Welcome back to another edition of Almost Horror, where we search the furthest reaches of the cinema’s outer banks and carefully pluck the least likely horror films from the sea of millions to explore what makes them scarier honorary members of this very cool club we call horror.
This month, we’re diving into a dark crime comedy that made audiences laugh (when they really should be shivering) with its twisted but wacky take on corruption, greed, celebrity, kid’s tv shows, and of course, murder. When it comes to making kids smile, there’s only room for one entertainer in Danny DeVito’s Death to Smoochy (2002).
THE DIRTY TRUTH BEHIND KID’S TV
Children’s TV shows. We were raised on them. From the early days of Howdy Doody (1947 – 1955) to today’s adventures of Danger Force (premiered 2020), it has been seventy-some odd years of programming for kids, and during those years, there has always been scandals tucked away in some dark corner, footnoted by network coverups and Hollywood fixers.
In Death to Smoochy, the main plot plays on this very trope as alcoholic tv personality Rainbow Randolph, played by the late great Robin Williams (One Hour Photo, 2002), finds himself in a pickle as a bribery scandal ruins his illustrious career. But when desperation takes hold, Randolph sinks deeper into the depths of booze and hatred, ultimately plotting to ruin his successor; the squeaky-clean, purple rhinoceros Smoochy, AKA Sheldon Mopes, played by Edward Norton (Red Dragon, 2002).
In fact, Randolph succeeds in taking Smoochy out by tricking him into playing a Neo-Nazi rally, thus branding him as a racist. But after Randolph accidentally admits to setting Mopes up, Smoochy regains his show and Rainbow Randolph is once again out in the cold. Sordid, yeah? Very.
MURDER, MAYHEM & MOOCHY
As the plot unfolds and more players are introduced, Smoochy finds his show being taken over by some nefarious and unscrupulous characters, one of them being Irish mob boss Tommy Cotter, played by Pam Ferris (The Raven, 2012). Cotter persuades Mopes to bring her former boxer and currently, brain-damaged cousin Spinner Dunn, played by Michael Rispoli (Summer of sam, 1999), on as a regular character on the show. Spinner eventually becomes Smoochy’s cousin, Moochy, the blood-red rhinoceros.
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When corrupt agent Burke Bennet (DeVito) and even more corrupt charity head Merv Green, played by Harvey Fierstein (The Harvest, 1992), plot to kill a non-compliant Mopes after he refuses a shady Smoochy On Ice deal, they end up killing Spinner after spotting him in his Moochy suit. In fact, if you watch the scene where Spinner’s body is dropped onto the street, there is a puddle beside it. Reflecting in that puddle is the Chinese character for “death.”
Of course, Dunn’s cousin Cotter finds out and has Merv and several of his goons whacked. But later on, Burke is back with Randolph’s former agent Marion Frank Stokes, played by John Stewart (The Faculty, 1998), and they attempt to kill Mopes one more time. For a comedy about kids’ shows, there’s a whole lotta killin‘ goin’ on.
FIVE MONTHS BEFORE 9/11 AND THE SEXCAPADES
To add some real-life terror to this horror movie in waiting is a scene where Robin William’s Randolph dances on a bench in Duane Park, Duane Street, Lower Manhattan. Since the scene was shot five months before the 9/11 attacks, some fans have theorized that at 51:15 during the dance scene, Williams holds his hand above his head in the shape of an airplane and one of the World Trade Center towers can be seen behind it, effectively predicting the attacks that would topple the towers a mere five months later. Coincidence? Most likely.
Death to Smoochy is not without one of horror’s biggest tropes- sex. Smoochy ends up hooking up with his show producer Nora Wells, played by Catherine Keener (Get Out, 2017),who, also hooked up with Randolph. It seems Nora has a bit of a rep when it comes to the hosts of the children’s shows she produces. In fact, there are many hosts that she has bedded besides Mopes, including Randolph.
THRILLER IN A RHINO SUIT
There are enough twists, turns, and thrills to easily place Death to Smoochy into the horror/thriller lexicon. I mean, the murder alone is enough to make this a bonafide thriller, but add in the scandalous sex, the odious characters at every turn, and the terrifying mascot suits that these children entertainers wear and you have yourself a full-on horror show. Honestly, kids’ show mascots are downright horrifying. Don’t believe me? Just Google H.R. Pufnstuf (1969). Nightmare fuel.
Not only are we forced to watch Ed Norton dance around in a purple rhino suit for one hundred and nine minutes but they also throw in Rainbow Randolph who is a painted face away from full-on clown-mode, and we all know how horrendously horrifying clowns are. But wait, there’s more! Yet another former children’s show host who was fired for his love of heroin, Buggy Ding Dong, played by the late Vincent Schiavelli (Lords of Illusion, 1995), is thrown in the mix as a gun-toting sniper with a penchant for blacking out. This is the stuff of hellscapes, folks.
THE CELEBRITY MONSTER
While on the surface Death to Smoochy is about greed and corruption, way down deep in its stuffed rhino heart, it’s about the trappings of celebrity and what that power can do to even the kindest of souls. Sheldon Mopes spends the beginning of the movie with the greatest intentions and the kindest of hearts but as soon as the ‘biz’ gets ahold of him, it begins to twist him into a person capable of doing the outrageously evil things that everyone else in the film is trying to do to him.
ADS ARE SCARY
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Even Williams’ Rainbow Randolph, in all of his degrading trappings, did his show for the love of the children in the beginning. It was his celebrity that transformed him into the terrible troll we meet in the opening scene, grubbing for cash out of the pockets of his very own fanbase, blinded by greed, fueled by the devil’s water, and losing sight of what his show is all about.
THAT’S ALL FOLKS
So there you have it, kids. It’s easy to see that the dark underbelly of Death to Smoochy, as hilariously pulpy as it is, reads just like a Hollywood horror/thriller. Name one, any of them and they all sit well within the Smoochy guidelines. In fact, the only thing keeping this cleverly disguised horror flick from being its truly horrific self is the comedy. Not to say that comedy can’t be in a horror picture. mind you. I suppose it’s all in the marketing, and it’s clear that this one was playing for laughs, not scares.
What do you think, Horror Fam? Does Death to Smoochy belong in horror’s hallowed halls or is it merely a comedy with a decidedly dark streak? Let us know over at our Nightmare on Film Street Twitter, Subreddit, and Horror Movie Fiend Club page on Facebook. We’re open twenty-four hours so swing by any time! Until then, fellow fiends… Stay creepy!