Last week, Ian Moriarty wrote about family-friendly movies for Halloween. You know, less spooky, more spoopy so people of all ages can get into the Halloween spirit without being scared silly.
But what about people who want something a bit more scary but not too terrifying? Or those who want to slowly ease their way into full-blown horror movies? For you, I bring Level 2 of your training plan to get into horror. In this list are movies that offer some genuine scares but won’t keep you up at night or have you watching through your fingers.
1. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
When you have horror director André Øvredal behind the camera and especially Guillermo del Toro as producer, you know a movie will have some truly scream-worthy moments and gnarly creature effects. And that’s exactly what Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has to offer. Based on the beloved, cult kids’ books of the same name by Alvin Schwartz, the monsters in Scary Stories look as though artist Stephen Gammell’s illustrations were ripped right from the pages of the book and put on screen. But, it also has the spirit of a kids’ adventure movie with a group of plucky teens looking to right the wrongs they’ve unleashed and save their friends, striking the right balance between horror and hope.
2. The House with a Clock in Its Walls
In all honesty, this movie should probably be on Ian’s family-friendly list, but what can I say? I’m a sucker for John Bellairs and I’d feel remiss if I overlooked a movie based on his books. Much like with Alvin Schwartz, Bellairs was an author of kids’ books who didn’t talk down to children or hold back on the creepy and the gothic. While The House with a Clock in its Walls is from Bellairs’ Lewis Barnavelt series, which was for a slightly younger audience than that of his more sinister series focused on Johnny Dixon, the bones of Bellairs’ gothic flair is still inherent in the movie: Creepy dolls, zombies, rotting skeletal hands and more tinge the dark fantasy with some strong horror elements. Still Jack Black’s comic turn keeps it from every getting too scary. As a bonus, I’ll go ahead and add the Goosebumps movie based on R.L. Stine’s scary children’s books to this section. Not surprisingly, it also features Jack Black in the main role, this time playing Stine himself.
Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to confess that Joe Dante’s Gremlins scared me sh*tless as a kid. But I watched it at a very young age and, at the time, there was an appliance on the fritz in our house so I, overly-imaginative kid that I was, convinced myself there were gremlins in our house. It took me more than 30 years to watch it again and when I did, I realized…oh. It’s not particularly terrifying at all, but more a horror-comedy with goofy moments. Don’t get me wrong, the gremlins are creepy, scaly bat-goblin creatures that can hide anywhere and some of the practical effects are delightfully disgusting. There are definitely jumpscares. But there’s more than enough camp to keep it from being too much. What a difference 30 years makes.
And besides, the legendarily ill-conceived Gremlins 2 sequel birthed this classic Key & Peele sketch:
4. Anna and the Apocalypse
The best balance for screams is laughter, and horror-comedies are a great way to get into the horror genre. I could have just as easily picked Shaun of the Dead, which really kickstarted the zombie comedy trend, or even Zombieland, but I’ll go with Anna and the Apocalypse just to change it up. Sometimes, especially with horror that leans into the comedy, you never get the sense any of the main characters are in true danger, but that’s not the case with Anna. There are real stakes, both in the physical harm sense and in the emotional sense – the zombies are vicious and people do die – but the movie is so damn charming and the soundtrack so infectious that it’s impossible not to love. After all, what’s better than a Scottish Christmas zombie horror comedy musical with earworm songs?
Poltergeist is a classic for a reason. It’s spooky to scary in all the right spots, but not so much as to be overwhelming for a first-time viewer. Thanks to this movie and the IT miniseries, an entire generation gives clowns a hard side-eye now. But with a script by Steven Spielberg, there’s more to it than jump scares. Plus, for those who find the premise of a home haunted by a poltergeist to be a little too scary, fear not: With the movie being made in 1982, the dated CGI renders some of the scariest scenes a little less terrifying than they were when Poltergeist was released almost 40 years ago.
6. The Gate
1987’s The Gate is a fantastic gateway horror movie in that, much like with Poltergeist, some of the CGI feels dated. Yet at the same time, the jitteriness of the herky-jerky visuals of the stop motion animation makes certain scenes more unsettling than they otherwise would be. It also grapples with some fairly heavy themes for a story centered on kids: pets dying, human sacrifice, a gateway to Hell, demonic possession and more. But, as with all ’80s kids movies, everything turns out alright in the end and the parents are none the wiser.
7. Evil Dead II
You may be wondering why I chose sequel Evil Dead II instead of the first movie, The Evil Dead. That would be because Sam Raimi’s trilogy evolved from pure horror with the first Evil Dead to pure comedy with the third movie, Army of Darkness – which is a classic, but not why we’re here. But Evil Dead II splits the difference, hanging somewhere in the middle of the first and third movies with gruesome moments and a strong horror vibe, but leaning into the campy comedy that lead actor Bruce Campbell built an entire career on. You definitely jump, but it’s hard to be too scared when Campbell is hamming it up as only he knows how.