I'm not the only one who noticed a somewhat odd trend this fall, with three would-be spooky stories pitched directly at the younger audiences. While the actual level of would-be horror varied from picture to picture (Hotel Transylvania didn't even try to terrify while ParaNorman was downright disturbing in its morose sense of tragedy), it did give me an idea for the Mendelson's Memos annual Halloween essay. This time around, we're looking at horror films that, if not specifically targeted at kids, are nonetheless appropriate for younger audiences and in-fact may serve as a gateway drug to the world of the homicidal macabre. I'm sticking to seven that I think deserve to be highlighted, I've purposely avoided the ones that everybody knows (IE - Poltergeist or Ghostbusters) or older films that are merely appropriate for today's jaded kids (think The Birds or Jaws). As always for the sake of my sanity, these will be in alphabetical order. So without further ado, let's dive right in!
Beetlejuice (1988): This may not be Tim Burton's best film by a long shot, but it perhaps remains the defining picture when fans think of the early days of Mr. Burton. This delightfully skewed haunted house fable stems from an idea so simple it's amazing it hadn't been done a hundred times before. It's a haunted house romp told from the point-of-view of two friendly ghosts. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are wonderful as the world's nicest couple (has Alec Baldwin ever played a warmer character before or since?) who meet an accidental death and end up caught between the living and the dead. Of the invading humans, only Winona Ryder registers as a three-dimensional character, but the film works as a comic treat that is genuinely scary for younger kids (I remember being quite freaked out by an early gag involving a bloody beheading) while never allowing the title character (Michael Keaton) to take over the picture. I think the film starts better than it ends, but the film serves as an effective bit of popcorn-flying horror for the littlest ones who won't get some of the adult humor (or the idea that the Maitlands can't have children and basically turn Winona Ryder's Lydia into a surrogate daughter) but will be scared shit-less of the Dune worm just outside their front door.
Coraline (2009): This Henry Selick gem, based on a Neil Gaiman novel, still contains the best 3D effects I've ever experienced in an animated film. I still remember seeing it in theaters and feeling like I was in some kind of surreal fever dream and it's a feeling I've never felt before or since during a movie. But regardless of how well the film's 3D holds up on Blu Ray, the picture itself is still a mind-bending little chiller about a young girl who finds an alternate universe of sorts that offers freedom and fun, but at a horrible price. The animation is beyond reproach while the film itself mines its simple premise for unexpected pathos. But for kids, this eye-candy delight is hopefully the closest thing they'll get to having an acid trip.
The Lady In White (1988): Released in an era where outright ghost stories were in short supply and where teen-centric slasher films dominated the horror landscape, this under-the-radar chiller became a slow-building cult favorite. While this isn't the most explicitly kid-friendly film on the list, it is a prime example of a quality horror film that allows younger audiences to deal with genuinely disconcerting subject matter and/or social issues without drowning in blood and/or gore. Set in 1962, this rather terrific ghost story concerns a young boy (Lucas Haas) who ends up trapped in his school on Halloween as the result of a cruel prank. While stuck in the school closet, he is visited by a ghostly vision, that of a young girl being brutally murdered, a vision that soon more-or-less attacks him in turn. The rest of the film involves a simple mystery: who is killed this girl and why? I won't reveal any more than that, other than to say that the story is absolutely knee-deep in the class and racial tensions of the day, which gives the finely-acted picture a sense of gravitas missing from many a more-traditional genre entry. If you haven't seen this gem, it's available on DVD. If you want to expose your older (maybe 8-and-up) kids to an old-school spook story, you could do a lot worse than The Lady In White.
The Monster Squad (1987): The Goonies can kiss my ass, I'm firmly on Team Monster Squad! This delightfully goofy and engaging adventure still holds up twenty-five years down the line. Writer Shane Black and writer/director Fred Dekker pulled off back in 1987 what Universal has been trying to do for decades: breathe new life into the classic horror movie monsters from the 1930s. The plot is painfully simple: A group of monster-obsessed kids discover that the creatures of the night are very real, and Count Dracula is launching a world-threatening plot right in their own backyards. Since adults would never believe such a thing, it's up to the kids to take what they've learned from the movies and send these monsters back to hell. The film carefully toes the line between being a kid-friendly adventure and being a genuine horror tale, with just enough violence to make the kids think they're getting away with something. Duncan Regehr makes a kick-ass Count Dracula, Tom Noonan offers a surprisingly touching Frankenstein monster, and Leonardo Cimino (who sadly just died this March at the age of 94) adds a touch of grounded realism as a mysterious next door neighbor who knows the difference between movie monsters and real-world evil (hint - look at his wrist). In an era when they still made 'adult movies' and 'kids movies', this was one that effectively straddled the line, even if it paid dearly at the box office for it.
ParaNorman (2012): Yes, obviously this late-summer gem was a chief inspiration for this list, but that's only because it's so damn good. Easily the best animated film of 2012 thus far, this strikingly powerful animated dramedy earns its power not through traditional frights but through a genuine sense of sorrow and mournfulness. The film starts out as a character study about a young outsider who can talk to ghosts and his seemingly sad fate is every bit as potent as the first act of The Sixth Sense. Most of the zombie action comes in the second act, which carefully shoots and edits its horror elements in a way that will excite rather than traumatize younger viewers. But the biggest jolt comes in the finale, when we realize what kind of story we've been watching this whole time. No spoilers here, but writer/director Chris Butler and director Sam Fell unblinkingly present a horrible crime committed against a complete innocent under the guise of moral superiority. The message of the film is clear: There is nothing scarier and more damaging than ignorant human beings caught up in the righteous indignation of their own fear. That the film is able to tell such a story without pulling punches while still remaining a delight for younger audiences is something of a miracle and just one reason why ParaNorman is one of the best films of 2012.
The Witches (1990): This mostly forgotten gem is notable today primarily for being the last project Jim Henson had his hands on before his shocking death. But the film still works as a wonderful kids-eye-view horror tale that has just enough scares and gross-out material to truly earn that PG rating. This Roald Dahl adaptation concerns a young boy sent to live with his grandmother who stumbles upon a convention of witches. Alas, tragedy soon strikes as the boy is discovered and turned into a mouse by the leader of the coven, played with grand camp gusto by Angelica Houston. What follows is a mad cap adventure and occasionally ghoulish delight that climaxes with a wave of bubbly slime and goo that will have younger audiences shrieking with delight. The picture was not a box office hit, earning just $10 million. But it's a film that deserves to be rediscovered and serves as a fine, if tragically unnecessary caper for Mr. Henson.
I'm sure there are any number that I missed, and that's where you come in. For the record, I don't think The Nightmare Before Christmas is a horror film and I count The Dark Crystal as a JRR Tolken-esque adventure story. The Gremlins series is more scary than funny (especially the subversive sequel), as is the just-missed-the-list Arachnophobia. But that's just my opinion, and you may-well disagree. Anyway, your turn to share the films that scared and/or traumatized you when you were just a wee one.