A few days ago, I drove past what’s now one of my city’s thousand salons, but used to be our neighborhood’s very first video store. Converted from a portion of a long, thin house that certainly wasn’t meant to carry a storefront, the place was — and remains — a slanted architectural goof that never would’ve survived without its prime location on a busy street.
That video store went out of business in the early ‘90s. Actually, it closed down just a week or two after I convinced the owner to let me buy a giant Child’s Play 2 standee for just ten bucks. So let’s assume it was 1991.
But before competition from major chains dented their armor, that was my place. So many of my adolescent ideas about movies came from browsing that store’s crudely assembled shelves.
For all of the confused joy I took in browsing videos from every genre, I only ever seemed to rent one of two tapes. It was either Kids is Kids, a Donald Duck compilation from Disney, or Scary Tales, which was… also kind of a Donald Duck comp. (I really liked Donald, you see. To this day, I cannot comprehend those who place Mickey higher.)
Released in 1983, Scary Tales — which was later rechristened as Donald’s Scary Tales — was a collection of Disney’s spookiest shorts. Whenever we went to that video store, it was a real struggle to resist its oversized clamshell case, or the image of disembodied demon paws lunging for Donald’s throat.
I made my mother rent Scary Tales dozens of times. (This was back before families commonly had two VCRs, so no, we couldn’t do the dual-deck record trick.)
I couldn’t have been more than five years old at the time. More likely, I was even younger. As such, Scary Tales really lived up to its name. Only blind loyalty to Donald kept me glued to the television, and in truth, some of the shorts spooked me so badly that I could only rarely finish the tape!
In a sense, Scary Tales was my first “horror movie.” I didn’t piece this together as a child, but the video taught me that being scared could be fun, or at least never boring. I guess it takes an especially prudish kid to equate Pluto’s Judgement Day with Hellraiser, but I’m telling you, I did.
Scary Tales includes six Disney shorts that were already ancient by the early ‘80s. Fortunately, all of them are on YouTube, and in serious volume. If you think you remember this compilation, these videos should help you confirm:
Donald Duck and the Gorilla (1944)
Here, a “killer gorilla” (their words) escapes from the zoo and ends up in Donald’s house. His nephews dodge most of the ape bullets, but poor Donald gets absolutely brutalized. (The chase scene music used here was my childhood anthem. I remember humming it whenever the mood struck to run around the house for no good reason.)
In the end, a radio report advises the use of tear gas to subdue the gorilla, and Donald’s nephews just happen to have a goddamned grenade filled with that. We end with Donald and the gorilla finding camaraderie through their shared tears, because this being a 1940s Disney cartoon, tear gas doesn’t just create literal tears, but an overwhelming, unplaced sadness.
Duck Pimples (1945)
This one confused the hell out of me as a kid. While reading spooky books on a stormy night, Donald’s imagination gets the better of him, and he enters a fictitious world filled with over-the-top and occasionally murderous characters.
Even watching it now, the classic short is maddeningly frenetic… so I can see how the four-year-old me so frequently hit sensory overload on this one. (Also of note: One of the characters looks like a prototype Jessica Rabbit!)
The Skeleton Dance (1929)
Even if you never rented Scary Tales, I’m sure you’ve seen some Disney compilation featuring this ancient treasure.
The Skeleton Dance was a creepy masterstroke that holds up just as well today. I f’n adore this short.
If you’ll pardon the pun, the plot is pretty barebones. A bunch of skeletons rise at night to skip, dance and use each other as instruments. (If you remember nothing else from Scary Tales, please tell me you remember that one skeleton using another skeleton as a xylophone!)
The musical number goes on for a few minutes, before the pending dawn sends the skeletons scurrying back to their graves. For me, this short is as Halloweeny as it gets.
The Haunted House (1929)
Another super famous short, The Haunted House was the semi-sequel to The Skeleton Dance. Mickey evades a harsh storm by sneaking into a very haunted house, filled with bats, spiders and another troupe of dancing skeletons.
In the short’s most memorable scene, the Grim Reaper (or something approaching one) forces Mickey Mouse to play the piano, communicating this with one guttural utterance: “PLAAAAAAAAAY!”
I just love the idea of skeletons waiting patiently for intruders just so they can add musical scores to their macabre shimmies. The Haunted House ends simply, with Mickey jumping out of a window and running for cover. As mesmerized as I was back then, I’ll admit that parts of this short creeped me out.
Donald’s Lucky Day (1939)
This time, Donald is a happy-go-lucky bike messenger, unwittingly transporting a ticking time bomb on behalf of some crooks.
Donald doesn’t have a care in the world… until his cute little radio informs him that it’s Friday the 13th. Uh oh!
From there, a routine bike trip turns into obstacle course, with Donald trying to avoid mirrors, ladders and black cats, all with little success.
In the end, the supposedly unlucky black cat actually ends up saving Donald from the bomb. It used to bother me that the crooks weren’t apprehended by the short’s conclusion, but I guess there was no topping that shot of Donald cackling madly from a pile of half-eaten fish.
Pluto’s Judgement Day (1935)
And this is the one that really killed me.
I almost always stopped the tape before Pluto’s Judgement Day came on.
After being admonished by Mickey for beating up a cat, Pluto dreams about his Judgement Day.
On trial in his “afterlife,” he faces a kangaroo court composed entirely of cats. Between the scenery and the Satan-esque lawyer, this looked rather plainly like Hell. Biblical Hell.
Needless to say, Pluto is found guilty. Is his sentence imprisonment? Of course not: He wakes up just before his tormentors burn him alive. Spooked by the dream — and much to Mickey’s surprise — Pluto’s new hobby is kissing cats. (It’s a cute ending, but I never wanted to sit through Fiery Dog Hell to get there.)
No matter what you think of these shorts today, Scary Tales used to rule my world — sometimes but not always benevolently.
Given the ease with which I’d plow through so many other Disney videos, and my perpetual apprehension about this one, it’s tough to figure out exactly why I asked Mom to rent it so much.
Actually, I guess it isn’t. I rented it for the same reason I watch horror movies today.
The only difference is in my own level of sensitivity!