I adore Halloween and, by extension, I love Halloween movies, which is strange to some because I’m not a fan of feeling terrified. Getting creeped out can be fun, but I’ve never understood the allure of films that either make one so afraid that they can’t sleep or which invite audiences to be entertained by the gory slaughter of innocent people at the hands of psychopaths. If you enjoy the season, as I do, and want your gothic flavor tempered with laughs, heroism, romance, or even inspiration, I’ve got you covered.
ABBOT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN
The classic comedy duo cross paths with Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein’s monster in what is widely considered one of their best films, with Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney reprising their iconic roles.
ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES
The sequel to the 90’s film version of the classic 60’s TV series is smarter and more fun than the first film, with delightfully morbid humor.
This film actually gave me a terrible fear of spiders for many years. It’s an effective thriller, but it’s also got plenty of comic relief. Perfect to cuddle up to.
ARSENIC AND OLD LACE
Cary Grant stars in this classic romantic comedy that also has hidden corpses, murderous old ladies, insane relatives, and a torturous criminal disfigured by plastic surgery. It’s all in good fun though, and it’s a blast to see Grant so comedically hammy.
Featured a pre-30 Rock Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis (remember her?), Winona Ryder, and Michael Keaton in the title role, the real star of this film is director Tim Burton, whose darkly funny and wildly creative take on the afterlife fills every frame with imagination and zeal.
Writer-director Richard Dutcher’s underrated “Mormon murder mystery” is well acted and highly accessible to audiences not of our faith, using the culture and religion not to convert audiences, but to flavor the story. Tastefully (and effectively) leaves most of the violence to our imagination. In its examination of a once-peaceful small town torn apart by fear and mistrust, it feels totally real, making it truly scary and profoundly moving.
I’ve never seen this, but have friends who swear by it.
Clever dark comedy based on the murder-mystery board game. The last 10-15 minutes, in particular, are absolutely golden.
Like a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, this visually dazzling film serves as cautionary tale for kids. The creepiest PG film I’ve ever seen, but also a well-told story with a strong female lead and surprising moral lessons.
CORPSE BRIDE, THE
Oft-overlooked, this is a solid follow-up to The Nightmare Before Christmas.
CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957)
Decades before his work in The Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars prequels, Christopher Lee was the horror icon of the 1950’s and 1960’s, here portraying Frankenstein’s monster (further down the list he’s Dracula and the Mummy).
DR. HORRIBLE’S SING-ALONG BLOG
Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Serenity) gives us this hilarious, low-budget, Emmy-winning internet sensation. It’s a 45-minute musical about an aspiring mad scientist/supervillain (Neil Patrick Harris, Doogie Howser, How I Met Your Mother) and his efforts to keep the girl of his dreams away from his arch nemesis, the narcissistic superhero Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion, Castle, Firefly). The dialogue zings and the songs are truly catchy (clip has mild language).
DRAG ME TO HELL
From Spiderman director Sam Raimi, this is a film that I include with some reservation, as it’s definitely not for everyone. It’s the closest thing to a true horror film on this list. But it’s so intentionally silly, so wildly creative, and its version of demons and Hell so far off the radar as to be pure fantasy, that I thought it was a lot of fun. Imagine a mixture of the dread found in the old Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, the absurd violence and gross-out humor of an Itchy and Scratchy episode, and the madcap energy of Looney Toons. If that sounds good to you, go for it. If not, move along to something more your taste.
DISNEY’S SLEEPY HOLLOW
Narrated by Bing Crosby, this is classic stuff for kids and adults alike. Found on the DVD entitled The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.
Gothic in its design, but much more of a romantic and bittersweet fantasy than a scary Halloween movie. From director Tim Burton, with Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder.
A step down from Gremlins and Tremors, but cut from the same cloth. Good, stupid fun, hearkening back to the B-movies of the 50’s.
FRANKENSTEIN/BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN
A few Halloweens ago I watched all of the original Universal monster movies of the 1930’s (Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, etc.) and these two are the only ones that hold up well after all these years. Creative, iconic, scary, and surprisingly touching.
Tim Burton’s delightful stop-motion treat is a fine mixture of his early work and classic monster movies. Essentially a boy-and-his-dog version of the Frankenstein legend, Frankenweenie is a triumph of design, with wonderful characters, a killer third act, and a heartwarming finale. Read my full review here.
From Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson comes this awesome, if overlooked, Michael J. Fox horror-comedy. Rated R, so maybe not for families unless you seek it out on TV.
This is a film that needs no introduction.
Another 80’s classic. This should be required viewing for any older child with an imagination.
HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN
Though Deathly Hallows Part Two is my favorite in the series, this is the best standalone film and easily the most Halloween-ready. Ghostly soul-sucking dementors, a convicted murderer on the loose, a werewolf, crystal balls, pumpkins, witches, wizards, “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” and Alfonso Cuaron’s brilliant direction. This terrific film also happens to feature wonderful moral messages and the powerful truth that light and hope dissipate darkness and despair.
HELLBOY 2: THE GOLDEN ARMY
I didn’t care for the original Hellboy, a movie about Satan’s son who turns against his father and fights for good; I thought it was a cool idea, but the movie was flat and undercooked. I was extremely surprised, therefore, that this sequel was a terrific standalone action film that fixed all the problems of the predecessor. Getting lost in 2008’s summer superhero shuffle amidst The Dark Knight and Iron Man, this is an overlooked gem that you can enjoy even if you’ve not seen Part One. Funny and scary, with wonderful characters, wildly creative design, and rockin’ action.
Another film I’ve not seen, but have friends who swear by it (granted, not a single one of them is male).
HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)
Though Bela Lugosi gave the quintessential Dracula performance in 1931, Christopher Lee does a great job as well, and the movie surrounding him is better.
Lighthearted animated romp is a fine choice for the whole family; it’s funny and touching, with a wonderful gathering of classic monsters as Dracula tries to keep his daughter from falling in love with a human at his hotel, hid deep within a haunted forest, that serves as a safe haven for the Wolf Man, the Mummy, Frankenstein, and more.
I AM LEGEND
Will Smith + end of the world + zombies = awesome.
INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM
Totally underrated. Though not as smart as Raiders or as funny as Last Crusade, it’s far better than Crystal Skull (a film that I don’t consider to be Indy canon). Temple of Doom is a perfect Halloween movie. You’ve got gross-out humor (monkey brains, anyone?), nail-biting suspense (the spike room), and creepy crawly insects by the thousands. For 20 minutes it turns into a straight-up horror movie, depicting the voodoo-practicing, blood-drinking, brain-washing, and heart-pulling practices of an evil child-enslaving cult. But then it unleashes the fury of Dr. Jones, and I’ve never found the character more heroic than when he’s kicking evil’s butt and returning those children joyously to their loving families. Short Round is funny, and even Kate Capshaw’s incessant screaming is tolerable if one considers that TofD is meant to tip the hat to classic horror films, where women screamed all the time. I’ve grown to love this film.
IT’S THE GREAT PUMPKIN, CHARLIE BROWN!
Not as classic as the quintessential Christmas special, but good fun nonetheless.
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS
Dark humor, fun music, impressive practical effects, and an amazing cast. Just watch the trailer.
THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA
This 2001 parody of 1950’s B-movies is PG-rated, family-friendly fun.
MEN IN BLACK
Often overlooked on Halloween, this alien-fighting comedy totally hits the spot. Skip the sequel, but the original is smart, witty, creepy fun.
Surprisingly clever family film for adults with kids just old enough to handle getting a little creeped out.
Pixar’s delightful, non-threatening classic is perfect if your kids are too young for scares. Funny and moving.
MONSTERS VS. ALIENS
It’s all in the title. What could be more perfect for Halloween?
MUMMY, THE (1959)
Another classic Christopher Lee performance. Boris Karloff did it first, but again, this is the better movie.
MUMMY, THE (1999)/ MUMMY RETURNS, THE (2001)
Brendan Frasier and Rachel Weiz have great chemistry in these romantic-horror-action-comedies, which are heavy on special effects and dumb fun. Skip the third movie.
MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE MOVIE
If you’ve never seen Mystery Science Theatre 3000, buckle up. These guys take something potentially annoying (talking during a movie) and turn it into an art form as they mock terrible old sci-fi movies with merciless wit. This film version is a great first sample for newbies.
NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, THE
A moderate success upon its release in 1993, this stop-motion classic has grown in pop-culture influence over the years and is now considered requisite Halloween viewing by many, including myself. Glorious design and perfect music by Danny Elfman.
Normally I don’t care for haunted house movies, but this one stands apart. It’s intelligent, well-acted, and atmospheric with a terrific twist. It’s also, for me, just scary enough without overdoing it.
A nice mixture of genuine scares, laughs, and heart, this stop-motion delight from the makers of Coraline finds an eleven-year-old who talks with ghosts as the only one who can prevent a witch’s curse and a zombie invasion from being unleashed on his small town. Nice messages about tolerance, friendship, and love overcoming hate, mixed in with a loving tribute to 80’s horror. Creepy with some mature humor, this PG film is best for older kids, teens, and adults.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL
What could be more appropriate for Halloween than pirates? How about undead ghost pirates? Though the sequels are simultaneously bloated and underdeveloped, the original has lost none of its luster.
PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, THE (2005)
The film version of Andrew Lloyed Webber’s smash hit musical was somewhat panned by critics, but then, so was the enormously successful stage play. There’s enough gothic atmosphere and murderous scares for the holiday, but there’s also wonderful music, stirring romance, and terrific spectacle. Emmy Rossum makes for a terrific Christine, and Gerard Butler, though his vocals are merely adequate, gives a smoldering performance as the dreaded “opera ghost.”
Christopher Nolan’s underrated obsessed magician’s thriller features a dependably solid performance by Christian Bale, with Hugh Jackman raising the bar for himself to match it. Perfect if you’re looking for intelligence and chills instead of flat-out terror.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD
Hands-down my favorite Halloween movie, this British zombie comedy is rated R, but an edited version is often on Comedy Central, so check your TV listings. Though it’s scary, it’s first and foremost a comedy, with clever dialogue, wonderful characters, and dark humor belly laughs galore.
Back when M. Night Shyamalan was making great movies, this was his most accessible to mainstream audiences. Signs has the tone of a classic Twilight Zone episode, with wonderful comic relief and a moving, pro-faith payoff.
SIXTH SENSE, THE
Every bit as good as you remember, this one is truly frightening, but also wonderfully moving. Haley Joel Osment gives one of the all-time best child actor performances and in many respects Bruce Willis has never been better. As for the ending, now that the surprise twist is common knowledge, go back and watch how touching it is.
Widely regarded as the “best worst movie ever made,” this truly terrible, made-in-Utah production is so incessantly bad that you will not stop laughing.
Classic, knowingly cheesy, charming B-movie fun. Has a fair amount of foul language, so heads up.
THE TWILIGHT SERIES (Rifftrax versions)
The Mystery Science Theatre 3000 guys take the story of Edward and Bella and turn it into one of my favorite comedy series, as they provide hysterically cruel commentary all along the way. Available for download here.
WALLACE AND GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT
From the brilliant creator of Chicken Run and Flushed Away comes this feature-length excursion by Britain’s favorite man and dog team, with a cheeky wit and family-friendly monster movie tone.
WATCHER IN THE WOODS
Disney’s classic, so-bad-it’s-good scary movie from 1980.
WAIT UNTIL DARK
For those who like a bit more realism, this Audrey Hepburn thriller finds her as a blind woman pitted against a murderous home invader.
For older kids and up, this overlooked adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel is a treat for fans of incredible makeup and skin-crawling family fun.
WIZARD OF OZ, THE
No other witch is anywhere close to being as iconic. And those monkeys! Ohhhh, those monkeys are horrific.
I hated this when I first saw it, but it’s grown on me as a guilty pleasure. Van Helsing is an aggressively stupid hodgepodge of classic Universal monster movies and modern action sensibilities, but if you go with the flow, it can be an eye-rolling good time.
Mismarketed as a thriller, The Village disappointed audiences looking for scares and death, but a re-examination shows that it’s actually a moving romance, a smart character study, and an engrossing morality fable with some spooky undertones.
Turns Mary Shelley’s tale on its head with silly aplomb. Perfect for a scare-free, laugh-filled Halloween.
Another R-rated one some might want to find on TV or edited DVD, I was surprised to find actual character arcs and emotional engagement to go along with the giggles and jumps.
I hope this was helpful! I leave you now with a personal Halloween favorite!