In which The A.V. Club finds someone notable to schedule 24 Hours Of media for you to enjoy.
Matthew Gray Gubler got his start in front of the camera by playing an intern in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, a role that came somewhat naturally to him, having been Anderson’s actual intern a few years earlier while attending film school at NYU. Gubler has become far better known as Dr. Spencer Reid on the CBS series Criminal Minds, a part he’s played for 11 seasons so far, but that isn’t Gubler’s only regular role. Since 2007, he’s been providing the voice of Simon for the Alvin And The Chipmunks franchise. In conjunction with the recent release of the latest chapter in the ongoing Chipmunks saga, Alvin And The Chipmunks: The Road Chip, Gubler—who also appears in the upcoming film Band of Robbers, an updated take on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn—giddily compiled a day-long marathon of TV and film programming for The A.V. Club, blending innocence and darkness to deliver an enjoyably eerie and occasionally disconcerting viewing experience.
A.V. Club: How did you come up with this premise for your 24 hours of programming?
Matthew Gray Gubler: I feel like sort of an eternal child at heart, so I felt really excited to come up with some obscure kids programming. But in wracking my brain for it, I realized that the movies that had the greatest impact on me are all sort of eerie children’s films. I’ve always loved being scared, for whatever reason. I think it’s because as a kid I was very easily scared, and I slept on my parents’ floor—in front of their door—basically until I was, like, 12. [Laughs.] But I have this very warm association with being scared. It reminds me of being a child and using my mind for fun. And in thinking about kids’ entertainment, the movies that had the greatest impact on me just happened to be scary. So I just went on a rampage with that.
MGG: Ub Iwerks: one of my favorite creative minds of all time. Walt Disney and his collaborations with Ub are amazing. To me, “The Skeleton Dance” kind of sums up the whole 24 hours of programming and is sort of the thesis for it all, because it’s whimsical, it’s very lighthearted, it’s beautifully handmade in the way that cartoon of the 1920s were, but there’s also some kind of spooky moments. The skeleton encompasses the whole frame at one point, and I remember being kind of frightened of that as a kid, and I’m still frightened of that today! [Laughs.]
But it sums up everything I feel about what I like to see in my entertainment: It’s completely unique, there’s a dichotomy to it, in that it’s silly and scary, and it’s just fun, man. I love the music; I love the creativity of it. There’s a moment where all the skeletons all become one giant skeleton dinosaur monster, and it’s just thrilling to watch. I could watch this thing on repeat for hours and find new things about it every time. It has a very special place in my heart, and I felt it was a great way to start this 24 hours of programming and an ideal way to set the tone.
MGG: I didn’t have cable TV until I was in my late teens, so I never saw Pete & Pete until I was in film school. But I really fell in love with what they did. To me, the greatest entertainment and what I love most about cinema is its ability to take you to very rich worlds, to alternate realities, and I don’t think a TV show has ever done it better than Pete & Pete, because it just created this perfectly off-kilter, surreal reality. And they had the greatest guest stars. You had Michael Stipe as an ice cream man, Steve Buscemi, Gordon Gano from the Violent Femmes, Bebe Neuwirth. This show was so ahead of its time. I’m obsessed with it!
And I love the “Halloweenie” episode because first of all, I love all Halloween episodes of any shows. But I loved the fact that it dealt with very relatable things. Young Pete is trying to beat the world record of trick-or-treating the most houses, while old Pete is on the cup of deciding whether he should abandon the pure roots of Halloween and kid frivolity and turn into sort of a delinquent who smashes pumpkins. I feel like I’ve kind of permanently been on that threshold. [Laughs.] You have sort of life crisis the moment you go from being a genuine kid who loves Halloween to a kid who might break some pumpkins. And I can say that I have never smashed a pumpkin. I have great respect for pumpkins.
But I do like toilet papering houses quite a bit. I’ve definitely done my fair share of house toilet papering…to Paget Brewster, actually! [Laughs.]
AVC: Were you familiar with the original Ray Bradbury story going into the film, or did it end up being the other way around?
