A lot of people say that Halloween is a time for children, since they’re the ones who get to play dress up, carve pumpkins, and run around town getting free candy, but really… that’s kind of a lie. Kids love Halloween, but if the holiday was really geared towards the wee ones they wouldn’t need parents to ‘okay’ their choice of costumes, handle the knife they so desperately want to plunge into the juicy flesh of an orange squash or escort the little monsters from house to house. More to the point, since this is a movie blog, too many of the horror films we associate with Halloween (like, for example, Halloween) are deemed “inappropriate” for the very children who are their target demographic at this time of year.
So for every kid who wanted to rent A Nightmare On Elm Street this year but was forced instead to watch The Nightmare Before Christmas for the umpteenth time (no slight against The Nightmare Before Christmas, mind you), we here at The Weekly Listicle present Scary Movies For The Whole Family. Not kids movies with Halloween themes, and not the kinds of movies that will traumatize your kids for life and keep you up all night as they suffer through sugar withdrawals and nightmares, but great Halloween movies that kids can enjoy without feeling pandered to. Trust me, parents… They’ll thank you for it later.
Dead of Night (dirs. Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Deardon and Robert Hamer, 1945)
Dead of Night is one of the first great anthology horror films, telling not just one scary tale but a whole series of spooky stories with a clever wraparound device connecting them all. Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns, who played Bob Cratchit in the great Alistair Sims version of A Christmas Carol) arrives at a party in the country and feels like he’s been there before. He can predict random occurrences before they happen, and what’s more has the distinct feeling that something horrible will happen to one of the guests very, very soon. Some of the guests balk, but most are willing to believe in the supernatural after having some inexplicable experiences of their own, and each of them have spook stories they are more than happy to share.
The tales they tell range from eerie to scary to a little dorky. In one, a young girl doesn’t know when she meets a childlike ghost at a party. In another, a man engaged to be married becomes possessed by the ghost of a murderer in his mirror. There’s also a not-particularly-funny comic relief piece which finds Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford more or less reprising their comedic personas from The Lady Vanishes as golfers whose love of the game, and a pretty lady, gets the best of them. But the best of the lot stars Michael Redgrave (also of The Lady Vanishes) as a ventriloquist whose dummy may or may not be alive. Redgrave’s performance is astounding… almost as astounding as the twist ending which at the time was so striking that it inspired the “Steady State” theory of the creation of the universe, an alternative theory to The Big Bang. Seriously.
As an older film, even the creepier tales are unlikely to freak your kids out and many of the segments, like the classic “Room For One More” story, have become clichés in the ensuing decades, but to children they will be fresh and new, and most of them have never been done better. Dead of Night’s anthology formula keeps the movie fast-paced, and more importantly makes the film feel like a series of great campfire stories for the whole family.
Invaders From Mars (dir. William Cameron Menzies, 1953)
For whatever reason, horror movies are often reluctant to put children in the foreground of their stories. Maybe kids are placed in jeopardy (The Shining), or maybe they’re just incidentally creepy (A Nightmare On Elm Street, and come to think of it also The Shining), but it’s rare that they’re given the starring role, and rarer still that a horror film is told convincingly from a child’s perspective. Invaders From Mars remains one of the best horror flicks to give it a try, and is one of my favorite horror movies as a result.
Jimmy Hunt of Sorry, Wrong Number stars as David McClean, Boy Astronomer. One night while David’s gazing at the stars he sees a UFO land in his backyard. Scared and excited he gets his Dad to walk past the creepy hill behind their house to check it out, but when Dad gets back he says there was nothing there… and he’s not David’s dad anymore. Before long, adults from all over town are convincing each other to look behind the hill, and it’s up to David to save the day. At least, it would be if David wasn’t so a little boy. He tries to tell the police but he gets locked up for being a troublemaker. Saving the world would be hard enough for a full-grown adult, but how do you save the day when nobody will listen to you because you’re just a little kid?
