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Five family films for Halloween

Everyone knows that Halloween is the best time of the year.



And what is the most splendid aspect of this magnificent evening? Is it gorging yourself into a sugar coma on cheap sweets, dressing up as your favourite ghoul or creep (I was a ventriloquist’s dummy last year, the October before the werewolf from Thriller), or simply the heady scent of bonfire and burnished leaves crackling the thick, autumn air, upon these nights where magic swells in the shadows and anything seems possible?
Seeing as this is a movie site, perhaps the best part of Halloween is the seasonal obligation to stay in after dark, remote in hand, a Bloody Mary in the other, to watch horror film after horror film after wonderful, wonderful horror film for an entire, glorious month. Plenty of film sites will be dedicating their content to the horror genre this October; giving casual fans something to chew on, and perhaps introducing even the most rabid of gore hounds to fresh, bloody meat- encouraging all of us to savour the guileless thrill of fear. 
The joy of Halloween is that, for one night, adults get to behave like children again: dressing up, telling ghost stories, getting excited. And children, through the illicit adventure of trick or treating, and role playing at monsters and ghouls, get to experience fears from a safe, controlled distance. Everyone deserves one good scare at Halloween said the Sherriff in Halloween (the horror fans It’s a Wonderful Life), so what about those kids dressing up for the first time; where is their Halloween? Their Texas Chainsaw? What could be their The Haunting?
Here at The Movie Waffler we believe in cinema for everyone, and, with a bit of discrimination, there’s no reason why children can’t experience the furtive exhilaration of a horror film just like the rest of us, this Halloween. So, when the ducking apples are mere stumps, and the trick or treat candy is reduced to sticky, crinkled wrappers, here’s five spooktacular classics to show your little monsters…

Monster House (2006)
‘Find the heart, put out the fire’

Yesssss! From the swashbuckling score soundtracking a single, cinnamon coloured leaf as it is blown down through suburbia (the true setting of all Halloween films) at the end of October, it is abundantly clear that Monster House is a film smitten with Halloween: the spooky seasons suffuses every frame of this charming animated feature. The perfect flick to begin your horrorthon.
We follow a ragtag bunch of kids (DJ, Chowder and Amy) as they attempt to solve the terrible mysteries of the eerie house across the street from DJ’s place. The house, owned by the creepy Nebbercracker, is the stuff of spooky local legend; Nebbercracker is a figure of such splendid malice that he tears up a child’s tricycle in punishment for playing on his lawn, and rumours abide that he killed and ate his own wife! The plot thickens when Nebbercracker suffers what seems to be a heart attack, and the trio resolve to enter the Domus Mactabilis. 
Monster House was nominated for an academy award, and it isn’t difficult to see why. The film balances genuine excitement with scenes of acute creepiness that just skirts the knife edge of what smaller kids can be reasonably expected to cope with: the scene when the kids uncover the basement of old, broken toys is weird and unnerving, as is the sepulchre made of cement (and what lies within…!) The performance capture is beautiful, giving the film a floaty, otherworldly feel, and, co-written by Community genius Dan Harmon, the script is very funny indeed (sample line, “that’s its uvula”, “….so, it’s a girl?”)
As funny and smart as the best of Pixar, and as fun-spooky as the better Goosebumps, Monster House glows with a love of the season; a Bradbury-esque paean to spirited kids and the magic only they can understand and combat.
Speaking of Ray Bradbury…

The Halloween Tree (1993)
‘But anything’s possible on Halloween, right?’

