A Few Great Pumpkins IV–Seventh Night: Fantasia's "Night on Bald Mountain"

by robbiefreeling
November 1, 2009 2:29 AM
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Now that you've been sufficiently scared all week, it's time to party. Rarely has there been a better celebration of the spirit of Halloween than the magnificently unsettling "Night on Bald Mountain" segment from Walt Disney's 1940 labor of love, Fantasia. Putting aside obvious narratives of how this terrified many a tot (coming after nearly two hours of plotless, dialogue-free, near abstract animated sequences, this piece de résistance sent kids over the edge, often from boredom into manic freak-out mode), this perfectly petrifying short film, based on Modest Mussorgsky's 1860 composition, is simply the most effective hand-drawn spookshow of all time.

Without a doubt there's never been anything quite so spectacularly evocative of profane paganism and spiritual unrest on film, exemplified not only by the onslaught of demons and ghosts that dance around a German expressionist-designed Bavarian village late one Walpurgis Night, but of course also by Chernabog, the horned, mountaintop Slavic God of evil that makes the dead his abused playthings. Designed by the brilliant Bill Tytla, Walt Disney's go-to animator for objectionable characters (Grumpy, Pinocchio's mean Gypsy puppeteer Stromboli), Chernabog is powerful yet wretched, a full-fledged character rather than simply a personification of pure evil, surprisingly neurotic despite his frightening sorcery and terrible musculature. For when the bell tolls morning, it tolls for him, a bright flash of sacred dawn shining across his shamed face like the light of truth . . . of course there's nowhere to go but All Saint's Day.

Once Chernabog makes his appearance, wings outstretched in a satanic pose lifted directly from F.W. Murnau's Faust, "Night on Bald Mountain" becomes a dazzling freeform poem of unrest. After the demon king's hands glide over the village, their ghastly shadows turning out house lights one by one, the monsters come out: transparent specters and goblins rise out of graveyards and murky ponds, eerie hooded figures glide out of hangman's nooses, bare-breasted harpies and skulls with wings fly at the camera, erotically undulating flames contort into horned pigs and goats, all set to Mussorgsky's slow-building dervish. How all of this was achieved by the brilliantly inspired animators at the Walt Disney Studios in 1939 is nothing short of miraculous: an outpouring of creative camera and animation effects, including the one-of-a-kind visual sensation achieved by reflecting drawings of unmoving ghosts in rounded pieces of tin and the sinister use of the multiplane camera to move in on a hushed hilltop grave canopied by a crooked tree.

The effect this had on a fresh young mind such as mine is frankly immeasurable—it's a Silly Symphony gone horribly wrong, an amazingly sustained paean to bad behavior that even Schubert's "Ave Maria" can only try to dilute. This beautifully otherworldly cartoon remains my favorite Halloween jubilee, in which spiritual restlessness equals the restless spirit of youth, dancing together in a frenetic yet ultimately harmless festival of freedom. When Chernabog makes his final reach of defiance to the skies before he must fold himself back into the mountain and give up his evil ecstasy for another year, it's surprisingly identifiable and poignant. Like the morning after Halloween, order is restored, the revelry is over, and life goes back to regrettable normalcy.

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