Invaders From Mars tells a very similar story to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (which wouldn’t even be written until a year after Invaders came out), but it’s especially harrowing because the protagonist is so very young. The film is told from David’s perspective, and in some very surreal ways: Look at David’s cell when they lock him in the slammer and notice that it gets smaller towards the back corner where David cowers in fear and you’ll see what I mean. Of course, today many of the special effects are a little on the goofy side, but that should help relieve some of the tension many kids feel while watching that rare horror film that’s made just for them. And it’s got an ending they’ll never, and I mean never, forget.
Tobe Hooper remade Invaders From Mars pretty faithfully in 1986, and while it’s not quite as good a film it’s not half-bad either, and the improved special effects should make it a little scarier for older kids without completely destroying their fragile little minds. Either one would make a great rental this Halloween, but the original is really the one to look for.
Young Frankenstein (dir. Mel Brooks, 1974)
I wanted to put the original Frankenstein on this list, I really did, and if you think your kids can sit through it I encourage all of you to pop it in the DVD player, but frankly a lot of kids today have the attention span of a PCP-addled gnat. Older movies might be difficult for some of these young Philistines to sit through, if only for pacing reasons, which is why I settled on a compromise: Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, which may be a comedy but remains incredibly faithful to the original films it lampoons so hilariously.
Using James Whale’s classic Frankenstein movies (and some of their lesser-known sequels) as a vague back story, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein tells the story of Dr. Frankenstein’s grandson Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder, never better), who is so shamed by his grandfather’s graverobbing madness that he insists that on being called “Doctor FRONK-en-steen.” But before long he’s inherited the family estate and finds himself in Transylvania completing his grandfather’s work by creating a monster of his own, played by the great Peter Boyle. The creature escapes and terrorizes the countryside, but like the original stories he’s a misunderstood monster, childlike and acting more often in terror than any kind of actual aggression. But it’s a Mel Brooks joint, so it’s also full of terrible gags like the old “Walk This Way” shtick and the classic “Sed-A-Give” scene. Even the worst puns – and there are many – are made hilarious thanks to the impeccable cast, and Mel Brooks turns in his finest directing to date in a spot-on impersonation of the classic gothic Universal Horror style.
There are some sex jokes in here, but most of them will fly right over your kids’ heads (when I was little I thought the “roll in the hay” scene was just meaningless silliness, although looking back on it now I suppose it still is) and frankly, if they know enough to actually get these jokes there’s probably no sense in pretending otherwise. But thanks to Mel Brooks’ diehard faithfulness to his inspirations, this ridiculously funny movie packs in all the classic mad scientist spookiness kids love in a hilarious package that couldn’t possibly bore them. It’s a wonderful comedy, and a fantastic Halloween film.
Tremors (dir. Ron Underwood, 1990)
Tremors isn’t normally seen as a “family” film, and to be fair it’s the goriest movie on my part of the list, but it’s still only PG-13 and even though some people do die the film isn’t designed to keep anyone up at night. This is a fun film that takes itself just seriously enough to keep everyone engaged. More than that, it’s funny without ever winking at the audience. I watched it a lot as a kid and I turned out just fine, thank you very much.
Ron Underwood (who also directed such family gems as City Slickers and the underrated Heart and Souls) helms this story of a small desert town besieged by ancient monsters, a species of gargantuan, carnivorous earthworms – which the residents name “Graboids” – that start devouring citizens one by one. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward star as two lovable yokels who try to warn the townsfolk and save the day, and hopefully the girl, from these clever monsters by convincing everybody to stay on their rooftops so the Graboids can’t “see” them by feeling the vibrations their feet, cars, pogo sticks and what have you make in the ground. The problem then is… what now? They can’t stay on their roofs forever, they’re low on food and water, and the Graboids are just smart enough to think of ways to get their prey down to their level eventually anyway.
