I’ve seen the question pop up, time and time again, in my social media feeds: “What are some good Halloween movies that I can watch with my kids?” In a season whose cinematic offerings frequently skew towards the sadistically violent and oppressively occultic, what options are there for entertainment that sets the Halloween mood without going overboard?
These dozen films fit the bill. Each one balances offers a seasonal tone without delving into the needless gore and nudity so often found this time of year. What’s more, they all offer inspiring moral messages for families to discuss and learn from. The reviews below are all from my book 250 Great Movies for Latter-day Families, now available in paperback and Kindle. Please be mindful of the disclaimers found in some of the reviews, as a few of these films may frighten certain age groups. If you like, you can follow the links below to purchase or rent the titles.
ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD (G, 1941). Available on DVD.
Basil Rathbone and Bing Crosby narrate these dual animated tales. The first, “The Wind in the Willows,” tells the tale of a fad-obsessed frog whose greed for a new car lands him in hot water. The second, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” is a Halloween favorite; New England school professor Ichabod Crane competes with a local alpha male for a woman’s affections, finding himself face-to-face with the dreaded Headless Horseman in the spooky woods. Lots of fun. GRADE: B+
CONTENT OVERVIEW: A song about the Headless Horseman, as well as the actual encounter with him in the woods, may be frightening to small children.
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: “Once in debt, interest is your companion every minute of the day and night; you cannot shun it or slip away from it; you cannot dismiss it; it yields neither to entreaties, demands, or orders; and whenever you get in its way or cross its course or fail to meet its demands, it crushes you” (President J. Reuben Clark, in Conference Report, April 1938, 103). We do not need to be afraid of anything because God is with us (Isaiah 41:13).
BRIGHAM CITY (PG-13, 2001). Available on DVD
Writer-director Richard Dutcher’s underrated “Mormon murder mystery” finds a small Utah town terrorized by a serial killer. It’s well-acted and highly accessible to audiences not of our faith, using the culture and religion not to convert audiences, but to flavor the story. Tastefully (and effectively) leaves most of the violence to our imagination. In its examination of a once-peaceful small town torn apart by fear and mistrust, it feels totally real, making it truly scary and profoundly moving. Really a spiritual drama masquerading as a scary movie, what sets Brigham City apart is its focus on the role of faith and community in healing the deepest emotional and spiritual wounds.
CONTENT OVERVIEW: Brigham City has no language or sexuality. Several people are murdered off-screen, though there are intense moments building up to the killings, as well as a few somewhat graphic images (bloody photos of the deceased, etc.). It is stated that a victim was raped before she was killed. An engaged man and woman mention “saving themselves for their wedding night.”
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: We should not partake of the sacrament unworthily (Mormon 9:29). Beware of deceivers, wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15). In order for us to be forgiven and find peace, we must forgive others (Matthew 6:14-15).
Like the morbid tales penned by the Brothers’ Grimm, Coraline is a creepy morality tale that won’t appeal to everyone. This stop-motion wonder from director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach) is a triumph of creative artistry and dazzling animation. It tells the story of the titular heroine, a plucky and resourceful girl with apathetic parents who stumbles into what appears to be a parallel version of her life where everything is exactly as she wishes it were in reality. The dreariness of her true home is replaced by vibrant colors and spectacle. Her neglectful parents are replaced by updated versions who live only to lavish her with affection and wish-fulfillment. It’s all seems perfect, but she (and the audience) cannot shake the unsettling suspicion that something isn’t quite right. Only a sage old black cat seems to understand the dangers behind the seductive faade of Coraline’s dream world. A terrific cautionary tale whose themes parallel the eternal principle that following the Lord and his prophets is better than succumbing to the binding temptations of the adversary.
CONTENT OVERVIEW: While the film contains no real violence, it is full of unsettling images and a creepy atmosphere that will doubtless give nightmares to little ones (much like the wicked witch from The Wizard of Oz). There is mild profanity and an immodestly-dressed and buxom elderly woman, though a clay-animated figure and far from titillating, may be offensive to some.
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: Beware the flattering words of those who tell you what you want to hear and offer to give you what you want, but are actually trying to harm you (2 Nephi 28:22). Heed the warnings of those who know (D&C 1:4).
Tim Burton’s stop-motion-animated film has Johnny Depp voicing a betrothed young man who runs from his wedding and into a deceased woman (Helena Bonham Carter) who wants him as her own. Funny and imaginative with some dazzling art direction and terrific songs, this one is perfect for Halloween season.
CONTENT OVERVIEW: There is a sword duel and plenty of macabre, non-graphic physical humor.
Classic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel has lost none of its potency as a thriller and as a tragic morality tale. Boris Karloff gives an iconic performance, eliciting both fear and heartache from the creation-turned-monster, damned to endure loneliness forever, who lashes out at the world that rejected him.
