Not every Great Pumpkin has to be horror. Arguably Vincente Minnelli’s best film (inarguably, though, to my mind), Meet Me in St. Louis, that big old slab of female-centric Americana, contains perhaps the century’s greatest cinematic evocation of Halloween, outpacing even John Carpenter’s sharp visualization of that most dreaded suburban twilight thirty-four years later. Throughout all the changing seasons of Meet Me in St. Louis, Minnelli is revealing the possibly false idyll of his turn-of-the-century Missouri suburb setting (cutie-pie tots obsessed with death and dismemberment; a Christmas overshadowed by sorrow and fear), but it’s during Halloween that, with just the slightest tweaks, Minnelli transforms his blissful neighborhood into a surreal nighttime.
There is much incident during Meet Me in St. Louis‘s Halloween chapter: Margaret O’Brien’s fibbing scamp Tootie claims that handsome “boy next door” John Truitt “tried to kill me,” which causes Judy Garland’s Esther to retaliate by slugging John without mercy, a demonstration made nearly tragic due to the fact that Esther has a burning crush on him; furthermore, the family’s enjoyment of a Halloween cake is interrupted by father Lon’s devastating news that they will have to pack and move to New York in just a few months due to a job offer. Yet before any of this takes place, Minnelli puts Tootie and second-youngest Agnes through a bit of shockingly mean-spirited Halloween hi-jinks. Long gone are the catchy ditties and sun-dappled playfulness that marked the film’s first hour, replaced by compositions of rich, black night and raging bonfires.
The kids are not alright: Meet Me in St. Louis excavates a time in American history in which Halloween’s paganism hadn’t yet been replaced by the relatively safe, child-friendly traditions of trick-or-treating. New to the United States in the late 19th-century with the influx of Irish immigrants, All Hallows’ Eve had become, at the time of the film’s setting, 1903, little more than an excuse for vandalism. Cloaked as devils and spirits of the underworld (plus one busty, mustachioed broad courtesy of top-notch kid actor Darryl Hickman), the tykes in Meet Me in St. Louis wreak havoc, smashing furniture in a bonfire in the middle of their heretofore quiet street, and throwing handfuls of flour into the faces of supposedly bad-tempered neighbors.
And Minnelli captures it all with customary verve. Crisp autumn blowing leaves, jack-o-lanterns glaring from upstairs windows, and creepy costumes framed against a velvety black night sky: this is probably the most ghoulishly fun Halloween ever captured on film. And even though Minnelli doesn’t go for the full fright or perform any sort of supernatural intervention, he accomplishes what’s most important: he creates an unnerving setting in which it seems like anything can happen. Kind of like Halloween itself.