Tremors may be the last great “giant monster in the desert” movie, and it’s a smart, funny and occasionally kind of scary update of the classic 1950’s Them! formula. The characters are amusing but believable, and your kids will probably love (but be slightly confused by) the comic Cold War survivalist couple played by “Family Ties’” Michael Gross and country singer Reba McEntire, in her first acting role. What’s more, the danger is real enough to keep them on the edge of their seat without ever being disgusting or bleak enough to traumatize them for the rest of their lives. And most of the sequels are pretty good too, believe it or not, so maybe you should just go ahead and make a night of it, Tremors-style.
The Invisible Man (dir. James Whale, 1933)
This classic of the weird, from the mind of H. G. Wells, is a sure bet for fun. A menacing stranger (Claude Raines, before his celebrated work in Casablanca and Notorious) arrives at an English country inn, wrapped head to foot in bandages, demanding room and board in the dead of winter.
This is Griffin, a scientist who has discovered the trick of becoming invisible to his fellow man. The further trick of bringing himself back is eluding him, and driving him violently mad. He insults and abuses his hosts until they are afraid of his as they are repulsed by his bizarre costume and conspicuous absence of parts. Initially believing him burned or otherwise disfigured, they soon discover the baffling truth of his condition. Things come to an ugly head and Griffin must go on the run once again.
Griffin’s invisibility entails some first-rate special effects, especially for the time. Director James Whale, most famous for 1931’s Frankenstein and 1935’s Bride Of Frankenstein, hit yet another masterstroke in between with The Invisible Man. It is not only an entertaining yarn, but also a more faithful adaptation of its source material than any Frankenstein film to date.
This tale is a peculiar one, with perhaps only Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for respectable company. Whereas Frankenstein built a walking horror with a gentle soul, Griffin unleashes his latent ugliness by removing his physical appearance entirely. Given the chance to be a monster, he goes for it gamely. In the end he deserves to be hunted down, and hunt him those villagers do.
For the sake of younger viewers, this film has the advantage of a brief running time. With about 70 minutes to unfold his tale, director Whale keeps things moving at a rather furious pace. By comparison, Dracula and Frankenstein are pretty slow burners. The dialogue and action are consistently lively.
Like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, and Dr. Jekyll, the Invisible Man has enjoyed numerous remakes, sequels, parodies. In 2000, Paul Verhoeven made a stab at re-imagining the story for a modern audience with The Hollow Man, starring Kevin Bacon. Though the movie nicely captures the original themes of identity and madness, the director bungles everything about halfway through and ends up with a rather nasty and unsatisfying piece of work. Nothing beats the definitive version, now over 75 years old. The cast, pace, and presentation are top-notch. It is absorbing, easy to follow, and a celebrated entry in film history to boot.
Ghostbusters (dir. Ivan Reitman, 1984)
Though written by Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd as a grown-up horror comedy, Ghostbusters gathered sufficient popularity with all ages to spawn a long-running cartoon spinoff. It ranks among the finest Saturday morning programs ever made, one of those shows like Batman: The Animated Series which refused to talk down to its target audience just because they were kids. The Real Ghostbusters adapted some of its humor to appeal to a younger audience, but in every other way kept true to the spirit and tone of the original film. Ghostbusters is smart and fun, packed with great characters, great music, and a host of hair-raising apparitions.
Three disgruntled scientists, fired by Columbia University for spending their grants on paranormal research, go into business as ghost exterminators. The premise is already good, and in the hands of skilled writers and actors it becomes something special indeed. Leading men Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and Dan Aykroyd are at an amazing collective peak of their comedy careers. The excellent supporting cast includes Sigourney Weaver, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, William Atherton, and Rick Moranis – forget Little Shop Of Horrors, this is the crowning glory of a career playing hopeless nerds. Kids will love him, even the ones too young to remember Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. Sigourney Weaver also deserves special mention, playing a down-to-earth love interest for Bill Murray’s wisecracking playboy. She is a fantastic action star, but also a gifted comedienne, and gets to embody more than your typical romantic lead when a touch of demonic possession turns her into something rather wild.
