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 you get a stomachache. 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 ten films are kid-friendly, spooky Halloween fun.
- Gremlins (1984). A lot of adults want to show their childhood classics to their kids but what often happens is we don’t quite remember all the fine details of what passed the “appropriate” rating board back in the day that might not fly now. Gremlins is one of those films that encapsulates more than one holiday since it’s technically a scary Christmas film, and the prestige of names like Chris Columbus, Joe Dante, and Steven Spielberg make it a fancier film than some others. It covers quite a bit of narrative ground, but mostly follows Billy, who receives a mogwai for Christmas, and the chaos that follows when he breaks each of the rules of pet care. Gizmo, our main mogwai, is perfectly adorable and well-behaved and it’s only through a lack of responsibility from our teenage protagonist that things become as crazy as they do. Chris Walas’ design for the creatures perfectly captures the right amount of cute to seem vulnerable, and the puppetry and special effects throughout the film still hold up pretty well almost forty years later. The acting is a bit of a weird mix between realistic and caricatures; most of our main cast is believable and then some of our antagonists, like Mrs. Deagle, feel unrealistic and then over-the-top in their portrayals. And, as much as I hate to speak ill of Chris Columbus, some elements of the narrative feel too unwieldly when combined with the main plot—like whatever happened to that family with the mortgage Mrs. Deagle wasn’t going to finance? There was a weird amount of attention paid to that. I do like that the film points out Christmas is generally portrayed and expected to be a happy time but it’s not for everyone for various reasons. This is where it gets a little iffy on when a parent might want to show this to their kid; there is a dark monologue in the last half of the film that reveals Santa isn’t real. Do you want your kids learning that from a movie and in that way? But listen the real horror of Gremlins isn’t the little monsters terrorizing the town it’s the subplot about being married to an unsuccessful inventor who’s never home yet still expects you to use his products—like why? Overall, this film does a decent job of blending comedy, horror, and heart into a nice present that holds up moderately well to time, although may be best for more mature children. 10+
- The Witches (1990). I’d heard for years that this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel was one of the scariest kids’ movies out there—but I’d never seen it. I’d read and loved the book when I was little; the plot about a boy and his grandmother discovering a meeting of witches plotting to kill children is still vivid in my mind to this day. Finally, I found opportunity to watch the film and…Yeah, nightmare fuel in the best way. The movie literally begins with Helga (one of the best cinematic grandmothers) telling her grandson about how a little girl in her village disappeared one day and then literally reappeared in a painting, where she occasionally moved, and aged. Her description of what “real” witches look like is anything but Disney pretty and, soon enough, this vision is brought to life on the screen in hideous fashion with wonderful effects. Anjelica Huston plays the Grand High Witch who, when not disguised, is Huston’s full-on gorgeous self; when she takes off the mask and wig she becomes a bird-like, bumpy crone that would give any child nightmares. Later, a small boy is turned into a mouse and the brief glimpses of his body in parts of the transformation are like a PG version of body horror. The witches themselves are creepy-looking and will make most children suspicious of any woman who might offer them candy. Jim Henson worked on some of the puppetry involved with the film and it’s usually quite good. The transitions between the puppet mice and real mice can be a bit jarring or obvious. The make-up on Huston alone is worth a watch because it’s a stunning piece of character work. Rowan Atkinson plays a minor role, but it’s always fun to see him pop up in something. Most of all, the relationship between the boy and his grandmother is at the heart of this film and its one that isn’t shown often. Sure, we get plenty about friendship, or parenthood, or siblings, but a grandparent’s love and protection is just as important and magical—it’s showcased here beautifully. If you’re looking for a film that will certainly deliver the scares, is a moderately decent adaptation of Dahl’s work, and has enough heart for the whole family then invite The Witches into your home. 7/8+
