After a sensical, well-booked RAW based around wrestling and championships, and then a strong offering from NXT as well this week, Halloween SmackDown (SpookDown, if you’d indulge me) has everything to aim for to make this a hat trick for WWE programming. It’s no secret that I live for seasonal wrestling stipulations so have had this particular Thursday circled and highlighted in my Wrestling Journalism Diary for months now. Will it live up to very, very high expectations?

The show opens up with a recap of RAW’s Kane kidnapping (Kanenapping) (I’ll stop now) which normally wouldn’t be noteworthy, but I can’t help thinking they ought to have got someone with a slightly deeper or scarier voice to narrate it rather than weird nasally Rich Brennan. He says “The Wyatts unleashed Hell on the Devil’s Favourite Demon!” in the manner of someone getting enthusiastic halfway through a slideshow presentation about the lattice method of long multiplication. In fact, it doesn’t need to be a man; I think the person with the genuinely most scary voice in WWE is probably Stephanie McMahon.

“I own the soul of Kane; I own the soul of the Undertaker,”

Wyatt appears on the tron, in his rocking chair, with Undertaker’s hat resting on his knee, very smug about his two successful abductions this week. Normally I’d be cynical, asking questions like: “When has a Bray indoctrination brought the Wyatt family any level of success or positive outcome?” or “If Bray has the power of mind-control, then why does he lose so many wrestling matches?”. Not today, reader! Today is a sanctuary for everything outlandishly creepy, unconvincing cult leaders included.

Bray announces that he is in search of three wrestlers brave enough to face his “monsters” in the main event tonight. Erick Rowan, then, unprompted, confesses that he was never allowed to wear costumes as a child. Rowan has been thin on character development since he debuted nearly three years ago on NXT, but now at least we have a second personality point. The first, being, of course, his side career as a vintner. In another couple of years we might get his favourite colour.

“I’ve fought with Rollins; I’ve fought against him; there’s no one who wants me to fail more,”

Spooky Halloween Number 1 Contender Roman Reigns makes his way to the ring, and I already am disappointed that he didn’t make at least a nodding gesture towards the spirit of the season. He could have dredged out that old Shield airsoft face mask thing with the teeth on it. We know he still has it, in a box labelled “memories”.

Roman opens up with a super straightforward promo about his new status and focus in WWE, but is promptly interrupted by Kevin Owens. Owens instantly starts talking like a real relatable human with real feelings, while Reigns stands there: an impenetrable statue. It’s a really jarring difference, and highlights a key problem with Reigns: would you rather side with the tall, strong, handsome, detached prince-God; or the chubby, sarcastic, smart, agitator? Who can you identify with most: the gifted athlete born into a famous family, or the family man with a chip on his shoulder?

Reigns also should probably figure out that it’s not endearing or cool to refer to wrestlers with years of experience over him as “son”.

Roman Reigns vs. Kevin Owens

Kane’s fired. No one’s booking SmackDown. We’re freewheeling. Oh dear God I hope enough people decide to interrupt promos to sustain this whole show, or it’s going to be awkward.

This is a strong match to open SmackDown: the Intercontinental Champion vs. the Number 1 Contender for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. I feel like this may have benefitted by being advertised beforehand; after all, the moment that made myself and others gasp loudest on RAW was from that wicked Pop-Up Powerbomb reversed into a Superman Punch, and I was itching for more.

This is full of fun physical action; slamming into the barricade; bodies crashing into each other; until Reigns gets to the point where in the fourway, or in a tag match, he could collapse by ringside and deflect attention to someone else. Instead, he slows the action of the match right down after less than 90 seconds of wrestling. You know that unintentionally erotic spot that’s in every Randy Orton/John Cena match? Where after Cena’s suffered a gruelling beatdown, and Orton is gloating above him, Cena slowly, agonisingly, tries to drag himself upright by using Orton’s trunks as leverage? When he pauses there, exhausted, knelt at his feet? That sort of imagery is powerful storytelling (and great fodder for fanfic authors with over-active imaginations) in 25 minute matches on PPVs, but after seconds on a SmackDown opener? I’m muttering furiously at Roman. I’m not even rooting for him, but I want him to get the hell up and stop embarrassing himself.

