Top Five Gateway Horror Films
For almost any kid subjected to the public school system in the United States, you are probably familiar with the D.A.R.E program. For those unfamiliar, it is a program to educate young children on the dangers of doing drugs. Until very recently, marijuana was considered a “gateway drug”, relatively harmless if used on it’s own, but could pique an interest in harder stuff. Now, what if the same idea were to be applied to the horror genre? I’m sure each of us had an affinity for Halloween themed films or mildly scary monster movies growing up before we officially committed to the stronger stuff. Now each generation has had their own “gateway films” relevant to the youth of the time, but some have managed to transcend generations and continue to hold up today. This is a compilation of mostly my generation (millenials) with a couple of well aging titles that I happened to discover early on. I devoured these particular films obsessively, counting down the days until October when the Halloween television programming would begin (Be thankful for your Netflix, kiddies). I would watch them over and over, not unlike an addiction. I didn’t realize until several years later that these were my stepping-stones into the horror genre. With technology what it is today, just about any film is accessible, even the ones we loved as kids, making it much easier for parents to pass along their cinematic sentimentality to younger generations. So is a collection of five films that I would bestow upon my own hypothetical children:
Hocus Pocus (1993)
When Max (Omri Katz) and his sister Dani (Thora Birch) move to Salem, Massachusetts, they struggle to adjust to their new surroundings. When Max is forced to take Dani trick r treating on Halloween night, they come face to face with the town’s dark history when they accidentally resurrect three local witches hell-bent on sucking the life out of all the children in Salem. There are some films from my youth that could be considered over. Hocus Pocus is definitely not one of them. It deserves every bit of praise that it receives. It’s rare for a film to succeed in so many different areas such as this one does. From the production design to the acting, Hocus Pocus is an exceptionally well-rounded film that has withstood the test of time on more than just nostalgia. This film has been a Halloween staple for as long as I can remember. Even while I revisited it for this article, I found myself quoting at least 75% of it. Bette Midler is in her element as Winifred Sanderson and Sarah Jessica parker and Kathy Najimy hold their own alongside her. With writing credits by illustrious genre vet Mick Garris and David Kirschner (who also wrote the under-rated Pagemaster and produced Child’s Play), Hocus Pocus has firmly and deservedly earned itself a place at the top of the hierarchy of Halloween films.
Don’t Look Under the Bed (1999)
Frances Bacon McCausland is a rational, bright 14-year-old girl from Middleberg. However, when strange things start to happen in her small town, she finds it harder and harder to find a logical explanation for the events. Things get even stranger when she begins seeing a man that no one else can see and evidence begins to stack up pointing to her as the culprit of the strange occurences. Don’t Look Under the Bed is the greatest Disney Channel Original Movie of all time and I will defend that statement until death. It may even be the greatest boogeyman film of all time (Sorry Boogeyman (2005)). Don’t’ Look Under the Bed is the only DCOM to ever be rated PG and was pulled from the air after Disney received a slew of complaints from parents claiming the film was too scary. Although the young version of myself was devastated when it was pulled, it’s easy to see why parents were complaining. The film deals with some pretty heavy themes, from family illness to existential dread. The use of imaginary friends and boogeymen as allegories for growing up and losing your childlike wonder was frankly brilliant. Upon viewing it as an adult, it not only holds up, but also improves due to some of the more mature references and themes. There are even a few scenes that could be considered downright unsettling, even for adults. Don’t Look Under the Bed will forever hold a place in my heart as the first movie to truly scare me and I will forever champion this existential crisis of a film.
