Elijah Wood is such a delightfully odd ambassador of the horror genre. Of course most people know that he’s been in show business for decades, from starting out as a child actor to his minor hit about some short fellows trying to toss some jewelry into a volcano. As he’s gotten older, though, his love of the horror genre has blossomed professionally, both as an actor as well as through his very horror-friendly production company, SpectreVison. And through his whole career he’s maintained a warm, genuine personality that we in the horror community keep trying to tell mainstream pop culture is more the rule than the exception.
Wood’s boyish charm is complemented by a face that looks virtually unchanged from his childhood, and he uses both elements to terrific effect in his horror roles, either leveraging it to evoke sympathy as the hero in movies like The Faculty and Cooties or to blindside us when he goes very (very) dark in movies like Sin City and Maniac. But no matter what the role, Wood’s personality comes through even when you can’t see him. Such is the case in the Patrick McHale-created animated miniseries Over the Garden Wall. This 10-episode dark fantasy tale ran as a five-night event on Cartoon Network back in 2014, and while it’s not strictly horror (especially considering McHale originally envisioned it as much darker with skinless creatures and pacts with the devil), it still serves as a great mood-setter for the Halloween season.
What’s great about the series is that it takes the creepier elements and mixes them with heavy doses of silly humor and poignancy that work far better than they have a right to on paper. McHale disorients us right from the opening scene, as we’re thrown into a forest in medias res (I know this phrase is pretentious, but I’ve literally never gotten to use it) with young brothers Wirt (Wood) and Gregory (Collin Dean). Neither we nor they have any idea how they got there, and all they want to do is try to get home.
At least, that’s all Wirt wants, as all of Wood’s most endearing acting quirks come through in this performance. Wirt is anxious, bewildered, and frequently has no idea what to do. But of course Wood’s genuine kindness can’t help but sneak in as we see that Wirt really cares for Gregory, who in a different story could have been a very annoying “look at how cute I am” kind of character. But given that Gregory’s eternal optimism borders on pathological, he transcends irritation into the realm of the bizarre. He also creates a lot of problems for the duo, as Wirt’s desire to get them home safely clashes with Gregory’s compulsive need to spread happiness in the world. This tension serves as one of the core conflicts in the series, but it’s also the emotional center in a journey that becomes increasingly strange.
And hoo boy, does it ever get strange, with the boys having little time to figure out where they are before they’re confronted by The Woodsman (Christopher Lloyd), a grizzled old man who warns them of an ominous creature known as The Beast (Samuel Ramey), whose shadow looms over the brothers for the duration of the series. On the lighter (but no less weird) side, they find a talking bluebird named Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey), who agrees to guide them to find their way home, but who also has a few secrets of her own.
Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a story if their trip went without incident, so most of the episodes involve the group navigating all sorts of weird side quests. In the town of Pottsfield, for instance, the boys can’t figure out if the residents have jack o’lanterns covering their heads in anticipation for the big upcoming festival, or if the jack-o’-lanterns are in fact their heads. Later, in a tiny schoolhouse dedicated to teaching anthropomorphic animal children, the school is threatened to close due not only to a lack of funds, but because of a wild gorilla on the loose in the area. And perhaps my favorite tangent centers on a young girl who appears to be held under the thrall of Auntie Whispers (Tim Curry), an old crone threatening bad things to come should the boys take her niece away.
These are just a few of the surreal paths our impromptu adventurers make over the course of the series, and what’s particularly interesting is that none of the plot lines end the way you think they will. Odds are that the resolution will be stranger than anything you thought was coming, with McHale and company constantly keeping us on our toes not only through narrative, but through the atmosphere they create.
Now, my vocabulary is very limited when talking about animation, but Wikipedia notes that the series relies heavily on its use of grisaille painting for its backgrounds, a style mainly recognized for utilizing different shades of gray (I don’t know if it’s fifty, so don’t ask). While the foreground and characters still have something of a pastoral feel, they also lean more heavily into brighter colors you more often associate with Cartoon Network, so the blend of silly and foreboding extends even to the visual dynamics.
But my favorite part of the show is the soundtrack, as every episode features at least one musical number. It’s important to note that I spent the first two-thirds of my life mentally checking out whenever a character so much as threatened to break out into song, but almost a decade of being married to a lover of Broadway and Disney films gradually instilled in me an appreciation for anyone who can tell a story just as well musically as with straight dialogue. And Over the Garden Wall does so perfectly. Just like everything else in this show, the songs are an erratic mix of old-fashioned, moody, hilarious, and melancholic. Honest to God, there’s one song that in less than three minutes of running time makes me chuckle and tear up a little bit.
I intentionally saved Over the Garden Wall for my September installment because I think this is the perfect time of year to give it a watch and let it ease you into the Halloween season like a warm bath (yes, I’m aware that for many of you, Halloween season started weeks ago, but I couldn’t bring myself to talk about this show in August when I was still sweating through my shirts). Everything about this series exudes that crisp, spooky sensation that I associate with autumn and spooky-yet-soothing October evenings, and without giving anything away, I think it’s got a third act twist that elevates it to something truly special. Moving forward, I’m planning to take a peek over the garden wall every year around this time, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of you decided to do the same.