Offbeat On-Demand, pt. 1
New Proposals for Halloween Classics
Welcome to October, readers! This month is near and dear to my heart. It’s sweater season, it’s soup season… most importantly, it’s time to dig into A Nightmare Before Christmas, Halloweentown, and, if you’re into scares, maybe even The Conjuring or The Shining. You love these movies and they’re such an important tradition, an embodiment of what this season means to you and your family.
Well, forget about them!
You’ve already seen those movies and the spirit of Halloween demands that you engage your maximum spooky potential. As a former goth kid, I hope I can be trusted with a little bit of authority as a Certified Halloween Expert, and thus I have prepared some recommendations for you.
My only question is… what are you looking for?
I’d like something funny, please!
Rotten Tomatoes score: 89%
Where to watch: Netflix
Laika, the studio behind Coraline, offers further charm with this 2012 flick, which is similarly (painstakingly!) animated in stop-motion. Though it’s a little more kid-friendly (judging by the fact that my 8-year-old self was terrified of Coraline and only afraid of ParaNorman), it doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to laughs or scares. Focusing on a little boy who can see dead people (sound familiar?) and a misfit cast of characters, the film lovingly riffs on horror movies past while creating a fresh blend of suspense, slapstick, and genuine heart. It’s got great character design, a moody, muted color palette, and plenty of references and easter eggs... it’s an absolute treat and I still adore it all these years later. While you’re at it, check out The Boxtrolls or Kubo and the Two Strings, two of Laika’s other inventive (albeit a little more colorful) projects!
Community: “Epidemiology” (S2 E6)
Rotten Tomatoes score: 88%
Where to watch: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon
The first few episodes of Dan Harmon’s community college sitcom were initially received as edgy and genre-bending, but by its second season, it had completely lost its grip on reality. Despite the risk Community took in airing Law and Order parodies, experiments in alternate timelines, and episodes starring puppet versions of the main cast, its sustained relatively high ratings, proving that a market exists for genuinely weird, passionate television. This brings me to one of its strangest episodes… oh, “Epidemiology,” how I love thee! Maintaining its comedic core, the show takes a hard left turn when dubious taco meat at the Dean’s lame Halloween party turns half of the student body into zombies. And if the cannibalistic monsters weren’t horrifying enough, no one can shut the Dean’s Halloween playlist off (he only listens to ABBA. The entire half-hour’s soundtrack is literally only ABBA). The result is one of the goofiest episodes in the series and it never fails to make me grin. Stretch before you watch this one - you might just be consumed with the urge to dance.
What We Do in the Shadows
Rotten Tomatoes score: 96%
Where to watch: Amazon
This cult classic comedy follows a group of vampire roommates living together in New Zealand. Based on a low-budget short film by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, it’s pure nonsensical fun shot “mockumentary” style (think The Office). I consider this the perfect comedy - its brisk pacing and cartoonish cast of immortals make it like candy… I could easily watch five more hours of this movie without blinking an eye (and I have done this, in a way - the film’s excellent spin-off TV show, which shares its name, just entered its third season! I talked about it in my last recommendations article). For mild scares and big laughs, Waititi and Clement’s bloodsuckers gleefully embrace everyone’s favorite vamp tropes while maintaining a youthful energy. Watch if you love Waititi’s other work (Jojo Rabbit and Thor: Ragnarok) or Shaun of the Dead.
Goosebumps (2015 movie)
Rotten Tomatoes score: 78%
Where to watch: Hulu
No, no, no, hear me out. Goosebumps is good! I am a fan of Goosebumps; I’m not afraid to say it and there’s nothing you can do to change my mind! Cringe culture is dead, Goosebumps is great, Slappy is my king. Now that that’s out of the way, let me explain why: first of all, this movie has Jack Black in it, and like any gosh-darn red-blooded American, I love Jack Black and I believe that he can do no wrong. Is it a parasocial relationship? Maybe. The story follows Dylan Minnette’s relationship with a girl named Hannah (sorry, bro) as they encounter essentially every monster from the Goosebumps books (notably absent is that Halloween mask that seals itself to your face, which terrified me as a child). It’s fast-paced, stuffed with action, and finds a compelling story in its mash-up of horror and high school. Director Rob Letterman, the man responsible for the cinematic masterpiece Shark Tale, treads a fine line between family-safe humor and actual, legitimate jumpscares. It’s an absolute rollercoaster with a clever script and some unexpectedly great action scenes... all-in-all, this movie has Big Shazam! Energy. Enjoy with a big bowl of popcorn.
