Tis the season for getting nervous about what might be hiding in the dark spaces. And it’s perfect weather for honoring the Halloween tradition of scaring the tarnation out of ourselves. Here we offer Part 1 of Kasey’s Halloween Extravaganza – a line-up of film titles ranked according to fright-potential. When you see her, ask Kasey about her soon-to-be trademarked Spook-o-Meter.
When I woke up this morning, the temperature stood at 50 degrees outside.
I knew exactly what that meant.
The crisp, morning air cut straight through my sweater and I could feel it… Autumn. All Hallow’s Eve. The Spirit. The Pumpkin Spice. She’s coming.
Many people adore this season, but I’ve really only really started to appreciate the ritual as an adult. When I was younger, the entire performance of Halloween terrified me. I was a somewhat emotionally fragile child (aka, I was a pansy with anxiety) and we’ll circle back to that in a bit; it’s important, but for now suffice it to say, I like to think I’ve come a long way. I used to be too scaredy-cat to even walk down the rubber mask aisle in the Halloween store. These days, I’m only frightened by the lawn decorations. Growth.
Let’s put my character development to the ultimate Halloween test. I have a personal rule that I don’t talk about movies I haven’t seen, and I try not to talk about movies I haven’t seen recently, so I’m going to watch a gauntlet of 10 movies. We’ll call them Halloween movies even though most of them aren’t explicitly so. And I’ll rank them on a sliding scale, starting with some tame choices before we really ramp the spook factor all the way up to Nightmare Fuel. How am I choosing what films to cover? All 10 are simply movies that I feel some kind of personal connection to, have history with, or feel fascination for. If my choices seem weird, it’s because I’m weird.
All rankings on the Spook-o-Meter are entirely subjective and are based on my reactions to the material – and I am very overdramatic.
How bad can it be? I’m almost 30. I can handle it… Right?
I said we’re starting tame and I absolutely meant it; this is a movie for babies and we are going to discuss it very seriously.
The Farmer family is in trouble, grown-up trouble, “foreclosure” trouble. With the bank circling their house like a shark, the family turns to the only person they know with the money and clout to save them; Aunt Agatha. But Aunt Agatha isn’t exactly forthcoming with familial compassion, and worse, when she learns that the Farmer family have twin girls, she throws them all out of her mansion in a frenzied rage. But… why? Well, as often happens in these Halloween movies, the gravedigger on the grounds has all the necessary exposition, and it turns out this rabbit hole goes deep, including all manner of witches, spells, magic amulets, covens, and “ilk”. It’s up to the twins and their ragtag band of friends to seek out the means to break the spell cast by their evil aunt, rescue a long lost family member, and scrounge up the money to keep their home. It’s a lot to ask of two seven-year-olds, but anything can happen on Halloween!
I am not going to claim that this movie is great. It came out the same year as Hocus Pocus and got, rightfully perhaps, entirely overshadowed. Mostly, this is a fascinating relic of a forgotten franchise. The long arm of history has mostly only remembered Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen for their appearances on Full House. What’s less remembered is that after Full House, the twins went whole-hog on trying to start an entire media empire. Between 1992 and 2004, the Olsen twins starred in 18 direct to TV/VHS movies, 4 failed television series, and, oddly enough, even 1 failed animated series. Most of their output is unwatchable drivel worthy of sitting forgotten in the dustpan of history, but not this movie!
This film, only the second made in their long line of VHS releases, does have one saving grace, and it’s a biggie; Cloris Leachman as Aunt Agatha. The costume department dressed her up as a witch, and boy oh boy, she went for it. She is in for a penny, in for a pound, she believes in this character, she believes in this world, and we love to see it. I wish I had as much fun doing anything in life as Cloris Leachman does playing an evil witch, cackling her way through every dialogue exchange and chewing on all the scenery. The whole film coasts on her undeniable charisma alone and it is a joy to witness. I highly recommend adding this to your holiday rotation if Halloweentown is starting to grow stale and you need a good shot of 90’stalgia.