In the same way we associate Dickens with Christmas, Bradbury is the poet laureate of Halloween. The Halloween Tree should be as much a staple of everyone’s Halloween viewing as Alistair Sim in A Christmas Carol is at yuletide, so joyously representative of the spirit of the season it is. This made for television animation was adapted by the great man from his own novel, and the writer even lends his whimsical, musical tones to the film’s voiceover.
We follow four trick o’ treaters from the sort of all American town that Edward Hopper used to paint, as they collide and glide with the cryptic Mr. Moundshroud; a mystical figure who takes them on an enchanted journey through time and the ages, helping the children to discover the historical and cultural significance of All Hallows’ Eve’. The palette of The Halloween Tree is simply gorgeous; smeared pastels of lilac, peach and charcoal coalesce to recreate ancient Egypt, the Celtic World, Notre Dame Cathedral, and finally, magnificently, a Dia de los Muertos in Mexico. 
Although the film was part of Hanna-Barbera’s late output, it still enjoys a wicked sense of the macabre; during the jaunt to ancient Egypt, the gang witness a 67 year old embalmed corpse dragged out to eat with its bereaved family (this, it must be noted, is a historically accurate feature of The Feast of Ghosts; so the film, among its many pleasures, is educational as well). But for a movie that is nominally about children facing fear and mortality (it’s pretty clear that the cloaked Moundshroud is a stand in for death, and holds the children’s estranged pal Pip, and Pip’s life, to ransom), The Halloween Tree positively bursts with life: every frame of the feature is alive with energy and excitement; backgrounds throb with light and shade, winds howl and whip the characters as they jump and flicker across the screen like candle flames. 
The film glimmers with masterly dark and artsy beauty, and aches with autumnal nostalgia; who isn’t without a little sentiment as the nights draw in? Cartoon networks usually show The Halloween Tree through October; keep an eye out for it and find out just why we use this month to ‘dress up as monsters, beasts and ornery critters.'

The Witches (1990)
‘Witches of England, you’re a disgrace’

Clearly, no child should be allowed to view Nic Roeg’s peerless Don’t Look Now; but this, his second best horror film, is not a bad consolation. Adapted with reasonable fidelity from the Roald Dahl novel of the same name (now, there was a writer with a healthy lack of sentiment), the film details what happens when a young boy and his witch hunting grandmother stumble, in the most unfortunate of coincidences, upon the AGM of England’s witches. 
Anjelica Huston is beautiful and mad as the head witch – ‘the most evil woman in creation’- bringing to mind the morbid excess of Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and powering in to the film’s queasy, pantomime energy. The lead kid, Luke, is played by an American, Jasen Fisher; but the film is mainly set in Cornwall, following a pretty prelude filmed in Bergen. This blend of accents and characteristic locations (if there was ever a place in England where magic actually existed, it would be Cornwall) give The Witches a weird, off kilter feel, and underwrites the very real sense of danger within the narrative; the early, pictorial fate of Luke’s great aunt is highly creepy, establishing the witches’ imaginative cruelty early on. Roeg’s expressive use of framing, and characteristic use of red as anchorage gives the film an idiosyncratic look, and helps conjure this film’s odd, treacherous feel.
The ending of The Witches digresses significantly from the brave epilogue of the book, giving the cinema audience a supposedly happier but much less stranger ending. I leave it to your discretion whether to stop the film before Jane Horrocks’ unconvincingly goody two shoes witch re-enters the narrative and does her spell ex machina….


The Watcher in the Woods (1980)
‘Overlapping circles, what does it mean?’ 

