It’s easy to find Halloween movies. A cursory Google-search yields a slew of time-honored terror, vetted by thousands of critics and fans. But for those weak-stomached folks who avoid horror flicks at all costs, this bounty of murder porn, slasher flicks, and Romero rip-offs are highway to bad dream city.
There are, of course, plenty of happy Halloween movies that are safe for the squeamish. They just take a bit more effort than a Google search to uncover.
How scary is too scary? Idle Hands counts as too scary.
Where is It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown? I’ve limited this list to *mostly* overlooked films, plus some recently appreciated new-classics.
What, no The Nightmare Before Christmas? Not today; let’s wait for Christmas.
What’s important is you get the thrill of the scariest, goriest holiday without much gore and very few scares!
Movie catnip for ‘90s kids, ‘Hocus Pocus’ hits every PG-rated Halloween hallmark: Salem witch trial prologue, too cool to trick-or-treat brother-sister conflict, children-eating threats — the basics. First thing’s first: the Sanderson Sisters are hanged. Cable TV censors their swinging feet post-hanging, which is a shame because the a cappella song-curse and abrupt execution sets the right tone for daffy-meets-disturbing. Once the delightfully evil sister-witches — supreme Bette Midler, ditzy Sarah Jessica Parker, and olfactory-endowed Kathy Najimy — are reincarnated after some short-sighted teenage tomfoolery, they taunt virgins, sing “I Put a Spell on You,” and mistakenly dub a devil costumed Garry Marshall, “master.”
Candle-lighting virgin Max drives the story; but the real hero is Thackery Binx, a seventeenth century teen who suffers that old cat-for-all-eternity hex after witnessing the witches suck out his sister’s lifeforce. Binx teaches Max to appreciate his own lil sis, Dani, effectively becoming the most tragically wise talking cat in cinematic history.
Sure, you could cue up Bela Lugosi’s masterwork — but why watch a purported classic when you can watch the Spanish-language version shot simultaneously using the exact same set instead? The Spanish and Mexican crew (helmed by an American director who spoke no Spanish) watched Bela’s dailies immediately before their night shoots, and sought to one up the Hollywood interpretation at every turn. The result yielded inventive camera angles and ahead-of-its-time tracking shots, sexier performances and costuming, and an overall more artistically daring vision.
Party guests will be very impressed by your avant garde screening choices, and any opportunity to brush up on your high school Spanish certainly does not, um, bite.
Campy B-movies are Halloween staples, and ‘The Blob’ is one of the pseudo-genre’s most watchable entries. Steve McQueen stars — as Steve! — in the 1958 original, which is not to be confused with the remake starring Kevin Dillon, whose blob is apparently a metaphor for AIDS?
Original flavor Blob is straight up a viscous slime ball from space with zero discernible features that consumes its human victims and grows exponentially in size.
Everything is a hoot, from the absurdly long, tangential scene where the cops give McQueen good-natured guff for drag racing, to the climactic “chase” sequence where the blob oozes out of a movie theater, to the Burt Bacharach penned title song. To wit:
Beware of the blob, it creeps
And leaps and glides and slides
Across the floor
Right through the door
And all around the wall
A splotch, a blotch
Be careful of the blob
Creepy, catchy AND polite!
The most truly terrifying thing about ‘Monster House’ is the old school motion-capture work that makes the characters resemble mannequins — that, and the fact that this house eats people. Yes, that is a little frightening.
The humor plays to both kids and adults — there’s a uvula joke that works both ways — and that cross-generational style takes painstaking care to keep the parents entertained without veering into anachronistic jokes. The spook-factor is reminiscent of some of those weird 1980s monster movies you may remember from childhood that were rated PG but were so disturbing they really could’ve swung PG13, like Howie Mandel’s ‘Little Monsters.’
‘Little Monsters’ is too scary, super icky, and please don’t watch it. ‘Monster House,’ however, has skillful scenic design and impressive animation on its side. Basically, I’m saying ‘Monster House’ is like a Howie Mandel movie with artistry and a budget.
‘The Trouble with Harry’ is perhaps the least suspenseful offering from the Master of Suspense. Only one character dies, and he’s dead when the movie starts. What a relief! The black comedy, introducing Shirley MacLaine in her screen debut, centers on a corpse named Harry and the New England townspeople who don’t give a squat that Harry ate it.
“And the only trouble is,” the original trailer proclaims, “you won’t stop laughing at: ‘The Trouble with Harry!’” Okay, maybe this laughter is closer to dry, internal chortling. Still, the movie once deemed Hitchcock’s biggest flop is quirky, fun, and easy as a cool autumn breeze. Plus, there’s more fall foliage than you can shake a rake at. Play the movie on silent at a sedate soirée, and let the bucolic landscapes act as seasonal set dressing.
