SALT LAKE CITY — For one month a year, everyone in the film and television industry agrees, it’s OK to be scary. Beginning on Oct. 1, theaters and cable channels pump out the spooky fare, since Halloween is the only holiday that likes to celebrate bring frightened.
It’s not always easy to find films that are fun and spooky and still good for the whole family. So this year, work your way through October with this list of 31 family-friendly fright films that will take you all the way to Halloween with movies that will keep you leaving the hall light on at bedtime. This week: the first eight days of October.
Oct. 1: The Dark Crystal (1982)
From Jim Henson, the same creative mind that brought “The Muppets” into the world, comes this dark fantasy story of a young Gelfling creature who discovers that his destiny is to journey through a dark land in order to find a missing shard and reunite it with a magical crystal that will restore order to his world. While not solely horror (the story takes elements from “The Lord of the Rings”), the story is dark and spooky, with creepy creatures around every corner and stunning world design. Co-directed by Henson and Frank Oz (the voice of Miss Piggy and Yoda, and director of other fantasy films like “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Indian In the Cupboard”) and produced by “Star Wars” producer Gary Kurtz, “The Dark Crystal” is a great way to start off the month.
Oct. 2: Dracula (1931)
A film often credited with bringing the horror film to the mainstream on its release in 1931, the film has become such a touchstone of recognition for the genre that in 2000, it was preserved in the National Film Registry. Starring the immortal Bela Lugosi in a film that would launch a career (and trap him in horror films for most of that career), and directed by Tod Browning, who had previously worked eight times with make-up master Lon Chaney, “Dracula” was a huge success in its day, prompting Universal Studios to start a very successful run creating other Universal monsters, a franchise that the company continues to revisit to this day.
Oct. 3: Fear of the Dark (2003)
A surprisingly effective little independent horror film aimed at younger audiences, “Fear of the Dark” was lost in the crowd of ultra-violent movies like “Wrong Turn,” “Freddy vs. Jason” and the remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” With a cast of mostly unknown actors (the exception being Kevin Zegers, who starred in the “Air Bud” series and appeared in the recent fantasy release “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones”), this low-budget film did an excellent job of using old-fashioned film techniques to bring to life the story of an older brother learning that his younger brother’s deathly fear of the dark turns out to be all too understandable.
Oct. 4: Duel (1971)
This is the film that began Steven Spielberg’s career as a feature film director (the film was a made-for-TV movie in the United States, but, according to the special features on the 2005 DVD release, it was so well-received that it was eventually released to theaters in Europe). “Duel” is a tense and unrelenting story of one man’s struggle for survival against the unseen driver of an eighteen-wheeler big rig that is chasing him across a desert landscape. Representing the eternal struggle for survival (the lead character’s name is Mann, after all), Dennis Weaver’s lead performance is a brilliant portrayal of panic and resourcefulness, and he carries the movie almost single-handedly (the only other characters of note during the majority of the running time are the unseen trucker and the talk radio voices that fill the car).
Oct. 5: Paranorman (2012)
A film that brilliantly transplants the adolescent struggles of being different into a fantastical world of ghosts and zombies, “Paranorman” is a film that celebrates the odd ones among us, reminding us that it’s often the different ones that make the most difference. Co-directed by Sam Fell, who worked with Aardman Animations (the studio that brought the world “Chicken Run” and “Wallace and Gromit”), and Chris Butler, who worked in traditional animation before moving into computer animated work with other spooky kids' films like “Coraline” and “Corpse Bride,” the film is a satire of horror conventions and a loving homage to the children’s adventure films of the 1980s like “The Goonies” and “Monster Squad.”
Oct. 6: The Haunting (1963)
It is a credit to director Robert Wise that the 1963 version of “The Haunting” was remade in 1999 with nearly 40 times the budget (according to the IMDb, the original film cost $1.4 million, while the remake was approximately $80 million), and the remake still doesn’t compare to the original in terms of spookiness. The story follows a doctor doing research into the paranormal in the hopes of proving the existence of ghosts and the three people who agree to stay with him in Hill House. With great performances from Claire Bloom and Russ Tamblyn, and brilliant direction from the always reliable Robert Wise (who also directed “West Side Story” and “The Andromeda Strain”), this film is a high-water mark in the haunted house sub-genre.
Oct. 7: Cloak & Dagger (1984)
One year after Australian director Richard Franklin and American writer Tom Holland made “Psycho II,” they re-teamed to make another Hitchcockian suspense-thriller, this time focusing the action on two kids who become embroiled in an espionage plot thanks to a video game they’re given by a dying scientist. Fully embracing the Hitchcock elements of wrongfully accused people who know things they shouldn’t know (and including two actors from Hitchcock’s original “Psycho,” John McIntire and Jeanette Nolan), this film smartly utilized the emerging technology of interactive electronics to tell a classic spy tale. Though the video game graphics don’t hold up today, the performances by Henry Thomas (two years past his lead performance in “E.T.”) and Dabney Coleman (a surprisingly effective dramatic turn from an actor known mostly for comedies like “Nine to Five” and “Dragnet”) make this a suspenseful and action-packed film that surprisingly also has a lot of heart.
Oct. 8: Signs (2002)
Director M. Night Shyamalan made his name in the film world with the supernatural suspense film “The Sixth Sense.” After a short departure into the superhero world with “Unbreakable,” Shyamalan returned to the suspense that made him a household name with the sci-fi thriller “Signs.” A story of a worldwide alien invasion seen through the lens of one Midwestern family still struggling with the loss of the mother, “Signs” milks its isolated conceit by finding fear in the most simple of objects: a corn field, a food pantry, and a baby monitor. With great performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Abigail Breslin (four years before her breakthrough in “Little Miss Sunshine”), it’s a great scary family film that’s also about family.
Next week: mazes, monsters, haunted houses, button eyes and psychic powers.
Chris and Kathleen Vander Kaay are screenwriters and authors who live in Central Florida. They write for smartdoglovespopculture.blogspot.com