Horror films have been a part of American culture since Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde first flickered across Chicago screens in 1908. And outside of costumes and trick-or-treat, nothing suggests the Halloween season quite like hunkering down with a good scary movie. The question then becomes, “What’s the right horror film for the whole family?”
Every family’s view of content is different, and every family has a different standard for when it’s okay for the kids to indulge in scary fare. What we have here are some baseline recommendations, standout films that you might check out as starters, along with some appropriate ages. Again, your own idea of what’s appropriate and when may vary, but that’s why comment sections were created.
1. Kids (10-12)
We label the kids’ table as intended for 10- to 12-year-olds based on two ideas: the content is a little stronger than, say, horror specials of their favorite shows or films made for the children’s audience like Hocus Pocus. These movies delve into the actual horror genre rather than just covering kids’ entertainment with the sheen of Halloween.
Poltergeist (1982): Director Tobe Hooper’s haunted house classic upends the old clichés by moving from foggy moors to suburbia. Younger viewers can identify with the kids at the center of the story, though they may never want to sleep near any kind of clown toy ever again. (Note: The parents split a joint early on and there’s some light language. It’s definitely scary, but it also has some light moments, including the indelible turn by Zelda Rubenstein as medium Tangina Barrons.)
Gremlins (1984): Like Poltergeist, this Joe Dante-directed film counts Steven Spielberg among its producers; it also delves into a familiar setting, this one a small, quiet town. Things don’t stay quiet for long as mistakes in the care and feeding of a mystical Mogwai birth an infestation of reptilian gremlins. This one has a lot of humor, but there are certainly violent moments, notably the famous kitchen showdown between the protagonist’s mom and a group of unfortunate monsters. If you haven’t broken the news to your kids about Santa yet, you might want to skip this one; a jarring monologue by Phoebe Cates about halfway through would leave an unsuspecting youngster with lots of questions.
The Monster Squad (1987): Reimagining the Universal Monsters, The Monster Squad not only put kids in the center of the story, but made them the protagonists. Through the lens of their monster club, a group of friends discover that real monsters have come to town with a sinister agenda. Though adults get involved later, it’s the kids that do the heavy lifting on the mystery solving and monster fighting. Ryan Lambert’s Rudy is a stand-out, basically serving as the team’smonster-slaying machine. This one has some humor that some parents might find objectionable (including some homophobic phrases that have aged badly), and it’s definitely stronger on the action/violence scale. But pre-teens generally love it.
If you parent a teenager, you’ve probably already made your decision about when or if to introduce horror films into their lives. Unless, of course, they’ve been watching them on their devices without you knowing about it for years already. Either way, here are some movies the teens might enjoy that you might, too.
The Lost Boys (1987): 1987 was a banner year for kids fighting monsters. The Lost Boys took that appeal straight to the teen audience, courting their attention with stars like Kiefer Sutherland, Jami Gertz, Jason Patric, Corey Haim, and Corey Feldman. This film reinterpreted vampires for a new audience and still holds up in a number of ways. Elements of it are dated, but clever bits and uses of music (such as the Echo & The Bunnymen cover of “People Are Strange”) continue to work today. This is an elevation of some of the themes seen in The Monster Squad, and while there are some laughs, the violence and gore content is definitely greater. It still has one of the best final lines in horror movie history.
Scream (1996): Wes Craven had already staked his claim to horror fame with The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Then he and writer Kevin Williamson turned horror on its head with this meta smash. Part of the fun of Scream is the constant addressing and inversion of horror film clichés, but it also works because of the fine cast and a clever script with some genuine surprises. Be aware that it doesn’t hold back on blood or language, but if you like this one, its three sequels run from very good (Scream 2) to decent (3 and 4).
The Cabin in the Woods (2012): How do you out-meta Scream? Right here. Cabin doesn’t just address and invert horror clichés, it does it while reveling in them, amplifying them, multiplying them, and going beyond whatever your expectations might have been. Co-written by Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and director of The Avengers) and Drew Goddard (writer for Buffy, Angel, Alias, and Lost, and director of Cloverfield) and directed by Goddard, the movie manages to mix inspired laughs and genuine scares in incredibly eventful ways. Frankly, it’s hard to write about without spoiling it, but you’ll never look at college-students-in-jeopardy-in-the-woods quite the same way again. (Bonus note of awesomeness: the special effects, make-up, and costumes came from AFX Studio, which is owned by Academy Award-winner David LeRoy Anderson and his wife, Heather Langenkamp, whom you might know better as Nancy from the Nightmare on Elm Street films. That’s street cred.)
Adults and Parents have been separated into two separate categories here because, let’s face it, there’s an entirely separate strain of horror that plays on parental fears. Sure, the first one has kids in jeopardy, but that’s not the heart of the matter.
