Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak, which comes out on Friday, is a perfect Halloween movie. (You can look for my review at Vox probably Friday or Saturday.) And by that, I don't mean that it's particularly scary, because it's not. It has its eerie moments, and a few good jolts, but it's mostly a film that gets by on spooky atmosphere.
Horror movies, of course, are an October staple, and I don't want to besmirch their wonders. But the Halloween movie is almost as important to me. If forced to define it, I would say that watching a Halloween movie is like being trapped inside a folk-art painting of the holiday and/or the decorations dragged out every October in fourth grade classrooms around the country.
Halloween movies often feel like elaborate mash-ups, with all sorts of different monsters and horror tropes. They are rarely terrifying, but they also tend to take themselves with at least a modicum of seriousness. Above all else, they are triumphs of atmosphere before anything else. The production design is lavish. The images lurk with mist and shadow. Everything seems to flicker or loom. As storytelling experiences, they often leave quite a bit to be desired, but they sure are spooky.
In short, what Halloween movies are is a chance to live inside the platonic ideal of Halloween, which necessarily involves the supernatural and things that go bump in the night. This is our only major holiday where it's literally impossible to experience the best possible version of said holiday, because it's tied to fictional elements! The platonic Thanksgiving involves the greatest feast ever assembled, and the platonic Christmas involves perfect family togetherness. You might achieve one of those two things in your lifetime, but you're probably not going to meet a ghost.
For me, the "best" Halloween movie might be Tim Burton's 1999 Sleepy Hollow, a film I owned on DVD for a long time even though I could recognize that it wasn't all that terrific. The movie fits all of the above criteria, right down to the fact that its story is, frankly, ludicrous.
But, my God, I want to eat that production design every time I watch this movie. It doesn't feel like Halloween. It feels like all-caps, shouted from the rooftops HALLOWEEN. It's almost not a movie, so much as it is some sort of living art installation.
Maybe that's what the Halloween movie is, above all else. It's a chance to escape into another world, where the laws of ours don't exactly apply, where we can have some fun with tropes and ideas that have haunted kids since time immemorial. If horror movies speak to our most primal terrors, the Halloween movie speaks to our most primal anticipation, of a night filled with safe scares, lots of candy, and the possibility of something truly mysterious just around the corner.
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