Picture this: It’s Halloween night, you’re too old to go trick-or-treating and you don’t have a party to attend. Or, say you are at a party and the crowd is lame—costumed, but otherwise un-spirited. There are no green and purple lights. There is no discount “Spooky Sound Effects” CD in rotation. There are no bright orange cupcakes branded by fondant arachnids, and no, it can’t be: on the whole, there is very little candy.
Well, your next step, logically, so as to salvage the evening, is to watch the perfect Halloween film. Now, if you’re a true kindred spirit, you’ve probably already worked this into your All Hallows Eve itinerary. If you haven’t, not to worry: it is now, on Halloween Morning, that Dan, Kevin, and Scott of The Taste Basket have chosen to “treat” you with a list of their own favorite Halloween flicks, so as to guarantee that your night, dear Internet dwellers, is as satisfyingly spooky as can be.
So, without further ado, here are our TEN FAVORITE HALLOWEEN MOVIES, ranked (and then some worthy Honorable Mentions). *It should be noted, we’ve already recommended Halloween (1978) & Halloween II (1982) as part of this little passion piece—those two, c’mon, are simply givens.
10. Chillerama (2011) [Scott Interrante]
I need to get something off my chest: I’m not a big fan of horror movies. I know it seems crazy—especially on this website —but they just don’t do much for me. What I do love, however, is horror-comedy. I think what’s so powerful about the genre is that, in a way, it allows you to conquer your fears. It takes the same situations that are so frightening in traditional horror and shines a new light on them, allowing you to see the absurdity of your anxieties. It’s like pulling back the curtain and seeing that the Wizard is just a dude with some special effects. One of my all-time favorite horror-comedies is Chillerama. It’s billed as an anthology, with three films nested inside a larger framing plot, each handled by its own director. The outside plot shows groups of teenagers going to the last night of a drive-in movie theater to watch an obscure horror movie marathon, and then we get to enjoy the films they watch. “Wadzilla,” directed by Adam Rifkin, if the title wasn’t clear enough, is about a giant sperm attacking New York City. Up next is Tim Sullivan’s “I Was A Teenage Werebear.” “Bear,” here, meaning a burly, hairy gay man. That’s right, it’s a ‘60s-style musical about a teen who fights and then joins a gang of bikers who turn into burly, hairy gay men and rape people to death, of course. And if that didn’t push it too far, you’ve got “The Diary of Anne Frankenstein” by Adam Green, which is a bizarre mashup of Anne Frank and Frankenstein, featuring a truly brilliant performance by Joel David Moore as Hitler. The framing plot, titled “Zom-B-Movie” is directed by Joe Lynch. After the three short films, the drive-in has become infested with zombies, and our protagonists need to fight to stay alive. The films in Chillerama aren’t parodies per se. Instead, they revel in the badness of B-horror. They embrace the campiness, the bad effects, the terrible acting, and the sloppy editing. The films have a surprising amount of heart. The directors approach their material with reverent love. Plus, you know, there’s a ton of boobs and blood and guts, and isn’t that all we really need on Halloween night?
