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10 gateway horror films to spook the whole family this Halloween

Inaugurate new scary movie fans with these titles intended to frighten and delight.

Inaugurate new scary movie fans with these titles intended to frighten and delight

triptych of stills from three films: Beetlejuice, Coraline and the Witches
Beetlejuice (1988), Coraline (2009), The Witches (1990) (Source, L-R: Thomas E. Ackerman/The Geffen Company; Pete Kozachik/Focus Features; Harvey Harrison/Jim Henson Productions)

Do you feel that? The autumn air is crisp and the veil between worlds is becoming especially thin. That means it's the perfect time of year for burgeoning young horror fans to emerge. While a person's first steps into the garden of dark cinema can be incredibly exciting, our duty as adults is to facilitate these new pathways carefully and responsibly. 

Below you will find a syllabus of 10 gateway-entry horror films, designed to pique — and perhaps even quell — the morbid curiosities of the newest members of your movie-rental coven. Intended to frighten and delight, the majority of these titles will be appropriate for most of your family, however viewers do beware — there are some very real scares ahead. 

The Witches

I'm sure there are plenty of lovely witches, but they won't be found here. The Witches is a fun, mean and sometimes-scary adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel of the same name. It concerns a young boy and his grandmother who are given no choice but to battle a batch of evil, glamorous spellcasters with a special distaste for little children. 

Produced by Jim Henson Productions in 1990 and starring the incomparable Anjelica Huston, this dark and bizarre children's fantasy is responsible for happily traumatizing so many members of my generation. Continue the circle of fear this year by pressing play on this magical favourite. But watch out: the avoidable 2020 HBO Max remake is no substitute for the original. 

The Witches is currently available to stream on Netflix.

Fido

Zombies are so ubiquitous, they're truly everywhere nowadays. So if you can't beat them, why not join in on the brain-chewing fun? Fido is an undead Canadian indie classic that first premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2006. In this zany, twisted and occasionally-frightening story, Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix) stars as a 1950s-esque housewife who purchases a zombie to help her with chores. 

Billed as a horror-comedy (ZomCom, anyone?), this title is mild on the scares. That said, it still features a good amount of light-hearted gore, making it likely only appropriate for the horror fans in your household who are teenaged or older. It is rated 14A, after all.

Fido is currently available to stream on PrimeVideo and Shudder. 

Return to Oz

This bizarre unofficial sequel to The Wizard of Oz proves that not every horror movie knows it's a horror movie. Starring a young Fairuza Balk (The Craft) as Dorothy, Return to Oz makes some baffling creative choices. While mostly in alignment with L. Frank Baum's source material, the film takes Dorothy down a decidedly darker yellow brick road. 

Unlike some of the titles on this list, Return is appropriate for audiences of all ages. The horrors on display are mostly the result of uncanny puppetry and extraordinary practical effects. Return to Oz also brings book character Jack Pumpkinghead — a stick-like figure with a large Jack-O-Lantern for a head — along for the ride. I don't know if Tim Burton got any ideas from Jack, but the character certainly displays similarities to another Halloween icon who I will leave nameless. 

Return to Oz is currently available to stream on Disney+.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

I'm going to give it to you straight about Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark: It's scary. I mean, really scary. So it's not too late to turn back if you'd rather wait another year. But if you think you're ready for some extra dark entry-level frights, this Guillermo del Toro-produced hayride of horrors could be an exciting foray into fear.

Older viewers may remember having their own sensitive worldviews shattered by the surreal and freaky illustrations in writer Alvin Schwartz and illustrator Stephen Gammell's infamous series of children's books of the same name. The 2019 film adaptation holds true to its source material by crafting a string of strange and fascinating monsters that you'll find yourself thinking about well into November.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is currently available to stream on Netflix. 

Poltergeist

We've already dealt with witches, zombies and monsters, so how about spending a little time with some ghosts? Or a poltergeist, to be specific. This 1982 family-friendly horror film was a collaboration between The Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper and E.T. wrangler Steven Spielberg. A suburban surrender to the supernatural, Poltergeist revolves around a normal family who finds their home practically crawling with paranormal havoc. To make matters worse, their youngest child gets accidentally lost to the other side of the veil, forcing her parents to face some ghastly baddies in order to get her back.

Kid-oriented but never condescending, Poltergeist is the perfect scary movie selection for everyone in your home. While it may have frightened younger audiences to smithereens in the '80s, I think your modern family will be able to handle these spooks just fine. 

