October may be the time of year for hard-R horror movies, but it’s also the month of pumpkin carving, superhero and vampire costumes, trick or treating, and eating so much candy that you get a cavity. In short, Halloween is different for kids than for adults. It’s a magical night when anything is possible, and kids are more aware of that than anyone. There is an overabundance of horror movies for adults, but what good spooky cinema is out there for the under 13? And what possible nightmares are they getting from these choices? The following five films are kid-friendly, spooky Halloween fun.
- The Watcher in the Woods (1980). Remember when studios made Gothic and scary movies for kids that didn’t need to pander to jokes or rely on being too family friendly? Adapted from Florence Engall Randall’s novel, this film tells the tale of a family—particularly two sisters, Jan and Ellie—who rents a grand manor from an old woman in rural England surrounded by seemingly idyllic woods. However, as they soon discover, a mystery is afoot and it’s up to the two of them to solve it or be haunted forever. Similar to Something Wicked This Way Comes, the movie is rich in atmosphere and setting. Most of our time is spent with the manor and the titular woods, and they’re both unsettling and gorgeous in equal turns. The cinematography is captivating, especially in the moments when the camera works as “the watcher” and follows characters around. There’s a particularly unsettling moment early on involving a mirror that’s wonderfully unnatural. Bette Davis, while appearing to be the antagonist in the initial moments of the film, lends surprising depth to her character and delivers a great performance. Overall, the two sisters, played by Lynn-Holly Johnson and Kyle Richards, deliver slightly uneven performances that are excellent in some scenes and then unbelievable in others, but decently watchable as a whole. My main critique is the ending; I’m aware the ending was rewritten and more than one was filmed and there’s plenty of choice, but I’m just generally not a fan of the concept. Others probably are (and I do think it’s inventive within the genre), but I needed more clues within the film to point me in that direction rather than feeling a little bit of whiplash. If you’d like to feel watched after seeing a movie, then this is worth checking out. 6+
- Casper (1995). This live action adaptation of the classic cartoon takes our friendly ghost on a different sort of adventure—the romantic kind. He lives in Whipstaff Manor with his ghost-uncles and tries to befriend every kid that walks into the abandoned house on a dare; this plan doesn’t work out until he coerces the new owner of the house into a hiring a paranormal therapist who happens to have a daughter close to his age. The two form a close friendship, explore the mansion, and try to figure out life and death in the midst of various other schemes. There are two other subplots—one involving the uncles and their therapy with the father who is trying to contact his dead wife, and the other involving the new owner trying to find a treasure hidden in the manor—but the main focus is on Kat and Casper’s friendship and kind-of romance. Kids probably won’t notice that Casper’s behavior is borderline creepy, but it’s one of the many aspects of the film that hasn’t aged well. The CGI does hold up nicely, and there are a couple of decent scares that might spook kids. The lessons about friendship, acceptance, and ‘unfinished business’ are good things to carry away and Casper does a great job of conveying them. Overall, this is a ghost story with a big heart. 6+
- Scooby Doo and the Witch’s Ghost (1999). Nothing is more family-friendly and perfectly spooky for the Halloween season than Scooby Doo, who celebrated fifty years as a pop culture icon in 2019. The second film in the direct-to-video series, this adventure follows Mystery Inc. as they investigate the titular Witch’s Ghost with popular horror writer, Ben Ravencroft, in a New England town. A lot of the earlier Scooby Doo films are particularly beloved, and this one more so because of its introduction of eco-goth band the Hex Girls and the use of Tim Curry for one of the voice actors (always a wise choice). It has all the standard moves of the mystery-adventure with a few surprising twists, and just the right amount of fright to delight. Velma gets a romantic subplot that will hit home in the hearts of bookish girls everywhere, and, kind of bizarrely, Shaggy and Scooby’s binge eating is actually played for revulsion as well as laughs this time around. The soundtrack is amazing, and the animation is still wonderful with special attention paid to the idyllic autumnal backgrounds. A lot of that detail is lost in the later Scooby Doo films so it’s worth noticing when it’s there. The voice work is great, with the cast filling into the characters in distinct and yet not too noticeable ways. The movie continues some of the ground work that Zombie Island set up in terms of real versus fake mysteries and monsters, but doesn’t make too much of a big deal out of that. Please be aware the film took great liberties with the Wiccan religion, and maybe have a conversation about that if the kiddos are curious. Overall, this is definitely one of the more solid entries in the franchise and a welcome addition to any Halloween or Scooby Doo Make sure to bring plenty of snacks. 4+
- Frankenweenie (2012). What makes this Tim Burton Frankenstein adaptation so special? Well, when you flip the basic plotline from man brings monster to life to boy brings beloved pet back to life things get a bit more complicated, and simpler. Complicated on an analytic level—is Victor still a “bad guy” for doing this if we can more easily sympathize with his reasons? Simpler because this is a way easier thing to package as a family-friendly film version of Frankenstein than if he tried to bring back his best human friend. Filmed in stop-motion and black and white, this film goes for the Universal Monsters meets A Nightmare Before Christmas vibe and gets its niche. The characters, while often homages to the literary or cinematic versions of the tale, stand out on their own and the new additions are welcome. There’s a nice sense of humor, both dark and light, laced throughout the film. I’m also quite fond of the subplot about what should or should not be taught in a school’s science classroom, and how that affects education. Of course, as a film marketed toward children, we have the moment where it-all-goes-awry, but the traditional movements can easily be pushed aside for the heart of the film which is well worth the watch. While you may not be likely to ask yourself moralistic questions after watching, this tale about a boy and his undying love for his dog is electrifying in many ways. 6+
- Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019). I thought long and hard about where to put this film. Rated PG-13, it’s technically recommended for teenagers and older, but it’s based on a series of children’s books that I started reading when I was five. So, in the end, it’s here because of the middle ground. Adapted from Alvin Schwartz’s collections of urban legends, folk tales, and literal scary stories, inspired by the scary as hell illustrations by Stephen Gammell, and directed by the atmospheric André Øvredal, this film was built on hype. Rather than doing an anthology-format, Scary Stories follows in the mildly-done footsteps of many other movies and follows a group of friends who discover a book of stories after exploring the local haunted house on Halloween. Unfortunately, the book isn’t finished and begins to write them onto its pages in horrific ways. I’m going to get my main critiques for the film out of the way—the plot (and thrown in romantic subplot) surrounding the stories is a bit weak and been-there-done-that. While I appreciate everything the film tries to do with the time period, it stretches itself too thin. However, when the film hones in on the stories it knows what it’s doing. We have suspense, tension, horror, and revulsion in equal turns. And, even then, it plays with the stories many of us know so well! While in some ways, it softened “Harold” for that PG-13 rating, it also gave us a scary body horror scene that I was definitely not ready for. The practical effects are wonderful (although occasionally covered with too much CGI). So, if you’re looking for a transitional film to introduce the kiddo to scarier horror, this would be a good choice to see if they’re ready. A lot of adults didn’t find it that scary, but for someone the right age this would be perfectly nightmare inducing. 10+
Horror movies are made for adults, but that doesn’t mean kids don’t deserve to be scared too. Kids and families get the more physical aspects of the holiday, but spending time together on the spookiest night of the year is what’s most important. So carve a pumpkin, put on a costume, go door to door, and come home to watch a kid-friendly flick.