The Movies I Binged For Halloween This Year
It’s one of my favorite times of the year, spooky season! The lead-up to Halloween has become increasingly important in my life, as I get to binge various scary movies and specials. I have started keeping a running list of horror titles to watch throughout the year, and finalize what it is I’m going to watch in October weeks before it even starts. Especially given the awfulness of 2020, I wanted to make sure to ring in the season appropriately and seek out several new titles to watch, as well as continue to rely on old favorites. I hope this list inspires you to check out these movies and others, and to binge the things that feel reminiscent of the season for you. Have a happy and safe Halloween!
Fright Night (1985): My favorite discovery of the season might just be the 80s cult classic, Fright Night. I had heard a lot about it, but had never specifically sought out to watch it. But once I did, it transfixed me immediately. The film involves a teenage boy (William Ragsdale) who believes his mysterious, but charming new next-door neighbor (Chris Sarandon) is actually a vampire. Unable to convince any of his family or friends that this is the case, he seeks the advice of a washed-up horror-movie host on TV (Roddy McDowell) to help him defeat the vampire. Filled with cool moments, a surprising amount of gore, great practical effects, and a wonderful aesthetic that feels like the pinnacle of 80s-chic, Fright Night is one I know I will be returning to in years to come.
Fright Night is currently available to stream on Pluto TV.
Sleepy Hollow (1999): While I am admittedly a fan of director Tim Burton, I had never watched his retelling of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow before. The movie reimagines Irving’s classic tale as more of a detective procedural with some supernatural twists (lest we forget, The X-Files was very popular when this movie came out), courtesy of Se7en screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker. Constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) ventures to Sleepy Hollow to find the culprit behind recent beheadings in the town, while the townspeople claim it is the famous Headless Horseman of lore. There’s a supporting cast that includes Christina Ricci as love interest Katrina Van Tassel; future-Dumbledore Michael Gambon as the town’s de facto leader; and yes, even the great Christopher Walken as the Headless Horseman himself. While it doesn’t necessarily reach the heights of my other favorite Tim Burton movies, the film is aesthetically awe-inspiring, and full of Academy Award-winning production design. I was also taken aback by Burton’s darker sensibilities really being unleashed, the movie is bloodier and grosser than I was expecting, and I was more than on board for it. Set in the cool autumns of New England and with jack-o-lanterns frequently spotted throughout the film, matched with Tim Burton’s gothic aesthetic, Sleepy Hollow has more than enough to satisfy your instincts to ring in the spooky season.
Sleepy Hollow is currently available to stream on Netflix.
The Ring (2002): I was too young to watch it when it first came out, had its plot spoiled by cultural ubiquity and Scary Movie 3, and by the time I was old enough and wanted to watch it, the idea of being haunted by VHS tapes felt pretty passé and the whole affair just felt very tame. And honestly, that about sums it up. Watching The Ring for the first time proved to be a pretty disappointing experience, especially after all the hype and various cultural allusions to it. Just a day after I watched it, Colin Jost referenced the movie in a joke during Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live. But for better or worse, people remember this movie, whether it’s the creepy haunted video itself or the voice on the other end of the phone that simply says “seven days” or the look of the ghostly Samara Morgan (Daveigh Chase). But it felt like the film could’ve been scarier and more intense, and the fact that much was cut to make the film PG-13 only seems to confirm this. Movies like The Ring thrive on atmosphere, and while that is executed well, it only goes so far. For example, the creepy son (David Dorfman) of Naomi Watt’s main character Rachel only seems to be in it because having him emulates previous successful movies like The Shining, The Omen, and most recent to when the film came out, The Sixth Sense. Overall, I didn’t dislike The Ring. If anything, I now understand why it caught on. But almost two decades after its release, this movie simply can’t hold up the way it used to.
The Ring is currently available to stream on Crackle.
The Stuff (1985): This is a weird one! Written and directed by cult schlock-auteur Larry Cohen, The Stuff is a callback to movies like The Blob and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but the threat in this movie takes the form of killer yogurt. Everyone in America becomes addicted to a new food product called The Stuff, and only a corporate saboteur (Michael Moriarty, who looks like if someone crossbred Conan O’Brien with Bill Burr), a little boy (Scott Bloom) and the executive in charge of The Stuff’s marketing campaign (Andrea Marcovicci) can be the ones to stop it. The Stuff certainly has its charms, and I appreciate the satirical elements of corporate America, apparent in movies of the era including both this and Robocop. There are also some cool effects when the titular Stuff causes people to drown in it or become horrible zombies. But the movie can also get a little silly, such as when a militant general (Paul Sorvino) is recruited to stop the organism. It can also be boring in stretches, and some of it also seems to stim from Moriarty’s awkwardness on screen. He’s gangly, plays the role with a thick Southern accent, and he’s simply not good at being a particularly engaging leading man. However, for those enjoy retro thrills and low-budget schlock, The Stuff has more than enough to entertain you for Halloween.