- Double, Double Toil and Trouble (1993). In the 1990s, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen were on a roll: TV shows, movies, and merchandise. It had to start somewhere though and this is one of several films that helped make it possible. Kelly (Mary-Kate) and Lynn (Ashley) set out on a journey to steal their Aunt Agatha’s magic moonstone; they’re hoping to free their Aunt Sophia from the mirror she’s been trapped in before the spell becomes permanent so she’ll help prevent their house from foreclosing. (Yes, that is the basic, basic plot and it’s still a lot: there’s also a clown, a homeless man, and a gravedigger as some kind of Wizard of Oz motif). Is the acting anything special? Not really, but the Olsen twins do their best. The costumes are peak early 90s and the coordinating twin outfits deserve some attention. Cloris Leachman appears to be having a time as both Aunt Agatha and Aunt Sophia, switching from pure evil to pure goodness in turn. What I did enjoy about the plot was its focus on the tired-of-being-twins idea; the girls are right at that age where they want to be noticed as individuals and then they’re contrasted against these aunts who basically turned away from each other. It brought a nice note of sisterhood to things. And while I did get the Oz reference in having three guides to take them along on their quest to defeat the “Wicked Witch”, the idea in reality of having three strange men escort two young girls around is more than a bit weird. Why couldn’t one of them have been a woman—even in the 90s? Surprisingly, I liked the movie better than I thought I would and it’s not the worst in terms of kids’ entertainment or background. There’s a bit of nostalgia, adventure, comedy, and more than a few scary moments as well. 4+
- Don’t Look Under the Bed (1999). This Disney Channel Original Movie was probably one of the first scary movies I remember seeing, along with The Halloween Tree and Hocus Pocus. I also remember it scared the shit out of me. I must not have been the only one since it’s one of the few DCOMs they stopped airing because it was too much for young viewers to handle. And, yet, I loved it. Frances is mature for her age, but that doesn’t help much when she begins seeing a weird boy around town who says he’s an imaginary friend sent to investigate the bizarre pranks set by a supposed boogeyman; her mind says there has to be a logical explanation but the strange events keep coming. This is the film that singlehandedly gave me my fear of dolls, but it also dealt with a lot of mature issues and had a good sense of fun to it that I remembered fondly in the midst of its blackout. Thankfully with the emergence of Disney+ I was able to watch it again and it surprisingly lived up to my nostalgia and then some. Ty Hodges’ performance as Larry Houdini is amazing for a DCOM; he’s exactly the kind of person you would want as an imaginary friend. The banter he has with Erin Chambers as Frances works pretty well and balances out her character. Some of the effects haven’t aged well, but most of the practical work, costume/make-up, and creepy background stuff is still effective. As a kid, I was focused more so on the imaginary friend/boogeyman scares, but as an adult I can see the horror of cancer is a lot more present in the storyline than I remember and tied into the monster in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of classic Universal. If you’re looking for a movie with a good message, great scares, and maybe a bit of trauma for the kids then I can recommend no better a movie than this one. 7/8+
- The Little Vampire (2000). If you were a weird baby Goth like me then you might have related hard to this movie because it’s about a little kid that likes and befriends vampires. Tony and his family are new to Scotland and, basically on his own, he strikes up a friendship with the child vampire who flies into his window one night; this leads to flying, misadventures with a brutish hunter, and an amulet-based quest. If the movie only focused on the friendship and Tony’s desire to be a vampire versus Rudolph’s three hundred years of experience and desire to not be a vampire anymore it would probably be a little cleaner. However, the adventure to find an amulet that will grand Rudolph and his clan mortality takes up a lot more of the plot (which is a bit of a bummer), but it does feel rather exciting at times. I respect that this movie doesn’t dumb down or pander their vampires too much to make it suitable for children: they acknowledge that an immortal’s natural diet is human blood (but they abstain by drinking cow’s blood), they don’t look overly healthy or pretty (they actually look undead), and most of them talk like creatures who don’t spend too much time around modern humans. Jonathan Lipnicki is at his peak cuteness, lisp and all, and he does good work throughout the film. Sure, there are some silly moments—the vampire cows make very little sense—but I can suspend enough of my disbelief. That said, the odd swinger vibes between the two sets of parents will not be overly noticeable by children (they might write it off as vampire powers) but is a weird choice. As a whole, The Little Vampire is a sweet adventure to sink your teeth into. 5+
