Halloween means several things to me, but one of the most prominent of them is reminiscing on past Halloweens. There’s something about the holiday that just makes someone think about all the different ways its been celebrated in the past and the traditions that have evolved over time. For instance, there was a time when I couldn’t imagine not carving a pumpkin around this time of year. But now with the general situation of apartment living, it’s become pretty impractical. And when I was younger, I couldn’t give a shit about watching commercials from one or even several years before, but now that’s something I care about deeply. Nostalgia’s a funny thing, especially in the rampant pit of capitalism that is the United States.
When I think back on old Halloween season commercials, though, as taken as I am by the candy and old ads for McDonald’s coupons or the haunting notion of hot dogs stuffed with Hormel Chili, I can’t help but always let my mind wander beyond that. After all, my childhood was filled with creepy things and memories, October be damned.
Keeping that in mind, I thought it would be fun to take a walk down memory lane that feels perfectly in tune with the spooky season, highlight some of the commercials that accompanied creepy, weird and often misguided toys—in the best way possible, of course. There’s a lot I wanted to include on this list, but didn’t have space for, and even more that I wanted to include but never got a commercial at all.
That one’s a real crime. Some stuff, like McFarlane’s Movie Maniacs would make sense not to have an ad on TV, you don’t usually see that sort of thing for the collector’s market. But X-Men: Monster Armor? Man, I was really hoping there was a commercial for that out there somewhere. If you’re unfamiliar, it was a perfectly unsuccessful attempt to save a dying toy line and it was absolutely the Halloween special of the X-Men action figures of the ‘90s, I don’t care how they marketed it. Every figure included titular monster armor that you could clip onto each X-Man, effectively dressing them up in a Halloween costume.
Still, I think we’ve got a pretty good lineup here. Some heavy hitters and some obscure gems, some stuff you’ll immediately think of and some stuff that I hope you won’t, for the purpose of your own discovery and enjoyment, if nothing else. Here are ten great, weird, old spooky toy commercials.
Aliens Action Figures
Ah, Aliens. Those lovable Xenomorphs, nightmare creatures with two sets of teeth and acid for blood who gestate inside your own body and come chewing their way out of your chest in a bloody mess upon birth. And here was the toy series marketed to children. Which worked on me, by the way. The Bull Alien is actually the very first action figure I can ever remember buying and I have a very distinct image in my mind of holding the toy in one hand while holding an unopened package of Planters’ PB Crisps in the other while standing in the action figure aisle at Toys ‘R Us.
In fact, I had most of the toys that made up this series, which was actually based on a cartoon spinoff that never made it to air rather than the movie itself. The Aliens themselves were a neat take on the idea that they would take on traits of every kind of creature they gestated inside of, creating all kinds of imaginative hybrids like the Snake Alien, Scorpion Alien, Mantis Alien, etc.
Tales from the Crypt Cryptkeeper Doll
Tales from the Crypt and Goosebumps were absolutely made for different audiences, though you certainly wouldn’t be able to tell that from the marketing alone. Both were spooky stories that seemed full of wordplay, embracing the inherent fun of creepy and weird things. But Tales from the Crypt was full of gore, gruesome monsters, major A-list talent and about as much nudity as you’d find on late night Cinemax.
Even still, the Cryptkeeper became a pop culture phenomenon. He got a cartoon spinoff for kids (which led to its own action figure series) and a game show. And he got this doll, like Freddy Krueger before him, spouting off all the memorable puns from the show so that you could take him on the go and have a gruesome dad joke at the ready for any occasion.
Mighty Max is an incredible, minor ‘90s phenomenon. This was a toy series that spawned both a cartoon and a video game and yet, even when you talk to people about old, nostalgic shows, nobody remembers this one. Which is a shame, because it was so great and so very ‘90s. On the most basic level, Mighty Max was in essence the “boy version” of Polly Pocket. Instead of opening a makeup case to find a world of pretty delights, boys would open a skull or a snake to find any kind of gruesome scenario inside. Of course that wouldn’t stop girls from playing with them, or boys playing with Polly Pocket. I encourage both.
