Whenever one is asked to name things that represent Halloween, a jack-o-lantern is almost guaranteed to be near the top of the list. Scowling, grimacing jack-o-lanterns are synonymous with Halloween, but what about a melancholy jack-o-lantern? What does that represent? And why is he so down in the dumps to begin with? Writer-director Stuart Winstonson decided to pose that very question and try to answer it with his 1981 family film Cheer Up, Mr. Jack O. Lantern!.
In the town of Samuel’s Hollow, nine-year-old Timmy Woodrow (precocious first-time actor Will Phillips) and his twelve-year-old brother Roger (David Tet, a commercial actor whose biggest role was in the presidential time-traveling farce Washington, B.C. over a decade later) are awakened one October evening when they hear the sounds of someone moving in to the house across the street. They can only see their new neighbor in shadow, but they do notice his exceptionally large head. He’s a very private person and almost never comes out of his house, but Timmy sometimes sees him walking around the neighborhood at night, his head hung low, his shoulders drooping. The man doesn’t appear to be up to any mischief; he just seems sad.
One night, after Timmy’s parents have tucked him in, he sneaks out of his room and follows the man. In a fairly suspenseful sequence, it’s revealed that their new neighbor is a walking, talking jack-o-lantern! Timmy quickly befriends the man, whose name is Jack O. Lantern (played by fantastic character actor Reggie Bunton), and learns that he’s one in a long line of beings who protect the balance between good and evil during Halloween, when demons have the ability to cross into the land of the living and ruthlessly murder human beings. Unfortunately, Jack has become disillusioned with Halloween, doing the same job for several thousand years, and he’s come to Samuel’s Hollow to wait for the coming apocalypse. Naturally, Timmy doesn’t want to be murdered by a demon, so he sets about trying to reinvigorate the sad sack Jack and save the world.
Movies that rely on children to carry the film are sometimes at the mercy of the child’s acting abilities, and sadly Cheer Up is no different. Phillips is definitely a cute kid and he has spunk, but his delivery is either flat or over-the-top. There’s really no middle ground with him, and that really hurts the film’s finale, especially when he needs to bring in the drama. Thankfully, everyone else is good in their roles, and they probably helped Phillips be better than he would’ve been otherwise. Bunton in particular is a stand-out, acting through the rubber mask and really make us feel sorry for this pumpkin man. He’s been doing this job for a very long time and he’s grown very tired and he’s ready to give it all up.
The film has a point and gets to it, not really wasting a lot of time on filler. Timmy tries several amusing tricks to get Jack to realize that humans are worth saving, like setting him up on a date with his teacher and racing go-carts. In fact, the movie has no real conflict. It’s simply scenes of Timmy and Jack doing fun things together. Eventually, his family finds out what’s going on and joins in on the fun as well, having picnics and watching home movies.
The ending does take a bit of a turn and moves into dark territory, but, sadly, the inability of young Philips to convey drama and the film’s small budget really undercut the sequence, which should’ve verged on terrifying. The make-up effects for Jack are outstanding, but when he’s casting a spell to ward off the approaching demons (who we hear but never see), the lightning effects are shoddy and no one is reacting the way they should. They all appear too passive, probably because the lightning was added in post-production.
Overall, Cheer Up, Mr. Jack O. Lantern! is a fun film for the kiddies, but might be too repetitious for older viewers. Put it on during a late October afternoon after the kids are in from school. They’ll want their very own Jack O. Lantern as a friend, I guarantee it.