Lawler shrieks “that was something new there from Roman Reigns!” when he goes for his corner-clotheslines, confirming that he slept through Hell in a Cell and RAW.

Neither men are really wrestling smart here, but after the inevitable Owens teased walk-out, and Reigns whipping him back in the ring, things pick up again and there’s an impressive Owens suplex, a thwarted superplex reversed into a Superman Punch… Until Owens does walk out, for real this time, Championship in tow. Reigns gets the count-out victory.

Two and a half pumpkins out of a potential five.

“Face of fear? I am the man without fear!”

Ambrose is backstage harassing fairy-tale Renee Young. I have a rant about how Halloween costumes are supposed to be spooky, and that a fairy costume is just a cop-out lazy fancy dress choice, but she’s the first person who’s made an effort so far, so I’m just grateful. Ambrose, whose  character sheet includes such notes as “more guts than sense”, and “doesn’t learn from mistakes” is here to enthusiastically be the first to sign up to face the Wyatts in the main event.

(Shield in the main event count at 29)

“I slay the dragons! I exorcise the demons! I smash the zombies!” yells Ambrose, spraying spittle over tiny, long-suffering Renee, and hopefully foreshadowing a future WWE Studios production. Bo Dallas shuffles in wearing a sheet with eye holes (FINALLY, the first actual Halloween costume of the night!) and is distraught that his attempt to spook Renee fell flat.

Lucha Dragons vs. the Dudley Boyz vs. the Ascension vs. King Barrett and Sheamus (Tag Team Terror)

There’s nothing vaguely Halloween-themed about this match, but I still appreciate the name. I appreciate it so much. None of the teams involved in this match get proper entrances, but the New Day—on commentary—do. This is a totally fair decision, because Kofi and Big E are sporting unicorn horns.

This match is severely overshadowed by Kingston and E having the time of their lives on commentary; sassing the rest of the table; putting on their best “sports commentator” voices and roleplaying; and criticising the fashion sense of all the wrestlers. It’s basically like watching SmackDown with your most entertaining friends, who are determined to drag some fun out of everything.

Regardless, if you can focus on the in-ring action, this is an extremely fast-paced non-stop sort of match, with lots to enjoy. The spotlight is clearly on the Lucha Dragons, as they flip around dazzlingly and manage to out-manoeuvre the more heavy-hitting team of Barrett and Sheamus who got them last week. A particular highlight is toward the end where Viktor is lumbering around with Sin Cara atop his shoulders, readying himself for a powerbomb– but Cara leans back into the ropes, springboards, and reverses the whole situation into a sunset flip of his own. The Dudleys then decide to do a dual-setup for my Personal Least Favourite Move In All Wrestling (the top-rope headbutt low-blow) with Barrett and Sheamus, and the Dragons playing the role of the projectiles. I’m not convinced it really helps the Dragons’ image as lovable masked heroes to be flinging their horned faces in the crotches of other wrestlers.

Kalisto executes a gorgeous over-the-top rope Salida Del Sol on Konnor for the win.

Three tarantulas out of a potential five.

“Let me guess? You’re dressed as…Lex Luthor? James Bond?”

Ambrose is on the hunt for a team to help him face the Wyatts, after flippantly volunteering himself without really thinking it through.

Cesaro’s in a suit and sunglasses (#bestdressed). “This is just how I dress!” says Cesaro. “But give me a minute to change, and I’ll be dressed as your tag partner tonight!” This is possibly the cutest thing any wrestler has ever said to another wrestler.

Dolph Ziggler vs. The Miz (Trick or Street Fight)

Finally, the match I’ve been breathlessly anticipating since last years’ Trick or Street Fight offering (and yes, I’m refusing to dumb down, the pun was fine as it was). I love everything about this stipulation. The match type gets its own theme. Is there any other stipulation that gets that apart from Hell in A Cell, and even that irregularly, now?? The pumpkins are creatively and diversely carved. It’s a high-effort setup and it’s a crime that it’s not the main event.