The skull, for instance, opened up to reveal a mini play set of Frankenstein’s lab. Each actual figure was so small it would probably be lost after minutes of play, but they were still cool nonetheless. The cartoon helped to cement the mythology as Max traveled around through time thanks to a magic baseball cap, all while being chased down by the evil Skullmaster—voiced of course by Tim Curry.
Burger King Universal Monsters Toys
I feel like these have become noticed more and more over the last few years, thanks to the Internet and other, better writers shedding some light on them. But I remember these incredibly fondly. I was a kid who still got happy meals when these came out. And I was also a huge Universal Monsters kid. There was no better time to be one, too. Between these toys and the VHS re-releases, we also had coloring and activity books, watches, you name it. Classic horror was on the map for modern kids in a way I truly took for granted. But even as a young kid I was stunned that the classic monsters wound up getting their own Burger King happy meals.
I had three out of the four, and not only is it amazing they even existed, but they were actually pretty good toys, to boot. These are things I would happily have paid five bucks apiece for in the toy store. Each one was a legitimate action figure, with Dracula and Wolf Man busting out of a coffin and cellar, respectively, while the Creature spat water and Frankenstein’s Monster’s whole body would light up when you pressed a button.
Monster Face is another early ‘90s classic that has been dusted off by the Internet recently. This is another one that I remember well on one level. On another, I really don’t. I had Monster Face, and he was everything creepy that I loved and I should have only felt joy in his presence but I got him for Christmas when I was fucking four. During the daylight hours, Monster Face was a source of goopy fun as I made his weird special snot mixture drip from his open nose cavity. At night, he kept me inside my Transformers bed tent, nearly peeing my pants because I did not want to get up to go to the bathroom and risk him looking back at me in the darkness.
I actually still have a vivid memory of being terrified under the covers during a thunderstorm, watching the silhouetted form of Monster Face because of course he was kept by the window, and seeing him illuminated by a strike of lightning with his eyes somehow turned directly toward me. Sure, you could blame the cat for shifting his eyes like that, but I didn’t believe that then and a part of me doesn’t even believe it now.
Goosebumps Taco Bell Toys
Goosebumps toys were a weird, weird thing in the ‘90s. This was an age, after all, where everything under the sun—from Waterworld to Dick Tracy—was given its own action figure series. Goosebumps had hand puppets and clothing and board games and PC games, head squirters and literally everything but an action figure series. It was almost like they kept being involved in uneasy marketing phone calls that never went anywhere, with each person waiting for the other to mention it because they didn’t want to mention it first, like an awkward couple trying to ask each other to prom.
There was no real specific toy line to follow if you wanted weird and wacky Goosebumps memorabilia. You pretty much had to wait for something magical to announce itself and that is, to be sure, what this Taco Bell commercial did.
Puppet Master: The Action Figure Series
Remember how I said collector’s toys typically didn’t get commercials? Well, Puppet Master was a huge exception to that. Based on a successful horror series that had still always been direct-to-video, it was a surprising toy line in general, even if the concept was obviously perfect. But when the first two figures, Blade and Six-Shooter, were released in 1997, they sold like crazy. That allowed for more retailers, more exclusive variants, and even a commercial. And it might be one of my favorite things ever recorded. It makes no illusion about what it is, but it tries to sell you so hard on the joy and the fun of these grotesque creations and by God it does.
This commercial drives home what you (me) tried so hard to convince your parents of at the time: that these figures were meant to be played with by children. Unlike the McFarlane Movie Maniacs figures, the Puppet Master toys actually had action features. Light up eyes, spinning drills, wiggling leeches, you name it. Even if this commercial mostly accompanied parent company Full Moon’s movie releases, it’s a worthy entry and it’s just pure bliss.
A cute Frankenstein Monster in an orange jumper, Big Frank was another toy I was very happy to own as a little kid and unlike Monster Face, he didn’t scare the hell out of me. At the time, I thought there was nothing morbid about the big guy at all. It’s only now that the toy has had a minor Internet resurgence that I think back on how much time I spent as a kid opening up a cadaver’s head and chest cavity to think how much fun I could have inside. It wasn’t gory in there, by any stretch, though. This toy was catered to small children, smaller than probably anything else on this list.
In fact, Big Frank is probably single-handedly to blame for my young assumption that Frankenstein’s Monster was actually a robot created in a lab, rather than a living being stitched together from an assembly of dead body parts.