- Spooky season is upon us. And considering most of us still can’t leave our homes, the hunt for Halloween-appropriate viewing options has already begun. And while you aren’t going to find the out-and-out scariest options on Disney+, Disney’s direct-to-consumer streaming platform, there are some really great movies that will put you in the Halloween spirit (bloodlessly, of course).
These are movies that evoke the spirit and mood of the season without going over-the-top on gore or extreme thrills. They’re movies, TV shows and shorts that you can have on while carving your pumpkin or filling your Halloween tray (to leave outside your doorstep for socially distanced, mask-wearing trick-or-treaters). They’re charming, low-impact, and a lot of fun. (And, yes, we’re still waiting for them to properly digitize and release stuff like Disney’s Halloween Treat, an old TV special that combined shorts, excerpts and musical segments and is the perfect Disney Halloween sampler.)
Oh, and the reason Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas isn’t on here is because it’s clearly a Christmas movie. Duh.
“Trick or Treat” (1952)
This short just popped up on Disney+ and it is the perfect bite-sized Halloween treat. This Donald Duck short, which runs a little over 8 minutes, features Huey, Dewey and Louie in their iconic Halloween outfits and a plot involving a witch (Witch Hazel) who helps the boys get revenge on Donald (who has very much leaned into the “trick” portion of trick-or-treating). Featuring gorgeous Technicolor animation and strong direction from Jack Hannah, who directed the similarly spooky Disney short “The Old Mill” several years earlier, and backgrounds and layout by Yale Gracey, who would go on to become an Imagineer and contribute many of the effects and “illusions” to Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, “Trick or Treat” is an endlessly charming short perfect for your Halloween programming. (Also, try and get that insidiously catchy theme song out of your head. It’ll be there until Thanksgiving.)
The Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” Episodes (Various)
Nothing says Halloween like the spooky special episodes of The Simpsons. And Disney+ has all of them. For me, it’s hard to top season 5’s “Treehouse of Horror IV” (still labeled as “The Simpsons Halloween Special” in the episode’s intro), which features Homer selling his soul to the devil (Flanders) for a donut, a parody of the “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode of The Twilight Zone with a gremlin attacking Bart’s school bus, and a riff on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which had recently been released, with Mr. Burns as the famous vampire (all wrapped inside of a framing device that references Rod Serling’s underrated Night Gallery). There’s also season 7’s Treehouse of Horror VI,” which contains the “Attack of the 50-Foot Eyesores” segment where all of the signs and billboards in Springfield come to life, the very funny spoof of Nightmare on Elm Street (with Groundskeeper Willie filling in for Freddy) and the groundbreaking “Homer” segment that features some of the characters rendered in 3D computer animation for the first time (and a killer Tron joke). But, really, any installment will do.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
Obviously you are only interested in the back-half of this package film, produced during the company’s lean years following World War II and running a svelte 68 minutes. That’s the second devoted to “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” based on the classic Washington Irving story about a schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane who comes to the town of Sleepy Hollow in upstate New York and gets the wits scared out of him by the ghoulish Headless Horseman. While the film hits all the same beats of the short, with the same not-all-that-supernatural resolution, it still packs a punch and is full of heart-stopping imagery like the Horseman racing across the covered bridge, flaming pumpkin in hand. Not only has this character and its accompanying image been widely adopted by Disney for various Halloween activities (including a Headless Horseman running, full gallop, down Main Street USA in the Magic Kingdom) but it was also utilized pretty shamelessly by Tim Burton in his live-action, R-rated Sleepy Hollow. Clearly, this one leaves a mark.
Mr. Boogedy (1986) / Bride of Boogedy (1987)
Mr. Boogedy originally aired as the Disney Sunday Movie (shortly before it transformed into The Magical World of Disney) in the spring of 1986, which makes no sense because the movie is such a Halloween story. It follows a family (led by Richard Masur and including a very young, pre-Buffy Kristy Swanson) who own a joke shop and who wind up in the small town of Lucifer Falls, moving into a very obviously haunted house (there’s a gag early in the movie where a dangling “absolutely not haunted” addendum on the house’s for sale sign falls off, because, you know, it is haunted). Slowly the family uncovers the truth about the town and the house, thanks mostly to the sinister-looking real estate agent (played by Addams Family alum John Astin, dressed like the Babadook), including details about the titular Boogeyman. The tone sometimes skewers too much in the “comedy” direction, but it’s still solid, goofy fun. And if you want to continue the story, Bride of Boogedy is also on Disney+. The sequel, which premiered almost exactly a year later, is sadly Swanson-free, but does feature Eugene Levy as a distrustful general store owner. So we think it’s a net win.
Maybe the greatest accomplishment of the golden age of Disney television animation, Gargoyles was the company’s first half-hour animated drama. And it was centered around some really incredible creatures – a band of medieval warriors who were imprisoned in stone for 1,000 years. Now, they have been brought back to life in modern day New York City and fight crime, other monsters, and try to figure out the mysterious reasons for their resurrection. The gargoyles themselves were pretty scary and the show was able to tackle a number of mature themes and not just of the supernatural variety (one of the most infamous and widely praised episodes dealt with an accidental shooting). There’s a very spooky, Halloween-y vibe to the first two seasons (the third season, which wrestled control away from the original producers, is a wash and should be skipped) and, if you’ve never seen it before, you should give in. It’s easily of the same caliber as similar, more widely celebrated dramatic animated series, with gorgeous animation and properly complex storylines.
