Two years ago I coined a term on this website: Benevolent HalloweenTM. It refers to the aesthetic of Halloween we had when we were children. It’s a three-part mixture of the autumn season, the artifice of commercialism, and a soupçon of darkness and terror to get your mind excited and heart beating. My fondest Halloween memories aren’t really in the trick-or-treating, but in coming home to disrobe my costume and sit too close to the TV to watch seasonal specials while I sorted my candy.
Halloween should be fun before it should be scary. Try as we might to do otherwise, it is still a holiday for children and sometimes you just want to be reminded of being a child.
So with that in mind I’ve put together a list of what I consider to be Benevolent HalloweenTM classics that I try to fit in every year. As a heads-up, this list skews more towards “underrated or unknown gems” than easy picks, which is why I’ll write this next bit in bold for those just skipping the intro: Nightmare Before Christmas and Hocus Pocus will not be appearing.
Scooby-Doo! and the Witch’s Ghost
“I’m gonna cast a spell on you…”
This spot should belong to Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island. Compared to Witch’s Ghost, it’s more consistent experience. It’s better paced and is the best version of “Mystery Inc. encounters real monsters.” It also revived the entire franchise, which very few singular products can claim.
But Witch’s Ghost just has more of that Halloween energy. Both movies are set in autumn, Zombie Island having the Harvest Moon as a plot point, but Witch’s Ghost is autumnal which is the overwhelming criteria for getting on this list.
And honestly, I’ve always liked the first half of Witch’s Ghost more. I have a soft spot for small town festivals and I always wanted to visit the fictional Oakhaven, Massachusetts. The subdued color pallet of the 90s VHS Scooby-Doo movies lets the fall colors really pop out. Something about the voice direction of this era of Scooby always felt so natural, even as they introduced larger than life characters like the Hex Girls.
I do think the movie falls apart in the last act. I didn’t need a 30 minute action set-piece of Scooby-Doo fighting a witch, and its message on the Salem Witch Trials being justified is a little head-tilting (Also, you can’t be 1/16th Wiccan. That’s…that’s not how being Wiccan works). It’s still an autumnal climax with evil pumpkins and a big turkey. Zombie Island is an any season movie, but I’ll only ever reach for Witch’s Ghost once the leaves start to turn.
The Halloween Tree
“All dressed up for All Hallow’s Eve, but you don’t know why, or what, or even from where!”
The Halloween Tree is seemingly one of those movies that you are aware of or aren’t. There are a lot of holiday specials like that. It’s adapted from one of Ray Bradbury’s most nostalgic-feeling stories and features the late great Leonard Nimoy having a ball of a time.
The story follows a group of kids after one of their friends passes away on Halloween night. With the help of a warlock named Moundshroud they chase his spirit across time and space, interacting with cultures of the past, each that had their own Halloweenesque holiday.
It’s less about the origins of Halloween itself as it is the origins of the *Spirit* of Halloween. Why do we have so many celebrations and art dwelling on death, the macabre, and monstrous?
The answer it comes to is that Humanity needs gentle ways to confront and celebrate our fears, particularly the fear of the banality of death. This all culminates into a strong ending between the kids and Moundshroud. It’s one of those conclusions that, as a kid, I may not have fully understood until I was older, but I know would have stuck with me into adulthood.
The Return of the Living Dead
“I can feel myself rot…”
They say horror is comedy without the punchline. Which means horror/comedies have the sticky task of deciding when something is a joke and when something is legitimately threatening. Return of the Living Dead somersaults through this hoop by saying “What if everything was a real threat and every single human was a bumbling idiot?”
Return of the Living Dead is a party that never stops. From the moment a character wryly explains their municipal morgue has a canister of zombie gas in the basement the movie moves at a breakneck pace of characters sitting on their own nuts and having a panic attack about it. So much money is thrown at comedians every year to create good comedic sequences, and yet nothing beats the scene of Frank, Burt, and Freddie failing to kill an anatomical dummy and screaming at one another.
The creature effects are appropriately gnarly, especially the elaborate puppet (yes, its a puppet) used for the Mud Man. I can’t say I’ve ever felt envious for a zombie’s diet, but they way these undead freaks tuck into the meaty skull cavities of their victims looks oddly satisfying and tasty.
The ending is a downer, but is appropriate for the overall tone. After all, what better punchline is there than “The characters trusted the military, and everything is worse for it”?