MGG: It was the other way around. This film is so integral to my life and important to me. I was lucky enough to be a kid around the time a few of these Disney movies came out that had just an immense impact on everything I make today. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this period in Disney’s history, but they kind of tried to target the early teenage audience. They were trying to make their movies a little more scary, and what came out of that was Something Wicked This Way Comes, Watcher In The Woods, and I think The Black Cauldron might fall under that canon. I think it actually kind of failed for Disney, and people were horrified, because what they created were some of the scariest films you’ve ever seen, but what’s amazing to me about it is that these movies are rated PG!
I love acting, but directing has sort of been my first love since I was a kid, and it’s because of this movie. It’s so much more impressive to me to create a scary film that plays in the viewer’s mind and is rated PG than it is to create an R-rated slasher film. I feel like it takes incredible nuance and an incredible ability to use the power of suggestion. This movie sets up what I try to do as a director in every episode of Criminal Minds I’ve directed or any sort of thing I’ve made, which is to imply the fear. And it’s so effective. It’s so special. The movie and the book, of course, touch on tones that really resonate with me, like the love of the father and of one kid wanting to grow up faster than the other.
Bradbury’s one of my favorite authors, and I feel very lucky that I was able to become friends with him while he was still alive and met with him on a few occasions. I saw him introduce this film about six years ago and speak at length about the struggles in making this movie. Because it was sort of a weird production, in that they had to do some reshoots, and I think maybe the director went a little bit mad. But what remains to me is just this hauntingly charming, beautiful film that’s really revolutionary, especially when you consider that it’s technically made for kids! I mean, it’s one of my father’s favorite films, and it reminds me so dearly of him. I think it’s one of my three favorite films of all time. I’m obsessed with it.
MGG: Well, of course, I was in love. [Laughs.] It’s one of my favorite books and one of my favorite movies. I love that Bradbury himself wrote the screenplay for the movie. But it’s sort of tough to compare them, because I saw the movie for the first time when I was probably 6, so it’s engrained in my blood. I just love the book. I love all of his writing. He was really just a magical, wonderful person.
MGG: Oh, it did. [Laughs.] In fact, I feel a little bad with this list. I hope it’s more for adults than children, because I don’t want to scar anybody! I mean, I’m glad I saw these films as a kid, but I think this is more eerie entertainment for the kid in all of us.
You’ve never met a 7-year-old kid that was cynical. I loved being a child because you’re surrounded by people who are incredibly sincere. Now, as you grow older, often people start to get a little bit cynical, and real life starts to take its toll on you. The only thing I’ve ever hoped to do as an entertainer—whether it’s with acting or directing or drawing pictures, and even if it’s only for one split second—I can make people remember what it feels like to be a kid and to be completely sincere. If I can do that, then I feel like I’ve accomplished what I’ve wanted to do. And these movies all kind of do that for me. A lot of times, movies with either children as protagonists or just characters that are incredibly sincere can accomplish that feat for me, which is why they’re so dear to my heart.
MGG: This is another one of those TV shows that I just think was really ahead of its time. I’m definitely noticing a link here. Joe Dante, the director, seems to have a direct correlation to a lot of my favorite things, and he was one of the producers and directors on the show. This to me was always like Twin Peaks for toddlers. Again, it was great at creating a very specific world that felt real but also was incredibly whimsical and joyous, and this episode was very meta. They’re making a home movie and somehow a mummy from an old black and white film comes to life and starts interacting with the film crew and soundman, and they have to figure out a way to get the mummy into a happier movie.
It’s a little bit like that Woody Allen film where the movie comes to life, The Purple Rose Of Cairo. It’s just really imaginative, and it’s so cool to think that they were making the TV show for kids. I do these Chipmunks movies and I do a lot of animation voicework, and I think the stuff I’m most proud of as an actor are the things that entertain children. I think if you can inspire kids through entertainment, you can help to make the world a more lovely place.
MGG: Again, hats off to Disney in the ’80s. They were making some of the most interesting and sort of bizarre kids programming. It was a made-for TV film, and it’s sort of hard to find. They made a sequel called Bride Of Boogedy, which is also quite good, but I’d put Mr. Boogedy first. It’s got everything I love about storytelling. A family moves to a creepy New England town, the dad runs a joke and magic shop, and I grew up doing a lot of magic and loving magic, so that was so cool to me to see an adult who was a magician and that was how he made his living. It had a real big effect on me in terms of thinking, “Oh, man, you can do what you love for the rest of your life! You don’t have to do something normal!” [Laughs.]
