There’s something comforting about Spirit Halloween: The Movie. Maybe it’s the innocent story of friendship, or how it asks us to reminisce about our childhood Halloween memories, or the way it feels like uncovering a lost Disney Channel original movie, something you’d watch as a kid on Saturday night with your friends—Halloweentown or Under Wraps—and wait for jump scares with gleeful anticipation. No matter the reason, its focus on young characters facing a larger-than-life supernatural threat, light-hearted scares, and a kid-safe spooky atmosphere ensures that younger viewers will eat it up. While it doesn’t present itself as an immediate Halloween classic, Spirit Halloween has the potential to become a pre-teen sleepover staple.
The film follows three friends searching for a new Halloween tradition to replace the trick-or-treating they’re quickly outgrowing. Their solution? Spending Halloween night locked inside a Spirit Halloween store after closing. After all, what’s cooler than spending the scariest night of the year surrounded by masks and spooky animatronics as you scarf down candy with your best friends? But they get more than they bargained for when they find themselves being pursued by the vengeful spirt of real estate developer Alec Windsor (Christopher Lloyd) who seeks to find a body to possess before midnight.
It’s incredibly easy to write generic, cookie-cutter child characters, so it’s a benefit to the film that screenwriter Billie Bates and director David Poag give each of their three young leads different personalities and desires. There’s Jake (Donovan Colan), who’s desperately trying to hold onto his friends’ Halloween traditions while grieving the loss of his father; Carson (Dylan Frankel), who’s eager to grow up and leave childish things like trick-or-treating behind him; and Bo (Jaiden J. Smith), the most level-headed of the bunch who is often caught between Jake and Carson’s arguments. Because their viewpoints on Halloween and growing up drastically differ, it’s easy to relate to at least one of them. When you were younger, did you look forward to Halloween with gleeful anticipation, ready to prowl the neighborhood for your favorite fun-sized candy bars? Or were you ready to leave the tradition behind in favor of more mature social gatherings and new friend groups? Maybe you were caught in the middle?
Aside from a few moments of corny dialogue and delivery, the kids’ friendship and the ways each of them deals with the changes happening in their lives rings true and goes a long way to inject moments of heart into the film’s brisk runtime. And while it’s easy to yearn for more screen time for the adult characters played by recognizable names like Marla Gibbs and Rachel Leigh Cook, the kids are the stars here. And rightly so. Their arcs are simple yet satisfying, and it’s fun to watch them work together to face their demons—both literal and figurative. Perhaps by design, Spirit Halloween feels like a cross between The Goonies and Stranger Things.
Prior to watching, it’s easy to imagine that the film might be a feature-length ad for the Halloween retailer. I’m happy to say that’s not the case here. In fact, it’s strange that for a movie called Spirit Halloween, I almost wish there was less…well, Spirit Halloween. The deserted setting of the Halloween pop-up store is fun and comes pre-loaded with spooks and visually appealing set pieces (not to mention creepy animatronics), but the film really finds its footing and voice when it leaves the store behind in favor of delving deeper into the town’s history and the kids’ friendships. Don’t get me wrong, the film works well with the Spirit elements and serves as an interesting setting (after all, what kid hasn’t thought about spending the night in a department store after closing?), but it would work just as well—and maybe even better—without them.
Spirit Halloween delivers on the story, emotional arc, and tone it sets out to achieve. In that way, it’s a successful feature. But in others, it feels like an early draft. There’s tons of heart and great character material here, but the story of the town and Alec Windsor feels a little underdeveloped, almost like there was material left on the cutting room floor. It’s not hard to imagine the story being a little meatier with another pass or two at the screenplay.
Is Spirit Halloween a movie that’s going to give you nightmares tonight? Probably not. But while it’s not a fright fest, it is a great example of well-executed gateway horror—a film like Goosebumps or The Monster Squad to introduce the genre to younger viewers. Because instead of feeding viewers empty calories, Spirit Halloween mines genuine emotional territory to show that the world is a scary, ever-changing place. But in handling the material with humor and heart, it’s all treat and no trick.
Spirit Halloween: The Movie opens in select theaters on September 30, 2022 and VOD on October 11, 2022.