There’s an ongoing debate around the Tor.com offices about The Nightmare Before Christmas: which holiday season does it belong to? Does it go better with candy canes and eggnog or a giant bowlful of Halloween candy? Can’t we just watch it all year round? Whichever side of the debate you’re on, there are plenty of other movies and TV specials that have become part of our Halloween ritual every fall. Here are just a few of our favorites: spooky, campy, odd, hilarious, and guaranteed to put you in the Halloween spirit!
Young Frankenstein (1974)
One of my favorite movies of all time, regardless of the season—but I rarely get through October without watching Young Frankenstein at least once or twice. It’s also one of Mel Brooks’s most eminently quotable films (which is saying something), and it’s literally impossible for me to pick a favorite scene. Gene Wilder’s comic genius lights up every minute of screen time, and each person in the cast is somehow more talented than the next: Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr, and Kenneth Mars…everyone’s just SO PERFECT. I know I’m not saying anything new here, but I’ve loved this movie since I can remember, and if you haven’t watched it lately, you should do yourself a favor this year…
The Muppet Show featuring Vincent Price (October, 1976)
Who better to help Kermit and company celebrate Halloween than the delightfully creepy Vincent Price! Features a trio of ghosts singing The Beatles’ “I’m Looking Through You,” an appearance by the hulking Sweetums, a Three-Headed Monster (aka: Tom, Dick, and Harry) who wants to audition, and Price leading a ghoulish Muppet Monster sing-along to Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” Also, Kermit biting Vincent Price on the neck, vampire-style. CLASSIC. See also the season two episode hosted by Alice Cooper—it’s not technically Halloween-themed, but there are plenty of monsters, and Alice tries to trick both Kermit and Piggy into wacky Satanic pacts between songs. It’s pretty great.
Witch’s Night Out (1978)
This may be kind of a retro Halloween deep cut, but my siblings and I watched Witch’s Night Out pretty regularly when we were kids—I think we liked it because it’s definitely a little off: the animation is kind of odd, the pacing feels a little rushed and manic, and the characters are all pretty bizarre. If you haven’t seen it before, but if you appreciate weird Seventies animation, you might want to check it out—otherwise, it probably won’t hold up unless you were exposed to it at an early age.
The “Witch” of the title is voiced by Gilda Radner and is drawn as an aging flapper—she’s a little bit Auntie Mame and whole lotta Norma Desmond, forgotten in her haunted mansion until summoned forth by the Halloween wishes of two small children. The adults of the town are all narcissistic blowhards who manage to harsh the kids’ Halloween buzz and sense of wonder…until the witch teaches everyone a lesson about magic. And partying. And there’s a disco theme song. (Basically, on a campiness scale of 1: The Great Pumpkin (totally earnest) to 10: The Paul Lynde Halloween Special (total insane camp), this gets about a 7.5). Also starring Catherine O’Hara, it’s very short and is available on YouTube, if you want a little strange this Halloween.
The original Frankenweenie was simple, and sweet, and such a note-perfect, kid-scale Frankenstein parody, I just want to hug it. Young Victor Frankenstein needs a reanimating machine to bring his dog, Sparky, back to life. So naturally he builds one out of bike parts and a lava lamp. His parent’s are a little annoyed that Victor decided to tamper in God’s domain, but when Sparky’s necrotic skin gets a little messy, Victor’s frazzled-but-supportive mom stitches him up. The eerie graveyard is a whimsical pet cemetery. The angry mob consists of kitschy neighbors and freaked out parents. And when that mob finally turns on Sparky, they chase him into a mini-golf course, because where else in suburban California will you find a windmill?
For maximum Halloween-ness, I would recommend pairing this with Tim Burton’s early short Vincent, breaking for a walk in a cemetery (haunted, if at all possible) and then gorging yourself on Bride of Frankenstein.
Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (2004)
Darkplace Hospital was unfortunately built over the gates of Hell, which happen to be in Essex. Luckily for Darkplace, Dr. Rick Dagless, M.D. is there to fight the forces of evil with a heady combination of magic…and his Magnum revolver. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is a show within a show. Initially created in the mid-1980s, but never released for reasons that become clear as you watch (according to Marenghi himself it was because “MI8, which is actually three levels above MI6, pulled the plug. And they did it because I knew the truth.”), the show is resurrected and shown late at night in the mid-00s on BBC’s Channel 4. It is brilliantly detailed, with each actor playing both an actor in the “modern” interview scenes, and those actors playing characters in episodes of the show-within-the-show. Over the course of 6 episodes, “Dag,” his buddy Dr. Lucien Sanchez, his supervisor, shotgun-toting Thornton Reed, and the lovely Dr. Liz Asher (who spends more time having psychic flashes and fetching coffee than actually doctoring) face giant eyeballs, killer mutant apes, Lovecraftian broccoli, and the Scottish. Simply telling you that it’s the funniest show ever created by human hands isn’t enough, however. Sample the riches that await you in this musical fever dream.
The Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” (1990-present)
No Halloween list is complete without an appreciation of The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episodes. I don’t think I’ll meet much resistance if I insist that the specials, much like the show itself, reached their peak nearly 20 years ago. While there have never been many “rules” governing The Simpsons, earlier seasons at least tried to keep most of their regular episodes in the realm of the possible (Homer’s trip to space notwithstanding…). So when the writers and key animators got a chance to work on the more outlandish Halloween episodes, the results were often magical.
Pretty much any of the first seven Treehouse episodes are worth watching, but if I had my way, I’d form some sort of super-episode from bits from III and V. I miss the interstitial wrap-arounds (long-since abandoned in favor of longer story segments and/or opening credits gags), and the Conan O’Brien-penned Simpsons’ Halloween party from III is easily the best. The kids’ costumes are all fantastic (Martin Prince as the muse Calliope is a particular favorite), and Marge’s insistence that “fruit is nature’s candy” is met with the appropriate amount of groans and eye-rolling.
As for the stories themselves, I’d keep the first two shorts from V, starting with “The Shinning.” As parodies go, this one is spot on, even down to the cheesecake painting hanging above Groundskeeper Willie’s bed. Next up is “Time and Punishment,” which is responsible for introducing me to Ray Bradbury as a child and should be included for that reason alone. Luckily it’s also hilarious, and features some of Jim Reardon’s best animation direction for the show—Homer accidentally crushing that intrepid amphibian ranks among my favorite bits in the show’s history. But for the finale, I’d return to Treehouse III and close out with “Dial Z for Zombies,” because nothing beats watching Homer shotgun his way through zombie versions of various historical figures. And for continuity’s sake, I’m sure we could add a shot of Groundskeeper Willie getting an axe to the back…
There’s nothing that really says Halloween more to me than this movie, my favorite aspect being that it pulls off such a warped, macabre aesthetic while still being funny. In fact, that might be what has made me a Tim Burton fan since I was a wee one—things that most people would find frightening, he portrays as humorous. “Normal” is what terrifies Burton, which is why the newly-ruralized Deetzes are so much more disturbing to watch than the title character. Most of Tim Burton’s early films feature a protagonist that is more or less the director himself after a fashion, but in Lydia Deetz, Burton manages a female protagonist with the same sensibilities. I don’t think I’ve ever met a teenage girl who can’t relate to Lydia in some capacity, or any kid who wouldn’t want a second set of awesome parents who are ghosts. The Maitlands might be my favorite roles that Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin have ever respectively played because they were so far off “type” for both of them. And lip-synching to “Day-O” is a fantastic party trick for any occasion.
Some good old-fashioned horror for you! If “good old-fashioned horror” includes decontructions of the slasher genre, that is. I’m not much of a slasher film aficionado, but I don’t think you need to be to enjoy this movie. It handily explains itself, and is appropriately frightening and winking at tropes by turns. A smart film that doesn’t look down it’s nose at you. Hell, even the casting of it is perfectly ironic, with Party of Five’s Neve Campbell at the helm, and the odd couple of David Arquette and Courtney Cox. I can never look away when this movie is on.
The Addams Family (1991)
Again, another situation where normal is what’s scary. If there’s any chance that you would prefer parents who are not Raul Julia and Angelica Huston, I am slightly concerned for your sanity. Also, this was the movie that made Christina Ricci indispensible to my generation. For all the kids who ever thought I was strange—what I would have given to have Wednesday Addams’ deadpan collection of comebacks. Of course, someone somewhere is shouting at me that the television show with John Astin is better, but I prefer him in The Frighteners. Oo, can I add The Frighteners to this list? I should probably stop here. Ah, well.
“And Then There Was Shawn,” Boy Meets World (1998)
As a child of the ‘90s, the surreal, incongruous Scream takeoff that Boy Meets World ran in its fifth season still holds a special place in my heart. Cory, Shawn, Topanga, and Kenny, a new and doomed character, find themselves in detention after a fight about Cory and Topanga’s relationship in Mr. Feeny’s classroom. Messages start appearing in blood on the chalkboard, a terrifying song with the lyrics “Here’s a knife/here’s a gun/there’ll be fun for everyone” begins to play over the loudspeakers, and Kenny reveals himself as the South Park reference he is by getting stabbed to death with a pencil in the first few minutes.