It feels like if John Waters made a Disney movie, in the sense that it’s got a handmade charm to it. You can sort of see the seams, which I like. It doesn’t take itself incredibly seriously. And it’s just a fun movie to watch. I was just on YouTube watching a compilation of the best clips, where they just keep repeating the name “Boogedy, Boogedy, Boo!” [Laughs.]
AVC: They had a nod to old school family-friendly creepy entertainment by having John Astin in the cast.
MGG: Exactly! I also found that, for some reason, all the films that I really loved—and it must’ve been the time period in which they were made—they had that really funny effect; I don’t know if it’s rotoscoping, but it’s where a character would be outlined in green lasers. [Laughs.] It happens in Watcher In The Woods, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Mr. Boogedy… in a lot of these, and I love that dated, charming effect.
AVC: Talk about a film that scarred more than a few people when it first came out. And still does, for that matter.
MGG: I didn’t discover it until I was in my twenties, but it holds up just as well as the ones I grew up with. First of all, I love the scary conceit of taking a classic film like The Wizard Of Oz and making a sequel where people are questioning Dorothy’s sanity because she’s talking about Oz. [Laughs.] It’s sort of a classic horror trope where the main female character doubts her own sanity, whether it’s Rosemary’s Baby or even Halloween to a certain extent. “Oh, it’s all in your head! You’re imagining things!” They’ve taken Dorothy, this character from one of the most memorable films of all time, and the world has accepted that she went to Oz, but now they’re pulling the rug out from under us and saying, “Well, actually, she may need electroshock therapy. She might be crazy!” [Laughs.] Which to me is such a brilliant idea and the only way to make a sequel to a beloved film.
Fairuza Balk is just amazing. When child actors are great, there’s nothing quite like it, because they bring a purity and a simpleness to their performances that you won’t see in the world’s greatest performers. I keep on using this word, but it’s just so darned sincere. And Fairuza’s performance in this movie is definitely that. I think she plays Dorothy as well as Judy Garland. The first 30 minutes of the film is just so effective, where she’s living in an insane asylum, she’s seeing visions of a girl in white carrying a tiny pumpkin, and it has some of the most effective imagery of any film, like the eerie Victorian nurse walking down the long corridor. I love that she has a pumpkinhead friend, she has a chicken that talks to her… I just absolutely adore it.
AVC: It really preys on a child’s worst nightmare: that someone won’t believe what they’re saying, even though it’s true.
MGG: Exactly! And that speaks to everybody. Everyone has that feeling as a kid… and oftentimes as an adult! It’s really Hitchcockian, in a way. He’s probably my favorite director of all time. I would’ve loved to have seen Alfred Hitchcock’s interpretation of Return To Oz.
MGG: Here comes Joe Dante again, who’s just a genius. I would’ve put Gremlins on this list, but I thought it was getting too long. [Laughs.] So Joe Dante directed this, and it’s one of my favorite films of all time, which hits on points I love about showmanship. He’s creating a character very much like William Castle, who’s another one of my favorite filmmakers, and he’s celebrating cinema that not only transports you on screen but also in life, through sort of a P.T. Barnum attitude.
That’s my greatest hope in anything I do: to create a lasting experience for an audience. And I don’t think anybody did that better than William Castle, or Lawrence Woolsey in the film, played by John Goodman. He had seats that would shock you, and he had fun things like having people sign a waiver that you wouldn’t sue if you died of a heart attack. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Las Vegas, but I just loved that maniacal sense of, “I’m going to entertain you so much that you won’t be able to walk.”
In this movie, I love the young protagonist, and it’s really interesting that it’s set in the Cuban Missile Crisis. There are a lot of real-life elements of fear. I think there’s a little bit of fear of losing his father, who’s in the military, but it parallels this monster movie about a giant ant man.
AVC: Or Mant, if you will.
MGG: [Laughs.] Yeah, Mant! But parallels are best when you’re taking very serious subject matter and making something digestible. Joe Dante pulls it off perfectly with this film—having a fear of the world being blown up by nuclear holocaust while also having fear of a Mant eating your brain—and it’s just a fun ride. And I just love John Goodman. He’s actually on this list more than once.