Double, Double Toil and Trouble
“Cross your heart… hope to die… stick a needle in your eye, shake your bottom if you got ’em”
This is a Mary Kate and Ashley movie. Yes. This is happening.
Double Double Toil and Trouble is a movie where a bunch of character actors devour scenery adjacent to kindergarten age MK & A. The Chieftess of this scenery feast is Cloris Leachman going sicko mode as a wicked witch. At first you think it’s going to be a one location romp around the mansion the film crew rented out, but then it changes into a Wizard of Oz road trip where Mary Kate and Ashley accrue a team consisting of an aristocratic hobo, a little person clown, and a cowardly gravedigger. There’s a scene with Cloris Leachman’s witch coven/cult that also features a vampire barbershop quartet. At the end of the movie the Netherrealm gets involved and Mary Kate and Ashley perform shadow magic to trap Cloris Leachman in the space between spaces.
The movie is fun because it runs on child logic, but in a way where the filmmakers are in on the joke and just have fun with it. To me, that’s loads better for making a kids movie enjoyable for all ages than simply putting in some jokes that fly over the little ones’ heads.
If you think I’m putting this on the list because I have a nostalgic memory of watching it as a toddler, joke’s on you! I watched this for the first time in 2022! That’s how you know I’m unbiased and cool.
Witch’s Night Out
“Halloween…stick it in your ear dear. People got no appreciation these days.”
Hey, you want to watch a 70s animated Halloween special where season one SNL cast members voice characters that are all primary colors and named things like “Goodly,” “Small,” and “Bazooie”?
I caught this years ago on VHS and it never left me. Through the power of the interwebs I determined it was not a psychic hallucination and also pretty good. It has that 70s voice acting where everyone uses a normal cadence for talking, but also are never the right distance to the microphone. It scratches my brain in a pleasant way lulling me into a sense of comfort. It’s a tight narrative about a witch wanting to bring the spirit of Halloween back from adults that are appropriating it for community building.
Even though it is wholly identifiable as 70s kitsch there’s something timeless about it. There are no contemporary references or prior context needed. It reminds me of those picture books you find in your elementary school library. The kind with vibrant illustrations and dream logic that only comes from adults that truly want to make something enchanting for kids.
Also the theme song is a bop.
Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
I re-watched this one recently and the major revelation I had that I didn’t before was: “…Hans Zimmer did the soundtrack?”
I guess that checks out with how good the soundtrack is. Really go back and listen to these tracks and how much they do to make the antics on screen have weight. Like it takes a lot of lifting to give spooky gravitas to Wallace and Gromit hunting down a Were-Rabbit to save the annual vegetable pageant.
It’s not just the music. It’s the lighting. It’s the camera work. It’s the damp, foggy aesthetic everything has. Aardman just knows what they’re doing with production design. And yes, this is taking precedence on my list over other Halloween stop-motion movies like Nightmare Before Christmas and ParaNorman. I was that blown away by how well this holds up.
It’s also just so damn funny. I never realized how many lines from this movie live in my head. How many times I would think of the coin-operated plane fight just to smile.
Brogan, if you’re reading this, I want to do an episode on the PS2 game.
We Are the Strange
There is another side to Halloween. A side you may have forgotten, but will always be there. The side involving ripped jeans, spiked bracelets, black lipstick, and manic cartoon characters.
We all know who truly made Nightmare Before Christmas a Halloween icon and its the goths at Hot Topic. This entry on the list goes out to them.
We Are the Strange is…an odd movie. It presents itself as a video game world that’s rotted away, where the viewer takes the role of the camera who can only watch the players, but not interfere with their plights. It’s something of a 90 minute chiptune concept album, with strange stop-motion and glitchy CGI providing the visuals. I think there’s a plot, but this is strictly a vibes movie. People put off by Phil Tippet’s Mad God will likely find the same frustrations here. It can juggle between being too slow and too abrasive, but also there’s entirely too much information to absorb at any given time.
But man…nothing makes me vault back in time to the specific mindspace of 2006-2009 as this movie. It’s trying way too hard to prove how pop non-conforming it is, while also somehow being an aesthetic everyone recognizes and associates with their youth. The first twenty minutes reminded me of every twisted flash game I played, every episode of Criss Angel: Mindfreak I watched while sick home from school, every piece of Invader Zim merch, and every game that existed exclusive to the original Xbox. A Mad Catz light-up controller was used in the making of this movie, I just don’t know where.