Shawn takes control of the situation, using horror movie logic to predict the killer’s next move. They first suspect Feeny, who, of course, turns up dead; then “the creepy janitor,” whose corpse is then found in a garbage bin; then Jennifer Love Fefferman, played by Jennifer Love Hewitt, who’s killed by a pile of falling library books. (R.I.P., Feffy.)
The killer, wearing a hood and skull mask, appears and disposes of all the remaining cast members, until only Cory, Shawn, and Topanga are left standing. Shawn unmasks him, only to find that the killer has his face, and we realize that either ABC has decided to abandon family programming for a menu of sitcoms written by David Lynch, or the entire episode has been a pretty disturbing dream.
I love when writers use dream sequences on kids’ shows to get away with bizarre plotlines the networks would never let stand otherwise, and though this definitely pushed the envelope for Boy Meets World, ABC still forbade them from making any of the character deaths too graphic. The episode always reappears around Halloween, and feels more like an episode of Community than the earnest, wholesome coming-of-age comedy and Wonder Years successor we all know and love. (Or know and sometimes watch late-night reruns of on the Disney channel when we’re visiting our parents to escape the realities of our adulthoods—anyone?)
Key & Peele, Season 3, Episode 7 (2013)
On Halloween, I want to be laughing as much as I’m jumping in fright. Many of my funny/scary favorites have already been touched upon (Scream, Boy Meets World), but let me add one more parody: Key & Peele’s 2013 Halloween episode. Last year’s collection of sketches are like the best Halloween bucket of candy—filled with every type of treat. You’ve got the obvious Halloween-themed sketches starring vampires and ghosts, albeit with clever twists; but then there are the seemingly unrelated sketches that grab you with a completely unexpected but weirdly perfect reference.
I love watching Key and Peele skewer pop culture, so “Sexy Vampires” did not disappoint. Brother Tyrell (Key) is being initiated into his new coven, but they don’t appreciate his wifebeater and tracksuit look—didn’t he get the memo that vampires wear leather and pants that lace up the sides? He also would rather skip all the writhing and hissing and licking around their human meals and just get down to eating. I’ve always been the type to roll my eyes at uncomfortably erotic vampire scenes, so it was gratifying to see an outsider character calling them out: “All this s—t that y’all is doing up in here—this is just, like, straight-up gratuitous.” That said, Peele is effing brilliant as Brother Cyrus—half-Dracula, half-Hot Topic kid.
But then you get to a gem like “Continental Breakfast,” again showcasing Peele’s ability to shift tones so wonderfully. If I told you that K&P had mocked The Shining, you might envision one of them doubled as creepy twins, or the other hacking down the door with an axe. But what you get instead is an over-the-top commentary on motels and Americanized breakfast… and the perfect subtle Shining reference in the final shot.
God, I love a good nerdy horror spoof.
So, those are a few of our picks, although we had to include honorable mentions for the following Halloween classics—and we hope you’ll add your own suggestions in the comments!
• The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975): Definitely an any-time-of-year option, but the light over at the Frankenstein place shines especially bright on All Hallows’ Eve…
• Ghostbusters (1984): Three decades in and we still quote this movie around the Tor.com offices on a regular basis because it’s the best, no matter what time of year it is! And while not everyone will agree, let’s add Ghostbusters II (1989) here for good measure, because more Bill Murray is never a bad thing. Also the rap about Vigo is legitimately hilarious.
• The Worst Witch (1986): Adapted from the first book of Jill Murphy’s popular series, this bit of made-for-TV oddity stars Tim Curry, Dame Diana “Queen of Thorns” Rigg, and a young Fairuza Balk. Bonus: musical numbers!
• Hocus Pocus (1993): Resurrected witches! In Salem! Bette Midler will haunt your dreams. Even more than usual.
• Teen Witch (1989): Witchcraft meets the evils of 80s fashion. Top that!
• The Monster Squad (1987): It’s basically The Goonies meets the Universal Monsters; a nostalgia bomb for those of us who remember the late 80s.
• E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982): Takes place at Halloween. Totally counts.
• Army of Darkness (1992): Arguably Bruce Campbell’s finest hour—hail to the king, baby.
• Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948): Frankenstein is the least of the comedy duo’s troubles—they also square off against Béla Lugosi as Dracula and Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf Man. There’s even a voice cameo by Vincent Price! Hilarity, naturally, ensues.
• Mad Monster Party? (1967): Rankin/Bass stop motion meets a completely bizarre script in this very odd cult classic. Starring Boris Karloff and Phyllis Diller, for some reason.
• The Halloween Tree (1993): Emmy Award-winning animated adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel, featuring Leonard Nimoy and Bradbury himself as the Narrator.
• It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966): “I went trick-or-treating and all I got was a bag full of rocks.” Classic.