MGG: Again, any television series that goes out of its way to do Halloween episodes has my heart. Roseanne was very good at it. I loved watching them as a kid and just sort of seeing her in those episodes made me realize that you could really think outside those boxes in terms of Halloween costumes. Her shows always had the most inventive Halloween ideas. I love this episode in particular because it lampoons Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. She’s sort of losing her Halloween spirit, so she’s visited by the Ghosts Of Halloween Past, Present, and Future. [Laughs.] And it culminates in her finding her Halloween spirit again and pulling another one of her notoriously great Halloween pranks on her friends and family.
MGG: This isn’t technically an eerie film, but I truly believe it has the scariest onscreen villain of all time in the Child Catcher. I mean, he parades around in colorful ribbons saying [In a horrifying British-accented voice.] “Lollipops! Lollipops!” It’s a brilliant performance. I love scary movies, and if someone had put him in the lead in a horror movie, I don’t think the world would be able to ever sleep again.
But I love the whole movie. It always felt to me like Mary Poppins for boys. Dick Van Dyke is great, as is the story and the era. The car being inflatable and turning into a boat, and all of the inventing and the Rube Goldberg machine at the beginning… It just feels so homemade and charming.
MGG: You know, if I could live inside one film, it would be Hocus Pocus. To me, this is about as close as it gets to a perfect film. It’s textured and it’s rich, the costumes are glorious, the setting is marvelous, and I think it’s both written and produced by Mick Garris, who’s sort of Stephen King’s go-to guy in directing a lot of his adaptations and a real horror aficionado. I think his help was probably what brought this from being just a great movie for kids to watch into one that’s also really entertaining for adults. I love the way he took what he knows and what he’s great at in the horror world and translated it to a younger audience and a bigger audience. And it really sets the stage: I can almost smell apple cider and pumpkin pie when I watch the film, and it’s visually lush. All the performances are stellar, and it’s got a great musical number about halfway through.
Now hang on, because I’m about to go on a very passionate rant about Walt Disney, who was one of my idols. Walt Disney was doing something very admirable, and that’s that he was very much in favor of showing real life to kids. In his cartoons, in his films, and in his Walt Disney Presents, he really felt it was important to show children the magic of life, of course, but also a little bit of the darkness. He took incredible flak, I think, for having Bambi’s mom die and for including these sort of real-life moments, but his point was that to hide that from children is really deceptive, that everyone in life is going to experience loss and you need to teach children early on that it’s just part of life. In terms of spreading love and entertainment throughout the world, I don’t think anyone’s done it better.
The triumph of Hocus Pocus is that this cat, who has been cursed to become immortal, dies. And when he does, his soul is reunited with his sister. It’s such a complex and beautiful ending where you traditionally should be sad that this cat has died, yet you’re happy and smiling through tears because the guy’s ghost is reunited with his sister. It’s just perfect filmmaking, with an ending that I think Walt would’ve been proud of.
It’s a masterpiece. It’s a triumph of filmmaking. [Laughs.] Hocus Pocus is my Citizen Kane!
MGG: I put this in there for sentimental reasons. It was something I watched with my father a lot, and I still watch it with my father during October. First of all, they were able to get Bela Lugosi to reprise his role as Dracula. But all the Universal Horror monsters come to life and are dealing with Bud Abbot and Lou Costello, and what I’m realizing… This is like a therapy session, by the way, so thanks a lot. [Laughs.] But I’m realizing that I probably love this movie because it’s another instance where, while the protagonists aren’t children, per se, they have the sincerity and the genuinity and naiveté, and they’re pure of heart.
There’s no one who’s more sincere than Lou Costello. He’s just a grownup kid who’s not being believed by his cynical right-hand man, Bud Abbott, and he’s in this very funny situation where all of these beautiful women want him. I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie recently, but his buddy can’t figure out why all of these women are throwing themselves at him. And you realize that one of them is from an insurance company and is trying to get him to admit that he stole a body, and another is a mad scientist who just wants to steal his brain. [Laughs.]
AVC: This was the one item on your list that I had not been familiar with prior to receiving your schedule.