The Stuff is currently available to stream on Tubi.
Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995): I discovered this movie last year during the annual “Dismember the Alamo” Halloween film festival put on by Alamo Drafthouse. The movie was intended as a spin-off for the then-ongoing Tales from the Crypt TV series, itself an adaptation of the iconic EC Comics of the same name. The story is about Brayker (William Sadler), a man trying to escape the evil Collector (Billy Zane). He finds shelter in a hotel that’s been converted from a church, where he meets an ensemble of its patrons and employees. But the Collector declares war on the hotel for refusing to turn Brayker and the mysterious object he holds over to him, and summons an army of grotesque demons to kill them all. It then becomes a race of survival to see who, if anyone, can make it through the night. The cast is absolutely outstanding, featuring both well-regarded character actors like C.C.H. Pounder and Dick Miller, as well as rising stars like Jada Pinkett Smith and Thomas Haden Church. The then-future Mrs. Smith in particular turns in a very grounded performance as Jeryline, the unassuming hotel employee on work release who eventually becomes the key to humanity’s survival. But much credit has to be paid to Billy Zane, who seems to be having so much indulgent fun in his demonic antagonist role. While Titanic is still easily the best movie with Billy Zane as a villain, Demon Knight might have the best individual Billy Zane villain of any movie ever. While its surprisingly religious subtext can come off somewhat clunky at times, Demon Knight is a treat, an entertaining delight that will perfectly put you in the Halloween spirit.
Scream (1996): The meta-horror phenomenon that created a sensation and spun off its own franchise holds up surprisingly well. Someone or something is using slasher-movie tropes to terrorize and kill the teenagers of Woodsboro, California. Directed by horror master Wes Craven, the film supersedes categorization and features many exemplary moments, not the least of which is the now-iconic opening with Drew Barrymore’s Casey on the phone with the Ghostface killer. Scream is a little more dated than it used to be, because only in a movie from the mid-90s do major scenes happen in video-rental stores and could one of the stars of Friends share screen-time with Jamie Kennedy. Another thing dating the film is how much technology has changed, although, interestingly enough, the film is credited with helping to popularize sales of phones with caller ID back when it first came out. Despite this, Scream remains scary, funny, subversive, and strong, and still a high-water mark for the slasher genre nearly a quarter-century after its release.
Child’s Play 2 (1990) and Child’s Play 3 (1991): After having watched the original Child’s Play for the first time last Halloween, I was curious to check out additional entries in the series. The series deals with killer doll Chucky (Brad Dourif), the spirit of a serial killer trapped in a little boy’s “Good Guy” doll. In the second installment, Chucky is trying to get revenge on the boy who discovered his secret in the first movie, Andy (Alex Vincent). Andy has moved in with foster parents who don’t believe him about Chucky’s supposed-sentience, so it’s up to him and fellow-foster kid Kyle (Christine Elise) to stop Chucky. The third installment takes place as Andy (now played by Justin Whalin) is a 16-year-old going to a military academy. Once again, Chucky finds a way to sneak into Andy’s life and keep up the rampage despite being on a heavily guarded campus. Both of these were fine if not particularly memorable, Child’s Play 2 being the superior of the two. The ending climax of the second one stands out as a particular highlight.
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988): After an absence in Halloween III: Season of the Witch (admittedly a guilty pleasure of mine), the killer who kicked off the Halloween franchise, Michael Myers, returns in the series’ fourth installment. His target this time around is his niece (Danielle Harris), the orphaned daughter of Jamie Lee Curtis’ character Laurie Strode. (The character is named Jamie as a tribute to the absent Curtis.) And the ever-reliable Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) is also, as always, on the case. Halloween 4 has its fair share of moments, but by this point, the plot feels formulaic and the proceedings aren’t nearly as tight and efficient as its 1978 progenitor. Worth checking out for completion’s sake, not much value there otherwise.
Halloween 4 is available to watch for free on YouTube.
Scream 2 (1997): Scream 2 was a pretty fun return to form, and I regret not seeing it sooner. The plot is pretty conventional, the Ghostface killer is back just as our heroes and survivors from the first film are starting college. Also happening is the release of an in-universe film adaptation of the events of the previous film, entitled “Stab.” But like many great sequels, Scream 2 seems to be critiquing the very notion of sequels themselves. Hell, it was the rare slasher film that even Siskel and Ebert both liked and recommended! An enjoyable follow-up to its groundbreaking predecessor.
Nostalgic comfort food:
One of the things I looked forward to the most as a kid was that special Halloween-themed episodes of all my favorite shows would be coming out. Here are some personal favorites that, if you haven’t checked them out before or grew up in a different era than I did, are definitely worth seeking out.
