Trigger Warning: Spirit Halloween contains several lengthy sequences featuring flashing lights that might impact those with photosensitivity.
When it comes to Spooky Season, every family has their traditions. Some abstain entirely, while others go whole hog well before the calendar turns to October. Growing up, for a few years, my house would be full of children from me, my older siblings, and our friends, eating Little Caesar’s pizza (in the days of “Pizza, Pizza”), traversing a homemade fort in our basement, and enjoying the animated tale of Ichabod and the Headless Horsemen. As I grew older and the house grew emptier, the types of movies I watched shifted — Beetlejuice in 1988, the widely-appreciated Hocus Pocus and The Nightmare Before Christmas landed in 1993, and, then, of course, I discovered The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) one lonely Halloween night in high school. Much like in my youth, there continue to be scary features that are scary enough for young audiences without them being afraid of what goes bump in the night. The latest to come available is Spirit Halloween: The Movie from first-time director David Poag and first-time writer Billie Bates. From the title, one might expect the horror comedy to be little more than an extended commercial, but Spirit Halloween transcends that expectation by delivering a fairly average though entertaining horror tale that’s more interested in a satisfying experience than selling product.
In the days running up to Halloween, three friends — Jake, Carson, and Bo (Donovan Colan, Dylan Martin Frankel, and Jaiden J. Smith respectively) — can’t agree on what to do. Their usual tradition involved treat-or-treating, but Carson feels like he’s outgrown it and wants to try to sneak into a high schooler party. Still reeling from the death of his father and his mother Sue’s (Rachael Leigh Cook) new marriage, the idea of changing traditions for Jake is emotionally hard to process. Desperate to keep some form of their tradition alive, Jake pitches that the trio spend the night at a pop-up Halloween store located in a deserted part of town rumored to be haunted by the ghost of a wretched old man, Alex Windsor (Christopher Lloyd). Successful in hiding away, the three friends are ready for a night of goofing off, eating snacks, and lounging amid the ridiculous props adorning the store. What they are not ready for is Windsor’s spirit which arrives ready to possess one of them so that he might live again.
It may shock you to learn this, but Spirit Halloween is far less of an advertisement for the stores than Powers Rangers (2017) is for Krispy Kreme, the latest 007 films are for a watch or car, or The Wizard (1989) is for Nintendo or Super Mario Bros. 3. Despite the title, the film itself is as much an advertisement for the infiltrator of every empty store front come September as Cast Away (2000) is for FedEx. You could literally swap out the location that the kids camp out in for any fictional Halloween store and the story wouldn’t change. This makes worlds of a difference as the entire notion of a Spirit Halloween-centric film makes about as much sense in concept as other IP-driven films out there. The Halloween store-of-it-all has more to do with the location, itself a clever poke at the company’s tendency to put up a store just about anywhere that’s vacant, than the store itself, saving the film from falling into the trap of being made just to move product. This is one of the many smart things that Bates’s script does to move the narrative from cynical expectation toward something that could end up as a family-friendly tradition.
It certainly helps that the storyline, one of a cursed soul trying to reclaim a tangible form, though played out in many ways, is handled with the right balance of silliness and frights. Via bodiless voice, Lloyd’s Windsor prattles on about which form he needs as he tries out different mechanized or standard puppets around the store he can possess in order to get close to the kids. So while he may take the form of a contoured witch that skitters across the floor, his dialogue adds some whimsy. Think his version of Uncle Fester without the care for children. This allows the tension to mean something, the threat to remain real but also ridiculous in a way that won’t necessarily cause nightmares for younger viewers. This also allows the threats for the kids to come from a variety of places as anything in the store that mimics a physical form (no singular weapons or non-filled out costumes) can be possessed and thus come for them. Like with any kid-friendly horror film, there’s not a lot of time spent explaining the rules, so there do appear to be a few inconsistencies about the method by which Windsor can possess something, but that likely won’t stop you from having a good time with it.
The problems with Spirit Halloween actually come from the speed with which the film wants to get to the scares, thereby skipping over some necessary world-building, making it feel *super* rushed, and it leaning into cultural stereotypes that seem a little outdated by today’s standard. For instance, the audience knows that Jake is still grieving the death of his father with whom he had a strong connection with involving Halloween, but we don’t know how long ago it was. It’s been long enough for his mother to fall in love and remarry, but, as there’s no established timeline, the audience doesn’t know if Jake’s grief is super fresh or going on in years. Everyone’s grief doesn’t process the same, but it might help explain some of Carson’s frustrations with his friend. A lot of the choices that lead to the overnight in the store are due to Jake’s unwillingness to heal from his loss, thereby making a timeline critical to understanding if his arc is fully satisfied by the end. Then there’s the curse itself. Personally, curse all the greedy, rich, white assholes you want, especially when they’re trying to steal land out from under an orphanage. No issue there. But to make the person doing the cursing of African descent is stereotypical in the execution. On the flip side to this, that Bo is directly related to the people who do the cursing and he’s an out-loud science nerd (his shirts are immaculate) whose smarts save the day frequently is a clever way to reclaim the magic that runs through him into science. Yet it still feels like something one might observe in a horror film from outside the last 5-10 years.
Without getting into some of the other icky bits, like a subplot involving Carson’s half-sister that’s resolved fairly smoothly, the whole of Spirit Halloween: The Movie is a fairly surprising and fun affair. The stakes are clear, the threats are menacing yet playful, and the escalation is smoothly handled. It’s far from the best family-friendly horror film you’ll find, but it’s perfect for your tweens to help them get ready for something more adult.
In theaters September 30th, 2022.
Available on VOD October 11th, 2022.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.