This film gets a 0 out of 10 on the Spook-o-Meter. Agatha is one of the more evil witches in children’s media, she does at several points threaten to torture and murder the child characters, but Cloris Leachman’s performance is so bonkers, it’s impossible to be afraid of her. I loved this movie when I was a kid.
- ParaNorman (2012)
Originally, I’d thought to talk about the movie Coraline in this spot, because I absolutely adore the movie Coraline. Yet, upon a rewatch, I quickly discovered that despite its spookiness… Coraline takes place in the spring. And anyway, Coraline already has a cult following. But ParaNorman, I think, many people must have skipped upon its release. It deserves much more attention.
Norman is not exactly an average middle schooler. It isn’t his obsession with zombie movies and the macabre that makes him stand out, that’s all pretty par for the course in a town that orients its tourism sector around the legend of an old witch’s curse. No, what sets Norman apart is the fact that he can talk to ghosts. Which is great, for keeping up a relationship with his dead grandmother who haunts his family home. It’s less great for keeping up relationships with his father, his schoolmates, the people of his town… pretty much any live person. Ostracized because he is different, Norman is used to being regarded as a letdown and a kook. But when his estranged uncle swoops into town, he claims to have the same gift Norman does. And he claims that gift comes with responsibility, a responsibility entwined with the witch’s curse looming over the town (which is real?). It’s up to Norman to suss out the truth, about the curse, about the town, and even about himself, while’s he’s at it.
This is a film from LAIKA animation studios, the same people who made Coraline, The Boxtrolls, and the criminally underrated (and regrettably not at all Halloween related) Kubo and the Two Strings. As such, it is a predictably gorgeous film. I especially adore the character designs. In a world where every female character in Disney’s Frozen share the same face model, it’s extremely refreshing to see imaginative character design in animation. This is also a stop-motion animated film, which is wonderful to see in a market so oversaturated with computer animation. The idea that everything onscreen really, physically, existed, as miniatures and as sets is exceptionally intriguing and makes for a fun game of guessing how the animators pulled off some of the more dynamic shots.
I suspect that perhaps this film underperformed because it was a little ahead of its time. The main themes of this film include intolerance, acceptance, and how to make peace with the misdeeds of the past even if they weren’t your personal misdeeds to address. In 2012, these were absolutely themes worth exploring, but maybe they didn’t quite ring true and near to many viewers. But now, here in 2020? This film sings. I highly recommend it for Endtimes Halloween Viewing.
This film gets a 2/10 on the Spook-o-Meter. I wouldn’t call this movie scary, even with all the ghosts and zombies. But the climax is interestingly intense for a children’s film; it might have spooked me when I was a youngster. It is, however, not as scary as Coraline, not by a longshot.
- Return to Oz (1985)
This film is a direct sequel to The Wizard of Oz from 1939, but the shock of watching this back to back with the original would be enough to give a buffalo whiplash; I don’t recommend it unless you are currently quarantining with a chiropractor.
Dorothy Gale can’t sleep. After her first adventure in Oz, she can’t get the wonderful land of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion out of her head. But no one believes her when she describes where she’s been, and Auntie Em is beginning to worry. All these stories, all these fantasies. It isn’t becoming on a young girl. So, she packs Dorothy up on the wagon and takes her to see a doctor, a special doctor who knows of turn-of-the-century treatments using electricity to “erase” unwanted thoughts from one’s head. But it doesn’t feel right, and after being urged to escape the hospital by a strange girl, Dorothy once again finds herself haphazardly transported to the Land of Oz. But things aren’t quite the same. The yellow brick road is all torn up, and someone took the Emerald City’s emeralds! Worst of all, Dorothy can’t seem to find her old friends anywhere. We’re certainly not in Kansas anymore, but… are we even still in Oz?
