Happily, it’s actually the family films that are getting the biggest nods of approval from both critics and audiences this season, which can be truly frightful at this time of year (and that’s a good thing). Here’s some short reviews of films you might want to consider taking the whole fam to see when you celebrate, as well as a sentence or two about a couple others of note that might be worthwhile for the olders of your brood.
HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 2 *** – This is the sequel to Adam Sandler’s pleasantly unexpected hit from two years ago about the benevolent Count Drac (Sandler) who has created a haven for misunderstood monsters in his haunted hotel, then things get a shake-up when a “slacker” hippie throwback Jonathan (Andy Samberg) happens by and is taken to by Drac’s daughter Mavis, who’s about to celebrate her 118th birthday.
This time around, Mavis (Selena Gomez) and Jonathan have enjoyed several years of wedded bliss at the hotel haunts (much to Jonathan’s parents chagrin) and Mavis is expecting their first child. When the blessed event happens though, Grandpa Drac is a bit disturbed that, as little Dennis grows, he’s increasingly human-like and doesn’t seem to be developing vampire fangs like a “normal” vamp kid would. At the same time, Mavis wonders if a motel full of monsters is the best place to raise her hybrid boy. So, while she goes with Jonathan back to his surfer-dude stomping grounds in Santa Cruz, CA to check out life with humans, Drac and his monster buddies take little “Dennisovich” out on a hilarious crash course in monstering as they visit the places where good ole Gramps grew up.
As with the original, this animated film is filled to the brim with spooky-cutie monsters that little kids will adore and spooky-goofy one-liners, site-gags, and even songs that will have the parents and older kids continually cracking up. Whether you’ve seen it already or not, this would be a safe and fun way to celebrate the season either before, after, or instead of the traditional trick-or-treating, especially if your little monsters–er, kids–happen to be on the younger side.
GOOSEBUMPS *** – And just as entertaining for families whose little monsters aren’t so little anymore is this new film from Sony based on the wildly popular kids’ books by R.L. Stine that have been a staple of school and/or classroom library reading material since the early 90’s. Designed to be a kiddie alternative to Stine’s more teen-orientated horror series Fear Street, the Goosebumps series went on to make Stine USA Today’s number one-selling author in the country for three straight years in the 90’s (even selling more books than fellow horror writer Stephen King, as the movie jokingly points out), and by 2008 had sold over 400 million copies. Hollywood’s been trying to think of a way to make Stine’s myriad of Goosebumps books and spinoffs into a film for nearly the same duration, and finally has come up with a solution that works surprisingly well.
Jack Black is perfectly cast as Stine, an eccentric author who hides from the rest of the world and requires the same of his teenage daughter Hannah (the alluring Odeya Rush). When reluctant “new kid” Zach Cooper (fresh-faced Dylan Minnet) shows up next door, his newly widowed mom having moved out of New York to help both her and Zach cope with their loss, Zach sees new hope in a budding friendship with Hannah. That is, until Daddy Stine crushes it just as it gets going, chastising Hannah in frightening fashion for even considering it.
Fearing the worst, Zach and Champ, his impossibly nerdy–and only–friend from school (a hilarious Ryan Lee) creep into the Stine house to investigate, only to set into motion a chain of events that eventually leads to a torrent of monsters being unleashed on their little town when the locks on Stine’s original manuscripts are opened, spewing them forth. The resulting mayhem and our heroes’ efforts to set things to right lie somewhere between Ghostbusters and a sequel to a Scooby-Doo movie in tone as the edgy, effects-driven horror is effectively blunted by both belly-laughing humor, sheer silliness, and a pleasantly surprising touch of sweetness.
It all makes for a very winning mix, one that is a fitting tribute to Stine and his work (he actually has a cameo in the show, as a school teacher with the ironic name of “Mr. Black”) and will serve up lively, spooky entertainment both for fans of the stories as well as newcomers like me (can you believe it–a teacher like me, never read a Goosebumps book??? For shame!!!). While a bit intense possibly for the 8 and unders in your fam, this would make both frightful and fun fare for most any family’s Halloween festivities.
And for the adults and older teens who like a more serious “creeping out” as part of their Halloween, cinemas will also be featuring…
The Last Witch-Hunter – Vin Diesel heads an all-star cast (Elijah Wood, Michael Caine, Rose Leslie, etc.) in a big-budget supernatural thriller that someone (probably mistakenly) thinks is going launch a new genre franchise ala Underworld or Blade. It’s about an immortal ass-kicker of evil who, well, hunts witches. It only managed #4 ($11 M) in its opening weekend. Not a good sign.
Crimson Peak – A classic, gothic haunted house tale with a touch of class lent by its strong cast (Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Tim “Loki” Hiddleston, etc.) and illustrious director (Guillermo “Pan’s Labyrinth” del Toro). Some feel this is truly creepy, others that it’s also too predictable. You can decide for yourself, as I’d probably just be hiding under the seat the whole time in something like this.
The Ghost Dimension – I believe this is supposed to be the last in the Paranormal Activity franchise that made a household name out of Jason Blum, Hollywood’s king of “low-budget horror.” Here, the big secret of the whole series is supposed to be revealed, but in its opening weekend, it could only manage 6th at the box office with an underwhelming $8.2 M. Sounds like this is pretty much a meh for most movie-goers, and, more alarmingly for Blum, even for fans of the once-venerable franchise.