to project my voice down. There were fans blowing. [I was] 150 feet or so from the camera. That was challenging. I blew my pipes out."

Reynolds used to write all her lines for each day on large yellow legal pads because the print was too small for her on the script copies.

Originally budgeted at $20 million to $30 million, now that the project was at the Disney Channel, the budget was trimmed to roughly four million dollars. The most expensive special effect remaining in the script was Benny, the taxi-driving skeleton, who was an elaborate animatronics figure, with the actor dubbing in the lines after filming.

A core group of actors wore multiple different costumes and make-up to create the illusion of a crowded town. Director Dunham remembered, "We had just enough [extras], and we would double up and change costumes and make it look like there were more and different people and that sort of thing."

Joey Zimmerman, who plays Marnie's brother Dylan, said that these extras struggled through the one of the hottest summers in the city on record. Zimmerman said, "People were just passing out…the fish guy mask, and the crazy alien mask."

Despite the budget restrictions, the original film was an unexpectedly huge hit and spawned three sequels and a local Halloween celebration in the town.

Next week, I explore more about the original production, its actors and its legacy and that Spirit of Halloweentown celebration.