As the ghost-battling entrepreneurs become the toast of the town, strange vibrations stir the air. All signs point to the arrival of one big bad ghostly problem. At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency steps in, threatening the shut the Ghostbusters down, just when the world may need them most. Poor William Atherton’s career must have changed forever once he became famous for playing Walter Peck, the insufferable EPA bureaucrat. This is not fair, for it’s a brilliant comic performance, but if I saw this actor walking down the street I still might punch him in the face.
The spirits terrorizing New York City come in all forms, from vicious demon dogs to cackling vapors, and everything in between. The special effects team did an astounding job of bringing the weird and hideous beings to life in amusing and original ways. In one of the movie’s greatest sequences, the newly formed Ghostbusters test their firepower on a pesky green “slimer” in an upscale hotel, causing far more damage than one little ghost ever could. From hotels to high-rises, to the archives of the New York Public Library, these guys face every kind of spectre and spook that a severely haunted city can throw at them.
Here’s the important thing: it’s a great movie for your whole family. There is hardly any coarse language or crass humor. The sexual tension between Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver is played for a few laughs, but it doesn’t give way to anything inappropriate for family viewing. The comedy consists primarily of ghost-chasing slapstick and rapid-fire quips. For really young kids, there may be one or two significant scares, but that’s good for them now and then. Everything is presented in an easy and entertaining way that assures even the most sensitive little viewer that it’s all in good fun.
All in all, Ghostbusters amounts to good clean fun, and lots of it. It should be obvious that this is one of my all-time favorite movies, at any time of the year, but let me lay a more objective sentiment before you. Ghostbusters is safe to leave your kids in front of unattended, and in fact it’s much more intelligent and edifying than your average spooky flick. If you can, save it for when you’ve got time to join the kids and laugh along, either with a big bowl of popcorn or the spoils of a successful trick-or-treat. Movies don’t get much more enjoyable than this.
The Innocents (dir. Jack Clayton, 1961)
This pick favors a more mature and patient variety of child, but rewards these virtues with a profoundly frightening drama. Based upon the classic Henry James ghost story The Turn Of The Screw, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents concerns the undead, the depraved, and other things which fly in the face of proper English decorum.
The kind and beautiful Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) takes a job as governess to two privileged but neglected children in a stately country home. Miles and Flora are sweet, polite, and generally inseparable. They also seem to share an unhealthy quantity of secrets between them. Murmuring about the house, playing bizarre games, and evading their caretaker’s earnest questions about what might be going on, they begin to be trouble. What’s more, there are menacing strangers lurking about the grounds. The children claim not to notice them, but could the entire household be hiding something from the new governess?
Perhaps, the film frequently suggests, all the trouble exists in the mind of Miss Giddens. It is interesting that while we learn a great deal about all the other characters, we learn nothing of our protagonist’s life story, and whatever emotional burdens may color her temperament are a mystery. She becomes obsessed with uncovering the children’s secrets, which seem to involve communication with a pair of dead and unsavory domestics to whom the little ones were very close. Perhaps too close. As if regular ghosts were not bad enough, these departed servants apparently have designs on the bodies and souls of little Miles and Flora.
The more grown-up your perspective on this film, the more disturbing the implications. The two revenants were lovers in life, and if their plan is indeed to reunite, each in the physical person of one of the children… well, you can imagine. Mind you, none of this comes out explicitly, either in word or deed. Thank goodness. But dreadful possibilities of this kind lurk around every corner in this film.
Why, then, recommend it for young viewers? Because The Innocents is elegant, stylish, tasteful, suspenseful, and chilling. The plentiful dialogue requires some attention, but whether or not the understated adult themes come through, the main thrust of the story is clear throughout. Something is wrong with the children, and are quite possibly doomed from the start. However, their caring governess refuses to accept their complicity in the evil afoot and sets out to save them, even at the cost of her sanity and safety. The film manages all this without dipping into obscenity, graphic violence, or overt sexual depravity, though for the attentive listener, all these and more are strongly implied. The Innocents is a great film for teaching the young about high-minded filmmaking, and the power of good storytelling over cheap stimulation. Its quiet, eerie atmosphere sets a perfect mood for Halloween.