While last year’s Trick or Street Fight built around the inevitable Dirty Deeds in the pumpkin spot, this match doesn’t have quite as obvious a finish. I am always charmed by the disabling effects of a pumpkin on the head though, and Ziggler capitalises here for a pumpkin-assisted superkick, which looks very impressive, and sends specks of gourd flesh across the ring.

Sadly, this match is over almost as soon as it begun, with Ziggler reversing a Figure Four into a roll-up. Not even a Halloween finish?! No riding broomsticks off the top-rope, a la Ambrose last October? I feel like neither man’s heart was in this.

One ghost out of a potential five.

Breeze storms out for a beatdown on the briefly victorious Ziggler after the match, and then poses fabulously with Summer at ringside.

Paige vs. Natalya

Even though this show is shaping up to be my longest SmackDown review ever, I’m not sure any amount of words could unpick or adequately explain what on earth the alliances or rivalries are in the Divas’ division at the moment. I just shrug.

This match starts excellently, with a massive boot from Paige and Natalya returning with aggressive power moves, throwing a German suplex: but we get barely a full minute before Team BAD saunter in to drop some sass and general bitchiness, cause a DQ; and then Sasha locks the crossface on to Nattie. A non-starter of a match, sadly.

Three quarters of one witch’s hat out of a potential five.

“You know the Wyatts are sadistic savages? You sure you want to step on those toes?”

Dean seems to be doing a capital job of discouraging any volunteers to support him in the Face the Fear challenge, but Ryback insists that he has unfinished business with the Wyatts; possibly some sort of eating competition.

Alberto Del Rio vs. R Truth

Zeb emerges with his weird hybrid Meximerica flag mounted on the back of his mobility scooter. I’m so completely flummoxed by him retaining the register and rhetoric of the Real American gimmick almost entirely, but now having switched his allegiance to the polar opposite stance. He got boos for being a right-wing nationalist zealot, and now he’s invoking boos for being, well, the same character but now also best friends with Alberto Del Rio. His brayings about a Great Meximerica are as deluded and comical as he was when he was insisting that the USA needed a big fence at the border. Is this helpful for ADR? The word on the street is that WWE paid through the nose for Berto because they wanted a Hispanic star; but is this representation?

Anyway, Zeb announces that the USA title should represent America and Mexico, and Del Rio expresses his desire to defend it in both countries.

This was a brief and uninspiring effort from Meximerica Champion Alberto Del Rio, and he wins with a stomp on to R-Truth in a tree of woe position. Is the armbar gone? I really hope not.

One vampire out of a potential five.

Braun Strowman, Luke Harper, and Erick Rowan vs. Cesaro, Ryback, and Dean Ambrose – Face The Fear Challenge

Bray’s too important to wrestle in this match: preferring to sit rocking sinisterly at ringside. Ryback’s the first to “face the fear”, and immediately attempts to suplex Braun Strowman, which even the most casual observer can surmise is a foolhardy idea. Team Big Beardy Stompy Fellas dominate Ryback & Co until Cesaro finally gets in there to throw perfect dropkicks and spring across the ring uppercutting folks too fast to follow with the naked eye: a sequence that inspires a very rare SmackDown “this is awesome” chant. Cesaro whips on the crossface on Harper; is there anything he doesn’t excel at?

However, this match ends incredibly disappointingly, when Harper’s clothesline inexplicably manages to put away Literal Super Human Cesaro.

This still manages to claim three skeletons out of a potential five, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Final Thoughts: I’m pretty sure that the advert for this show mentioned goblins, and it severely under-delivered on that particular promise. The thread of Ambrose trying to gather a ragtag band of monster-hunters for the main event was cute and thematically appropriate, and the show managed to squeeze a surprising amount of wrestling in. An enjoyable SmackDown whatever the season!

Wrestlers and non-wrestling personalities in costume: 5 (Renee, Bo, the New Day, Dolph)