I love horror. You probably know that already though. It is, afterall, one of the more notable aspects of who I am, mainly because I basically never shut up about it. I also love introducing people to horror, a task that I understand can be difficult when you might be a bit more on the squeamish side or when you have young children who are difficult to get away from, especially during the pandemic. So, since I’m talking about horror for older audiences next month, I thought it would be nice (and super fun, let’s face it) to write about family-friendly horror this month. This is the realm of Tim Burton and Scooby-Doo, the kind of movies that you look back on as the first stepping stones to a life-long love of spooky stuff. The kinds of things that Halloween just isn’t complete without. So, without further a-do, it’s showtime!
Beetlejuice (1988), dir. Tim Burton, United States
Beetlejuice is a Tim Burton movie from before the name Tim Burton meant movies like Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Dumbo (2019). It’s Burton’s second feature film, his follow up to Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), and becuase of that, it marks his first collaborations with Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder, both of whom would go on to star in four and three of Burton’s movies respectively. As I alluded to previously, by now Burton’s name doesn’t carry the same respect as it does. To put it bluntly, Burton hasn’t consistently made good movies since he made Ed Wood in 1994. Yes there are exceptions like Corpse Bride in 2004 and, depending on your opinion, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in 2007 but, over all, Burton hasn’t been doing great work since the 90s. I mean, just look at Dumbo (2019). It’s not great! I digress.
The film is the story of Barbara and Adam Maitland (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin), a recently deceased couple who find that their house has been bought by the Deetz family (Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Wright, and Winona Ryder), a wealthy family from the city. In an effort to get the Deetzes out of their home, the Maitlands enlist the help of Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), a “bio-exorcist” who promises to get rid of the living for any ghosts who need his help and who can be summoned by saying his name three times. It’s more fun than scary and is buoyed by a killer cast. O’Hara is, per usual incredible, playing an eccentric wealthy woman prone to hysterics with the same skill she would show 27 years later as Moira Rose in Schitt’s Creek (2015-20). Keaton meanwhile, is quite frankly, disgusting, which is exactly what he should be; after all, he’s a rotting sleazeball covered in mold. As for Ryder, this is the role where she became the pattern after which every edgy goth-lite girl modeled themselves; throughout the film, she spouts now-iconic lines like “my whole life is a dark room” and “I myself am strange and unusual”. The kind of stuff that launched a thousand hot topic shirts.
Beetlejuice is a film that takes place in both the plain world of the living and the seemingly vibrant but in reality, doldrums realm of the Netherworld; a place populated by the dead that takes the form of an office full of colorful, imaginative caseworkers, their assistants, and those awaiting their appointments, all of them sporting signs which point to the causes of their deaths. The production design of the Netherworld realm takes its cues from the German Expressionism films which have influenced the set design of Burton’s films, both animated and live-action across his career. Essentially, to sum up my spiel about this movie, Beetlejuice is fun and creative and made with enough love and care that it’s lived on in the hearts and minds of many for decades now. Oh no, I said his name three times, didn’t I?
Goosebumps (2015), dir. Rob Letterman, United States
After being accidentally released by Zach Cooper (Dylan Minette), the monsters previously contained inside the books, led by Slappy from the Night of the Living Dummy series (voiced by Jack Black) decide to seek their revenge against Stine for keeping them locked up all this time. Zach, along with the help of his friend Champ (Ryan Lee) and Stine’s daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush) spend the night attempting to save the world and put all of the monsters back in the books.
It’s a veritable who’s-who of the Goosebumps series with appearances from The Abominable Snowman for Pasadena, one of my personal favorites, the giant mantis from Shocker on Shock Street, and as mentioned previously, from Slappy. I’m not going to pretend that Goosebumps is a masterpiece because that’s neither what it is nor what it was intended to be. Instead, I’m going to say the truth about it which is that it’s a fun, spooky movie with a score by the king of fun spooky movies, Danny Elfman, and a great performance by Jack Black, who has yet to let me down once.
ParaNorman(2012), dir. Sam Fell and Chris Butler, United States
The second feature film from stop-motion animation studio Laika, ParaNorman is a follow-up to their previous film, Coraline. It is the story of Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-Mcphee), an 11-year-old boy who can speak to the dead. Norman is an outsider in both his family and his town at large. He’s a strange kid; he lives and breathes horror and claims to see and speak to the dead. But that strangeness, that outsider status becomes his greatest strength because it’s what allows him to break the 300-year-old curse that plagues his small town of Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts.
ParaNorman is about the consequences of giving in to fear and suspicion of others and it explores those themes by telling a story connected to witch trials, the most famous of which took place in Massachusetts. It’s an example of how movies made for kids can and should be brilliant. There’s a video essay by CJ The X called Skipping the First 5 Minutes of Tangled;there’s a line in that video that instantly stuck with me, “kids like good movies, they also like bad movies but they’re kids! We’re adults, it’s our responsibility to give them good art that’s gonna last.” Kids deserve movies that they can look at throughout their life in different ways, movies that reflect their experiences back to them.
I was always a lonely, spooky kid and when I saw it in theatres it instantly resonated with me in ways that I wasn’t able to fully understand until much later. Kids will consume candy-covered garbage if that’s what we provide them with but they’ll eat up good quality content with equal gusto, ParaNorman is the quality content that we need to put more of into the world. Kids are smarter than we tend to give them credit for and they deserve to have media that understands that.
Scooby-Doo (2002), dir. Raja Gosnell, United States
Scooby-Doo is one of the best movies that James Gun (Dawn of the Dead, The Suicide Squad) has ever written, second only to Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed A.K.A. the movie that I forced my mom to let me stay home from school and watch on loop the minute it came out on VHS. Both of these movies are ingrained in the fabric of who I am, they were on a constant loop throughout my childhood. There are parts that feel firmly stuck in the 2000s but overall, Scooby-Doo is super fun with aspects of it that feel like a love letter to the original cartoon.
There’s a lot that has been said about this movie but I’m going to pick just two of them. The first is that the cast is great; Sarah Michelle Gellar, Linda Cardellini, Freddy Prinze Jr, and Matthew Lillard (who has been voicing Shaggy in the cartoons since 2009) are all fantastic as the human members of Mystery Inc. My second point is somewhat related to that, Freddy Prinze Jr. says one of the best lines in 2000s cinema when he says “what up dog. And uh dog” in a scene that also contains a Sugar Ray cameo. Have I mentioned that this is a deeply 2000s movie yet? Because it is. Oh yeah, and the lead single off of the soundtrack for this movie is a song by OutKast featuring Killer Mike and Sleepy Brown, the music video for which features Matthew Lillard as Shaggy Rogers and Scooby himself as well as the Mystery Machine. Oh yeah, and Shaggy is on the soundtrack too. What a film, we’re lucky to live in a world where it exists.
Addams Family Values (1993), dir. Barry Sonnenfeld, United States
Of the two live-action Addams Family movies, Addams Family Values is easily my favorite. The cast is just as good as they were in the first movie only this time they have the addition of Joan Cusack as Debbie Jillinsky. To me, the highlights of this movie have always been Morticia’s (Angelica Huston) ethereal aura, Wednesday’s (Christina Ricci) everything, and Debbie Jillinsky. I say this about basically every scene in any movie I like but the Malibu Barbie scene is iconic. Beyond that, Addams Family Values is just a great time that’s hard to grow tired of. I’ve been watching it every year since I was like seven and I still have yet to get tired of it.