“The Nightmare Before Christmas” (Henry Selick, 1993)
Arguably, the recent scary animated movie renaissance can be directly traced back to this single Tim Burton/Henry Selick collaboration, which began as a poem (and, later, developed as a television special) when Burton was still a lowly Disney animator in the early eighties. (Its lack of forward momentum would contribute largely to Burton leaving the studio to become one of the biggest directors in the world.) When “Nightmare Before Christmas” was released theatrically, it wasn’t much of a hit (I remember the toys, enclosed in coffin-shaped boxes, collecting dust at my local Disney Store), but in the years since has gained a huge cult following, to the point that the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland is transformed every year into the Haunted Holiday Mansion, with characters from “Nightmare Before Christmas” placed inside the iconic attraction. What wasn’t apparent then is very clear now — the movie is a classic, through and through, thanks largely to Selick’s uncanny direction, Burton’s ingenious concept and Danny Elfman’s hummable songs and score. And its spookiness, considered such a liability back then, makes it even more endearing now.
“Monster House” (Gil Kenan, 2006)
While motion-capture technology, at least when applied to feature length films, has baffled audiences more often than its delighted them, a case should be made for “Monster House,” an oddly under-seen gem from director Gil Kenan and producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. The reason that “Monster House” — which has a kind of zany, early Steven Spielberg-presents vibe — succeeds where so many of its motion-capture brethren have failed is because it’s so highly stylized; it’s not trying to stand in for real life, so it doesn’t even try. Instead, it creates a winning, emotionally rich setting that is equal parts eighties and fifties, a kind of gee-whiz suburbia where people play videogames in the back of pizza joints and that spooky old house at the end of the street is actually a carnivorous monster. It feels like a movie that should be watched every Halloween, a perennial favorite best enjoyed between doling out candied treats to the neighborhood kids.
“Perfect Blue” (Satoshi Kon, 1996)
When Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar-winning ballet horror show “Black Swan” was released, critics and audiences were quick to point out its many influences — everything from Dario Argento’s witchy “Suspiria” to Powell and Pressburger’s groundbreaking “The Red Shoes.” But few pointed to “Perfect Blue,” a moody 1997 Japanese animated film by certifiable genius Satoshi Kon (who directed the similarly trippy “Paprika”), that seems to have been a key point of reference for Aronofsky and company. “Perfect Blue” concerns a female pop star (part of a group called CHAM!) who decides to change careers and star in a television crime series; a career move that outrages many of her fans and spurs a stalker to become increasingly threatening. Like “Black Swan,” “Perfect Blue” is chiefly concerned with the mixing of fantasy and reality, as the pop star’s world shuttles (with increasing intensity) between the crime drama she stars in and her actual life. Gorgeously animated with expressionistic menace by Madhouse, “Perfect Blue” is a lost classic, one that is thematically indebted to De Palma and Hitchcock while forging rich new ground.
“Fear(s) of the Dark” (Various, 2007)
Bafflingly, “Fear(s) of the Dark,” a truly nifty existential animated black-and-white French horror anthology, has been shown only a handful of times in the United States and never had a wide commercial release. Oh what’s that you say? There’s not much of a market for existential animated black-and-white French horror anthologies? Bah! Nevertheless, “Fear(s) of the Dark” contains some genuinely unsettling entries in a variety of animation styles, including tales that involve ghostly samurais and a snarling pack of wild dogs (there is also, true to form, a weird in-between story made up of interviews with people about what they fear, augmented by minimalist animation). However, my favorite has to be the one written and directed by Charles Burns, whose “Black Hole” is one of the greatest post-“Watchmen” triumphs in American comics. His entry features psychosexual unease and a truly terrifying transformation and shows you that computer animation doesn’t have to be exclusively used for bringing cars and toys to life.