The Witches (dir. Nicholas Roeg, 1990)
Roald Dahl was one of my favorite authors as a kid (he still is). The man has a curious knack for creating lovable, fleshed out children for his stories, which are mostly surreal fables. Matilda lives forever in my heart, Charlie Bucket is one of the world’s perfect characters, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox made for a, well, fantastic movie last year. Dahl also wrote The Witches, a creepy tale of witches in England and their nefarious plot to turn all America’s children into mice. Nicholas Roeg made the movie in 1990, and by golly, it’s actually quite scary.
Little Luke (Jasen Fisher) listens diligently to his Norwegian grandmother’s tales of witches and her instructions on how to spot them. They have purple eyes, stumps instead of toes, and wear wigs. They kill and eat children, whose scent and presence is appalling to their (ahem) delicate sensibilities. After Luke’s parents die, he and his grandmother retreat to a hotel on the ocean, where it just so happens the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston) is holding a witches’ convention. When Luke escapes the smarmy hotel owner (Rowan Atkinson before he was Mr Bean) to train his pet mice in the conference room, Luke ends up in the midst of hundreds of witches.
All of this sounds relatively silly to you, yes? Well, puppetmaster Jim Henson produced the film, and when the witches remove their woman-disguises, it’s genuinely terrifying to behold. Seeing anyone peel her face off is scary enough, but beneath her woman-mask, Huston’s Grand High Witch is a monster. She’s bumpy, bald, and less human than your average cockroach. In the conference room, she transforms gluttonous English boy Bruno Jenkins into a mouse while Luke looks on, and this too is horrifying.
Cinematographer Harvey Harrison uses fisheye lenses to build tension, then to make the monsters more monstrous. Art director Norman Dorme and set decorator Robin Tarsnane use red and green in abundance on the sets, shot in enclosed spaces, and packed each scene full of knicknacks, shelves, and books. The whole movie feels like a horrific fairy tale come to life. Granted, it’s not as frightening as an adult–but having watched it again for this blog, I still found myself going, “Well, huh. No wonder this scared the crap out of me.”
Gremlins (dir. Joe Dante, 1984)
I would like to say for the record that Gremlins is one of my favorite Christmas movies. Is that weird? Yeah, probably. Does it make sense? Perhaps so. The movie takes place at Christmastime, and it’s…heartwarming. Right? Did Gremlins freak me out as a kid? Oh, definitely. Make of this what you will.
Who doesn’t love a furry little critter who squeaks, sings, and smiles at you? Gizmo the Mogwai is the epitome of all that is adorable (the makers of Furbys, which were at one point my sister’s obsession and the bain of my existence, understood this). Unfortunately, Gizmo’s counterparts the Gremlins are evil little monsters. The weird, slimy, big-eared critters (not to be confused with Critters, the movie ripoff of a few years later) are more mischievous than anything else, but that doesn’t make them harmless.
Chris Columbus, who wrote The Goonies and directed a lot of late-80s/early-90s family classics (Adventures in Babysitting, Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) and the first two Harry Potter movies, wrote Gremlins. Struggling inventor Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) buys Gizmo from a broke Chinese vendor, who warns him, “never put him in bright lights, don’t feed him after midnight, and don’t get him wet.” Of course, someone immediately spills water on poor little Gizmo, causing more Mogwai to spawn from his back. The new Mogwai are not the cutie-pie kind, and shortly start to wreak utter havoc on the town.
