October is approaching fast, but with many festivals and crowd-heavy events being canceled or streamlined this year, the spooky family movie night is as important as ever on our agenda.
There are favorites that keep popping up every year from Nightmare Before Christmas to our set of original Universal Monsters films, but even some of our family favorites like Ghostbusters or Beetlejuice can get overwatched.
This year, I decided to delve into my own memories of a kid and teen in the 1970s and 1980s, when there were some pretty eerie mysteries, ghost stories, and other spooky tales coming out of Walt Disney Pictures.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)
Long before Harry and Hermione attended Hogwarts, Angela Lansbury was taking some shady correspondent courses to be an “Apprentice Witch” in World War II-era England. I love the animated sequence with King Leonidas, but the sequence with the suits of armor and other battle uniforms throughout history coming to life to fight the Nazis is still really cool.
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
This live-action adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel may seem a little dated production style-wise, but it truly has some fantastic eerie (but not too scary) scenes. It wasn’t even successful when it first came out, but the casting of Jonathan Price as Mr. Dark, the tattooed leader of the “Pandemonium Circus,” is just perfect. Like many films, it doesn’t entirely follow the book, but since Bradbury also wrote the script, it does capture the foreboding “oncoming storm vibe” and creepy carnival feel that the novel does.
This adventure isn’t so much a spooky story but a good mystery for families. It stars teenage Jodie Foster as a savvy orphan recruited as a con-artist to find a pirate’s treasure hidden in a British manor while masquerading as a long-lost granddaughter of the prioress. The last time I saw this was in the theatre as a 7-year-old, and I remember how awesome the treasure hunting process was in the big cool manor. Think of a Goonies type of hunt, only in a classy big house starring acting legends like Helen Hayes and David Niven.
Return to Oz (1985)
This picks up with Dorothy, played by Fairuza Balk (who later became known for her witchy role in The Craft), who can’t quite get her recent “trip” to Oz out of her head. Auntie Em is worried she might be suffering from delusions. Of course, shock therapy is the kid-friendly way to handle this, and in the process, Dorothy gets “rescued” and taken back to Oz for another adventure. Between the attempted electro-shock treatment of a little girl and the creations from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop (including Jack Pumpkinhead, who looks tailor-made for Halloween), this can be a pretty scary film. It is actually freakier in places than some of the films Disney made that were supposed to be spooky, and it might even be a little horrifying for younger kids. For older kids who are acclimated to shows like Stranger Things or Tim Burton movies, it shouldn’t be too bad. For those who appreciate puppetry and visuals, it is certainly something to see.
Here’s one of the creepier moments involving Princess Mombi and her detached heads:
The Watcher in the Woods (1980)
Based on the novel by Florence Engel Randall, a family moves from America to a stately home in England surrounded by a forested area. This is the ideal setting or a ghost story, and the family gets involved in a tale of a missing girl, a little ghostly possession, and some dabbling in the occult. Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I never remembered Bette Davis (who plays Mrs. Aylwood) as a young woman, so when I think of her I still think of her haunting stare coming from the movie posters for this film.
When all the airings of Hocus Pocus have been depleted, try out some of these older spooks and suspenseful stories this October. They might not be to your liking, or they may, too, become seasonal family favorites for Halloweens to come. Either way, this season is the perfect chance to take a walk down a different mysterious path.
Return to Oz, Candleshoe, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks are currently available on Disney+. Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Watcher in the Woods are available on DVD from Amazon and shopDisney.