Spooky things are afoot at Very HQ… an icy chill lingers in the air, stacks of papers randomly fly off our desks, and our ears are numb from the blood-curdling sound of howling. Either someone’s left the back door open again or, horror of horrors, it’s Halloweeeeeeeeeeeeeen.
With the scariest night of the year drawing ever closer, it’s time for parents (or babysitters who are looking after the kids while mum and dad monster mash it up at a Halloween party) to figure out how to keep the youngsters entertained once they return home from trick or treating.
If you don’t fancy frightening them to death by ordering them to do their homework, why not stick a scary film on instead? After all, you won’t even need to fork out for any sweets since they’ve just spent half the evening terrifying the neighbours into giving up theirs.
Of course, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead aren’t really suitable for the under 18 crowd, so I’ll leave that to Very_Sarah (keep a gooey, bloodshot eye out for her What’s Your Favourite Scary Movie? blog). Instead, here’s a list of Halloween films the whole family can scream about.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Trust Tim Burton to take the jolly, saccharine-filled themes of the festive season and gleefully splice them together with the dark, ghoulish images of Halloween. Released in 1993, this timeless stop motion musical sees Jack Skellington, Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, accidentally stumble across the brighter, cheerier world of Christmas Town. He loves it so much that he quickly decides to hijack the holiday, assume the role of Santa, and fill his sleigh with severed heads instead of cuddly toys.
Who you gonna call for a giant marshmallow man, a vamped-up Sigourney Weaver and some classic 80s cheese pop? Directed by Ivan Reitman from a Dan Akroyd and Harold Ramis script, Ghostbusters follows three out-of-work professors who set themselves up as the paranormal equivalent of Rentokil. The special effects may have dated in the 30 years since its release, but Bill Murray’s turn as sarky psychologist Peter Venkman never gets old.
The makers of Arachnophobia had it easy, really. With so many people being terrified of spiders, the film’s basic premise – small Californian town gets overrun by millions of eight-legged critters – was always going to be enough to have audience members cowering behind their popcorn buckets. Produced by Steven Spielberg, this distant cousin of Jaws stars Jeff Daniels as the town doctor who realises something is amiss when his patients start dropping like, erm, flies. He also suffers from an intense fear of arachnids himself, so you can imagine how shocked he is when he discovers the nest is sitting right under his nose in the barn outside.
Victor Frankenstein, a young schoolboy with a love for science, is so devastated when his beloved pet dog goes to canine heaven that he decides to employ the power of lightening to bring him back from the grave. The second Tim Burton creation on this list, Frankenweenie is not only a clever parody of 1931’s Frankenstein, but is also probably the first film your child will watch that’s entirely in black and white!
Another one from the 80s archive, The Goonies’ popularity endures thanks to a central premise that combines two childhood favourites: gangs and pirates. When the titular group of misfits discovers an ancient treasure map hiding in the attic, they decide to head out and chase down the long lost bounty of curiously named swashbuckler One-Eyed Willy. But it’s not just a series of deadly riddles and booby traps they have to contend with… they’ve also got the evil Fratelli family after their blood. It might not appear very Halloweeny at first, but there’s a subtle darkness running through it that nods to director Richard Donner’s horror background (he made The Omen in 1976). Forget the Monster Mash; join The Goonies and do the Truffle Shuffle instead!
The fourth feature from the Pixar library is suitable for even the tiniest terrors in your house. Solving the age-old mystery of why scary things hide in our cupboards (they enter them from their own world, then convert children’s screams into power for their city), Monsters Inc follows top scare team Sulley and Mike as they attempt to rescue a child who has wandered into Monstropolis – this is particularly problematic since the monsters are actually more scared of us than we are of them.
When Billy Peltzer’s dad buys him a pet mogwai for Christmas, the cute critter he christens Gizmo comes with a slightly oddball set of instructions: keep him away from bright light, don’t get him wet, and never ever feed him after midnight. As these admittedly vague rules (we never find out what doesn’t constitute “after midnight”…) are inevitably broken, the town’s bewildered population is soon set upon by a gang of anarchic Gremlins, leaving Billy and Gizmo to put things right. Equal parts horror and comedy, Joe Dante’s spiteful satire of small town America shows us what would happen if the set of It’s a Wonderful Life had been invaded by the Sex Pistols’ tour bus.
If you’ve been trying to teach your child the concept of the grass not always being greener on the other side, just put Coraline on and let its creepy plot (channeled through breath-taking stop motion) do the work for you. Feeling lonely and neglected by her parents after moving into a very old, very mysterious house, Coraline (Dakota Fanning) discovers an idealized version of her own world where everyone has buttons for eyes (yes, buttons for eyes – how creepy is that?!). It doesn’t take long for her to realise that her Other Mother isn’t as wonderful as she first seemed, and Coraline is forced to try and escape back home to save her family.
The Wizard of Oz
Evil witches. Flying monkeys. Poisoned poppy fields. All things considered you’ve got more chance of surviving a trip through a warzone than a skip along the yellow brick road. Now a mind-boggling 75 years old, The Wizard of Oz continues to enthrall fresh generations of children with its spell-binding blend of timeless tunes and scary scenes. The shot of bicycle-riding Miss Gulch morphing into the broomstick-flying Wicked Witch of the West still has me quivering like the Cowardly Lion, and the sudden switch from the drab, sepia-tinted hues of Kansas to the psychedelic technicolor of Oz is every bit as powerful today as it must have been in 1939.
Now, you may have noticed I’ve only mentioned 9 films. That’s because the final place on the list goes not to a movie, but a moment; a piece of film so terrifyingly dark that it stands out from the brightness of the story around it like a witch’s silhouette against a full moon. I am of course referring to the ‘child catching’ scene from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).
It may only last for a mere two and a half minutes, but each one of those 150 seconds is packed with eerie menace and creepy subtext as the Catcher (played by ballet dancer Robert Helpmann) glides and sashays his way off the screen and into our subconscious. If you don’t have time for a full film but still want to terrify the tykes, this scene is perfect. Here’s a nerdy fact to close with: the Child Catcher character never existed in Ian Fleming’s novel, and was created for the film by none other than Roald Dahl. Thanks for the nightmares, Roald.
Happy trick or treating, folks. And remember… don’t take those lollipops!
Banner image by Nic Baines.