I am a stone cold advocate of seeing animation as a medium, and not as a genre. Animation has the potential to do any genre in its own unique way that only animation can do. Yet, with that said, there are certain genres it does have trouble with or that I feel haven’t been explored well enough within the medium. One of those genres is horror. I love horror movies, and I love animation, but the amount of truly scary pieces of animation I’ve seen are far to few. So today for our Toons of Terror segment, let’s view a Halloween special that’s dripping with the tropes and tricks used in classic horror filmmaking. The show is Avatar: The Last Airbender, and the episode is simply called The Puppetmaster.
I’ll try to keep this review as spoiler free as I can, as this episode is in the final season of the show, and at this point is rather deep into the overarching story. But let me say this: if you haven’t seen this show already GO WATCH THIS SHOW!! It’s one of the best cartoons I’ve seen in recent memory, and one of the best adventure shows of all time.
Now, with that said, this episode in question, while not technically a Halloween special, did premiere around Halloween of 2007 and is creepy as shit, so I’ll let it slide. The episode centers around the Avatar crew as they attempt to solve a mystery of people disappearing from a town every time there is a full moon. It’s a simple set up, but what separates this episode from being less Scooby-Doo like and more like a true horror film is the way they execute the events. It’s all in the delivery.
Now, since this still is an all ages show, they couldn’t get away with anything too gruesome, but that doesn’t mean they wern’t allowed to create the same atmosphere as done in a live action horror movie. In horror, what we can imagine is usually what’s the most frightening. Often times in film (especially early and indie horror filmes,) the budget would usually limit what you could show the audition, and that would actually be beneficial as the audition would fill in the blanks with their own fears. In animation, it’s a lot easier to just show big flashy things, cause it would essentially coast more or less the same than other scenes. But here in this episode, they wisely choose to show less, and tell more, letting our imaginations run wild. The very first scene is the kids telling each other ghost stories, and then Toph (the blind one of the group) tells others she could hear people screaming under the mountain followed by silence. They don’t show any of this, we’re just told. Our imaginations fill in the rest, and that’s just the first 5 minutes of this amazing episode. Creepy sounds and music (or sometimes lack there of) would make things feel very ominous. The storyboarding would show us just enough to wet our appetite for curiosity. Hell, there’s even some very sublet (almost subliminal) creepy imaginy, such as a random old woman’s face in a head of cabbage.
And if that weren’t enough, the episode is also a big character moment for the character of Katara, and it actually answers some big questions I had about the show’s premis of “water bending.” But that’s getting into spoilerish territory, so again I’ll just say go and watch this one if you haven’t already. It’s a bold move for a “kid’s show” to do a episode meant to be frightening, and I feel it paid off for them in a very, very big way.