9. Beetlejuice (1988) [Kevin Redding]
Tim Burton’s sophomore feature, following the eccentric and hilariously inventive Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, holds a very special place in many people’s hearts, including mine, and it’s pretty incredible that a movie like Beetlejuice, so bizarre and off-kilter at every corner, was a success in the first place. And it wasn’t just a hit upon its release; it has since thrived, maintaining a strong following 26 years later. It really is such a strange movie, and must’ve been a giant gamble for the heads at Warner Brothers to greenlight, but therein lies the genius, likeability, and marketability of Burton’s visually whimsical, odd and undoubtedly beautiful portrayal of fantastical worlds, and the characters that inhabit them. This is a haunted house/ghost story that turns the “Day-O” tables on tradition and highlights the ghosts, the recently deceased Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis, respectively), as the protagonists—our truly haunted ones. They’re confused about their own sudden deaths, and so they busy themselves with scare tactics against the obnoxious new owners of their home (Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones). The only one who can see them (and relate to them) is the owners’ draped-in-black, sulking daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder), whose entire life is one big dark room. But where this movie, and Burton’s gift for blending the bleak and humorous and the concept of the human imagination, really takes off are the scenes set in the afterlife, including the waiting room where recently deceased people (including a charred up, burnt to a crisp smoker who insists he’s been meaning to cut down on cigarettes, and a gloomy surfer with his leg still stuck inside the mouth and belly of a shark) have appointments to secure their future in death. The Maitlands face sandworms in a nightmarish desert landscape, a room full of ghastly floating corpses (“death for the dead”) and of course, the movie’s titular character and show-stealer, played effortlessly with a timeless recklessness by Michael Keaton. Betelgeuse, as spelled in the movie, is the sleaziest of sleazeballs, a bio-exorcist who excels in scaring the bejezus out of the living (and he certainly did a number on me as a kid with that horrifying snake transformation scene). What’s amazing is that the character only has about 17 collective minutes of screen time. Keaton just explodes so much in the role that it feels like he’s featured in every scene. By far, my favorite scene is when the Maitlands are first formally introduced to Betelgeuse in person, by his tombstone. The bio-exorcist mock-bonds with Adam by suddenly wearing his exact plaid shirt (“We even shop at the same store!”) while trying to fondle Barbara (“…WHAT?!”). It’s so endlessly entertaining to watch Keaton own this character. And while the movie is gloomy and deals predominantly with death, it never feels mean or hopeless—all thanks to that trademark Burton sweetness and excitement at the footlights. Also, I should probably add that Danny Elfman’s score is the most perfect possible companion to the movie’s zany visuals. Oomba…Oomba…Oomba-Oomba.
8. Young Frankenstein (1974) [Dan Poorman]
As a kid of about ten, Young Frankenstein was the funniest movie I had ever seen. I’m now 23 years old and it still upholds the honor. But it’s a film that is so very special to me on another plane entirely: as a send-up of Frankenstein and the Universal monster features in general, it’s not just laugh-out-loud good, but the perfect marriage of happy and creepy, which, I believe, is what an ideal Halloween night should reflect. It’s got everything you need if you’re not into big scares but dig the timeless, kitschy atmosphere of Transylvania: skulls and bats and mansions on hills with huge knockers (“Shank you, Doctor!”), grave-robbing and science experiments gone wrong and angry mobs with torches and pitchforks. Against this spooky backdrop, throw a vibrant, insufferably clever script from Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder that knows exactly what it’s doing. It’s not exactly a satire, not exactly an ode. Nevertheless, it delivers as its own creative hodge-podge of a feat—its own monster, if you will. The story, ridiculous as it is (following the grandson of Victor Frankenstein, Frederick, who arms himself with shame for his family name despite his own inevitable destiny to reanimate) has always captivated me, too. Wilder, Marty Feldman, Teri Garr, Peter Boyle, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, and Kenneth Mars all play Brooksian buffoons, but every dramatic contention within the Frankenstein arc is freshly siphoned in Young Frankenstein: a fun thing, I’d guess, for children of the ‘70s—and a plus for ten-year-old me, who gained a base understanding of the major themes of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece and the unnerving 1931 Universal picture because Brooks’ take on the tale was so damn accessible. Not to mention, it’s got a hauntingly beautiful score (“Transylvanian Lullaby” gets me every time). On the outright funny side, it’s full of benchmark comedic performances (namely, from Wilder, Feldman, Boyle, and Kahn) which take stock in equal-parts slapstick, farce, innuendo and other wordplay. These actors have unmatched charm, and solid improv chops to boot. I don’t think I have ever laughed harder than I did when I first saw Wilder and Boyle’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz”—and it’s a routine I was happy to perform in my senior year of high school as Freddy “Fronkonsteen” himself (complete with disheveled blonde Gene Wilder wig) for our own fall production of Young Frankenstein. There was that, and all the other quotables which defined a large part of my after-school days from the fourth grade on—what a privilege it was to revel in them on stage just before moving up to college: a time which encouraged fun, but not in the same unabashedly childish capacity I’d known so well. This is why I watch Young Frankenstein every Halloween season, and I think you should too.
