October is upon us, and as jack-o-lanterns peer out with flickering eyes, the time comes to embrace adventure and face our fears. Networks like AMC and Chiller run marathons of spooky films all month long, but those movies are often too violent or inappropriate to enjoy with friends and family members.
So for this Halloween, your treat can be this list of 15 films — from Hollywood classics to obscure and forgotten independent films — that are decidedly scary without the R-rated content. We've included age recommendations, but parents should take into account the sensitivities of their individual children to truly scary material.
The premise is classic: a rich man offers a group of people money if they stay overnight in a supposedly haunted house. “House on Haunted Hill” is directed by William Castle, known for his outlandish gimmicks to get people to see his movies. (Director Joe Dante, in an interview with DVD Savant, mentioned Castle as the basis for the huckster character John Goodman played in “Matinee”). Castle was infamous for hiding buzzers in seats and passing out glasses that revealed hidden images in the movies. Gimmicks aside, the moments of shock and surprise in this film, along with the hammy but effective Vincent Price, make it worthwhile Halloween viewing.
Age recommendation: Some relationship themes in the film make it better viewing for ages 12 and older.
Author Daphne du Maurier already had two books (“Rebecca” and “Jamaica Inn”) turned into films by suspense master Alfred Hitchcock when he set his sights on her 1952 story “The Birds.” According to a 2007 article from The Guardian, du Maurier was not happy with the changes Hitchcock made from her original (Hitchcock retained only the title and the central concept of birds attacking for an unknown reason). However, film history would disagree. The film is a textbook example of Hitchcock’s skill in using special effects, editing and mood music to create two hours of solid tension. With a career-making performance from Tippi Hedren, who worked with Hitchcock again in “Marnie,” it still stands as a classic in the horror-suspense genre.
Age recommendation: The looming threat and the scare moments should be OK for viewers 10 years or older.
One kind of fright film surprises the audience because they didn’t see something coming; another kind shows them something that the characters don’t know, and the audience fears for them. This is the premise behind “Wait Until Dark,” a film in which Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman besieged in her apartment by thugs looking for something hidden in a doll she was given. Directed by Terence Young (a change of pace for the director of the first three James Bond movies), with a score by “The Pink Panther” composer Henry Mancini, “Wait Until Dark” is a smart thriller that portrays a strong woman using a disadvantage to her advantage.
Age recommendation: A couple of frightening scenes and threatening bad guys make this better for kids 12 and older.
You’ll never view vacation driving the same again. “Duel” follows David Mann, a businessman on a long road trip, who finds his life threatened by an erratic truck driver who aims his 18-wheeler at David’s bumper. Directed by first-timer Steven Spielberg, this unbelievably tense and well-structured film was the signpost for an amazing career in thrillers like “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park.” With no one else to share the screen (including the villainous trucker whose face is never shown), actor Dennis Weaver convincingly evolves from timid city dweller to primal warrior struggling for survival.
Age recommendation: The intensity and adult-skewing story make this better for kids 10 years and older.
Most people don’t expect to be frightened by an animated film. But in “The Secret of NIMH”, the first film from animator Don Bluth after he left the Walt Disney Company, there are story elements and images that are sure to leave casual animation fans stunned and a little spooked. Based on Robert C. O’Brien’s novel “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH,” the story follows a widowed field mouse seeking the help of a shady group of super-intelligent rats in order to save her family’s house from destruction. Though there is comic relief in the form of Dom DeLuise as Jeremy the Crow, the film is unrelentingly moody, and characters like the Great Owl and Dragon the cat are memorably creepy.
Age recommendation: Everyone should be able to enjoy this one.
A dark fantasy from The Walt Disney Company, “Something Wicked This Way Comes” is written by sci-fi/fantasy king Ray Bradbury, based on his own novel. The film, about an evil carnival that plagues the residents of a small American town and the young boys who try to stop it, is directed by Jack Clayton, whose skill with spookiness had been on display 21 years earlier with the ghost story “The Innocents.” A rare fantasy film that is as much about nostalgia and the inherent goodness of mankind as it is about strange creatures and terror, Bradbury’s coming of age tale is a little-watched gem that deserves to be rediscovered.
Age recommendation: A couple of scare moments might be too much for children under 6.
