1980's, 80's fantasy, 80s, anthology series, archetype, christopher lee, Dana Hill, David Warner, dracula, Faerie Tale Theatre, faerie tale theatre reviews, fairy tale, fairy tale adaptation, fairy tale origins, fairytale, folklore, folkloric archetype, fool, Frank Zappa, ghost, ghosts, ghoul, ghouls, Halloween, Hammer Horror, haunted, haunted castle, King, King Lear, Peter MacNicol, scary, scary 80s, scary 80s movie, scary kids movie, scary moments, scary movie for kids, scary scenes, series, series review, Shakespeare, shakesperean play, spooky, television series, the fool, the fool of the world, the six servants, Transylvania, tv, tv review, tv series, twelfth night, vampire, Vincent Price, Vlad The Impaler, zombie, zombies
“I’ve got to learn about the shivers, and this seems like such a sure thing.”
“Do you not want the treasure?”
“Treasure? What would I do with treasure?”
– Our protagonist’s reasons for seeking danger
I usually begin these reviews with a brief discussion of each fairy tale’s origin and history. This time, however, let’s talk a bit about a certain folkloric archetype: The Fool.
When I first started writing these reviews, I considered combining this episode with a later one, The Princess Who Never Laughed, because both have fools at the heart of their story. A fool’s true purpose is to provide more than just comic relief. They are uninhibited by social conventions and often maintain a childlike innocence towards the world. Through their ridiculous words and actions – or the appearance of such – they reveal truths that the characters and audience might not have discovered otherwise.
The most notable example is in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Lear’s Fool is the only one allowed to openly criticize him without repercussion thanks to phrasing his jibes to sound like harmless jokes. Perhaps if the mad monarch listened to him, his story wouldn’t have ended so tragically. Likewise, Lady Olivia’s fool Feste in the play Twelfth Night is quick to snap her out of her melancholy by pointing out the folly of grieving her late brother: “The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul being in heaven.” (Act One, Scene Five)
In other cases, the Fool demonstrates how selflessness and kindness will always outweigh strength and wit, like in the Russian folktale The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship. The story even contains the line “God loves a fool, and will turn things to their advantage in the end.” Though denigrated by his own family for his perceived simple-mindedness, this Fool is a caring soul to everyone he meets, and hits the karmic jackpot as a result: a cabal of super-powered friends, the hand of a princess, the adulation of his fellow countrymen, and of course, the only airborne schooner known to man.
The Fool archetype has gone even beyond the written word. In the tarot Major Arcana, The Fool is the first numbered card in the pack. He’s often depicted as a cheerful youth, sometimes accompanied by a dog, making his way down a sunny path without really looking where he’s going. Should The Fool wander into your tarot reading, it signifies the start of an exciting new journey in your future…or, perhaps, a fool’s errand.
This all ties into today’s episode and the story it entails. It’s another tale brought to us by the Brothers Grimm. Though there were a few variants beforehand, this iteration was directly influenced by an Arthurian story of Sir Lancelot spending a night in a haunted castle. Alternate titles in various fairy tale collections replace the word “Boy” with “Youth” or “Fool”; no matter the difference in sobriquet, it’s the same main character with the same foolish attributes. In keeping with both themes, this fool teaches us that some common fears might not be as terrible as they seem, and other things that are actually worth fearing may never have crossed our minds before…
Our story takes place in Transylvania, but don’t expect anyone to speak like Bela Lugosi in this episode. What we do get is Vincent Price returning as narrator, babeeeeeeeey!
Vincent tells us of a young man named Martin. He’s considered a fool by his superstitious family because he fears nothing and doesn’t understand their irrational rituals. The scene tries to play up Martin as a naive oddball, but his father and older brother are so afraid of every little thing that they’re the ones who come off as extreme weirdos. Owl hoots are enough to give them panic attacks and they’re even too afraid to say the “witch” in “witch hazel”. I get their environment is the kind that spawns vampires and werewolves on the regular, but when your fool is the one making sense from the very start, then you know something’s wrong.
Martin’s father mentions getting the shivers one night, which leads Martin to realize he’s never had them. Soon all he can think about is how to acquire the shivers. His dad has a talk with the local sexton, who works up a plan to scare some sense into the boy. He gives Martin a job tolling the church bells at midnight. Then the sexton shows up in a bedsheet going “boo”. Martin isn’t put off by this ploy, though. When he won’t get any answers from this weirdo who’s bothering him while he’s trying to work, Martin punches him and the sexton takes a long tumble down the steeple.
