Casebusters Revisited

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

There are few greater feelings than when you happily throw away your schedule or plan for a column because you found a hidden gem so bizarre and so obscure it’s been barely written about until the moment it became available for everyone on Disney+. This column was born in part out of sheer morbid curiosity for the many, many, many weird titles that were announced in the massive Twitter thread Disney used to hype up its launching library of streaming titles, and few movies represent the spirit of this column more than Casebusters. 

Whether a hidden gem or a forgotten disaster, that’s up to you to decide, but the mere fact that this movie exists is reason enough to make you curious about it. After all, it’s a Disney TV movie directed by one of the great horror filmmakers, only two years after A Nightmare on Elm Street unleashed hell onto our collective nightmares. 

So let’s revisit the tamest movie Wes Craven ever directed.

The Pitch

There is not a lot of information out there about Casebusters, but it’s a 46-minute film made in 1986 as an episode of the anthology series The Disney Sunday Movie, a continuation of The Wonderful World of Disney. What we do know about is director Wes Craven. Though the horror director famously used the success of Scream to direct a drama starring Maryl Streep (more on that later), Craven had previously been trying to step away from the genre that made him famous, and prove that he could make a kid-friendly film.

His first attempt was Deadly Friend, which was also released in 1986. That film deals with a teenage kid who puts a robot’s brain in the head of a recently deceased girl. Craven originally wanted to make a science fiction thriller with a dark love story at its center, at least partially inspired by John Carpenter’s criminally underrated Starman. The intent was to get away from his reputation as a director of violent films, so Craven wanted Deadly Friend to be PG-rated. Of course, the studio wasn’t too keen on this, specially after the huge success of A Nightmare on Elm Street. So, after disappointing test screenings, Warner Bros. insisted in adding scenes of ridiculous gore and horror to the finished film, which ended up being a box office flop.

Whatever Wes Craven’s reason to say yes to the job, Casebusters was made and broadcasted on May 25, 1986 – the same day that marked the start of the Hands Across America campaign seen at the start of Jordan Peele’s Us. The made-for-TV film, like most other under-an-hour-long films Disney made in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, seems to have been meant to be the pilot for a TV show that never came to be. The story concerns Jamie (Noah Hathaway of The NeverEnding Story) and his sister Allie (Virginya Keehne), who is obsessed with detective novels. The pair is visiting their grandfather Sam (Pat Hingle) who happens to be a private investigator and also the only competent cop in town. After an incident involving a local punk named “Ski” (Gary Riley), the kids discover a counterfeiting scheme and set out to stop it.

The Movie

Casebusters is a strange fit in Craven’s filmography in many ways. Beyond the lack of brutal and bloody death scenes, the film looks entirely sanitized, lit like an episode of Full House. Though the plot is very simple, it’s not the worst pilot for a potential show for kids, as Casebusters literally begins with a prolonged illustrated title sequence set to Hall & Oat’s “Private Eyes,” with zippy illustrations of its main cast to remind you of who you are supposed to follow through the movie’s 46-minute runtime. And as if you weren’t aware that the movie was made in the ‘80s, the movie moves from Hall & Oat to songs by Madonna, The Pointer Sisters as well as a pretty good rendition of Weird Al Yankovic’s “Eat It.”

It being a made-for-TV movie that could serve as a pilot, most of the cast is pretty much unknown, with the exception of Noah Hathaway from The NeverEnding Story. He won’t break your heart with an emotional scene this time around, as he takes a bit of a step back and leaves the more meatier role to Keehne’s Allie, who is obsessed with detective stories and takes a more central role while the private eye played by Pat Hingle is the most unexpectedly kind and gentle private investigator this side of Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. The fact that Hingle would go on to play Commissioner Gordon in Tim Burton’s Batman is just the icing on the cake.

Even if the movie is aimed towards kids and isn’t really a horror story, Craven still manages to craft some memorable suspense sequences. The first one finds the kids entering a spooky old house to look for their grandpa’s dog. The house looks like it could be from any other Wes Craven film, and the late director manages to make the short trip through the house’s old, dark halls and staircases feel menacing and tense.

Seeing how the movie came out at a time when Disney was going through a dark period, making bold, inventive and outright disturbing movies, it seems baffling that the one project they would hire Wes Craven to do would be as wholesome and whimsical as this. That Casebusters came out just two months before The Great Mouse Detective would give us the absolutely terrifying and nightmare-inducing villains that are Ratigan and his pompous pet cat Felicia, and just a year after the double-punch of Return to Oz and The Black Cauldron.

That being said, it seems like Craven also used this opportunity to teach himself how to do car crashes, as there are no less than three (!) car chases in the film, all set to upbeat pop songs. And if you want to know how bizarre and kid-friendly this is, Allie blackmails a guy into helping them chase down the bad guys by threatening him with a fine for dumping garbage in the middle of the street. 

The Legacy

Just like with Justin Morgan Had a Horse last week, the biggest question regarding Casebusters being on Disney+ seems to be: why? The answer seems to be: because Wes Craven. But that doesn’t even begin to answer who approached Craven, what exactly they offered, and why he took the job. 

Shortly after this film, Craven would be offered the chance to direct a horror movie called The Maitlands, about a couple that dealt with the bothers of the afterlife, and a reptilian demon with wings that would interact with them. Following several rewrites and a change in director, the movie would be released as Beetlejuice. Likewise, Craven was also originally tapped by Cannon Films to direct Superman IV: The Quest for Peace but reportedly, Craven and Christopher Reeve didn’t get along, and the actor demanded that a new director be brought in. 

Wes Craven did want to do completely different things that weren’t horror movies, and it seems like he tried. Still, it wouldn’t be until 1999 that Craven would direct Meryl Streep to an Academy Award nomination with Music of the Heart.

As for Casebusters? Though the story never made it to series, in 1995 Disney did release a series of affiliated novels in conjunction to their Disney Adventures magazine. The novel series had a supernatural angle and featured two brother detectives rather than a brother/sister duo. Though it sort-of makes more sense to have had Craven direct those stories instead of the one we got, Casebusters still is one of the most bizarre titles available on Disney+. 

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