We’re getting close to midnight, nearing the end of our Horrorthon (I tried to choose films which run at the fun-size of 80 mins: all the more to fit in), and now it’s time to see something really scary.
The Watcher in the Woods is a real oddity: a live action Disney film, set in England (filmed around the same mansion used for 1963’s matchless The Haunting, no less), directed by the chap who made The Legend of Hell House, and was one of star Bette Davis’ last movies. The film is a spellbound infusion of adventure, science-fiction and occult film: and, oh boy, is it creepy.
An Anglo-American family relocate to the most gothic looking manor in the whole of England. The eldest daughter, Jan, seems to bear a striking similarity to a girl who disappeared in the woods three decades ago; the daughter of the residence’s owner Mrs. Aylwood (Davis). Strange happenings begin to occur: mainly involving mirrors (shudder), spectral lights and the peculiar denizens of the village.
Word has it that the producer who pitched the original film, which was based on the novel by Florence Engel Randall, boasted that it could be Disney’s ‘Exorcist’ (!). While the movie, thankfully, never reaches the terrible heights of that Captain Howdy vs. Father Merrin, Watcher in the Woods nonetheless has moments that are pretty skin crawling. The opening, with its music box score and insidious camera slithering through the dappled, steaming shadows of the woods, sets the tone: one of foreboding and menace, of abnormal energies that exist beyond the veil. Alan Hume’s cinematography is sublime and eerie; he frames objects half in and out of shot, and has characters abruptly walking into scenes - the mercurial photography contributing to the sense of creeping unease that runs throughout, skewering the film like a crack through a mirror. Davies is a luminescent as you would expect; a spectral star that the film’s oddity revolves around; as it essays themes such as bullying, peer pressure and the drifting alienation of not fitting in; experiences which are of themselves truly scary and endemic to adolescence.
And nothing - nothing! - you will see in any of the other films upon this list will come close to the actually, properly horrifying scene set in the carnival hall of mirrors: when Jan, lost within, is haunted by reflection upon distorted reflection of a small girl, blindfolded, mouthing the words ‘help me…help me…help me’ over and over: yikes! 
Hopefully, by this time of night, your littlest ones should have dropped off to sleep in a candy fuelled crash…

The Monster Squad (1987)
‘Now look, I’m the leader of this squad, so listen up’

And if they have, there’s no excuse not to knock this on: the greatest Universal horror film that Universal never actually made. Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Creature (from the Black Lagoon), Wolfman and a Mummy converge upon Smalltown USA, harbouring gloomy ambitions to plunge the world into darkness and terror….unless a plucky group of pre-teen lads, the eponymous Squad, armed only with a few makeshift weapons and their abiding love of horror films, can stop them.
Like lead squadder Shaun and the rest of his crew, the film itself is delightfully enamoured with the history of horror cinema. The Universal rogue’s gallery is re-created with spooky love and painstaking detail by none other than Stan Winston and Richard Edlund, but in the 19th Century set prelude there also are nods to the plush heritage cinema of Hammer, and the colour scheme utilises the gaudy, primary blues and red of EC comics to vivid effect. As the boys plot to save the world from their HQ (cinema’s greatest den; an elaborate tree house, decked out in all manner of merchandise and collectibles), they argue the toss over the best way to kill a vampire, and the other ways to get rid of a werewolf; the sort of obsessive nonsense that every film fan indulges in. In fact, the world of The Monster Squad is the sort of utopia that Tarantino refabricated years later: one where everyone seems obsessed with cinema: Shaun and his dad (a beat detective; played with nicotine fuelled edginess by Stephen Macht) riff on the cyclical nature of slasher films and his mother even name drops Godzilla at the dinner table.
Be warned- the film’s generally light tone can shift abruptly to scenes featuring quite vibrant gore and violence. There is a degree of mature complexity to The Monster Squad; watching as an adult, the attention paid to the acrimonious distance between Shaun’s parents makes for painful viewing, and the monsters are three dimensional, being in turn both sad and moving as well as threatening and scary. I’d like to think that any potentially upsetting scenes are offset by the rather scholastic applications of the film, though; in an Eighties montage, we see the boys garner a home-made arsenal with which to take on Dracula and co; stakes made in woodwork, bullets melted from family silver. So, if the forces of evil were ever foolish enough to converge upon your town after seeing The Monster Squad, then you’ll be thoroughly informed as to how to send them packing. 
Practical then, as well as entertaining, with amazing costumes and as many laughs as scares, The Monster Squad is everything Halloween should be. The film has achieved cult status: to know it is to love it. And, if you show it to someone at the right time, at the right age, under the perfect circumstances, you’ll have a horror film fan for life. 

And, as the nights draw in, grimmer and more miserable following October - and all there is to do is watch more movies - that would be the best treat to give any child this Halloween.



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