This is the origin story of Mr. Boogedy:
Three hundred years ago there lived a man who made a name for himself by yelling at children, “Boogedy boogedy BOO.” Only one woman thought he was more or less okay, the Widow Marion. Mr. Boogedy fell in love with Marion and proposed, but she refused him. Man, was Mr. Boogedy real ticked off. So, he did the only logical thing: sold his soul to the Devil for an invisible cloak. One day, the Widow Marion’s young son, Jonathan, caught a cold. They set off for the doctor’s office in town — but guess who jumped out of the forest? MR. BOOGEDY. He kidnapped Jonathan, and told the Widow Marion she wasn’t allowed inside his house until she agreed to marry him. Then, Mr. Boogedy blew up that house.
Now, can you honestly tell me that you don’t want to watch this movie? No? Oh, OK. Well, I’m all about providing options.
I know what you’re thinking. There are plenty of other ghost movies out there, like ‘Ghostbusters,’ which is great, and ‘Ghost Dad,’ which is not. Why does ‘Ghost’ make the grade?
Because it’s sad! Oh, it’s so sad. And beautiful! When Demi Moore cries those two tears — plink plink — because the penny is floating towards her and that must mean Whoopi Goldberg isn’t crazy… Oh, Demi, you get it! You finally get it! And if you can watch those little white star things take Patrick Swayze up to Heaven without getting choked up, then you might need to visit a cardiologist and check on your ticker. Because that’s an unchained melody of heartstrings right there.
Tim Burton is the real Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, and his ten best could easily fill this list entirely. But as his first otherworldly feature that introduced a mass audience to the weird animation and art that would define Burton’s work, ‘Beetlejuice’ takes the beetle-filled cake.
Michael Keaton told CBS Sunday Morning in a recent interview, “Frankly, to this day, I couldn’t tell you what [Burton’s] idea was exactly.” Clearly actor and director operated on some sort of mind-meld plane, maybe wherever those double-mandible sandworms live. Said Keaton of the funky walk he inhabited and fake teeth he requested, “That was free-range because you could never say, ‘My character wouldn’t do that.’”
Both Keaton and Winona Ryder confirm there’s a sequel afoot. I’ll hum “Day-o” in my mind until that happy day arrives.
‘Ed Wood’ + ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’
On the flip side of ‘Beetlejuice’ sits ‘Ed Wood’, perhaps Burton’s most grounded film. Johnny Depp plays the eponymous hero, a blindly optimistic B-movie director who befriends faded star (and morphine addict) Bela Lugosi, and convinces him to resurrect his acting career for a payday. Ed makes a habit of recruiting other washed-up performers to appear in his films, including horror host Vampira, TV psychic The Amazing Criswell, and Swedish pro wrestler Tor Johnson, and partners with a church to fund ‘Plan 9.’
Ed is a transvestite in the 1950s, adept at ignoring the cruel remarks and looks flung his way. It’s a cavalcade of the not rich and not famous, a ragtag team of losers and loners deemed freaks by the outside world. Basically, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ before ‘Guardians of the Galaxy.’
Plus, it’s a true story. ‘Plan 9’ is a real film. Watching Ed and his gaggle of misfits create ‘Plan 9’ immediately before watching the actual ‘Plan 9’ reminds you just how much heart and sweat go into making a flop. You feel a little guilty laughing at ‘Plan 9,’ because at its core, ‘Ed Wood’ is a tragicomedy: a tragedy that somehow turns out okay.
Ghosts. Witches. Zombies. ‘ParaNorman’ is so Halloween that it easily could’ve been the result of a “bet you can’t fit all this sweet stuff in one Halloween movie” dare. And, it’s brilliant. Norman is an outcast, bullied over his perceived weirdness, anti-social qualities that conceal his powers as a medium, which come in handy when the town’s overtaken by the walking dead. In any lesser movie, those powers would render Norman a hero before he’s ready. Who can talk to dead people? Norman can! But here, Norman is hardly recognized as the expert — he’s ignored. The town goes berserk. Mob mentality takes over. It’s ultimately Norman’s experience as a victim of bullying and his supernatural talents that save the day, which includes providing a witch with some long overdue grief counseling.
‘ParaNorman’ dispenses feel-good lessons like that dude in the park who dispenses free hugs: don’t succumb to fear, don’t succumb to rage, don’t bully people different from you, don’t join an angry mob. And what better way to move a kids’ allegory on witch hunts into the modern age than by revealing a key character (a kid!) is gay like it’s no big thing? This movie is my hero.