It’s the manic confidence of a 12 year-old in eyeliner telling you they know how to find snuff films on YouTube while they help you with trade evolutions in Pokemon.
And that all still reads as Halloween to me.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch
“You know…I do love a good joke, and this is the best ever: a joke on the children. But there’s a better reason. You don’t really know much about Halloween. You thought no further than the strange custom of having your children wear masks and go out begging for candy.
It was the start of the year in our old Celtic lands, and we’d be waiting in our houses of wattles and clay. The barriers would be down, you see, between the real and the unreal, and the dead might be looking in to sit by our fires of turf.
Halloween… the festival of Samhain! The last great one took place three thousand years ago, when the hills ran red with the blood of animals and children.
It was part of our world…our craft.
To us, it was a way of controlling our environment. It’s not so different now… it’s time again. In the end, we don’t decide these things, you know; the planets do. They’re in alignment, and it’s time again. The world’s going to change tonight, Doctor, I’m glad you’ll be able to watch it. And…Happy Halloween.”
Halloween III slaps.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
“You best start believing in ghost stories, Miss Turner. You’re in one.”
There are multiple reasons to put the first Pirates of the Caribbean on this list. The foremost being that it does actually contain horror elements. Even before their undeath is revealed, the crew of the Black Pearl carry this unearthly menace as they pillage the town of Port Royale to absconded with the governor’s daughter. When the gloves (or in this case: skin and other meat parts) come off it turns into a $30 haunted house in a gloriously goofy sequence where Keira Knightley runs around the cursed ship screaming her head off. The skeleton effects are used a lot more sparingly than you remember, and especially when compared to later entries in the series.
Another reason is that pirates are something of a Halloween staple. Pirate costumes are fairly easy to cobble together. I went as a pirate for three years in a row. Curse of the Black Pearl made pirates cool to a new generation who maybe only associated the concept with Captain Hook from Peter Pan or their grandfather’s forcing them to watch Captain Blood. The swashbuckling action borders on cartoonish, but everything still has a weight an consequence. It also hopefully needless to say the soundtrack will go down as one of the most iconic themes in cinema for how it bolsters the action and tension on screen (also pretty damn fun to hum to yourself).
But the real reason I’m putting it on this list is because I simply associate Halloween with Jack Sparrow costumes. For years, it seemed like every adult male I knew had a secret Jack Sparrow impersonation they were working at in preparation for Halloween. You’d walk into the merch stores at Disneyland and entire rooms would be dedicated to pirate gear. I think we just have forgotten what a hold Pirates had on pop culture.
In a lot of ways Pirates became the blueprint for the modern day MCU. But while those feel like singular roller coasters, Pirates always felt like a land within a park itself. The texture of the environments and the story makes you want to don a dirty coat and a sea-spray soaked bandanna and mumble out “Yo-ho yo-ho, a pirates’ life for me.”
And Halloween is all about wanting to dress up, isn’t it?
Trick ‘r Treat
“During the spookiest time of the year there are a few guidelines all ghosts and goblins should follow…”
The issue for the adult Benevolent HalloweenTM enjoyer is that once you hit a certain age people start giving you the side-eye when you say “You know what’s a good Halloween party movie? Mary Kate & Ashley’s Double Double Toil and Trouble.” It can feel like pickings are slim for something that tickles the autumnal fun, while also appeasing the mature emotion of bloodlust.
Luckily in 2007 a holy artifact was gifted to those too squeamish for Rob Zombie movies in the form of Trick r Treat.
It’s an anthology movie set on Halloween, specifically about Halloween traditions and aesthetics./ It’s a playful movie that rewards rewatches for how the events of the five stories line-up with each other, but the first watch can’t be beat for how it plays with your expectations.
Tonally, it’s basically two steps away from being a Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror special with how it wavers between comedy and horror. Every story ends on a rug pull twist worthy of an episode of Goosebumps and most of the truly horrific violence is implied rather than shown.
Yet, it still works doesn’t it? The movie is bathed in Halloween imagery far more than movies with the word “Halloween” in their titles. Like, I’m not evangelical about Trick r Treat, but it feels like a break of tradition to not watch it. The same way the Christmas season isn’t complete without watching the same Christmas specials I’ve seen a thousand times. It may actually be the ideal of what I mean with the term Benevolent HalloweenTM, because watching this any other time of the year would just feel gross and wrong.