7. Hocus Pocus (1993) [Dan Poorman]
So I know what you’re thinking: Enough with all these horror-comedies already! But in our compiling of this list, we found that a good Halloween film embraces the creepy with its tongue in its cheek and its heart on its sleeve. 1993’s Hocus Pocus does just that. What I always appreciated about this one was its keen sense of “Halloween Americana,” so to speak. And by that, I mean the innocence of the holiday: take a small town, show us its folk on All Hallows Eve, give us plenty of trick-or-treat scenes; the distinct sound of costumed youngsters trampling through crunchy autumn leaves. Then there’s a cool breeze, and a few festive plot points: first of all, the summoning of the Sanderson Sisters (three bumbling ancient witches played by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy) who arrive out back in a spooky little shack, which throughout the film becomes the eye of a ghoulish storm of green fumes. Aiding our trick-or-treating heroes is a 1600s teen (voiced by James Marsden) cursed to the body of a black cat, and a surprisingly scary former beau of Winifred Sanderson (Midler), now zombified and falling apart, who’s along for the ride in apprehending his sinister ex-lover and her sisters—all because there’s a potential soul sacrifice at stake! Other highlights include two town bullies very reminiscent of Bulk and Skull of the Power Rangers TV series, and two fantastic musical numbers from Midler and Parker (“I Put a Spell on You” is particularly fun). This atmospheric Halloween adventure is tinged with a good dose of family-friendly comedy (often yielded by the very idea of three ancients roaming the streets of modern times) and marks one of the first performances from the very talented Thora Birch.
6. The Addams Family (1991) [Kevin Redding]
This was my favorite movie of all time when I was a kid, and it remains my favorite movie of all time now. My love for it can be traced back nearly 20 years ago when I was first introduced to creator Charles Addams’ sharp and darkly hilarious comic strips (which first debuted in the New Yorker in 1938 as part of a larger collection of his illustrations). I’ve always adored the concept of a well-meaning and ever-bonding, albeit bizarre, frightening, and macabre, family, whose members are not aware of their own strangeness and just keep on living their lives in their own mysterious and spooky ways. Adapting a comic strip and a short-lived ‘60s sitcom into a feature-length movie could’ve very easily ended horribly, but in the masterful hands of director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black, Get Shorty) and a powerhouse cast including the late great Raul Julia as Gomez, picked-right-out-of-the-drawing Anjelica Huston as Morticia, chameleon actor Christopher Lloyd as Fester, and my childhood love Christina Ricci as Wednesday, The Addams Family is a perfect dark comedy that takes itself seriously enough to not be a corny family movie. What’s most striking about the movie all these years later—aside from its sardonic sense of humor and absolutely dreary (yet beautiful) production design—is just how unexpected and creative the plot is. Rather than have it center on the family just being weird and out of their element (like the awful 1998 Addams Family Reunion, which had nothing to do with Sonnenfeld’s adaptations), the movie is about Uncle Fester, Gomez’s estranged and long-lost brother who had abandoned the clan years prior to the events of the movie, over a heated sibling conflict. Fester returns right as the family summons him by way of seance, but with a woman who claims to be a psychiatrist. The woman has brainwashed Fester into believing he’s her son and is using him to reap the family’s fortunes. All the while, Fester becomes re-aquainted with, and bonds with, his true family: Cousin Itt, Thing, Lurch, Pugsley, the whole gang. The movie really excels in its script and performances, which make it easier to fall in love with the endearingly dreary family. ABC Family has been marathoning it and its fantastic sequel, Addams Family Values (1993), as part of its “13 Nights of Halloween” block, so take a cue from them and grab your shovels, head out into the graveyard, and play “wake the dead” this Halloween season with the spookiest clan there is.