- Scooby-Doo (2002). I’m going to caveat this review a little by saying I watched this movie a lot when it came out. Not only because I loved Scooby-Doo and the gang, but because it hit all the sweet spots an eight-year old could ask for. The movie begins with our beloved Mystery Inc. breaking up due to years of tension; they’re brought back together to solve a mystery (duh) on Spooky Island where perhaps something more than a man in a mask may be going on. Firstly, the casting is perfect: Matthew Lillard did Shaggy so well he took over the voice role for years; Freddie Prinze Jr. and Sarah Michelle Gellar are literally married Fred and Daphne; Linda Cardellini of Freaks and Geeks and Legally Blonde; and Scott Innes, the same Scooby-Doo from many of our direct-to-video favorites. The supporting cast and cameos are great as well. The soundtrack is a lot of fun and was on repeat in my childhood bedroom. While some elements of the plot seem outrageous or repetitious—how many times does Mystery Inc. need to breakup and find themselves again? Or fight real supernatural monsters?—it works well enough here. And generally we can all agree the reveal of the antagonist is not the best, but there is plenty of foreshadowing to it so it’s not like it comes completely out of the blue. The humor is a bit all over the place. Some jokes will tend to go over a kid’s head (I did not understand all the weed jokes when I was eight) but others are definitely targeting a more immature audience (I’m 26 and still laughed at least once at a fart joke). The special effects haven’t aged quite well and I do wish they would have used a few more practical effects when it came to their monsters, but CGI continues to be all the rage and people will continue to use it. Overall, Scooby-Doo is still fun after all these years because it’s a formula that works so well, even if some of the ingredients aren’t quite the same anymore. You just can’t go wrong. 7+
- Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (2009).Based on the first trilogy of the Darren Shan saga, this fantasy-horror film is a bit of an adaptation in the same way 2003’s A Series of Unfortunate Events was. It takes the first three books of a middle grade series, picks and chooses plot points, smooshes other elements together, has an amazing cast, and whams out a film. The Vampire’s Assistant primarily follows Darren Shan, a teenager who, by a bit of an accident and a touch of destiny, becomes a half-vampire and joins a traveling freak show. I was actually quite a fan of the books when I was younger but remember being disappointed by this adaptation; however, on its own, it serves up enough adventure and scares to entertain. The script is pretty lackluster (but let’s be honest, the books weren’t exactly high literature), but the cast does their best with the material. I totally forgot Josh Hutcherson was in this film, but he does an admirable job as the foil to our hero. John C. Reilly and Chris Massoglia do decent work together, the rest of the recognizable faces earn their screen time in some way, and there’s an underutilized Willem Dafoe. Is this the scariest vampire film a kid could watch? Absolutely not. Does it try new things with the mythology and will it satisfy weird children who are obsessed with the undead? Decently enough. 10/11+
- Coco (2017). The year this movie came out I reviewed Book of Life and said I had high hopes for this film. Well, my hopes were exceeded and then some. Not only is this film a gorgeous representation of Dia de los Muertos, but showcases many of the smaller aspects of Mexican culture that aren’t often shown in a film from a major studio. Miguel Rivera is transported to the Land of the Dead and must secure a blessing from his deceased musician relative in order to return home and pursue his dreams, despite his family’s disapproval. The relationships between the characters—particularly between Miguel and his great-grandma Coco—help solidify the film and make it feel lived in and real. Miguel’s stubbornness in pursuing his dream against his family’s wishes is relatable, especially to artist types, and the development of his talents on his journey is amazing to watch. The highs and lows of the narrative work really well in that regard; sometimes we are cheering and laughing, and the next second you’re in a ball on the floor crying. The animation is gorgeous, particularly in wide shots of the Land of the Dead, and the contrast between the darkness and bright colors is fantastic. The character designs each have their own personalities, and the way the voice cast brings them to life is great. Anthony Gonzalez and Gael Garcia Bernal as Miguel and Héctor are particular highlights of the film. There are a few twists and turns in the plot; one of these is a bit more obvious than the other, and the second takes Coco to a new level. The ending is probably one of my favorites of any movie. The music, particularly the motif “Remember Me”, works well in moving throughout the plot and they all fit the tone, mood, and movement at any given time—plus they’re great! Coco not only shows a gorgeous culture and its beliefs, but the importance of family and history—living and dead—in our memory. 5+
