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"The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo": It's Scary How Not-Bad This Series Is

All this week toonzone will be presenting a special set of reviews, which we are calling “Halloween in July.” We open with the most recent DVD release from the most famous spook-comedy franchise in American animation: The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo.

It’s amazing how much easier it is to enjoy a show when you go in expecting to hate it.

The fact is, on a scale of 0 to 10, my expectations for The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo were somewhere around -24. I am a Scooby purist of the most puritanical sort, which means that I only like the first two seasons (Scooby Doo, Where Are You?), and even then I regard the last of the bunch (“Don’t Fool With a Phantom”) with suspicion because it looks too much like a product of the late 1970s. I don’t like the Scooby Movies—too many lame celebrities mucking up the group’s tight dynamics—and The Scooby Doo/Dynomutt Hour, though mostly a return to form, looks very ugly. I am definitely one of those people who’d like to see Scrappy Doo ground up for Puppy Chow. As for 13 Ghosts: I’d never even watched it. When it premiered, I took one glance at the opening titles and saw it held nothing to interest me.

So color me very, very surprised when I popped the just-issued 13 Ghosts twin-DVD set into computer, sat back with a sneer, and … Well, I didn’t laugh. And I didn’t thrill. And I didn’t much enjoy it. But I didn’t hate it, either. Considering where I was coming from, that’s very high praise indeed.

Of course, the series violates almost every rule laid down during the original Mysteries Inc. run. There is a continuing story-line, one involving real spooks and not just guys in rubber masks. So Scooby and Shaggy are traveling the world, rounding up the thirteen demons they accidentally released in the series premiere. Fred and Velma have vanished but Scrappy remains behind. And for good measure there are two new sidekicks: a con-artist kid named Flim Flam, and the occult specialist Vincent van Ghoul. There are also two recurring ghost characters, Weerd and Bogel, who try to sabotage our heroes’ efforts.

With so many characters to balance—including the baddie-of-the-week—no single character gets much screen time, and the group dynamics are all over the place. In the original series the five sleuths had sharply defined personalities and roles, but in this one everyone just kind of pitches in with whatever joke or situation the writers can come up with. Daphne is still bland, but she sings and she dances and she contributes to some of the wacky schemes. Scooby and Shaggy are still mostly cowardly, but they’ll sometimes roll up their sleeves and pitch themselves into a fight. Scrappy mostly plays sidekick to Flim Flam, who is the sharpest character. He’s the one with the annoying catchphrases and the “smooth” patter and the “clever” plans that frequently go awry. Depending on how well you can stomach him, it is either a good thing or a very, very bad thing that he turns into the dominant character on the show. I’ll be generous and say I’m glad he has such a big part, because he keeps the plot from bogging down.

The real scene-stealer, though, is Vincent van Ghoul. He’s an obvious caricature of Vincent Price, and Price himself voices the occult savant. It could have been a thankless part—the stiff know-it-all who give the heroes their assignments—but Price has far too much fun in the role. He is by turns hammy, plummy, sinister, buffoonish, cranky, and tickled by some of the lines he is asked to say. He single-handedly lifts every scene he’s in, and you spend the entire series wishing he were in every one.

I said above that the show is really all over the place, and that is actually the best thing about it. The earlier Scooby shows were straight mysteries inflected with comedy routines. This one, though, tosses away all pretense of mystery, horror, or chills and just tries anything for a laugh, even to the point of interrupting itself with fake news reports and interviews with a network censor who objects to earlier scenes of violence. One episode even goes for Ouroboros-like self-reference when Scooby quits the gang and they have to hire a new dog to replace him; the bad guys discover the substitution when they turn on the TV and find that The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo now stars “Bernie Gumshire.” Fans of Tiny Toons, Freakazoid, and Animaniacs will recognize the anarchic style, and will know to credit series story editor Tom Ruegger. More than anything else, it is Ruegger’s taste for aggressive unpredictability that keeps you watching. Who else would dare perch a werewolf-infested Transylvanian village in the middle of the Himalayas?

The best episodes of this 13-episode series are those that play most directly with genre conventions. In “That’s Monstertainment” the gang are sucked into a black-and-white Frankenstein movie. “It’s a Wonderful Scoob” (the one with Bernie Gumshire) parodies It’s a Wonderful Life. “Scooby in Kwackyland” drops the characters into a surprisingly stylish set of newspaper comic strips. A few of the stories try to play things straight: of these, the best are probably “When You Witch Upon a Star,” which turns the Three Stooges into a trio of incompetent witches, and “Ship of Ghouls,” which almost creates some real chills when it takes an unexpected lurch toward terror in the middle of some tame comedy routines.

The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo dates from the mid-80s, which means it is unbearably ugly to behold, and the musical score is all over the place stylistically. Price, as I noted, is always fun to listen to, and Casey Kasem still has a lot of energy as Shaggy. Most of the other stalwarts, including Don Messick, alas, were beginning to sound a little old and tired. Also, Scooby talks too much in this series, which is not a wise thing to ask of a dog character with a severe speech impediment. The two-disc set is a pretty bare-bones affair, with the only extra being an episode from Shaggy & Scooby Doo Get a Clue! (“Don’t Feed the Animals”).

The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo really isn’t a very good series, and my purism prevents me from recommending it as a Scooby Doo show. But I can give it an equivocal thumbs up as a “Tom Ruegger” show. Those who remember and like the “silver age” Warner Bros. animated series from the early nineties should probably give this series at least a quick look because of the way it anticipates those later series. Just try, as I did, to keep your expectations reined in.

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