Harry Potter on Halloween

Horse-drawn carriages can be seen making their way to the black castle of Hogwarts, drenched in thick fog and a glimmer of moonlight. Sheaths of rain torrent down into sloshing puddles on the cold earth. A single crow emerges into the scene and perches atop a sign in-frame that reads “Hogsmeade.” “Something wicked this way comes,” a choir of witches and wizards trills in unison, cradling big fat toads that croak along with the haunting, but jubilant tune.

Indeed, something wicked does come quite quick in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a major franchise installment so drenched in distinct silky style laden with the comforts of a crisp fall day, it is regarded by many as the best film in the series due to director Alfonso Cuarón’s unique vision and genuine artistic flair. With the only director of any Harry Potter film to really lean into the standard sensibilities of a narrative marked by magic and ghosts, the film ends up reading as a love letter to October, to Halloween, and to the entire season of autumn. 

Though Prisoner of Azkaban finds itself merely treading lightly through the fall months before spending the majority of the film in winter and spring, it’s as if the seasons never really change. Care is put into every slight gasp of chilled air and crackling leaf, as grey skies and sprawling wilderness scenes abound and uplift the children’s franchise film into art with a well-defined personality (one mimicked with each subsequent film in its aftermath, nonetheless). The mainstays of Halloween become like another setting of the film.

A Unique Touch

The third film of eight in the book-adapted series about teenaged wizard Batman avenging his parents, it should be noted that Prisoner of Azkaban similarly feels like the most contained of the Harry Potter stories. No year-ending final duel with an incarnate of Lord Voldemort, the movie focuses on Harry in his search for the murderous Sirius Black, looking to, as per usual, avenge his parents. Though Voldemort’s presence is ever-implied (Black wrongly thought to have been a servant of Voldemort’s), the third installment is the only one which negates him entirely in favor of focus on Black as the main antagonist. Perhaps, that’s partly why the film works so smoothly as a unique and genuinely unparalleled chapter of the major Hollywood franchise, but it’s also due to the fact that Cuarón helped to make the film into something of a haunted theme park ride more than anything else.

The film is often frantic and, all at once, restrained – like going slowly upwards on a rollercoaster before plummeting through the loop-the-loops. At every turn, another haunted house creature appears, like a creepy hunchbacked henchman, snarky shrunken heads, or a skeletal werewolf. Hermione’s sneaky cat, Crookshanks, sees his only appearance in the entire franchise; a raggedly witch is trailed by an enchanted broomstick at The Leaky Cauldron; a colony of bats surges through the twilight as Harry and Hermione hide in the Forbidden Forest during their time-traveling escapade. Though Cuarón had to be bullied by fellow director Guillermo del Toro into signing on to the Harry Potter film, he ended up understanding what to do with the material: “As a filmmaker, it was almost like a lesson of humility,” he explained to Vanity Fair, “of saying how am I going to do it my own, but at the same time, respecting what has been beloved in those couple of movies.”

Cuarón, more than any other Harry Potter director, seemed to be compelled to embrace the intrinsic spooky essence of the series, and worked to effectively weave that into his vision of the film. And, perhaps the source material ended up working in his favor as well, in a story underscored by a shape-shifting black dog, imposing, murky ghouls, a (not quite) haunted house called “The Shrieking Shack,” and the introduction of an amber-hued seasonal drink called “Butter Beer” to the Hogwarts students. And so, a haze of autumn fog can be seen draping itself over the magical teens, as Professor McGonagall collects their permission slips to venture unchaperoned to the town of Hogsmeade, and the violently enchanted tree the Whomping Willow shakes itself of its dead leaves as summer gives way to fall.

Coming of Age, In a Way

Prisoner of Azkaban also ends up as the tipping point of the series’ immersion in the safety net of childhood wonder. Where Christopher Columbus’s first two films (Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets) are swathed in an innocuous blanket of innocence still held quite firmly by Harry and his friends, Prisoner of Azkaban sees Harry Potter ripped from the comfort of his childhood ignorance and thrust into the bleak reality of his very near future. Children’s imagination finds itself at a crossroads with real fear, and Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban ends up perfectly depicting this synergy. 

It becomes partly ironic how many otherwise kindly staples of a Halloween find themselves at odds with the genuine terror of this teenager’s future – a werewolf is not a friendly caricature, but an emaciated nightmare. Professor Lupin’s transformation from man to beast perhaps best articulates Harry Potter’s jump from gifted, sad child to cursed man with a life price on his head.

Life and Death and the In-Between

But All Hallow’s Eve has always been a celebration of death; a brief if joyous dance between this realm and the next. There’s a particularly affecting scene during Harry and Hermione’s time travelling, in their quest to free condemned Hippogriff, Buckbeak, and the wrongly imprisoned Sirius Black. The creature rests, unbothered, in a pumpkin patch just adjacent to Hagrid’s hut, under a grey sky where crows ever-circle and caw to one another nearby, and a menacing scarecrow finds itself planted in the midst of it all. 

It’s a scene marked by such archetypal staples of autumn and Halloween, as Buckbeak does not realize his final moments of life lie just ahead of him. The dichotomy of evil and innocence are encapsulated through the warmth gleaned from the beauty of fall and the expected wrongful execution of Buckbeak. Though already well into the spring months, it’s as if the world of Harry Potter can never be parted from the season from which it shares blood; the perfect intermingling of life and death.

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