5. Scream (1996) [Kevin Redding]
“What’s your favorite scary movie?” is a difficult question. And Ghostface is genuinely curious about your answer. He’ll even call you about it at night when you’re home alone making jiffy pop. He’s watching your every move and noticing your every feature, even though you can’t see him until it’s too late—and you’re dead, eyes agape, hanging from a tree with a stab wound in your chest! With one of the most exciting and straight-to-the-point horror openings of all time and centering around a string of murders by a serial killer obsessed with Hollywood’s portrayal of death in movies like Psycho (1960) and Halloween (1978), Wes Craven’s Scream is by far the most meta movie in its genre, followed closely by Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods (2012). It’s a celebration of the genre, and, in the mid-‘90s, served as a much-needed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation of horror in general, as it was released at a time when the best Hollywood could come up with were cheesy direct-to-video titles and a truckload of cheap sequels to once respectful franchises beaten to death and sullied for the old cha-ching. (Did we really need that many Leprechaun films? Didn’t we say all we needed to say with the first one?) With Scream, Craven certainly delivered. Choosing the weekend setting and focusing on a circle of high school friends, the director brought freshness to the table and came equipped with a creative, twisted, and oftentimes hilarious script written by Kevin Williamson, who was smart enough to show the teenage characters as dimensional and cunning and manipulating and clever, and not just as hapless victims; however, some of them turn out to be just that under the red right hand of the knife-wielding (and extremely clumsy) Ghostface. The movie is a whodunnit as murders skyrocket and speculations as to the identity of the town’s menace is pretty much at a dead end, even with the aid of police officer Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and famous TV reporter Gail Weathers (Courtney Cox). Jamie Kennedy’s character, Randy, is the show-stealer here. He’s a wise-cracking, movie-obsessed video clerk who’s always right but always ignored. His monologue about how to survive in a horror movie is fantastic, especially because it comes soon before the killer creeps behind him while he’s yelling at Laurie Strode in Halloween about how to avoid The Shape. The most brutal kill of all is in a house garage where Rose McGowan’s character fights off Ghostface in a badass way, breaking bottles and slamming doors into his face, and tries to escape through the little pet-door at the bottom of the garage door. Of course, she gets stuck and Ghostface turns on the garage, which slowly rises up and eventually crushes poor McGowan’s face. The ending of the movie, and the reveal of Ghostface, is fun and surprising and makes you crave(n) more, and if that’s indeed the case for you, you’re in luck because there are three sequels!
4. Satan’s Little Helper (2004) [Dan Poorman]
In college, I took a class called “The Horror Film” with the writer, director, and producer of this cult classic, Jeff Lieberman. I fondly remember Lieberman, a seasoned genre filmmaker in his own right, most for his “Hollywood secrets.” He’d tell us, “I’m here to teach you about movies, but because I make movies, I can give you a bunch of behind-the-scenes stuff you won’t hear from anyone else.” And, throughout the course of the semester, he didn’t disappoint. Great Lieberman accounts, from my memory, include a brief friendship with Jack Black during the filming of The Neverending Story III (1994), which Lieberman actually wrote. Black said to Lieberman, one night over some beers, “I’m not sure if acting is my thing. You know, I have this band…” to which my professor responded, “John Belushi is dead. We need a new funny fat guy. You should do comedy.” Then there were the countless stories from the set of Squirm (1976), Jeff’s first feature-length, including a vague reference to Steven Spielberg, whose “people” called with a question on the physics of a certain shot, so as to borrow the technique for Raiders of the Lost Ark. And the time Fangoria Magazine came over to the Lieberman abode for an interview, at the end of which asking him, “Have you heard of The Blair Witch Project? Someone