When it comes to picking "scary movie" fare for kids, you want to walk that line between "just scary enough to be fun" versus "gives them nightmares for weeks." Of course, the appropriateness of any of these picks depends on your particular child and their tolerance for all things spooky, but here's a list of picks that I think my own brood (ages 10, 8, 6 and 4) would enjoy. Best of all, they're all available on DVD, so you can rent (or buy) them and watch them over and over again!
Ghostbusters -- My husband and I realized recently that our kids had never seen Ghostbusters, and set out to remedy that with a stop at the video store. I wondered how the film, now 23 years old, would play to kids raised on spectacular CGI special effects; I needn't have worried, as they were enthralled from start to finish. They laughed hysterically at the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, and even loved the Ray Parker, Jr. theme song -- they sang and danced along with the song sequence, gleefully shouting "Ghostbusters!" at the appropriate times. Thankfully, none of them have (yet) asked to be the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man for Halloween -- not that that wouldn't be a cool costume, I just don't have time to make one -- though I suppose if I was really lazy I could just bungee-cord some pillows to their arms and legs, slap on a sailor collar and hat, and call it good.
Halloweentown -- There are actually four movies in the Halloweentown series, but for the sake of this piece, we'll lump them all together. In Halloweentown, Marnie Piper, played by Kimberly J. Brown in the first three films, learns from her grandmother, Aggie Cromwell (Debbie Reynolds) that she is really a witch and must save Halloweentown from Kalabar, the evil mayor; Halloweentown 2 -- Kalabar's Revenge finds the son of Kalabar returning to take his revenge on the Cromwell family. In Halloweentown High, Marnie goes to high school and attempts to show that normal students and students with supernatural powers can live in peaceful coexistence, and in Return to Halloweentown, Marnie goes to Witch University. In the fourth film, Sara Paxton (Aquamarine, Sydney White) takes over the role of Marnie. All four films are cute for the demographic at which they aim -- every time they run, my 10-year-old daughter records them to the DVR so she can watch them over and over again. The special effects and monster makeup are a little cheesy, but the kids aren't likely to be scrutinizing them too closely, and overall, they're harmless fun.
Monsters, Inc. -- This film plays on one of childhood's greatest fears -- the monster in the closet -- in one of my favorite animated flicks. I love the way it turns fear of monsters in the dark around by making the big, scary monsters afraid of being contaminated by little kids. And say what you will about Disney/Pixar being evil, if you hold this film up against, say, Happily N'Ever After, there's just no comparison; everything from the storyline to the voice acting to the beautiful animation has the stamp of quality all over it. Sully (John Goodman) and Mike (Billy Crystal) are a pair of best monster pals who have to rescue an innocent little girl from a sinister plan to suck the fear right out of kids to provide more power to Monster Town. Randall, the bad monster, is a little scary -- but not too much, even for the littlest tykes. This film is a great one for kids who like monsters but don't like to be scared too much (and for their parents, who don't like dealing with nightmares about those monsters in the closet).
Monster House -- This spooky animated film rates a little higher score on the Scale-of-Scary for younger kids. When Monster House played at the Seattle International Film Festival in 2006, my kids were thrilled to be getting a sneak peek at the film before it opened theatrically, and they weren't disappointed. The film, directed with frenzied energy by director Gil Kenan in his freshman feature effort (he landed the gig on the strength of his film school final project), tells the tale of a haunted house that comes to life and chases three kids around their neighborhood. The graphics are great, the house is pretty terrifying, the story is interesting, and there's just enough scary to keep the kids -- and adults -- on the edge of their seats. Must-watch Halloween fun -- and it has Maggie Gyllenhaal voicing the babysitter. What more could you ask for?
It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown -- This is classic Halloween fare, fun for all ages, is even older than I am, but it's stood the test of time. Linus's stalwart belief in the coming of the Great Pumpkin as he sits, bereft, in that pumpkin patch, is one of the more memorable road stops along the highway of my own growing-up years. Thanks to the over-saturation of animated kids' television programming these days, poor Charlie Brown is less hip than he used to be, but there's still something about the little bald-headed kid and his pals that makes me nostalgic for my own youth. It occurred to me the other day that my own kids have grown up without the cycle of seasons punctuated, as my own childhood was, by the highly-anticipated yearly television screenings of Charlie Brown and his pals. It's the Great Pumpkin hallmarked the arrival of Halloween and bags mega-loaded with Snickers and Milky Ways, and you knew that meant that A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and A Charlie Brown Christmas were just around the corner. If you happened to miss the one time they were aired each year, too bad, you were just screwed; there was no fancy-schmancy DVR back in those days, kids. I'm going to remedy the lack of Charlie Brown in my own kids repertoire by introducing my kids to Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang post-haste. They make think the films are lame, for all I know, but at least they won't be growing up ignorant of who the Great Pumpkin is.
Gremlins -- Remember those cute little balls of fur that were so adorable, so long as you didn't break the three rules of owning them? If you got them wet, they suddenly turned from sweet and cuddly to evil and malicious - muahahahahah! Another film my kids haven't seen yet but will be (October's family movie nights are going to be full of spooky-good fare in our house), Gremlins, when it came out, was important to me for one reason: my 11-year-old brother was creeped out by them. I was 16 in 1984, but I still enjoyed watching those nasty little critters wreak havoc, and daydreamed about setting a pack of them loose in the halls of my high school -- right at third period physical science, the most boring class of my day. That would have shaken things up a bit, and maybe gotten me out of a test or two. Gremlins is due a re-watch -- I haven't seen it in a long time, and I wonder how the special effects hold up a couple decades later, or if my brood will find the storyline intriguing enough that they won't care.
The Monster Squad -- Remember The Monster Squad? A group of teenagers obsessed with classic monsters, thanks to a translated German diary, learn of the existence of a powerful amulet. One day of the year, when the balance between good and evil is equal, the amulet can either be destroyed by the bad guys, or used to cast the monsters into oblivion. Only problem is, the amulet is buried in a secret room beneath the floorboards -- in the very house in which the monsters -- Dracula, Frankenstein, Gill Man, The Wolf Man and The Mummy -- live. Can the brave teens recover the amulet and save the world by having a virgin read an incantation in German? Oh, the tension! If you've never seen The Monster Squad (or if you're a die-hard Monster-Squadder) you're in luck -- the film was released in a 20th Anniversary Edition DVD in July. The two-disc set includes a retrospective documentary, director's commentary, and more.