Halloween (1978): Of course, Halloween. It’s one of the finest horror films made by one of the genre’s finest directors, John Carpenter. You’ve probably seen it before, but even if you have, revisit it. Marvel at all of the atmosphere and technical expertise that Carpenter brought to the proceedings, from the score to that terrific use of shadow. It is the apex predator of the slasher subgenre.
The Descent (2005): Director Neil Marshall staked a claim in survival horror with his excellent werewolf outing, Dog Soldiers, in 2002; he went on to direct acclaimed episodes of series like Game of Thrones (both the “Battle of the Blackwater” and the “Battle of Castle Black”) and Westworld. His 2005 film is a genuine horror classic, widely praised and frequently landing on lists of the best of the genre. A year after one of their group suffers a terrible loss, six women go on a caving expedition. It does not go remotely as planned. Claustrophobic, chilling, and brutal, The Descent creates tension in small places and darkness, then explodes at unexpected moments. It is a dark ride.
Suspiria (1977): Though it was recently remade, horror master Dario Argento’s cult classic about sinister happenings at a dance academy remains the standard-bearer for giallo, a particular school of Italian film thrillers. Known for outsized elements like its shockingly bright color palette and the score by the prog-rock band Goblin, Suspiria features a lot of gore, but it’s very creatively delivered. This won’t be for everyone, but if you’re seriously in it for the experience and the art, dive in.
Parenting can be scary. And some parents have a massive aversion to seeing any kind of media that puts kids in danger. If that’s you, you might want to skip ahead. On the other hand, stories with kids at the center sometimes have extra weight for the parents in the audience. Here are three that can get fairly heavy.
The Exorcist (1973): Possibly the ultimate horror film, The Exorcist leans heavily on a number of taboos. When it was released, it startled audiences by, among other things, putting shocking profanities in 13-year-old Linda Blair’s mouth. But the real cold hand squeezing the hearts of parents came from the shocking physical changes and agony that Blair’s Regan MacNeil undergoes during her possession ordeal. For all of the grueling horror elements in the movie, it actually does present a fairly clear picture of good versus evil, and the performances from Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Lee J. Cobb, and Max von Sydow are top-notch (special note to Mercedes McCambridge, who provides some terrifying, world-champion-level voice work).
The Conjuring (2013): Another film that touches on possession, drawn from the (admittedly questionable) case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren. When the Perrons and their five girls move into a new house in 1971, strange things begin to happen. In the film, the girls are each drawn into different forms of peril as the suspense slowly ratchets upward. The Conjuring isn’t a graphic movie, but earned its R rating simply by being, well, scary; in fact, the print explanation for the movie’s rating reads “Rated R for sequences of disturbing violence and terror,” which is an exceedingly rare explanation.
The Babadook (2014): From films that give you anxiety as parents to a film that’s expressly about parental anxiety, Australia’s The Babadook debuted at Sundance in 2014 and generated stellar word-of-mouth. Essie Davis plays Amelia Vanek, who is widowed after her husband dies in a car accident while driving her to the hospital to give birth to their son. As the child begins to act strangely, he asks Amelia to read to him from an unsettling book. The problem is that Essie doesn’t know how the book got in the house. It only gets creepier from there. The film emerged as one of the best-reviewed films of its year, and has earned a strong following since.
You’ve been around. You’ve seen a movie or two. The classics never die, but there’s always room for something new.
Psycho (1960): Alfred Hitchcock took Robert Bloch’s book and created some of the most indelible images of horror ever put on screen. Anthony Perkins gives a pantheon-worthy performance as Norman Bates, and Janet Leigh features in possibly the most classic horror scene of all time. It might move a little slowly for viewers from the younger side, but veteran viewers know that this is a diamond of the genre.
The Shining (1980): Stephen King might not be the world’s biggest fan of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his third novel, but it remains a classic. Kubrick creates a foreboding environment with the Overlook Hotel and keeps leaning into the discomfort. Long shots, disquieting imagery, and sudden shocks keep the audience on edge as the horror continues to mount toward a chilling finale.
The Visit (2015): Maybe it’s a tongue-in-cheek recommendation, since it’s basically about the worst visit with the grandparents since Little Red Riding Hood, but it’s still a solid little thriller from M. Night Shyamalan. Like most MNS films, you can’t say too much about it without unraveling the narrative thread, but it centers on Becca (aged 15) and Tyler (13) going to stay with their Nana and Pop Pop. Needless to say, things get strange.
And there you have it: a list to get you started (and to start discussions). Embrace the Halloween season, enjoy the films you choose to watch, and maybe, just maybe, leave a light on. If horror movies have taught us anything, it’s that there’s almost always something out there in the dark.
Featured image: Shutterstock.
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