Zach Galligan plays Gizmo’s owner Billy opposite insanely beautiful girl-next-door Phoebe Cates as Kate Beringer. Poor Kate has a horrible secret: her father dressed as Santa and climbed into the chimney as a Christmas surprise, got stuck, then died. Now she hates Christmas. (I bring this up because it factors into my own personal weirdness, considering this is one of my favorite Christmas flicks.) Needless to say, the events of the movie don’t make this any easier. According to Wikipedia, the scene where Kate confesses this horrific (and hilarious) tidbit was a point of contention between director Dante and producer Stephen Spielberg. Spielberg thought it was too ambiguous, and audiences wouldn’t be sure whether to laugh or cry. Dante insisted that tone was a signifier for the whole movie: the audience isn’t supposed to know whether to laugh or cringe or cry.
Though the casualties are minimal and not graphic, the movie ends up both spooky and funny. It released the same weekend as fellow horror-comedy Ghostbusters, and evidently Roald Dahl is responsible for the popular definition of “gremlins.” The movie may be a little intense for very small children, but Gremlins is ideal for those about 9 or 10 years old. And those of us with kind of a sick sense of humor about Christmas.
Beetlejuice (dir. Tim Burton, 1988)
Apparently I’m stuck in the late ’80s and early ’90s here, mostly because that was when I was most susceptible to the willies. Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice is just as enjoyable today as it was when I was a kid–though I understand a lot of the more adult jokes better now. The movie is rated PG, but a coworker pointed out to me that it contains a solitary F-bomb. In all, though, it’s suitable for kids of all ages. When young married couple Barbara (Geena Davis) and Adam Maitland (Alex Baldwin) drown, they don’t follow the light, instead returning to their country home to live in supposed peace. Enter the Deetzes: status-obsessed Charles (Jeffrey Jones), artsy fartsy Delia (Catherine O’Hara), and gothed out daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder). After the Deetzes move in to Adam and Barbara’s house, all hell breaks loose. The dead couple do their damndest to scare the new people out–but the resilient, new-agey Deetzes are only concerned about how much money they can make from a real live haunting. While Charles and Delia transform the house into a horrible piece of shoddy architectural “art” (made fascinating only by Tim Burton’s impeccably weird style), Lydia befriends Barbara and Adam.
Now, stir “bio-exorcist” Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) into the mix. The Maitlands want so badly to get rid of the elder Deetzes that they summon Beetlejuice, but then forget to send him back to la-la-land. He’s effectively harmless, but Keaton’s performance of Beetlejuice’s loathsome humor is spot-on, his makeup revolting (you just know he’d smell terrible); he’s more of a pest than a menace, but his pestilence is particularly icky. When Lydia decides she’d rather die and have the Maitlands for parents than her own, she too summons mischievous Beetlejuice. In one of the most brilliant scenes in the movie, Beetlejuice forces the Deetzes’ guests to perform an impromptu rendition of “The Banana Boat Song.” Like the Kate scene in Gremlins, it’s utterly grotesque: you’re not sure whether to cringe or to giggle. (I giggle.)
Like the others in this list, Beetlejuice is a supernatural fable. Sculptures come alive, model villages are equipped with brothels, and ghosts have to utilize sheets and chains to be scary. Burton’s trademark set decoration and costuming are, as always, underscored perfectly by Danny Elfman’s melodically wacked-out score. However, the imagery is actually sort of frightening. A bus-smushed supervisor travels across his otherworld office on a pulley system. Adam and Barbara discover a doorway behind which tormented spirits flow, grimacing mouths and drooping eyes conveying the torture they endure. As a kid, I was absolutely terrified of the sandworms, enormous two-headed serpents with rows upon rows of sharp teeth that live outside the Maitlands’ home, ensuring the ghosts never escape their purgatory.
Beetlejuice is another one of those movies that survived the years. After the movie released, I spent a fair bit of time watching the short-lived cartoon series. Beetlejuice still airs on TV fairly often, especially this time of year. And I still adore it. Hot Topic may have co-opted Tim Burton and The Nightmare Before Christmas, but I can still say I loved him when (although not so much lately).