Masterfully directed and impeccably designed. Perfect for Halloween. GRADE: A.
CONTENT OVERVIEW: Dr. Frankenstein shouts “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” though his blasphemy and arrogance proves to be his undoing. The monster is beaten with chains and whips. The monster accidentally drowns a little girl. A man is hanged and another is strangled.
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: Those who seek to place themselves above God will be cast down, humbled, and brought low (Isaiah 14:12-16). There is good in others that we fail to see if we convince ourselves only of the negative (Mosiah 9:1-2).
A triumph of animation, character design, and retro film-making style, Frankenweenie gives us a Tim Burton film reminiscent of the director’s deliciously weird early efforts, with plenty of nods to black-and-white monster films. Essentially a heartwarming, boy-and-his-dog version of the Frankenstein legend, the central story is entertaining enough (if about ten minutes too long in the middle), but it’s the wonderfully bizarre supporting characters that disturb (in a good way) and amuse the most. The final half hour in particular is a delight, though it may frighten very small children (then again, our six-year-old and two-year-old had a ball). While Frankenweenie doesn’t quite have the emotional heft it aspires to, it has more than many of Burton’s films and it offers plenty of terrifically stylized fun. GRADE: B+
CONTENT OVERVIEW: Frankenweenie is rated PG. It contains no foul language or sexuality. A young girl holds dried cat feces in her hand (the texture is disturbingly visible). A dead dog is brought back to life; his appearance is stitched-up and body parts fall off randomly (played for humor). Several deceased pets are brought back to life; some of them become monsters that terrify people (including a fairly intense transformation scene).
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: “Religion and science have sometimes appeared in conflict. Yet, the conflict can only be apparent, not real, for science seeks truth, and true religion is truth. There can never be conflict between revealed religion and true science. Truth is truth, whether labeled science or religion. All truth is consistent. There is no conflict-only in the interpretation of fact. It is well to remember that when men make new discoveries in their energetic search for truth, these will always be in harmony with all fundamental and eternal truths. Yes, truth is always consistent, whether it is revealed directly from God to man, through his inspired prophets, or comes from the laboratory through diligent searching of his children and through the influence of the Spirit of the Lord upon them” (President Ezra Taft Benson, “Your Charge: To Increase in Wisdom and Favor with God and Man,” September 1979.)
The series takes a quantum leap forward in creativity, emotional resonance, and genuine thrills under the direction of Alfonso Cuaron (A Little Princess). Here, a convicted murderer escapes and comes after Harry, revealing secrets about his parents’ deaths along the way. The lead actors really begin to hit their stride, and though a few moments prove too taxing for their young skills, overall they’re terrific. Also stellar are new cast members David Thewlis, Michael Gambon (filling in as Dumbledore for the late Richard Harris) and Gary Oldman. This is the best standalone film in the series, as well as the most visually inventive. GRADE: A
CONTENT OVERVIEW: Some mild language. Wraith-like “dementors” terrorize children and adults, hovering over them and sucking their souls out of their bodies. There are frightening moments, including a werewolf fighting a dog and a professor seemingly possessed.
A lightweight but warm-hearted Halloween movie that’s fit for the whole family, Hotel Transylvania is cleverly designed, enjoyably silly, and not the least bit demanding. Adam Sandler lends his voice as Count Dracula, who has long since given up terrorizing and now runs a hotel for monsters deep within a haunted forest. Taking the perspective that horror icons such as Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf-Man are actually loveable and harmless (but persecuted for being different) Dracula’s Hotel Transylvania serves as a sanctuary of sorts to protect his friends and beloved daughter from humans. When a backpacker (Andy Samberg, Hot Rod) stumbles into the hotel, the film embarks on an exploration of prejudice and acceptance that’s actually quite funny and surprisingly moving. The movie expertly parodies the legends of classic horror monsters (it’s impressive just how many of them make an appearance here), and while some of the jokes fall flat, Halloween-loving kids and adults will have a ball. GRADE: B
CONTENT OVERVIEW: Hotel Transylvania is rated PG. It has some potty humor (Frankenstein passes gas, the Wolf-Man’s children urinate on furniture) as well as some humorous moments with monsters getting injured (Dracula burns in the sun, Frankenstein belly-flops off the high dive and his body parts float away in opposite directions, zombies light on fire and don’t care, etc). A few moments might frighten the smallest of children, but the film’s tone is light and nonthreatening.
