I am an easy lay. Throw some jack o’ lanterns and trick or treating scenes in a movie or a TV show and it pretty much automatically starts at least 5/10 on my scale. Make the movie good on top of it, and you’ve got a hit. Make it good and a perfect representation of Halloween spirit, and an annual tradition is born. That’s why no Halloween season passes without Trick R Treat, Halloween ’78, Nightmare Before Christmas, and even, lord help me, Hocus Pocus.
But some movies manage to strike the Halloween tone perfectly almost by accident, since the films on this list have absolutely nothing to do with Halloween, other than the fact that they’ve become linked to the holiday organically through the audience. Of course, they’re all horror, or horror-adjacent. But the thing they have in common is FUN. Halloween, we must always remember, isn’t about being scared, it’s about having fun through being scared.
Consider this list a companion to the Top Alternative Halloween Movies.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Your Mount Rushmore of masked killers all belong on this list – Jason, The Shape, Leatherface, and Freddy. But there’s something about the original Nightmare on Elm Street that screams Halloween. It’s “Spooky”. Texas Chainsaw Movies are (ideally) grimy and intense. Friday the 13th movies often take place at a Summer camp, putting the films at a distance from Halloween itself. But the Nightmare movies, and particularly the first, exemplify the tone of Halloween without ever needing to reference the holiday itself.
The nightmare sequences have an exaggerated creepy atmosphere with ample fog, flames, and colored lighting. Freddy’s personality gives it a wicked and macabre sense of humor. And the score – oh, the score – is a highly underrated masterpiece of tone-setting.
Danny Elfman should just get a lifetime achievement award for Halloween soundtracks, between Nightmare Before Christmas, Sleepy Hollow, Tales From the Crypt, and of course Beetlejuice. While I was never an Oingo Boingo fan, I feel that Danny Elfman as composer has cracked the code to translating what Halloween feels like through music. His stuff always feels a little circus-y, a little twisted, and a lot spooky.
We should probably give one of those lifetime achievement awards to Tim Burton while we’re at it. Beetlejuice is one of his few singular auteur works that seems to have been made with little to no studio meddling, considering how aggressively weird it is. And the weirdness is all stuff that fits right into Halloween lore – ghosts, monsters, grotesqueries, silly gore, colorful lighting, and dark humor.
Haunted House movies are always reliable Halloween fare, but Poltergeist stands apart. It’s one of the first of what I like to call “scare salad” movies – in which the nature of the premise allows the filmmakers to unleash a huge variety of spooky stuff while still maintaining cohesion.
It’s not just ghosts to contend with in Poltergeist. Of them, you have both the visible and invisible kind, the humanoid and the monstrous. You have a killer clown doll, you have a tree that grabs you and tries to eat you whole. You’ve got skeletons, dark water, hallucination, a hell mouth… So what scares you? It’s probably in here. Any movie that feels like a haunted attraction belongs on this list.
The Thing (1982)
This one might be my own subjective pick, but I always find time for The Thing in my Season viewing. It’s hard to put my finger on what’s so Halloween-y about it, but it’s probably the same things that made it a delayed hit in the first place: A totally unique monster, splattery special effects, a feeling of paranoia and isolation, and a handful of legendary kill scenes.
Bonus: The original The Thing (From Another World) is seen playing on a TV set in John Carpenter’s Halloween, four years before he would direct the remake that people remember even more fondly. That almost subliminal connection probably helps land it on this list.
Return of the Living Dead
It’s embarrassing, but for years I assumed that Return of the Living Dead was the first zombie comedy. It is not, but it is arguably the most beloved to this day, with only Shaun of the Dead challenging that title.
The broad comedy in this movie makes it an entirely different animal than “serious” zombie fare. It makes it OK to have fun with it. There’s no social commentary, no political allegory, no “man is the true monster” message, just brain eatin’ and zombie killin’. Speaking of, it IS a historical first in another way – first time zombies are heard vocalizing their desire for brains.
Evil Dead 2
The “cabin in the woods” theme is one we see in Halloween clothing over and over, but it was Evil Dead 2 that perfected it. While Evil Dead 1 is a great, gritty, gnarly horror film, and Army of Darkness is basically The Three Stooges Go Medieval, Evil Dead 2 strikes the perfect balance. The gore is so extreme it can’t be perceived as anything but hilarious, but it never goes so far that it rubs the edge off.
Oh also, there’s a Freddy glove hanging on the wall of the tool shed.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe
This is another “iffy” one, depending on where you stand, but for my money, this feels like appropriate Halloween viewing.
When you really break it down, Autopsy of Jane Doe is an old school classic haunted house movie that happens to be set in a mortuary. Similar to how everyone describes Alien as a haunted house movie in space, but more. I mean, it’s literally set during a dark and stormy night. The first act plays like a procedural murder mystery, but it very quickly becomes an escalating series of supernatural scares and fantastic haunted attraction style gags.
Released in the same year as Return of the Living Dead and with a strikingly similar tone, you could almost call this a sibling to that movie. The glowing green liquid in a syringe that brings the dead back to life is an iconic Halloween image. On top of that, you have some of the most outrageous gore ever seen in the 80’s – potentially topping Return of the Living Dead. It delivers the triple B’s as well: Blood, beasts, boobs.
I just watched The Funhouse for the first time this year for Summer of Horror, and it’s remarkable how fun and overlooked it is. I mean, to watch this I had to physically buy a used DVD. A DVD! Creepy carnivals are a Halloween staple. This doesn’t really have any murderous clowns, but it does take place in one of those “house of horror” psuedo-rollercoaster rides after hours, where the carnies running the establishment hide horrible secrets. Without spoiling anything, there’s a fantastic monster involved.
Good family-friendly Halloween movies are all over the place, but it’s rare to find ones that can appeal to adults without children, and without relying on nostalgia factor. This slot should have been taken by Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride – a would-be spiritual successor to Nightmare Before Christmas – but for whatever reason that movie didn’t hit the mark. Henry Selick’s (the unsung director of Nightmare Before Christmas) actual claymation follow-up, Coraline, is much more enduring. It’s not a musical, and there’s nothing about Halloween in it but there are pumpkins, and plenty of creepiness just on the edge of being inappropriate.