Goosebumps – “The Haunted Mask”: One of my favorite things to revisit this time of the year is the Goosebumps TV series. A Canadian-American co-production and adaptation of the legendary horror-for-kids book series by R.L. Stine, the show was a staple in the 1990s. I remember specifically going to friends’ houses and watching it around this time of year when I was growing up. Easily the best episode of the series is the two-parter “The Haunted Mask,” an adaptation of Stine’s novel of the same name. The episode is about Carly Beth (Kathryn Long), a girl who has the reputation of being a scaredy-cat. “The last thing I want to be on Halloween is cute, I want to be scary this time,” Carly Beth says to herself at one point. She decides to prove them all wrong by donning the scariest mask she can find at a mysterious new costume shop in town for Halloween. But the mask begins to possess her, and Carly Beth realizes she’s in for a disturbing Halloween adventure. This episode is a lot of fun, with kid-appropriate scares and thrilling moments, and encapsulates a lot of what made the show as a whole work.
All episodes of Goosebumps, including “The Haunted Mask,” are available to stream on Netflix.
The Secret World of Alex Mack – “The Secret”: I have made no secret of my love and admiration of one of my favorite TV shows of childhood, the classic 90s Nickelodeon series, The Secret World of Alex Mack. The show deals with Alex (Larisa Olyenik), a teenage girl who gets dumped with radioactive chemicals and gets superpowers, and her attempts to evade the evil chemical plant with the help of her best friend Ray (Darris Love) and nerdy big sister Annie (Meredith Bishop). Interestingly enough, despite a four-season run, only once did the show opt to do a Halloween episode. Entitled “The Secret,” the episode is nowhere close to being the best episode of the series, but has grown on me a lot and certainly has its charms. After being dared by Ray and Louis Driscoll (Benjamin Kimball Smith) to go trick-or-treating at the creepy, abandoned, possibly-haunted house in town on Halloween night, Alex is sucked into the phantom house. After striking up a conversation with the resident ghost, Alex begins to realize a startling connection between it and the series’ antagonist, chemical plant owner Danielle Atron (the late Louan Gideon). If you’re looking for something retro and with plenty of season-appropriate scares and imagery, it’s good enough to engage any 90s kids this time of year.
The Simpsons – “Treehouse of Horror V”: One can’t talk about Halloween episodes without noting the importance of The Simpsons’ annual “Treehouse of Horror” anthology episode. These episodes were often a chance for the show to experiment and be free of the restraints that would otherwise be put upon it. If I had to pick an individual one out as being my personal favorite, it’d definitely be the fifth entry (though no disrespect to other installments, especially the two after this one, which are also very good). There’s some great stuff in here, including Homer’s hand stuck in a time-traveling toaster, where he learns about the butterfly effect as each decision he makes produces crazier and crazier alternative timelines. There’s also the teachers of Springfield Elementary turning kids into cafeteria food. But by far, the highlight of the episode is their hilarious send-up of The Shining, entitled “The Shinning” because “Shh! You want to get sued?” This segment features great moments, from “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” becoming “No TV and no beer make Homer something something” “Go crazy?” “Don’t mind if I do!” to Jack Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny!” turning into Homer’s “I’m Mike Wallace, I’m Morley Safer, and I’m Ed Bradley, all this and Andy Rooney tonight on 60 Minutes!” If you love either The Simpsons or Halloween-time, this is not one to miss.
All episodes of The Simpsons, including every Treehouse of Horror, are available to stream on Disney+.
And finally, a few words on Hocus Pocus: I think I saw Hocus Pocus on VHS when I was a kid, and I remember not liking it. I saw it again when I was a few years older, and still didn’t like it. Imagine my surprise that Hocus Pocus of all things has become this nostalgic millennial touchstone, up there with Harry Potter and Pokémon as some of the most cherished kids-media to come out of the 90s. Moreover, it’s become a Halloween holiday staple, akin to watching It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, or Die Hard during December. I certainly don’t bemoan the people who watch it every year and get really into it. Part of what has been so humbling about the rise of Hocus Pocus is just how into it its fans get. They dress up as the characters, sing the songs, repeat the dialogue, go to screenings, and there was even a massive celebration to commemorate the film’s 25th anniversary in 2018. But, especially for a Disney movie, there is a weird amount of sexuality for what is ostensibly a kid’s movie. From the constant questions as to whether or not main character Max (Omri Katz) is a virgin (just how many parents in the 90s had to have awkward conversations after their kids asked what that word meant while watching this movie?) to how much he likes his love interest Allison’s (Vinessa Shaw) breasts, which are referred to in the film as “yabows” (for some reason?), it’s all very clunky, stupid, dated, and odd. Ultimately, if you like this tale of Bette Midler, Carrie Bradshaw, and the silly nun from Sister Act terrorizing a teenage couple and a little girl played by future-American Beauty and Ghost World-star Thora Birch, who am I to stop you? But before this nostalgic revisionism goes any further, I needed to note my difficulties with it. This is a movie that barely made its money back, received bad reviews, and was released in July. Now it’s a Halloween staple and millennial cult classic? Thanks, but no thanks. I’m sticking with my witch-based corny cult classic of choice, Teen Witch.
Teen Witch is available to stream on HBO.