MGG: My brother, let me tell you something: you’re about to have the time of your life. [Laughs.] This is another one of my favorite films, probably in my top 10, even though it was made for TV, and… Oh, man, it’s just so exceptional. It’s sort of a classic Halloween narrative: a small New England town, a curse is re-released on the town, and a bunch of high schoolers—played by people in their forties, as was the case in ’80s and ’90s TV series—are forced to go on an adventure to save the town.
It’s got a beautiful soundtrack that includes The Smiths and some really interesting dark-wave music, and some exceptional performances by some interesting names. LeVar Burton is in it, and Peter DeLuise from 21 Jump Street. I watched it so many times because I had a video tape of it with all of the TV commercials and everything, but I never saw the first six minutes of the movie because my stepmother was a little slow on hitting the “record” button. So I didn’t see those six minutes until about a year ago, when I bought, like, a $95 DVD from Australia, because it’s very hard to track down.
It’s a movie about true love transcending time, and you’ll be crying with happiness at the end, because it’s another bittersweet ending. It’s about a boy falling in love with the ghost of a cheerleader, but it’s just played to perfection. It’s challenging, which is why a lot of people don’t try to make movies like this, but it’s very hard to make a movie that on paper is ridiculous. Like, the idea of someone returning from the grave and falling in love is a very preposterous idea, and it only works if the direction and the actors are playing it so completely real, with total realism and total commitment.
MGG: Oh, man. Joe Dante again! [Laughs.] It’s funny, but he’s really one of my favorite filmmakers. He’s so underrated, man. Again, it’s one of those that I think is just a perfect film. As a filmmaker, I hope to make a movie like this one day. I like movies that are very hard to categorize, and I think this slips into that wonderfully, because it’s really funny, it’s really scary, it’s got tons of twists and turns, exceptional performances from Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, Corey Feldman, and Carrie Fisher… It’s just this interesting gem of a movie, and I don’t know that it did that well, which is usually the sign of a movie I love. [Laughs.] That, and how critically panned it is!
It’s got a sense of surrealism and whimsy, and it’s that dichotomy of where you’re in the most normal setting—a cul de sac in the suburbs—and he inhabits it with completely off-kilter people. He puts a German family of cannibal loonies in the suburbs, almost like warlocks, doing weird stuff. And it’s got the classic stuff I love, with nobody believing Tom Hanks and him thinking maybe he’s going crazy. Do you remember the end, when he gets on the gurney and tries to commit himself? [Laughs.] He’s, like, “Let’s go, fellas!” And he hops on the gurney. But it’s got some of the best physical comedy I’ve seen. And again, what it has at its heart—and what I think everything in this 24 hours of programming has—is characters who are technically adults, but Tom Hanks and Bruce Dern and Rick Duccomun are all completely retrogressing and becoming like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, spying on their neighbors and convinced that their neighbors are witches. Grown men acting like children, that’s such a funny conceit to me.
MGG: I love horror movies, so people ask me all the time, “What’s the scariest movie you’ve ever seen?” and I kid you not, it is unequivocally The Watcher In The freaking Woods.
I very clearly remember the moment. My sister, my dad, and I were at Major Video in Las Vegas, Nevada. The year was probably 1988, and it was Halloween time, and my dad’s, like, “Hey, let’s rent this movie!” As a kid, I was very timid and very scared—I told you about how I slept on the floor in front my parents’ door—and I had this shift where I realized that the only way for me to not be scared was to scare other people. And that began my interest in making scary movies and drawing scary monsters, and it sort of started a lifelong obsession with monsters, because I love them to this day. I love being scared because it reminds me of being a kid… and this movie scared me so much! [Laughs.]
I remember me not wanting to rent it because the cover was just Bette Davis’s face looking scared. I was, like, “No, Dad, this is a scary movie!” But right on the corner of the box it had a picture of Mickey Mouse dressed as a sorcerer (from Fantasia’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”), and it said, “Walt Disney Presents.” And I remember my dad saying, “Matthew, don’t worry. It can’t be scary: It has Mickey on it!” And I thought, “Okay, you’re right!” And then we went home, and 90 minutes later… [Laughs.] I don’t think I looked in the mirror for three years after that, I was so horrified.