This movie is buckwild. It’s also somewhat infamous for terrifying children of the 80’s. I didn’t watch this as a kid, and honestly thank goodness. If I wanted to compare the vibe of this film to something, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t the original The Wizard of Oz, it’s actually The Neverending Story, another 80’s film famous for planting traumatic memories in the minds of children. But once one looks past the aspects of this children’s film that have no business being in a children’s film, there’s actually so much to admire about this strange story. The costuming, puppet work, set construction, and stop-motion animation here is all extremely well done and imaginative. The Cowardly Lion, while not even in the movie for particularly long, is realized through a combination of what looks to be some puppeteering and some animatronics, and the effect is fantastic. Despite this film being made some 40 years after the original Wizard of Oz and it being a beast of a different breed, there are little callbacks scattered throughout begging the audience to reminisce. The actor playing Dorothy (a young Fairuza Baulk, for any fans of the The Craft out there) at some points seems to be attempting an impression of Judy Garland’s memorable speech patterns, the full effect of which I’m still not sure about, but found fascinating. Overall, this is an ambitious and memorable film well worth your time, and it’s on Disney Plus, how about that?
This film gets a 4 out of 10 on the Spook-o-meter. There’s a character in this movie named Princess Mombi and she is the most frightening thing I have ever seen in a children’s film, how was it even legal to put something like that in a kid’s movie, the 80’s were really something else.
This next film is a musical! Because what’s the diametric opposite of a hardcore horror fan? That’s right, a musical theatre nerd. Guess what I am? That’s right, a musical theatre nerd. And it’s time for me to flaunt MY skills, for once!
Sweeney Todd is an odd bird. Swept into town on a foul wind, he waits, lurking down on one of the darkest streets in all of London. Although he looks familiar, perhaps an echo of a man from long ago, the only person who seems to recognize him is the dowdy Mrs. Lovett, a local spinster who proudly prepares what just might be the worst pies in London. She gives him the attic room in her building to continue his old practice as a skilled barber, and all seems to settle down… until suddenly, all at once, it doesn’t. Sweeney Todd is a man with a tangled web of secrets surrounding him, and not all the secrets are his own. But more importantly… some of the men who go up for a shave don’t seem to come back down again. And boy, Mrs. Lovett’s meat pie business sure is booming all the sudden, isn’t it? How strange…
This musical is a masterpiece. The music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim are impeccably written, clever and dark and succinct all the way through. The “Pretty Women” scene gets me every time; the lyrics, the character play, the tension. It’s all extremely good. Though this musical is a true horror story, the music is surprisingly beautiful at many points; “Not While I’m Around” in particular is one of the most gorgeous, fragile, songs in all of the musical theatre canon and I love it with my entire heart.
As far as this film version goes, it’s quite a trip, all shadows and blue hues and way too much eye shadow on every single character. I have to imagine that Johnny Depp gets ribbed a lot for his singing in this film, but honestly, he does an entirely passable job. It’s fine. He’s fine. This is fine. Anyway, it’s Helena Bonham Carter who’s the real star of the show here, finding a way to deftly balance an air of depressed nonchalance with those evocative, expressive, eyes of hers. This film was also Tim Burton’s last hurrah before he got gobbled up by the Disney corporation and, evidently, contracted to cater to the Alice in Wonderland franchise until the end of time (although he also directed Dumbo? Really?). Looking back on it now, Tim Burton directing Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is kind of a wild pitch and I’m shocked at how forgotten this film already seems to be. A musical written by the greatest living composer of our time, adapted for the screen by the dude who would go on to bring us Frankenweenie. Wild.
If you watch this film and enjoy it, I must point out that because this musical has been around since 1979, there have been many, many, productions over the years starring tons of unexpected actors. There are filmed stage versions out there available to watch starring Emma Thompson, Imelda Staunton, Audra McDonald, Patti LuPone, Neil Patrick Harris, and even Murder She Wrote herself, Angela Lansbury! So, if you’ve ever wanted to listen to Mrs. Potts sing about gruesome murder, well, Happy Halloween, I have found your white whale!