- Zombies (2018). In the same way Scream changed the tone of horror movies forever, High School Musical altered the landscape of Disney Channel Original Movies. Prior to 2006, only a few of the films featured music—usually relevant in some way to the plot. Since then, however, over fifteen of the films have contained original music or been part of musical franchises. In addition to the music, there’s usually a hackneyed plot about status quo/being yourself against peer pressure, loads of choreography, and overacting. Essentially, the DCOM has become formulaic. This is fairly evident in Zombies, a messy if not somewhat entertaining attempt at presenting a metaphor. The plot follows a zombie, Zed, and cheerleader, Addison, as they try to integrate their worlds in a society which is very much anti-undead. So, yes, the metaphor is segregation, like Jim Crow, with zombies. It doesn’t really work in the way the film probably hopes it does because, at best, it’s a hot mess and, at worst, it’s actually kind of racist. Most adults will pick up on this and hopefully have some kind of conversation with their kids because Disney sure as hell isn’t; the moral of this story is cheerleading and future generations will solve everything. Despite the backbone of the story not working as intended, most of the songs are pretty decent and the choreography is top notch. There are a few laughs here and there and some nice production designs. The first three quarters are pretty satisfying, if predictable, and then it kind of seems like the film gives up on itself. Even with all that, Zombies delivers on fun, a vague attempt at a morality lesson, and some sweet moves. More for the kids than the whole family. 5+
- The Addams Family (2019). For such a relatively popular franchise, our favorite freaky family doesn’t have too many adaptations: the original comics, four TV series, and now four movies. And there are sometimes large gaps between those: the last film, Addams Family Reunion, came out in 1998 and was direct-to-video. So this latest outing had quite a bit of excitement built up around it: a talented voice cast, animation imitating the original cartoons, and what looked to be like a decently macabre sense of humor from the trailers. What it actually is is a rehashing of the previous three movies in an updated 21st century humor package. See: The Addams, after moving from “the old country” to New Jersey, must deal with several harrowing experiences—Gomez must make sure Pugsley is ready for his Mazurka, Morticia is worried Wednesday is becoming assimilated by the nearby normals, and reality TV host/planned neighborhood designer, Margaux Needler, doesn’t think the Addams’ aesthetic matches her ideals and worries about their upcoming family reunion. Basically, this film took some of the most popular and beloved elements from the previous films and said “hey those worked really well, let’s just do that again.” The Mazurka is an updated version of the Mamushka; Wednesday’s plotline follows some of the same notes from Values in terms of finding a weird friend, Morticia coming to terms with a “normal” child, etc. What does work about the film is the voice acting—particularly Oscar Isaac as Gomez—and the unique style of the animation. A few of the jokes and references work really well, and I do like the love the film has for its own franchise. For example, there’s a moment when the mansion is painted pink; fans of the 60s TV show will know that the set was actually that color to make things pop in black and white. The characters are generally right, although Gomez and Morticia’s sweet seductive love is toned down from the 90s portrayal, and it’s that same creepy family we love to hang out with. Overall, the most recent portrayal doesn’t really do anything new or outstanding, but it’s still entertaining and delivers on what you basically want. 5+
Horror movies are usually 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. Since 2020 has been full of unexpected frights for the little ones, give them a scare they’ll actually enjoy. Make sure to curl up with some candy and popcorn, a good movie, and stay safe this Halloween.