I wouldn’t recommend this to kids under 12, because it might scare them. But, man, this movie is so Hitchcockian. I feel like this is the Disney movie that Hitchcock never made. In its use of implied terror, it never shows you anything, but it leaves these amazing pregnant beats of terror and suspense. And it’s rated PG! You never see anything scary other than a girl trapped in a mirror, but it’s just edited and sound-designed and shot so spectacularly that it just haunts you, man. And it’s beautiful, beautiful filmmaking. And this was 1980, so it seems like this was pretty early on in the horror years, but it also makes great use of steady-cam, subjective shots that’s now a horror trope but that Sam Raimi used a lot later. There are lots of awesome moments, and Bette Davis is incredible, but one thing that this film has that I love is a very bizarre ending.
AVC: I was going to ask you what your position was on the ending, since they had an initial concept that they weren’t able to finish in time for the film’s release, so they went with a different ending, and then that one was received so poorly by critics that they ended up doing still another ending.
MGG: Yeah! You know, I’ve seen them all, and my favorite is a combination of two of them. I don’t like the one which shows her going to another dimension, and it becomes like Tron for a moment. I always feel like showing the audience less is the most effective thing you can do as a filmmaker. So I love the more subtle ending, where you as a viewer stay in the present dimension and you don’t go with her, because I feel like it makes you create it in your mind. But one of the ending has an insane dinosaur skeleton that shows up out of nowhere. [Laughs.] Just really weird stuff, but it makes you think. When the movie’s over, you’re not thinking about what you’re going to do tomorrow. You’re thinking, “What did I just watch?” And 20 years later, I still have no idea what I saw…and I love that! It’s what art should be but rarely is. But then you mix that in with just an awesome style. It came out in 1980, but it really feels like the ’70s with the haircuts and the wardrobe, and it’s just this weird world that I would not want to live in, but I love to visit it sometimes.
It’s a very special film, and I think it’s underrated, and I think if you watch that trailer you’ll be scared! I love the audacity of the Disney company being, like, “Hey, guys, check it out: we’re about to drop the scariest movie you’ve ever seen, and we’re going to market it for kids!” [Laughs.] It’s totally crazy, man! But hats off to them. I wish they were still doing stuff like that.
MGG: Okay, so by this time, if there’s any kids watching this 24 hours of programming, hopefully they’ve gone to sleep. [Laughs.] Hopefully they went to sleep after Hocus Pocus! I don’t necessarily think that kids should watch this, but, man, this fits in perfectly. This is the crown jewel in my list of odd, eerie entertainment with childlike protagonists in bizarre worlds. There’s nothing like this.
This is another perfect film for me, and, of course, it was widely hated and despised when it came out! [Laughs.] In fact, if I’m not mistaken, Charles Laughton, the actor who directed this, was never able to direct again making this film. Which is so weird, but I think that’s a sign. Cinema’s such a young art form—it’s barely a hundred years ago—that people need to be taking risks and trying stuff and making shit that’s memorable, man. And it baffles me that you don’t see more movies like this, but of course they’re a product where you need a lot of money to make them happen. Or you did in these days. Now it’s getting better, with digital cinema. But sometimes the need for money, I think, is what squashes a little bit of these unique visions.
You’ve got kids that aren’t believed, of course, by nature of being children, trying to outrun a psychopathic preacher played by the brilliant Robert Mitchum, chased through a surreal landscape of fairytale weirdness. And it’s got one of my favorite sequences in film history, which is the musical number: The kids are drifting down the river, there are frogs and spiders and everything, and then the little girl begins to sing a song. And it’s haunting and touching, and it speaks a little bit to the loneliness that kind of lurks inside everyone and some of these old Grimm fairytale fears that beguile us all.
Night of the Hunter speaks to trying to remain innocent in a wacky world, and… I don’t know, I’ve never seen a film like it. I don’t think you ever will see a film like it.
MGG: You know, originally I was going to say that there was no better way to top off 24 hours of programming than with a film that’s as entirely unique as Night Of The Hunter is, but I love the idea of following the bleakness of Night Of The Hunter with Young Frankenstein. [Laughs.] It’s the holy grail of creepy comedies, a timeless classic that somehow manages to get funnier every time you watch it, and it just seems like the perfect film to wrap things up. And when it’s over, it’ll be time for viewers to get to bed, so they can enjoy the warmhearted nightmares that surely await them.