Martin’s dad is so ashamed (and probably terrified of being excommunicated) that he stuffs some money in his son’s pocket, tells him to go learn something useful, and shoves him out the door. So Martin heads off to learn about the shivers.
While ambling along the eerie roads of Uberwald he finds an advertisement about the haunted castle of King Vladimir. An evil sorcerer set a host of restless, deadly spirits loose on the castle and evicted the king. Now he’s offering his crown, treasures, and his daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who can survive three nights there and lift the curse. So far no one has come back…alive.
Martin’s convinced that if the challenge won’t teach him to shiver, then nothing will. He goes to meet his highness at his current residence, the sort of inn where the glowering patrons mutter from their pints “‘Course, nobody goes up there these days.” King Vladimir makes his entrance and UNHOLY DARKNESS IT’S CHRISTOPHER LEE!!
King Vladimir is eager to have Martin accept the challenge – but even more eager to see him fail as all his money will be forfeit to the crown. Before setting out for the castle, Martin strikes up a conversation with a pretty serving girl named Amanda. They instantly take a liking to each other. Impressed with his bravery, she lets him in on a little secret: he’s allowed to bring three inanimate objects with him to help face the castle’s haunts.
Martin arrives at his destination as night falls, carrying only some food, drink and a plate. He’s either blasé to the castle’s terrors or just misses being killed by them unawares. Amanda bravely follows Martin to try to talk him out staying and they engage in a little Abbott and Costello shenanigans. Amanda falls victim to a rotating wall and the Grim Reaper comes out of the other side. It tries to reap Martin as he searches for her. Their fight carries through the rotating wall. Amanda flees for her life as the Reaper comes for her next – but it’s only Martin who beat the Angel of Death and stole its robes and scythe for shits and giggles.
Vladimir checks in the following the morning and finds Martin lying stone cold on the floor – but like the Norwegian Blue, he’s not dead, just resting. He returns that evening and while roasting marshmallows in the fireplace, he’s treated to a ghastly sight.
The ghoulish head floats around the room chased by its headless body. Martin is simply amused by its antics, however. In fact, he’s the one who gives the ghoul a good shrieking lesson. The ghoul’s friends enter via the fireplace, shove snakes and bugs in his face, and then entrap him in the middle of a axe-juggling circle while breathing fire, but he remains nonplussed.
Rather let down by this show of bemusement, the ghouls do some bowling using bones and skulls. Martin turns out to be skilled in the game and has a grand old time playing with them. By the end of the night, he and the ghouls have become friends.
Back at the tavern Martin gripes to Amanda that he hasn’t learned to shiver yet. Once again Amanda urges him to consider his safety; she had a terrifying dream that the sorcerer himself appeared on the final night to kill Martin. This only pushes Martin to see the challenge to its end.
Martin doesn’t have long to wait for the sorcerer at the castle. He arrives via coffin and taunts Martin for his heroics thus far. The sorcerer attacks Martin with some telekinesis (“There goes a perfectly good antique”) and tries to frighten him into submission with visions of him being roasted over the fire. When that fails, he fires some static light beams from his hands.
Also, plot twist: Christopher Lee was the bad guy all along. I know, shocking, right?
Martin finally uses one of his chosen objects to reflect a beam back at him with the plate. Martin leaps upon the incapacitated sorcerer and rolls him up in a rug. Then he jumps on him and tickles him into submission.
Yes, you read that right. Our hero defeats Christopher Fucking Lee…by tickling him.
When the sorcerer lets slip that the castle is his, Martin realizes that the sorcerer is King Vladimir. He haunted his own castle because he was afraid of losing his daughter. That’s an awful lot of effort to go into being an overprotective dad. Vladimir concedes to Martin like a good sport and lifts the curse.
So Martin’s rich and next in line for the throne, but still shiver-less, to his dismay. Then he learns that Amanda was the princess all along. She says she already has her wedding dress and their children’s names picked out. As she goes on about wedding plans, Martin begins to sweat…and realizes that he’s shivering! So the boy who left home to find out about the shivers finally does, and learns that what really scares him is growing up and falling in love, which is a perfectly ordinary thing.