It is perhaps ironic that the first Disney film ever rated PG was one of its animated films. But this fantasy, based on Lloyd Alexander’s “The Chronicles of Prydain” series, was a big risk for the studio that ultimately didn’t pay off. With a budget of about $44 million, Box Office Mojo reports that its gross was just over $21 million. The film was darker than the studio was thought of at the time, and the story (about a boy seeking a magical cauldron that turns people into the undead) was a little heavy for crowds used to “The Fox and the Hound.”
Age recommendation: For today's kids, anyone 8 years or older should be OK.
Another example of Disney creating a very dark film marketed to younger audiences, “Return to Oz” is a sequel to the classic “The Wizard of Oz” that follows Dorothy back to the land, which has been ravaged by time and is nearly unrecognizable. The film touches on darker themes than its predecessor, which is in keeping with the book series, but may have been too much for the audiences of the time. Now, however, it has garnered a large following of devoted fans, and is considered a cult classic.
Age recommendation: A bit spooky, but OK for kids 10 and up.
Coming 12 years after King’s first television mini-series adaptation, “Salem’s Lot,” this two-night mini-series was the first in a flood of King television movies that ran through the 1990s and early 2000s. The story, revolving around seven kids in a small Maine town who discover an evil living among them, is structured as childhood flashbacks from the grown children. The cast, made up of television actors from the era such as John Ritter and Harry Anderson, is extremely effective, but the standout is Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown, certainly one of the most terrifying clowns in history.
Age recommendation: Though the content is OK, the scariness and the clown design make this a better watch for kids 12 and older.
Some of the best minds in children’s entertainment (author Roald Dahl, upon whose book the film is based, and Jim Henson, who brought the effects to life) came together to create this darkly humorous, somewhat disturbing and very fun story about a little boy trying to battle a convention of witches. A strong performance from Angelica Huston buoys a fantastical story, and some of the magical images will stick with you long after the film is over.
Age recommendation: The witches themselves might be enough to keep kids 8 and under from having a good time.
Because no list of spooky movies would be complete without something from iconic director Tim Burton, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” has to be on the list. A clever combination of music, comedy and creepiness, this story of a career scarer who yearns for the sincerity of Christmas and ends up ruining the holiday by accident has all the makings of the best of Burton: satire, dark subject matter with a light touch, and a stunning landscape and character visuals.
Age recommendation: All ages should have a good time with this, though 5 years and under might find some sequences a bit spooky.
Essentially a remake of “Night of the Living Dead” with a science-fiction twist, “Signs” follows one family dealing with an alien invasion on their farm. Unconventional scares build in this film, using seemingly innocent origins like a videotaped children’s birthday party and the reflection in a television screen. Excellent performances from the child actors (including one of the Culkin family) and actress Cherry Jones (who would turn up in another M. Night Shyamalan film, “The Village,” and play the president on “24”) make believing the impossible a little bit easier.
Age recommendation: The subject matter makes this a better watch for 13 years and up.
A film that taps into many of the same fears as the “Nightmare On Elm Street” series, but without the excessive content, “Fear of the Dark” is a fun and surprising horror film about two brothers dealing with a real-life boogeyman when they lose power in their house. An iconic villain and some excellent direction and jump moments make this a scary film.
Age recommendation: Anyone over 10 should find it scary but not too scary.
While not an outright horror film (author Neil Gaiman‘s work often fits comfortably between fantasy and horror), “Coraline” is a creepy and unsettling stop-motion animated story about a little girl who finds a magical world through a secret door in her house, only to discover that the world she found is more dangerous than it first appeared. Simple images take on frightening meanings (the button-eyes are particularly unnerving), and the result is a beautiful and disquieting film.
Age recommendation: Kids 6 years and older should enjoy and understand the story.
A huge success on release (Box Office Mojo puts the total gross at more than $127 million) that is likely owed to the presence of Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe, “The Woman in Black” is a haunted house film that is truly scary without being violent, and stands as part of a resurgence in films that rely on practical effects and suspense-driven horror (along with films like “Insidious” and “Sinister”). Radcliffe, playing a widowed lawyer sent to an estate to close out legal matters only to discover supernatural business left unfinished, does an excellent job and is supported well by Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer. A haunting and ultimately touching story of love and loss, “The Woman in Black” is a perfect film to close out the Halloween film spree.
Age recommendation: 12 and up should handle the jump scares well.
Chris Vander Kaay is a screenwriter and author who lives in Central Florida with his wife and co-writer, Kathleen. They write for smartdoglovespopculture.blogspot.com