‘Kenny & Co.’ This was Halloween

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“First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.”

So goes the familiar opening sentence of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bradbury would go on to tell a scary tale imbued in the promise of Halloween.

Don Coscarelli, a director who would become known for his horror movies, told a gentler tale illustrating the special feeling that October holds for boys and also imbued in the promise of Halloween.

The movie is Coscarelli’s first, Kenny & Company, a microbudgeted 1976 slice of life that follows 11-year-old Kenny (Dan McCann) through the three days leading up to Halloween. Because Coscarelli had no higher ambition than showing what it was like to be a young boy in mid-1970s suburbia, Kenny & Co. captures its era better than any film I’ve seen. I know. I was there.

When I watch Kenny & Co., I see my childhood. Not in specifics, but in the general sweep. You see how groups of two or three boys would join in bonds of firm friendship and spend after-school hours roaming their neighborhood on bicycles with banana seats and high-rise handlebars. Any little discovery could turn into an adventure. Our parents sort of knew where we were, but they didn’t worry. We’d make it home in time for dinner.

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What Kenny & Co. especially gets right is the anticipation of Halloween. In the 1970s Halloween still belonged to children. It was the one night of the year that kids had to themselves. It was our night to dress up like our favorite characters, to take to the streets and see what costumes the other neighbor kids were wearing. And it was our night to get lots and lots of candy! Halloween was our day of privilege. Adults hadn’t yet claimed it as another excuse to party. Miller and Budweiser hadn’t yet coopted it from Hershey and Brachs and whoever made Necco Wafers.There were no sexy nurse costumes, only sexy nurses. And we didn’t care about sexy nurses yet. We were kids.

Halloween doesn’t dominate the early part of Kenny & Co. (except for the laughing, animated jack-o’-lantern in the title sequence), but Kenny and his friends are preparing for it. They are getting their costumes together and deciding which houses to visit. They are at that wonderful age where they are old enough to go trick-or-treating without a parental supervision, yet they are still young enough to trick-or-treat without cynicism. (They’re not the kids without costumes who show up on your doorstep with a pillowcase.)

The climax of Kenny’s Halloween is a dare to enter the scary house on the block. Every neighborhood had a house the local kids thought was haunted. These houses were usually occupied by eccentric old women, and kids were convinced they were witches. I remember the house in my neighborhood. It was a stone house, and the stones were set in a wavy pattern. So of course a witch lived there. Years later this house would be on my paper route, and the suspected witch turned out to be a sweet old lady, though she was a bit eccentric.

The house in Kenny & Co. is also occupied by an old lady, but not a sweet one. The house becomes the site of some raucous slapstick, which is about the only thing that rings false in the movie. Coscarelli wants to wrap it up with a memorable ending, so a bit of genuine peril and obvious storytelling can be forgiven.

As I indicated, much of Kenny & Co. isn’t about Halloween, it’s about being an 11-year-old boy. The film is more a series of episodes than a story, and the episodes feel real. I was disappointed in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, despite Linklater’s experiment of filming his subject, Ellar Coltrane, over a period of 13 years. Boyhood betrayed its title. Boyhood isn’t about boyhood, it’s about the sadder aspects of adulthood as seen through a boy’s eyes. I was hoping Boyhood would be Kenny & Co. on an epic scale, because Kenny & Co. is truly about boyhood.

There are no abusive parents in Kenny & Co., nor any unhappy ones or divorced ones. A lack of parental drama allows Coscarelli to keep his focus on the kids. The parents in Kenny & Co. are benign presences of authority and wisdom. Yet they don’t have all the answers, and their advice isn’t always the best. When Kenny asks his dad (James E. dePriest) how to deal with a bully, his father gives the usual response that bullies are cowards at heart and will back down once you fight back. Kenny tries this, and it doesn’t work.

Kenny & Co. is more concerned with observations than story. Coscarelli’s script has a couple of arcs: Kenny trying to outwit the local bully, a mainstay of all children’s drama, and Kenny working up the nerve to hold hands with the girl he likes, Marcy (Terri Kalbus). Can you imagine a modern film where a boy’s romantic goal is just holding hands? But the first time you hold hands with a girl is a big moment, and Kenny & Co. remembers it well.

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For the rest of Kenny & Co., Coscarelli spies on Kenny and his best friend Doug (Michael Baldwin) as they get up to mischief. The pair have a Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn air to them. Kenny is the fair-haired all-American boy who is good at heart but has a slight inclination toward trouble-making. Doug is the dark-haired, fearless sidekick who challenges authority and knows how to exploit his friend’s slight inclination toward trouble-making.

These two are no angels, and some of their behavior is alarming. Right after Kenny tells his dad that the local bully ripped his shirt, he and Doug convince their annoying younger friend Sherman (Jeff Roth) that a paper bag is filled with candy when actually there’s a mousetrap at the bottom. The mousetrap trick seems a whole lot meaner than a ripped shirt. The worst of their pranks is leaving a lifelike dummy in the street so motorists think either or corpse or a drunk is blocking their path.

Keep track of the number of times Kenny and his friends nearly get themselves or others killed, and you realize this movie could not be made today. Studio bosses would freak out over Kenny and Doug’s reckless skateboarding. But again, Coscarelli is being honest. Kids believe they are invincible and do stupid things. I used to ride my bike through piles of burning leaves in the fall.

Kenny & Co. was probably the second film after Bad News Bears where kids swore. Unlike in Bad News Bears, the swearing wasn’t for shock effect. It merely reflected how kids talked then.

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Kenny & Co. took a wayward route to cult status. It barely had a theatrical release and probably would be forgotten if it weren’t for HBO. The pay-cable movie network was still fairly young in the mid-1970s, not even offering 24 hours of programming, and while it advertised the previous year’s box-office hits, it needed cheaper films to fill its schedule. It needed movies such as Kenny & Co. Sometime around 1978 or 1979, HBO picked up Kenny & Co. and ran it in what MTV would later call “heavy rotation.” My friends and I watched it many times, and it was an instant hit with us.  Here was a movie about boys just like us. We quoted it: “How many pumps should I give it? Ten!”

Check out the comments and reviews under the Kenny & Co. IMDB page, and you’ll see most of its fans remember watching it on HBO, and watching it often. After its surge on HBO, Kenny & Co. would be lost again until 2005, when Anchor Bay released the movie on DVD. It’s a worthy disc, with commentary from Coscarelli and a making-of feature, but the DVD is out of print now and even used copies aren’t cheap. I’m sure it will wind up on a streaming service soon, if it isn’t already. It’s worth searching for.

There’s a home-movie quality to Kenny & Co. that actually benefits the film. Coscarelli was only 21 when he made the movie, barely a decade older than his stars. He shot around his own boyhood haunts in Long Beach, Calif. He didn’t have the budget to build sets or hire professional actors (fortunately, McCann and Baldwind have an ease before the camera). Coscarelli filmed the movie with a “What you see is what you get” attitude, and what he got was the unvarnished ’70s. Filmmakers such as Linklater strive for the naturalism that Coscarelli achieves in Kenny & Co., a naturalism that was his only choice.

The phrase “time capsule” crops up often in those IMDB reviews, and that may be the greatest gift of Kenny & Co. It is as pure a glimpse into the past as you’re likely to find, and part of that view is crisp remembrance of Halloween when it still was all about the kids.

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