3rd annual HALLOWEEN SPECIAL: TOP 5 family-friendly horror films to watch on Halloween

The Watcher in the Woods. Image credit: Courtesy of Nerdist

Welcome back to the Horror World & Reviews Halloween Special! This year there’ll be Top 5s, a few funny and a few more informative. To start off the seven days leading up to Halloween, I decided to share with you some of my favourite family-friendly horror movies that you can enjoy with your kids, parents, younger siblings, little cousins… the whole shebang!

This short list won’t include the most popular titles when it comes to family-friendly horror: Gremlins (1979), Poltergeist and The Dark Crystal (1982), Labyrinth (1986), Beetlejuice (1988) and The Witches (1990) – just to name a few – because, let’s face it, everyone loves and watches them all the time!

There are five more family-friendly horror movies though, that I really love and would like to share with you, since I feel some of them aren’t as popular as the ones mentioned before. So, without further ado, let’s check them out in chronological order.

Find out below the five family-friendly horror films featured in this article…

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Watcher in the Woods (1980) – Rated PG – Remember the time when Disney took risks instead of just remaking their most successful films or cashing in on the over-bloated superhero market? Well, in 1980 they made their first ever picture to have a horror setting: Watcher in the Woods tells the very creepy story of your typical American family that moves into a beautiful old English house in a wooded area. Strange and paranormal appearances befall them pretty soon, though: their daughter Jan sees, and daughter Ellie hears, the voice of a young teenage girl who mysteriously disappeared during a total solar eclipse that occurred decades before. What’s really happening here?

This is not a great nor flawless film, as it fell victim of many production issues: allegedly, the actors bickered on set all the time; the distribution process was a nightmare, because Disney wanted too much money from foreign distributors; one of the directors (Vincent McEveety) and one of the screenwriters (Gerry Day) were completely uncredited. On top of that, Watcher in the Woods had four writers, which meant a lot of inconsistencies and continuity errors in the script. This causes the movie to be rather uneven and filled with goofs.

That said, this is a film that truly oozes nostalgia. It’s scary and unsettling (largely thanks to the music featured in it, both the score and the tune from Mrs Aylwood’s music box), very dark and mysterious, but also fairy-tale-esque and appropriate for a younger audience. Also, Watcher in the Woods features some twists and turns that aren’t obvious or predictable: despite the shaky script, this is a challenging film for a younger audience, which means it keeps kids’ imagination and mind active while they’re watching. Watch this one with the whole family, you won’t regret it!

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) – Rated PG – Oddly enough, Something Wicked This Way Comes is, also, a Disney movie. This time around, though, the film is directed by genius filmmaker Jack Clayton and revolves around a small American town where a diabolical circus and its demonic owner prey on the townsfolk.

Steeped in atmosphere and perfectly embodying 1980s small-town America, Something Wicked is an extremely clever and multi-layered horror film with elements of fantasy and thriller. Whilst magical and scary at the same time, this movie is actually about the different kinds of folks in 1980s United States, with their quirks and flaws. It’s a satire on small-town mentality and closed-minded people that feels surprisingly subtle (but still understandable enough for young teenagers) and very powerful. It’s, also, a very well-shot and well-directed movie, with no major flaws.

Despite the quality of filmmaking and the huge budget at its disposal ($19,000,000 was a lot in 1983), Something Wicked bombed horribly at the box office and received a mixed reception upon release. Luckily, the movie is now achieving the status of “cult classic”: if you want to experience a well-acted, nostalgic, magical and creepy film with your family, this is the one to choose.

The People Under the Stairs (1991) – Rated R – How can a Rated R movie be okay for the whole family? Well, I’m of the opinion that children shouldn’t be sheltered: they should be stimulated. Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs is a horror-comedy that tackles very important themes like coming-of-age, difference in social classes, racism, appearance over substance, and child abuse.

In the movie, we follow a 13-year-old boy (Fool) who comes from the ghetto. In an attempted burglary (along with two others) of the home of his family’s evil landlords, he gets trapped inside their large suburban house. He discovers a dark secret: the insane brother and sister have imprisoned the “children” under the stairs. Sure, the movie has some elements of gore (very tame for today’s standard) and sex (which is spoken about rather than shown), but this story is told from the perspective of a 13-year-old boy: if he can handle what happens in the movie, then kids watching it can do the same.

Most importantly, as I mentioned before, Wes Craven subtly confronts many social issues in the movie that are still relevant today. This is a movie where the humans are monsters and the monsters are victims. It’s a great story, told through jokes and comedy, spooky sequences and mildly violent moments, where a young audience would be stimulated to think and analyse the messages spread underneath the surface. I adore this movie, it’s one of my favourites from Craven, and I think it’s a great family-watch.

Coraline (2009) – Rated PG – If you think Coraline isn’t a horror film, you probably misinterpreted this fantastic animated movie in which an adventurous 11-year-old girl (Coraline) finds another world that is a strangely idealised version of her frustrating home, but it has sinister secrets.

Perfect storyboarding and spotless stop-motion animation are combined, here, with a dark tone, sombre atmosphere, eerie music and sincerely scary imagery. I mean, are you sure those eye-buttons don’t scare you? Are you even human?

Since I reviewed Coraline already, I won’t spend much more time on it. Let me just praise this film one more time: it’s perfectly directed, beautifully animated, dense and poignant, filled with amazing character development and voice acting, genuinely creepy, exhilarating and meaningful for the entire family.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) – Rated PG-13 – I didn’t get a chance to review this film before (because it only just came out in theatres where I live), but I feel like it’s the perfect fit for this article. Based on the popular series of three collections of short horror stories for children, written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell, this film is brilliantly directed by André Øvredal (Troll Hunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe). In short, the movie follows four friends in 1968, in the small town of Mill Valley: on Halloween night they sneak into the Bellows mansion, where they discover the mysterious book of scary stories written by Sarah Bellows. Once they open it, Stella and her friends realise that the stories write themselves and have dreadful consequences in real life for the people who found the novel.

Although Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is aimed to a young audience, as the books were, it never feels childish or too silly for adults. The film is structured like a sort of anthology horror – with the main storyline about the kids trying to solve the mystery, and a series of shorter scenes where each one of them faces a creature/demon from the book. The movie eases the viewer in with some nice character development, and the sequences of horrific events are masterfully directed by Øvredal, who understands perfectly how to make a scene scary through great practical effects, awesome creature design (faithful to Gammell’s illustrations), visually engaging camera-work, above-par cinematography and, mostly, great use of colours.

Every technical feature in the film is top-notch, but the movie also manages to have some subtle and poignant commentary on media and the power of lies by drawing parallels between the power of words and the Vietnam War. The characters are, also, quite interesting and the acting is solid for the most part (aside from the kid who plays Chuck, he’s awful). The main issue with the movie lies in its narrative: viewers are constantly spoon-fed, and certain character choices feel very dumb, as though more clever decisions would’ve saved their lives, therefore the director might not have figured out how to continue the story.

That said, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a great watch for the entire family, while also being stimulating and multi-layered for a more adult audience. Its somewhat bleak ending is, also, miles better than the usual dumb ending you get from PG-13 Hollywood schlock.

Now, it’s your turn: have you seen the horror movies featured in this article? Did you like them? What family-friendly horror movies would you recommend to people? Let me know in the comments and stay tuned for the next Halloween Special article!

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