Back when Tim Burton was toiling away at Walt Disney Animation, he busied himself with projects that wouldn’t require him to draw cutesy animals. One was a stop-motion short dedicated to Vincent Price and the other was a live-action half-hour special about a young boy who resurrects his dead dog. Years later, after Burton had made Disney $1 billion with his new version of Alice in Wonderland, Burton returned to the material and turned it, incredibly, into a stop-motion black-and-white animated feature. And honestly it’s one of Burton’s more underrated movies; it’s full of heart and humor and the kind of oversized, imaginative set pieces that made his early films so memorable and distinct (think Beetlejuice). And Burton and screenwriter John August do some genius things with the extra runtime, namely giving the other kids resurrected pets (including a towering, Gamera-like turtle), which leads to some truly awe-inspiring mayhem. Both versions of the Frankenweenie saga are available on Disney+ if you want to double your undead dog fun (and, considering you’re gearing up for Halloween, you just might do that).
The Scream Team (2002)
There are a bunch of horror-themed Disney Channel Original Movies (or DCOMs) including, but not limited to, Don’t Look Under the Bed, Girl vs. Monster, and Phantom of the Megaplex. (You could also lump more recent franchises like Descendants and Zombies into that category, although the emphasis in those is more music than monsters.) But few were as successful as The Scream Team, a DCOM that expertly mixed the laughs and the scares in a way few accomplished and one with a more sophisticated look (clearly inspired by things like Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners) and a startlingly impressive cast that includes Eric Idle, Tommy Davidson, Kathy Najimy and a young Kat Dennings. The plot concerns a wholesome family who moves into a creaky old house after the death of their beloved grandfather and discovers a somewhat foggy plot involving ghosts that haven’t yet moved on and an evil spirit who murdered his wife. Things can actually get pretty intense, which nicely offsets the broader moments. It’s unclear why The Scream Team didn’t achieve the same level of cult popularity as some of the other, sillier DCOMs did, but we’re very thankful it’s on Disney+ and ripe for rediscovery.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Sure, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was one of the big, brassy animated epics produced during the so-called Disney Renaissance. But it’s also the only animated feature to highlight a monstrously deformed character previously embodied by Lon Chaney and include what is arguably the most deeply disturbing animated musical number in the company’s history (hello “Hellfire!”) There are also a trio of gargoyles that are either horrifying or adorable depending on your sensibility. It was definitely a big swing for Disney to adapt this material (a singularly bleak novel by Victor Hugo) into a cheery Broadway-style musical and it must have taken even more chutzpah to approve the levels of darkness that are here, including a prolonged sequence where our heroes venture into a scary-ass gypsy underworld. One of the more underrated Disney animated features from the period, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of those perfect Halloween warm-up movies, which you watch during the day to get you ready for the really intense stuff later that night. Bonus points if your snack spread is Festival of Fools-themed.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019)
For some reason Maleficent: Mistress of Evil came and went last year, even though it had a primes, pre-Halloween release date and was infinitely better than its soggy predecessor. This installment allows Angelina Jolie to really vamp as the titular winged witch, who this time is upset about the upcoming wedding of Aurora (Elle Fanning) and Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson). (Remember the first movie attempted to rehab her reputation from the baby-poisoning terror in Walt Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty.) From there, Maleficent uncovers more about her monstrous past and Michelle Pfeiffer is introduced as a villainess even more wicked than the Mistress of Evil. What makes this so much more satisfying, especially as a Halloween movie, is its emphasis on all sorts of creatures (including Chiwetel Ejiofor as one of Maleficent’s kind) and the understanding that evil can lurk in virtually anyone, no matter what they look like. Plus, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil has a really satisfying, exciting, and visually splashy finale where the long-simmering tension between mankind and the fairy folk erupt into all-out war. And yes, Maleficent finally gets to turn into a huge creature. It’s not exactly her dragon-form from Sleeping Beauty. But it’ll do. Considering how colossally this movie was slept on, chances are you haven’t seen it. Correct that this Halloween. It’s a hoot.
No Halloween-themed DCOM looms as large as Halloweentown. Not only did it spawn a veritable franchise, including Halloweentown II: Kalabar’s Revenge, Halloweentown High and Return to Halloweentown High, but it is just so essentially Halloween. In the movie, some kids follow their grandmother (Debbie Reynolds, hitting all the right notes) after she makes her annual Halloween visit. They get on a bus that is seemingly populated with costumed adults but when they disembark realize they have traveled to an entirely different world, Halloweentown, where all sorts of ghouls, goblins, witches and warlocks live (also there’s a talking skeleton cabdriver). The plot of Halloweentown, involving one of the kids learning to become a witch, is sort of incidental (there’s also some stuff about a demon who is mad at the kids’ mom for marrying a human, which is weird). But the world of Halloweentown, with a shocking number of prosthetic and animatronic effects, is pretty wonderfully realized; a quaint New England town full of sub-Rick Baker creatures. There’s a reason they play this all the time during Halloween; it instantly puts you in the spirit of the holiday and will leave a big smile on your face.