There's no wrong way to celebrate Halloween (says the man preparing to carve a fright face into the innocent flesh of a turnip). There's certainly a preferred practice which fits the seasonal decorum. Just as there are specific films which simply feel more right during the Christmas season (the Harry Potter films come to mind) so are there a bevy of haunting flicks that just get the proverbial it that is Halloween. These films capture that intangible Halloween feel, a magical combination of spook and nostalgia, which I think we all wish could be recaptured. I break all of these flicks out every year to rekindle my spookier side, relighting the torch from the pyre of childhood.
10. The Midnight Hour (1985)
This is totally an ABC made for TV movie. You may scoff at the mere thought, but The Midnight Hour is chock full of Halloweeny goodness. The general flavor is that of a slightly more adult episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, but only slightly. Shari-Belafonte Harper (daughter of Harry) stars with backup singers LaVar Burton and Dick Van Patten as silly teenagers awaken the spirit of a witch/vampire who was burned at the stake. The Midnight Hour is seriously so much goofy and lighthearted fun. I break out my red clamshell VHS every year.
9. The Monster Squad (1987)
The blunt truth is that nearly of the classic Universal monster films could slot comfortably onto this list to the preclusion of a great many others. So instead this Fred Dekker fan favorite works to properly represent all of the monsters we learned to love as children. Frank, Drac, Wolfie, Gill, the Mummy; the gang's all here. What propels The Monster Squad onto a list like this one centers on its perfect playing of that classic Halloween tune on our soul's piano. It's also a not so gentle reminder that Wolfman's got nards.
8. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Tim Burton's animated musical is actually a loving homage to both Halloween and Christmas, quite strangely occupying a dual niche. In a way it is very much a Thanksgiving killer, putting two rounds from a silenced pistol to the back of Turkey Day's head, and then thoughtlessly stepping over its corpse with nary a thought for the time between All Hallow's Eve and Consumer day, er I mean Christmas. With an unmatched blend of his trademark gothic style and a wondrous love for all things Halloween, Burton hit it out of not only the park but the town too, ensuring The Nightmare Before Christmas would become yearly viewing on two separate holidays.
7. Halloween (1978)
In addition to being one of the most influential horror films of all time, John Carpenter's Halloween takes place on October 31st and shares its name with the most spooktastic of celebrations. So then why isn't it further up the list? Intending no slight to the film or its impact, Halloween isn't precisely the embodiment of good natured, monster mashing fun. It doesn't perfectly distill what it is to be Halloween the day down to a frothy mad scientist potion, to be gobbled like so much candy. But it is an excellent film, a killer experience, and mandatory seasonal viewing.
6. Mad Monster Party (1967)
The perfect blend of camp and homage, this Rankin/Bass animated feature is a warm nostalgia blanket of horror comfort which resurrects the vast stable of Universal horror heavy hitters for one big hurrah. Boris Karloff voices Baron von Frankenstein, who gathers together his monsterly compatriots for an important announcement. Though this movie didn't see the outright dominating success of Rankin/Bass' Christmas specials, it still holds a place in the hearts of many a horror fan.
5. Sleepy Hollow (1999)
It should surprise very few that Tim Burton would appear at least twice on a list of films which capture the Halloween spirit. Sleepy Hollow rides that wave of nostalgia associated with yearly television showings of Disney's 1949 classic The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. It smartly updates the classic, lending an early steampunk esthetic to Burton's normal gothic trappings far in advance of the burgeoning subgenre's sweeping popularity. This is quite the rousing and satisfying tale, well wrapped in the embrace of Halloween.
4. Hocus Pocus (1993)
This lighthearted Disney film certainly put a spell young viewers (myself included) which has led to enduring popularity and a minor cult following. Yes, you may tar and feather me in the comments below, but I defy you to dispute Hocus Pocus' seasonal appeal. It indulgently swing the cudgel of New England witchcraft folklore, striking viewers right in the memory box. Everyone brings their A-game, winking at the camera and hamming it up. In fact I need to dig up my copy to give it the yearly go around.
3. The Adventure is Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
Really we're here to discuss The Legend of Sleep Hollow segment (which was split off and became its own separate segment for broadcast in 1955), no offense Mr. Toad. Created by Disney and distributed by RKO, this animated feature instilled the look and tone of the Headless Horseman for at least three generations of children. It too was featured as a once yearly television broadcast, which served to heighten its importance among the pantheon of Halloween programming.
2. It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966)
I always forget how short this film is, clocking in at only twenty five minutes. But for that nearly half an hour every nerve ending in my childhood body was wired for lightning strikes. For most of my life, this was the epitome of Halloween films- and I understand if it always will be for most people. I covered its many boons two weeks ago in this very column; suffice to say that there is more going on under the hood than would appear at first glance. What used to be a line yearly high lit in our TV guide has become the film my wife and I watch each year while serving trick or treaters.
1. Trick 'r Treat (2007)
Boy I couldn't have timed this any more superbly if I had a crystal ball. By now you may have heard that this amazing anthology film has just been granted a sequel (announced Monday night at a live streamed reunion). Writer/Director Michael Dougherty had always intended for his film to become a yearly anthology series, with installments released every Halloween. Thanks to a massive bungling by Warner Brothers (who shelved it, never actually releasing it theatrically), Trick 'r Treat languished in cinematic purgatory, only getting a home release many years later. Threaded together by the pint sized spirit of Halloween, Sam, the movie serves as a lesson in the holiday's rules and illustrates the vengeance to be wrought upon those who flout them. I could go on at absurd length about the awesome merits of Trick 'r Treat, but those who have seen it know precisely why it's so important. Those who haven't have no excuse not to make it a part of their yearly viewing.
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Wednesday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.
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