This film gets a 5 out of 10 on the Spook-o-meter. This movie is not scary, it was directed by Tim Burton. But it is extremely bloody, the body count is off the charts, and there are issues like sexual assault, mental illness, and child abuse present in the story. It’s not exactly uplifting stuff. But the vibe it’s aiming for is Shakespearean tragedy. And, well, you know how those always end…
- Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)
I could stop at talking about one musical, but the fun thing about me is I can find multiple musicals for any occasion, and Halloween is actually a super easy mark. Hocus Pocus even gets points for having Bette Midler sing. Anyway.
The year is 2056. A plague of organ failures ravishes the globe. An enterprising company, GeneCo, steps in to offer transplants on affordable payment schedules. But best read the fine print on that contract, because should a person default on their plan, GeneCo may send a Repo Man after them. The process is not at all dissimilar to car repossession… except it might involve the taking back of a lung. However, when the life of GeneCo’s dying kingpin intersects with that of the daughter of a Repo man, everything is thrown askew. New light falls onto old secrets and friends become foes in this (I kid you not) rock musical(!) until, at last, the final, bloody, truths are revealed.
This film was made by the same production company that made the Saw movie sequels, which is a fantastic illustration of how far we’ve come from talking about Olsen twin movies. This film is also a complete mess. Much like a Saw sequel! But is it a good musical? WELL… Look, there aren’t musical numbers in this movie so much as there are interesting song fragments. And also bad songs, there’s several of those. By some measures, there’s upwards of 50 tracks in this sucker. That is untenable. (For the sake of comparison, Hamilton has 46 songs in its 3 hour runtime; Repo! is an hour and forty minutes long.) Out of the whole thing, the tracks “Chase the Morning” and “Let the Monster Rise” are the closest to resembling something that might exist in a good musical. Everything else is completely coconuts.
All of this sounds like negative commentary, but don’t misunderstand me, I thoroughly enjoyed this film. The song “Zydrate Anatomy” is awful, but it SLAPS.
There’s something about the unpredictability of bad movies that a good movie can never capture. Bad movies are not held to the laws of logic or decency or even their own pre-established plot. Anything can happen! There’s a whole bit in this where the story screeches to a halt so a lady can sing a song entirely in Latin, and that’s not even the weirdest thing that happens. Approximately an hour in, there is an uncredited cameo by a fabulously famous rockstar whose identity I will not spoil, but when I saw them, I started yelling.
Wikipedia says this movie is a “science fiction, gothic rock musical horror film,” which is an insane amount of genre modifiers, but I’m honestly extremely into this aesthetic. It reminds me of high school. One must understand, at my high school, there were no life forms lower on the social hierarchy than the emo kids, the gay kids, and the Anime nerds. So, thinking strategically, we merged our tribes together to ensure our survival. As a result, I still wear a ton of black and speak remnants of Japanese, but more importantly, I remember this movie being a huge deal in my social circle when it came out. There was something for everybody here! Well, except for me. I found it entirely too bloody to sit through back then, but now? Call me spoiled by the curiosity that once led me to actually watch a Saw movie sequel, because this is just a big, fun, dumb, roller coaster of a film. It’s nothing like anything else out there, I highly recommend tracking it down.
This film gets a 7 out of 10 on the Spook-o-Meter. All of the violence, gore, and body horror in this is too cartoonish to be truly frightening, but it is tasteless enough to occasionally make me feel uncomfortable. Also, Paris Hilton is in this movie and she sings – like, a lot; she sings a lot. It’s not great work.
We’re halfway through the list and I’m already rating things 7/10.
I’m not sure if that bodes well or ill for the rest of this journey.
Come back next time as I take on a foreign horror film, a Leslie Jordan supporting character, and more than a few demons (some of them my own!).
What’s Halloween without getting a little spooked?