put together all this footage shot by a group of people who got lost in the woods and vanished a few years back. I guess they found the film canisters in the woods!” Lieberman got a kick out of that one. Now, did I believe every story Jeff Lieberman told? Not necessarily. But I wanted to very badly. And, the most believable of the stories, I think, has to do with Satan’s Little Helper. It was Jeff’s 50th birthday party; he and his wife were having a bunch of friends and colleagues over at their home in New York City. Charles Rocket (of Saturday Night Live, Hocus Pocus, and Dumb and Dumber fame) was invited, but could not attend because he was across the country in Los Angeles. So, to compensate for his absence, Rocket sent Jeff a “Gorilla-Gram,” or: A man hired to wear a gorilla suit, act the part, and crash your party. Lieberman got a chuckle from the gifted prank, of course, but when the gorilla began to overstay his welcome, he felt uneasy. He thought: I’ll never know who is inside that costume. It could be virtually anyone. Immediately, Satan’s Little Helper was inspired. It’s a clever tale which takes place on Halloween, following Dougie Whooly (Alexander Brickel) as he eagerly awaits the homecoming of his older sister (Katheryn Winnick), with whom he has an uncomfortable obsession. But when Big Sis brings home her method actor boyfriend, Dougie gets jealous and intends to exact revenge with the help of “Satan”—who is, as Dougie knows him, the main character of his new favorite video game, “Satan’s Little Helper” and, who, in reality, makes an accidental appearance in the lives of the Whooly family as a conveniently costumed psychopath who is going around town, killing folks, and passing them off as Halloween decorations. A dark farce ensues, as no one character suspects the masked “Satan” to be a murderer (instead mistaking him for the theatrical boyfriend in most scenes) until the very end, when it’s all too late. Watching Satan’s Little Helper feels a lot like watching a particularly low-brow B-movie, but Lieberman’s script is, in truth, masterfully written. Ideal for both laughs and heebie-jeebies.
3. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) [Dan Poorman]
Kevin already talked to you folks about his intense love for Halloween, and the brilliant and innovative account of where the evening’s events picked up that is Halloween II. Obviously, for a franchise that borrows its title from the holiday we’re writing about here, one of the films is bound to get a shout. While the first two Halloweens introduced the Michael Myers narrative, bringing the holiday at large a brand new icon in a whitewashed William Shatner mask, Halloween III: Season of the Witch is the first (and only) deviation from the Haddonfield killings. This concept was one offered up by Halloween writers John Carpenter and Debra Hill, who instead envisioned an anthology trajectory for their seasonal films. Despite the critical success of the Myers character, Carpenter and Hill had a standard: they’d throw some production shillings at new director Tommy Lee Wallace if Michael stayed dead as a doornail. And so it went: the new story was not a slasher narrative, but one of dark fantasy and intrigue. Season of the Witch follows the mysterious Silver Shamrock corporation and their suspicious monopolization on Halloween. The products they’re pushing are exclusive masks (jack-o-lanterns, witches, skulls), which children buy in anticipation for a national masks-on television screening on Halloween night (clearly a comment on the new and exciting ‘3D’ technology)—and what’s truly horrifying is what happens when this event rolls in on the 31st. For those who are virgins to this disjointed installment in the Halloween franchise, I won’t spoil it for you. Why? Well, despite the fact that the film was critically panned for its lofty theme-juggling (the antagonism of “Big Business,” the revival of the Gaelic celebration of Samhain, and androids, for God’s sake), I actually like it a lot, and think it’s a good watch. Though the only hope for the Halloween legacy found itself in more Michael Myers flicks, there is a campy quality to this one—an affectionate trashiness that does well for a late Halloween night movie party. And, I’ll admit, what happens when you wear your Silver Shamrock mask on Halloween is actually pretty bone-chilling.