Honorable mentions - some of my favorite Halloween episodes:
New Girl: “Halloween” (S2 E6), “Keaton” (S3 E6)
Parks and Recreation: “Greg Pikitus” (S2 E7)
Brooklyn Nine-Nine: “Halloween” (S1 E6), “Halloween II” (S2 E4), “Halloween III” (S3 E5), “Halloween IV” (S4 E5)
I like movies about kids riding around on bikes and getting in trouble!
Rotten Tomatoes score: 81%
Where to watch: Hulu, HBO Max
Written and directed by JJ Abrams, this film follows a group of children who, while making an amateur action movie, encounter an alien invasion. Taking inspiration from E.T., The Goonies, and Stand By Me, this quintessential “kids on bikes” movie is funny and heartfelt, focusing more on character dynamics and action scenes than horror - that’s alright by me when a film is as meticulous as this one. Here, Abrams’s monster is a metaphor for grief, and Joel Courtney’s performance is solid as his protagonist navigates friendship, loss and first love (you may recognize him from the Kissing Booth franchise. Free him). The other kids have great chemistry, with Elle Fanning rounding out the young cast. Also notable is Friday Night Lights’s Kyle Chandler, playing a gruff yet lovable father figure like only Kyle Chandler can. The first time I watched Super 8, I was probably around 12 years old and had eaten about 30 or so Trader Joe’s coffee candies, which no one in my house had realized contain copious amounts of caffeine, and I thought that this was the best movie ever made. Stranger Things fans will adore its 70/80s aesthetic and endearing young cast.
Attack the Block
Rotten Tomatoes score: 90%
Where to watch: Hulu, Amazon
Before John Boyega was in Star Wars and Pacific Rim, he starred in this cult British hit at just 18 years old. In his directorial debut, frequent Edgar Wright collaborator Joe Cornish also wrote the movie, working with a tiny budget as he expertly engineers the story of a teenage gang attempting to defend their London neighborhood from aliens. It’s very much like Super 8, but brings a specific brand of authenticity to its cast of characters. The teenage actors, mostly pulled from high school theatre programs, join seasoned British staples like Nick Frost and Jodie Whittaker, holding their own while bringing renewed energy to this genre piece. Boyega stands out among the excellent cast as a flawed, funny, and compelling lead. This movie absolutely would not work without his performance, and his character Moses is well-written, scripted by Cornish with a grounded sense of realism in mind. The aliens, primarily executed using practical effects, are one of my favorite monster designs in recent years - they’re dynamic and consistently cool, posing a genuine threat to the irresistibly charming teens.
The Vast of Night
Rotten Tomatoes score: 92%
Where to watch: Amazon
This pandemic release from debut director Andrew Patterson was filmed over 17 days in a tiny Texas town that was chosen for its gymnasium. It takes place in the 1950s, lovingly paying homage to The Twilight Zone and Orson Welles, and manages to create a unique sense of intimacy in its 90-minute runtime. Its world feels lived-in, its characters simultaneously riffing on common tropes and embodying originality. Sweeping, intoxicating camerawork leads the viewer through the aforementioned gym, endless expanses of grass or asphalt, low-lit living rooms, and the radio station where disc jockey Everett broadcasts to his “five listeners” about a vague supernatural threat. At one point, the frame centers for nearly 10 minutes on Sierra McCormick’s Fay, a switchboard operator, in a single unbroken shot. McCormick, who I didn’t realize was Olive in A.N.T. Farm until the movie was over, is a captivating lead, flexing her dramatic talent in an understated and entirely captivating performance. We follow her through Patterson’s meticulous world, losing track of time as the film works its simple spell, and you may find yourself wanting more when it ends.
Honorable mentions - less frights, more autumnal feels:
Dead Poets Society
Fantastic Mr. Fox
When Harry Met Sally
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Check back next week for Offbeat On-Demand, pt. 2 for more suggestions!