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: We should refrain from judging those who are different from us (Matthew 7:1-2). Often the individuals and groups we fear have much in common with us; there is good in them that we’ll notice if we stop to look for it (Mosiah 9:1). “Be friendly. Be understanding. Be tolerant. Be considerate. Be respectful of the opinions and feelings of other people. Recognize their virtues, don’t look for their faults. Look for their strengths and virtues, and you will find strength and virtues that will be helpful in your own life” (President Gordon B. Hinckley, as quoted in Go Forward With Faith by Sheri Dew, p. 576).
The first, and best, version of the giant ape story is a masterpiece of early escapist filmmaking and pioneering visual effects that impress and delight today. An adventure film director takes his actors and crew to Skull Island, where they encounter vicious natives, prehistoric creatures, and a 50 foot tall gorilla who they bring back to New York with disastrous results.
All these years later, it’s still monstrously entertaining. GRADE: A
CONTENT OVERVIEW: King Kong eats, throws, and steps on many people. He fights and kills several dinosaurs, with some blood. There are a few mild profanities. Kong peels layers off the clothes of an unconscious woman until she’s only in a nightgown.
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: We can find good in almost anyone; it’s there if we look for it (Mosiah 9:1).
Disney-Pixar presents this original and warm-hearted tale that reveals the secret lives of the monsters under the bed and in the closet. Turns out, they’re mostly nice and harmless; they only scare children because screams power their city. When Mike (John Goodman) and Sully (Billy Crystal) become unwitting caretakers of a little girl lost in their city, their growing affection for her leads them to rethink their scaring ways. Goodman and Crystal have wonderful buddy chemistry, the mythology is clever, the humor clicks, and the film is ultimately quite moving. GRADE: B+
CONTENT OVERVIEW: Other than a joke about yellow snow, there’s nothing offensive here. Even the “scares” are more funny than scary.
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: Fear can be overcome by love (1 John 4:18). Laughter and happiness carries great power.
Better in concept than in execution, this is still harmless, non-demanding fun. Monsters vs. Aliens is a family-friendly Dreamworks Animation feature which pits classic sci-fi monsters against space aliens in a 1950’s B-movie style showdown with modern humor and the visual flair available through today’s computer effects. The story is simple. A meteor crashes on Earth, or more specifically, onto bride-to-be Susan Murphy. Some substance from the meteor causes her to grow to 50 feet in height. She is hidden by the government with other monsters (based loosely on The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Blob, The Fly, and various Godzilla foes), until space aliens arrive, bent on world domination. Outmatched by the alien’s technology, the U.S. government calls on the monsters to save humanity from annihilation. All of this is done with a light and fun air, with nothing taken too seriously. Like the best of recent animated features, Monsters vs. Aliens is as enjoyable for adults as for children, thanks in large part to a constant barrage of jokes (even if there’s as many misses as hits) and a stellar voice cast (headlined by Reese Witherspoon, Kiefer Sutherland, Rain Wilson, Will Arnett, Hugh Laurie, Seth Rogen, and, in an inspired bit of casting, Stephen Colbert as the President of the United States). The character design is fantastic, and the film is a visual treat. GRADE: B
CONTENT OVERVIEW: There is some fighting between monsters and aliens, but the tone is comedic. A woman and a man park in a car; she leans in, trying to kiss him, but he denies her. A woman is hit by a meteor, then grows 50-feet tall, tearing her wedding dress until it’s more or less a short skirt.
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: Women can be as strong and capable as men (1 Nephi 17:2). Sometimes we fear those who are different from us when we really just need to get to know them better to see the good in them (Mosiah 9:1).
It’s not everyone’s cup of (herbal) tea, but this stop motion animation marvel, produced by Tim Burton, directed by Henry Selick, and distributed by Disney, is annual viewing in many homes for the holidays (Halloween through Christmas). Jack Skellington, the “Pumpkin King” of Halloweentown, wearies of the nonstop gothic scares of his home. Discovering the wonder, joy, and goodwill of Christmas, he hijacks the holiday in a well-meaning, but misguided attempt to give Santa a break, with disastrous results. The story is lightweight and the tone may be too dark for some, but there’s no arguing the creativity and talent on display, plus Danny Elfman’s music is rightly iconic. GRADE: A-
CONTENT OVERVIEW: Some mild profanity and threatening moments. Some of the Halloween-town residents are scary-looking (basically all of the classic Halloween monsters are represented, from witches to mummies to werewolves). The film has a macabre sense of humor.
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: It’s never too late to make things right (Ezekiel 33:15-16). When we have grand ideas, we should take inventory of whether we can see it through and what obstacles may get in our way (Luke 14:28-30).
Do you or your family have any Halloween favorites that I missed here? Let me know in the comments below!
Jonathan Decker is a licensed marriage and family therapist, co-host of The KJZZ Movie Show, film critic at www.mormonmovieguy.com, and author of the book 250 Great Movies for Latter-day Families, which is now available in paperback and Kindle