Movies · TV

It’s Time for More Non-Horror Halloween-Themed Movies

By  · Published on October 24th, 2016

Boo! Tyler Perry has shown us what we’re missing.

In 1965, the first “Peanuts” special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, debuted to enormous popularity. The next year, it was followed by It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, which was just as successful, maybe more so. That succession of TV programs comes to mind after the box office performance of Tyler Perry’s Boo! A Madea Halloween. With a first weekend gross of almost $28m, the comedy far exceeded the $16m opening of Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas three years ago. Looking at these two sets of franchise installments, 50 years apart, it would seem one holiday theme is an even, if not better, bet than the other. So why aren’t there more Halloween movies?

That’d be a good question even if both examples were exceptions. For the “Peanuts” specials, it’s not actually certain Great Pumpkin was watched by more people during its premiere than watched Charlie Brown Christmas the year before. But although an exact comparison from the time is difficult to come by, the viewership for the earlier special was reportedly just below the latest episode of Bonanza, while the Halloween show later tied with the same long-running Western series. Still, Charlie Brown Christmas came back and topped Great Pumpkin in its second airing in 1966. And over the years, the Christmas “Peanuts” special has remained the more popular of the two.

A relative set of programs are the Toy Story specials Toy Story of Terror! and Toy Story That Time Forgot, yet the opposite is the case. The former, a Halloween-themed show spun-off from the hit Pixar animated film series, debuted in 2013 with an audience of 10.54m people, re-ran the next October and only reached 6.27m, and in its 2015 airing had 5.02m. The latter, Christmas-set special premiered in 2014 with an audience of 6.79m (the winner for the year but loser for debut) and re-ran last December to only 4.03m (the loser for the year). It will be interesting to see if this year’s Terror! audience of 6.44m is also higher than Time Forgot’s come December.

With strictly big-screen franchises, there’s not really much to look at for a study sample. There’s the Ernest series, which gave us Ernest Saves Christmas in 1988 with a $5.7m opening and the Halloween-set Ernest Scared Stupid in 1991 with only a $4.5m opening and ultimately a final gross of half that of the Christmas installment. On the other side of the coin, if we can accept it, the Christmas-set Batman Returns opened in 1992 to $46m and the Halloween-set follow-up Batman Forever opened in 1995 to $53m. For one movie series, Christmas wins, for the other Halloween wins. However, the holidays are much more integral to the premises of the Ernest movies.

Plenty of movie franchises have Christmas “episodes,” including Vacation (Christmas Vacation), Friday (Friday After Next), Harold & Kumar (A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas), Iron Man (Iron Man 3), Ice Age (Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas Special), Beauty and the Beast (Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas), Shrek (Shrek the Halls), Andy Hardy (Love Finds Andy Hardy), Beethoven (Beethoven’s Christmas Adventure), Benji (Benji’s Very Own Christmas Story), Air Bud (Santa Buddies), Alien (Prometheus), James Bond (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), and with their original installments, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Gremlins, Grumpy Old Men, and The Thin Man.

Only a few of those also have a Halloween installment, and for the last two it’s a stretch. There’s Shrek with Scared Shrekless (which debuted to a small fraction of the audience that watched the premiere of Shrek the Halls), Air Bud with Spooky Buddies ($20m in video sales compared to Santa Buddies’ $48m), Grumpy Old Men with the partially Halloween-set Grumpier Old Men ($8m opening versus the original’s $4m), and Bond with the Day of the Dead-set Spectre (which grossed more than OHMSS even with an inflation adjustment). As for franchises with just a halloween installment, there’s The Mask (Son of the Mask). And a lot of horror series, of course.

That’s the thing. Horror has owned Halloween for a long time. There is literally a big horror franchise with the name Halloween, so we associate the holiday with scary movies and expect that Halloween installments have to be frightening (a la Toy Story of Terror!). But it wasn’t always that way. One of the best Halloween movies ever is the 1944 comedy Arsenic and Old Lace (which it’s worth noting was a huge hit compared to Frank Capra’s follow-up, the Christmas-set flop It’s a Wonderful Life – though of course now the latter is more beloved in the mainstream). A Madea Halloween, for better or worse, follows that tradition of humorous yet death-filled holiday fare.

Not that the audience is likely related to the success of the new Madea film in any way, but another reason the October holiday seems right for movies now is the fact that kids who grew up on non-horror Halloween movies such as Hocus Pocus and Disney Channel’s Halloweentown series are now grown and might be interested in seeing more of that sort of thing. Christmas is a special time, but Halloween is a more fun setting, and that’s been evident with TV shows from Roseanne to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Community to The Simpsons with their clever costumes and antics and horror parodies. Christmas episodes of shows tend to be sweeter and less memorable.

Christmas is also a religious holiday celebrated only by a percentage of the moviegoing and TV watching public. It does have a universal dominance in pop culture, but Halloween should be an easier wide-appeal draw these days for the global audience. Not only is it not associated with any specific religious group, but the holiday has also been growing in its observance around the world. So why not now have an Iron Man or Harold & Kumar or Gremlins sequel set during the fall festivities? Christmas does engulf the atmosphere of December-set stories and isn’t just about Christmas Day, but Halloween spirit exists in the weeks leading to that holiday, as well.

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Tyler Perry’s Madea franchise has been full of surprises since the beginning, when Diary of a Mad Black Woman broke out the character and filmmaker big time seemingly out of nowhere. It’s not a shocker that he is now unexpectedly proving Halloween movies that don’t fall squarely into the scary movie genre are a bankable idea. Perry’s movies aren’t necessarily influential in Hollywood, as he’s viewed as a unique creator and brand who can do things that may not be successful for anyone else. This time, though, he’s hopefully a trailblazer of a popular new trend. Which franchise should be next to get a Halloween “episode”? My choice is The Fast and Furious.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.