However much adults latch on to it as an excuse for partying and dressing up, Halloween remains, in its present-day incarnation, an occasion chiefly for the benefit of children: try trick-or-treating without one in tow and see how far you get. Yet film distributors don’t see it in quite the same way. This week’s suitably spooky cinema releases, from Last Night in Soho to Antlers to The Nowhere Inn, are all for adults and older teens. Warner Bros has taken advantage of the gap to at least rerelease the first Harry Potter film in cinemas, but otherwise, families seeking a bit of gentler fright-night viewing are better cosied up at home, where you can at least pause proceedings whenever things get a little too intense.
Because as much as many parents prefer their children’s viewing to be as edgeless and benign as possible, many of our most formative film memories tend to be of times we were scared stiff. When I was seven, and for some time after, my favourite film was Nicolas Roeg’s fiercely terrifying take on Roald Dahl’s The Witches (Amazon Prime), and it remains just about unbeatable as a primal horror film for kids. Hell, most adults have a hard time not yelping at the first, nightmare-inducing reveal of the rotted, creviced visage of Anjelica Huston’s fabulous supervillain the Grand High Witch.
Roeg, rather like Dahl, doesn’t condescend to children, playing on their nerves in the same visceral way he did their elders’ in previous films. Robert Zemeckis’s pallid, CGI-gloopy remake last year (Now Cinema, if you must) didn’t put anything like the same trust in its audience. Witchery, indeed, is fruitful terrain for childhood Halloween viewing. I was a shade too old when Hocus Pocus (Disney+) came out to share in the cultish nostalgia it inspires today; on belatedly watching it, I found it a bit naff, though Bette Midler is hootingly good value.
Sometimes, animation can alleviate the brute impact of horror to an extent: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad (Disney+) is an endearingly odd mashup of Washington Irving and The Wind in the Willows, but it’s about the most wholesomely toddler-friendly spin on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow imaginable. Elsewhere, cartoons can make unreal, uncanny images awfully vivid. Henry Selick remains the master of this niche. His modern gothic fairytale Coraline (Apple TV) is ideal Halloween viewing for small fry, with its ghostly expressionist aesthetic and plucky heroine in genuine, eerie peril, while his darkly funny The Nightmare Before Christmas (Disney+), with its versatile face-off between the worlds of Halloween and Christmas, is just coming into season.
It’s branded as Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas on Disney+, which is rather unfair on Selick’s vision, though Burton, of course, remains the biggest brand name in family-friendly spookery. Still on Disney+, his adorable animation Frankenweenie abounds in horror-adjacent B-movie imagery but is more sweet than scary. His other stop-motion film, Corpse Bride (Chili), looks the part, but its tale of goth-zombie whimsy is maybe too sleepy for many kids. For slightly older children, meanwhile, Beetlejuice (Amazon) is optimal Halloween viewing, innocently juvenile in its humour and grossness, but a perfect gateway to more adult notions of the grotesque.
For children restless to consume what grownups do – and long suspicious that the Harry Potters and Goosebumps of the world are playing it safe – vintage horror films, with their reduced violence and implication-heavy chills, can be a good stepping stone. Sixty years ago, Jack Clayton’s immaculate The Innocents (rated X on release, a 12A today) was that film for me, though it’s sadly unavailable to stream. But you could take a punt on the still-creepy Village of the Damned (Amazon), the ideal blend of genuinely adult storytelling and relatable childhood concerns to usher patient, thoughtful older kids into the thrills of horror. It’s Halloween, after all: when better to take a risk into unknown territory?
The Harder They Fall
(Netflix from Wednesday)
Jeymes Samuel (also known as R&B artist the Bullitts) comes out with all guns blazing – in multiple senses – in his busy directorial debut, an extravagantly violent revisionist western with a tasty, predominantly black cast including Idris Elba and Regina King. Its cocksure, hip-hop inflected stylistic swagger is fun to watch, though the standard-issue revenge plot palls a bit over a baggy 137-minute running time, and the characters aren’t half as interesting as the actors filling them.
Benedict Cumberbatch leads this old-fashioned, proficiently absorbing spy thriller, as a British businessman recruited into an MI6 mission around the Cuban missile crisis. It feels less like cinema than Sunday-night TV, but of a very high order – with a standout turn by Merab Ninidze as the Soviet officer with whom Cumberbatch must collaborate.
As US cinema continues to redress years of harmful depictions of First Nations people, Native American director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr’s debut tells a story we haven’t seen before: that of a successful businessman, long estranged from his Ojibwe roots, coming to terms with the violence of his past and his racial self-loathing. Dodging the sentimental, redemptive arc you might expect, it’s thoughtful, tough-skinned stuff, jolted by Michael Greyeyes’s penetrating lead performance.
A newly orphaned 17-year-old is taken in by her estranged, seemingly kindly aunt, who turns out to be the vicious matriarch of a ruthless criminal family. Down to the title, Jeanette Nordahl’s tense, taut debut film sounds like a Danish reworking of Animal Kingdom, and that’s no bad thing – not least since it gives the wonderful Sidse Babett Knudsen a chance to play villainous, with chilly finesse.
The First Lap
(Mubi from Monday)
Mubi’s excellent South Korean film season continues with this lovely, little-seen relationship drama from director Kim Dae-hwan, in which a pregnancy test is the sparking point for a tender, precisely detailed study of thirtysomethings in domestic limbo.