The castle and surrounding land are restored to their former glory, and Amanda and Martin wed. All should be well, but one day Martin finds Amanda feeling a little bit sad for no particular reason. “I’ve just got the blues,” she sighs. Intrigued, Martin wanders off to learn how to get the blues.
I could see myself as being a little afraid of this episode if I saw it at a young age. That said, Martin is an excellent hero for children to follow through this adventure thanks to his optimism and unwitting courage in the face of things that might frighten them. The acting is great, Christopher Lee is his usual professional charismatic self, the effects are deliciously cheesy, and the settings and cinematography lend moments of eerie gothic beauty.
The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers is easily one of my top ten favorite episodes of Faerie Tale Theatre and a must-watch during the Halloween season. It gets my highest recommendation.
- And the award for Faerie Tale Theatre Episode With The Longest Title goes to…
- In the original fairy tale, our fool doesn’t learn to shiver by discovering what he’s really afraid of. He does when his wife dumps a bucket of cold slimy pond water on him. I actually prefer the versions where the fool shivers after learning his fear is something personal. It shows that everyone is afraid of something, and that’s okay.
- There’s a quick modern joke during the bowling scene where a neon “Jackpot” sign lights up after a strike. A little levity helps lighten the tension so I welcome this moment of anachronism.
- The innkeeper makes preparations for Martin’s funeral as they go over the contract, hammering in the fact that this is a challenge that has claimed many before him.
- Thanks to the casting of both Vincent Price and Christopher Lee, one could view this outing as a minor Hammer Horror reunion. If they had gotten Peter Cushing and Michael Gough in there somehow, this would have been the top-ranking episode of the series.
- The innkeeper drops that King Vladimir is the son of Vlad the Impaler, who served as inspiration for Dracula. Of course, Christopher Lee would know a bit about Dracula…
- Sir Christopher Lee was also directly descended from royalty through Charlemagne, which makes him playing a king feel even more apropos.
Hey, Was That…: Martin is character actor Peter MacNicol. Princess Amanda is Dana Hill, the voice of Max on Goof Troop. Rock and roll legend Frank Zappa is Igor, King Vladimir’s hunchbacked servant. Though he doesn’t get any lines, his physical comedy and mime are great. The innkeeper is the late great David Warner. The Sexton is none other than Stu Pickles himself, Jack Riley. Actor-turned entertainment publicist Gary Springer plays Martin’s older brother. Character actor and voice actor Jeff Corey is Martin’s father. Faerie Tale Theatre alumnus Gary Schwartz plays the headless ghoul. While he’s not credited in the episode, renowned Hollywood stuntman Regis Parton plays the Grim Reaper. Director Graeme Clifford previously directed the Little Red Riding Hood episode of Faerie Tale Theatre.
Who’s The Artist?: While I couldn’t find an artist whose work directly influenced the episode, it resembles your typical Hammer Horror movie; knowing who stars in it, I’m unsure whether to chalk that up to a coincidence or not.
Better Or Worse Than…?: The closest adaptation I could find is Fearnot from Jim Henson’s The Storyteller, which does have the slight edge over this by virtue of featuring John Hurt and some amazing puppetry. On that note, Muppets Haunted Mansion also works as a reimagining of this story: Gonzo is our fearless fool, he meets the mansion’s 999 terrors with glee, but ultimately discovers and faces his true fears in a meaningful way.
Ranking: The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the shivers gets the new Number Four spot between Tale of the Frog Prince and Snow White. Let’s celebrate with drinks!
Next time on Faerie Tale Theatre Reviews, anyone in the mood for some ham? It’s The Three Little Pigs with a cast that will leave you howling.
Thank you for reading! Faerie Tale Theatre reviews are posted on the 6th of each month. Special thanks to my generous patrons Amelia Jones, Sam Flemming and Robert Barnette. Anyone who joins the Patreon party can get such fun perks as sneak peeks of reviews, extra votes, movie requests and more!
The Library Key said:
For some reason, I find the inn scene, despite the fact that the innkeeper and King Vladimir are so blatantly planning Martin’s funeral, kind of calming. Maybe it’s the unintentional ASMR of the fire and the general sounds of the inn, who knows? But indeed, it’s great to see some great horror stars and character actors performing this story! 🙂
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