We all have a favorite Christmas movie. For some people it’s A Christmas Story, for some it’s Die Hard, and for others (me included), it’s Gremlins. When young banker Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) receives a mysterious creature called a mogwai from his father for Christmas, he is given a set of rules for its care. Upon breaking each of them, Billy accidentally unleashes mayhem on his unsuspecting small town. From Goonies’ writer Chris Columbus’s screenplay, Joe Dante on board as director and famously hands-on producer Steven Spielberg involved, Gremlins was a recipe for pseudo-family friendly creature feature magic. Much like many of their other films, Gremlins has become a timeless classic. It’s questionable content was even one of the reasons for the creation of the PG-13 rating. Interestingly enough, Chris Columbus’s original script was significantly darker. His version included the gremlins eating the family dog and bouncing the mother’s head down the stairs after decapitating her. Despite Dante’s horror roots, it was he and Spielberg that ultimately decided to take the film in a more family friendly direction. Joe Dante did get the chance to include a few horror nods however. The scene where one of the gremlins is wielding a chainsaw was his personal tribute to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Gremlins has been a comfort-food film for over three decades and seems prepared to defend its title for many more years to come.
The Witches (1990)
When young Luke (Jasen Fisher) loses his parents, he goes to live with his loving grandmother Helga(Mai Zetterling). When the two go on holiday, Luke finds himself in the midst of an annual Witches meeting in their hotel and they are rolling out a plan to turn all children into mice. Based on the novel by Roald Dahl and directed by Don’t Look Now director Nicholas Roeg, The Witches is a film from my childhood that, upon revisiting, is pretty freakin traumatic. Aside from some terrifying transformation scenes, and Anjelica Huston’s incredible, yet terrifying performance, the film has some pretty serious subject matter. Nicolas Roeg’s distressing directing style only contributed to the surprising terror of this supposed “kid’s movie”. Roeg seems to have an affinity for films involving the death of family members and children in peril. Regardless, he is an incredibly talented filmmaker, whose directing style is the main reason why this movie continues to be so watchable. It is shot beautifully and could very well have kindled my love of extreme camera angles and those wonderful zooms that you just don’t see much anymore. The Jim Henson Company produced the film and the recognizable special effects seem to show their brush strokes. While The Witches is definitely the one films on this list that I would recommend using caution before showing to a child, it is a film with real merit that can still be enjoyed as an adult, and hell, I loved it as a kid so you never know.
Little Monsters (1989)
When Brian Stevenson (Fred Savage) and his family move into a new house, his younger brother Eric (Ben Savage) begins to claim that he has a monster under his bed. Although originally skeptical, Brian becomes a quick believer upon meeting Maurice (Howie Mandel), the wisecracking monster under his own bed. Maurice and Brian form a quick friendship and Maurice introduces him to a whole new world connected by children’s bedrooms, filled with monsters and fun. This plot may sound familiar because this film supposedly inspired the Pixar favorite Monster’s Inc. Little Monsters plays on common kid adventure fantasy. While Brian deals with his parent’s constant fighting and a move that he had no say in, he is given a new friend and an exciting place to escape to. His new friend also happens to be an unapologetic freak; he is everything Brian thinks he wants to be. Of course he soon learns the downfalls and dangers of living in a fantasy and must step up to the plate to protect his family. As a whole, Little Monsters definitely has style. The Monster Land design was wonderfully outlandish, the creature designs were inspired and Howie Mandel’s spastic performance as Maurice was gloriously over the top. The Monster Land did bear some similarities to the Boogey World in Don’t Look Under the Bed and I would not be surprised if it was a source of inspiration for the 1999 film. Little Monsters is a fun mix of 80’s kid adventure film and Jim Henson inspired creature feature. This one also gets bonus points for the Talking Heads song in the credits.
Nostalgia is a powerful beast that is easily satisfied with technology these days. We can conjure up bygone films at a drop of a hat. While this is only a list of films I personally stumbled upon before I went fully down the horror rabbit hole, there are many that would suit this list if only I had discovered them earlier. So although I did not grow up with Monster Squad or The Gate, they are still excellent additions to the “Gateway Horror” category. I only hope kids today are taking advantage of the accessibility of these titles and we are breeding a more educated, well rounded generation of horror fans.