Poltergeist is currently available to stream on Starz (via Crave or PrimeVideo) or rent on AppleTV.

Gremlins

Are you ready for an October Spielberg double bill? Released two years after the success of Poltergeist, Gremlins saw Speilberg team up with yet another master of modern horror, Joe Dante, who had recently helmed camp classics Piranha and The Howling. Perhaps you already know the setup: a young boy (Zach Galligan) receives a strange furry creature called a mogwai as a pet. It's cute as a button — but it also comes with a set of very strict rules: don't feed it after midnight and never get it wet. When those boundaries are inevitably crossed, the adorable buddies transform into monstrous little beasts known as Gremlins! 

Fun fact: Shortly after Gremlins' controversial release, the MPAA developed their PG-13 rating in order to make room for content too intense for PG audiences, but not mature enough to receive an R — much like this barely family-friendly infestation. While the mayhem here does get fairly chaotic, most kids these days won't be too freaked out by the antics in this non-negotiable '80s classic.

Gremlins is currently available to stream on Crave.

The Watcher in the Woods

Old Hollywood legend Bette Davis makes one of her final cinematic appearances in this 1980 live-action Disney movie that was striving to capture the attention of young adult audiences at the time. The story concerns a young girl who, after moving to the countryside with her family, begins to untangle the truth about a vanishing that occurred three decades before her arrival. Doppelgangers, ghosts, and the spooky, spooky woods make this a magical entry into the Disney horror canon for thrill-seekers of any age. 

While The Watcher in the Woods turned out to be a notorious box-office disaster, the film went on to achieve cult-classic status after being released on VHS. Panned by critics and even containing a final scene reshot by a new director, this charming and strange little movie is still full of spooky early-80s charm and can be rewatched over and over. 

The Gate

Having the house to yourself for an entire weekend may be a dream come true for some kids. But sometimes, when finally left unsupervised, the weight of your guardian's absence can really sink in. Those are the vibes at play in this lesser-known Canadian movie that's still bringing audiences to the edge of their seats over thirty years later. It features kids who, when left to their own devices for a few days, accidentally open a portal into a world of demonic mayhem via a pit in their backyard. 

While it's technically a horror film for adults, The Gate features a cast of young people and is just retro enough to be accessible for most ages. A few truly horrifying moments do occur, yet everything is still made right by the time the closing credits roll. Some viewers might also recognize Canadian icon Kelly Rowan, who would later play Kirsten Cohen on The O.C., in a supporting role. 

The Gate is currently available to stream on Hoopla.

Beetlejuice

There's absolutely no denying the ghost with the most. Beetlejuice is the totally outrageous 1988 horror comedy directed by master of macabre Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder in career-defining roles. A ghost story about a wholesome couple who die in a sudden car accident, this self-aware romp into the afterlife is as heartfelt as it is spooky. But it's the film's gothic undertones juxtaposed with its colourful, light-hearted energy that have truly helped to secure Beetlejuice's place as a stone-cold Halloweentime classic. 

While the title character is full of charisma, bugs and jokes, it's worth noting that he can also take a sharp turn toward menacing when you least expect it. Accompanied by a once-in-a-lifetime score by Danny Elfman, this off-kilter German Expressionistic funny farm will have you hitting play for years to come. And if you love this one as much as I do, I suggest also checking out the Original Broadway Cast Recording from the 2019 musical adaptation.

Beetlejuice is currently available to stream on Crave.

Coraline

Does anyone understand gateway horror quite like Neil Gaiman? The author of The Sandman series is also responsible for crafting one of the darkest and most imaginative children's classics of the past century: Coraline. The 2009 stop-motion adaptation — which was nominated for both an Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature Film — was helmed by claymation connoisseur Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) and features the voice talents of Teri Hatcher and Dakota Fanning.

The spooky story of Coraline begins when its title character uncovers a mirror reality behind a secret door in her rickety, remote new home. When she travels through the door, and subsequent portal, she finds a house that looks just like her own. With parents who look just like hers. Except for the fact that they have black buttons sewn into where their eyes should really be. Things just get progressively creepier from there. Still, this macabre entry into the horror genre makes for a magical experience just dangerous enough to guarantee adventure for young viewers.

Coraline is currently available to stream on Netflix.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Josh Korngut is a writer and filmmaker based in Toronto. He's also the managing editor of Dread Central, a web publication that covers all things horror. Check out his podcast, Development Hell, wherever you listen, and say hi to him on socials via @joshkorngut.

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