2. The American Scream (2012) [Dan Poorman]
What truly profound stuff is there to say about three real-life blue-collar families in small town Fairhaven, Massachusetts? The answer is a whole lot—especially when it comes to Halloween. Filmmaker Michael Stephenson (who struck cult gold in 2009 with Best Worst Movie, a documentary that intimately examined the pop-culture phenomenon that is 1990’s Troll 2) profiles three of Fairhaven’s “Home Haunters,” or creators and proprietors of elaborate backyard haunted houses which attract trick-or-treaters and general townsfolk each year on Halloween. As this is a Stephenson doc, there’s a lot of emphasis on subculture, what with the Bariteau, Broteur, and Souza clans working year-round on their haunted houses, engineering every decoration and pop-out mechanization with money from their own pockets (and if that’s not enough, these people attend nationwide “Home Haunter” seminars and network more than they do as part of their regular day jobs!) But, with the depiction of a subculture also comes a menagerie of eccentricities, which in turn unearth a beautiful thing: human authenticity. These are not actors; they’re not being told what to say. They’re real human beings, who all just happen to live in the same town, and who all just happen to love Halloween. They are at once vulnerable and steadfast in the face of criticism, as they are sensitive folks who are doing this for the benefit of a powerful sense of community. Victor Bariteau, in the film, says that while Thanksgiving and Christmas are family holidays, Halloween is a “community holiday,” and this is especially interesting to consider once we learn that, as a child, he was not allowed to celebrate Halloween for religious reasons. Manny Souza was financially aided by his community when, one year, he could not work as fast on his haunted house due to a heart attack, and with pride, he testifies: “This is my legacy.” Richard and Matt Broteur, father and son/part-time clowning duo, do their own stressful work (like building aliens with some wood, Plaster of Paris, and wire frame) “for the kids,” even at the risk of a few bouts of bickering. The American Scream gives me bona fide “Halloween Americana,” because it captures the more genuine, post-credits moments, like when Halloween comes, and there’s that ever-familiar, immediately nostalgic feeling: It’s all over. However, for the families in The American Scream, this just means the work begins again—from the top—and it’s comforting to know they are forever enshrouded in the joy of Halloween. All this being said, I cannot recommend The American Scream enough if you’re someone who feels a deep personal connection to Halloween. It’s like this: at the end of the season, you can say you’ve done all the hanging of fake cobwebs and rigging of fog machines and crafting of costumes for the sake of experiencing and enjoying the sublime thing that life really is.
1. Trick ‘r Treat (2007) [Kevin Redding]
The only time I’ve ever uttered aloud the phrase “Where have you been all my life?” was the first time I watched this clever, darkly comic and unnerving horror anthology only a few years ago. It contains just about everything I could ever ask for in a horror movie. Although, to label it a horror movie is not quite right. This one deserves to be at the top shelf in an exclusive “Halloween” section, as that is its true genre. Writer-director Michael Dougherty serves up a no-holds-barred treat for all lovers of everything Halloween, interweaving four different tales set on October 31st in the sleepy (and as it turns out, not so normal) town of Warren Valley, Ohio. The anthology concept, seen before in more modern examples such as Creepshow (1982) is polished up and executed perfectly here, with each individual storyline speaking to a certain trope of Halloween and horror at large. It’s very much a celebration of the holiday and is crafted in such a playful-yet-respectful way that there’s no questioning Dougherty must think highly of this time of year—he’s giving a cinematic ode. Trick ‘r Treat‘s tales include a sinister school principal who nonchalantly digs a grave for a young boy he brutally kills, a pack of sultry teen girls heading to a Halloween party that gets a little hairy, neighborhood kids who delve into the town’s darkest piece of history, and a grumpy old man who comes face to face with Sam, a teeny tiny trick-or-treater wearing patchy orange rags and a burlap sack over his head. Sam, who joins the ranks of the most cherished figures of horror, is the true star here as his presence looms over each and every tale. Sam shows up each time a Halloween tradition is broken, killing those who just don’t get it if he has to. This movie is a must for Halloween night, so don’t deprive yourselves. Also, if you don’t watch, you might upset Sam, who doesn’t seem to have a problem biting if necessary.
Dead of Night (1945)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The Shining (1980)
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Pet Sematary (1989)
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Ed Wood (1994)
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
The Conjuring (2013)