“The Haunted World of El Superbeasto” (Rob Zombie, 2009)
Despite being, in the words of its hard-rocking director Rob Zombie, “a $ 10 million animated extravaganza,” few people have actually seen “The Haunted World of El Superbeasto,” much less talk about it. For a while the movie was mired in protracted legal issues with Starz Media, the studio that provided the animation, which left “El Superbeasto,” despite its inflated budget, beloved director and starry cast that includes Paul Giamatti, Rosario Dawson, and Danny Trejo, a direct-to-video oddity instead of a theatrical cult film. El Superbeasto (comedian Tom Papa, who co-wrote the script) is an adult film actor and occult detective who wears a Mexican wrestling mask and prowls the streets of Monsterland (imagine “Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s” Toontown, except stocked with horror movie regulars), looking for chicks to bang and crimes to solve. Paul Giamatti plays Dr. Satan, a cartoonish version of a character from Zombie’s “House of 1,000 Corpses,” who looks to end the world by having sex with a trashy stripper (Dawson). If you aren’t, in the very least intrigued by this movie, feel free to skip. Anyone else should check this out — it’s hilarious, has amazing songs, an out-of-control energy, and is incredibly, incredibly filthy.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, 1996)
“The Black Cauldron,” Disney’s costly 1985 animated flop, is considered by many to be the darkest animated film in the studio’s history (to the point that several sequences were trimmed last minute at the insistence of new exec Jeffrey Katzenberg) but a strong case could be made for 1996’s unfairly overlooked “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” being the most “adult” Disney animated film ever. Based on the beloved novel by Victor Hugo (and inspired, at least in part, by the Lon Chaney film), Disney’s “Hunchback” doesn’t shy away from disturbing material — from the opening sequence that shows the brutal murder of Quasimodo’s mother at the hands of Judge Frollo, to excessive talk of eternal damnation, to a sequence where Frollo, driven mad by his sexual desires for gypsy Esmeralda, pictures her dancing seductively (all of this during a musical number called “Hellfire”). It’s all a little much, but It’s also totally brilliant. While lacking that film’s natural buoyancy and charm, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is every bit as good as “Beauty & the Beast,” with irresistibly operatic songs by Alan Menken and Steven Schwartz, lush animation (provided, in part, by the studio’s now-shuttered Paris studio), and thematic content way more sophisticated than your usual animated fare. This was metaphoric hunchback Michael Eisner’s favorite animated film during his tenure in the Disney belltower. Make of that what you will.
“The Corpse Bride” (Tim Burton and Mike Johnson, 2005)
For Tim Burton’s long-awaited return to stop-motion features, he chose “The Corpse Bride,” based on a ghoulish Russian folk tale and animated to look like a Hammer horror movie. In it, a nerdy young man (Johnny Depp, of course), who is engaged to a nice young woman (Emily Watson), accidentally ends up marrying a ghoul (Helena Bonham Carter, of course to the nth degree). This leads to all sorts of zombie-ish imagery and some fun new songs from Danny Elfman (not exactly up to the caliber of his “Nightmare Before Christmas” material, but that could be said of the whole movie). Interestingly, “Corpse Bride” was shot on consumer digital cameras, which sped up the laborious process of stop-motion animation considerably. The movie is most alive when it’s in the world of the dead, with dancing skeletons and a worm that sounds like Peter Lorre. It was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2005 but lost to…
“Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (Nick Park and Steve Box, 2005)
… “Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.” Directors Nick Park (who originated the characters in a series of unforgettable shorts) and Steve Box have referred to the film, the first feature-length outing for the inventor and his trusty, silent dog, as “the first vegetarian horror movie.” What’s really great about “Were-Rabbit” — among many, many other things — is how shrewdly it references the British Hammer horror movies (also a touchstone for Burton and “Corpse Bride”) in a unique and fresh way — the movie really captures the spirit of the villagers who are plagued by a supernatural force and want it gone at all costs. (In this case a giant “were-rabbit” is gobbling up all of the townspeople’s prized vegetables. The horror! The horror!) The mystery of who the were-rabbit is remains lively and the design work, across the board, is unparalleled. It’s also terrifically funny and clever, in a way only bested by the best Pixar movies. Kind of amazing that there were two stop motion-animated horror movies released the same year but we’ve got to say, the best toon won.
“Coraline” (Henry Selick, 2009)
After “Nightmare Before Christmas,” director Henry Selick dabbled in his beloved stop-motion animation, mostly in combinations with live action (to varying degrees of success) — he created the Burton-produced Disney movie “James and the Giant Peach,” which failed to recapture the “Nightmare Before Christmas” magic, directed the heavily compromised Brendan Fraser whatsit “Monkeybone” for Fox and contributed creatures to Wes Anderson’s lopsided “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” So many saw “Coraline,” his first (and ultimately only) feature for the Laika animation studio, as the true successor to “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Based on the wonderful Neil Gaiman book of the same name and featuring a young girl who is torn between this world and a nightmarish alternate reality, the movie isn’t without its hiccups (an early version was a musical, complete with new songs written by They Might Be Giants) and plot contrivances (much of the last act turns into a find-the-thingamajig jaunt) but it perfectly showcases Selick’s unmatched eye for atypical design and creeping dread.
“Mad Monster Party” (Jules Bass, 1967)
While not technically a horror movie, “Mad Monster Party” features more famous creatures than the upcoming Universal Monsters Blu-ray box set (can we please have one?) and remains a lovably dopey perenniall Halloween watch, at least around my haunted castle. The plot of “Mad Monster Party” actually sounds eerily similar to “Hotel Transylvania,” with Baron Von Frankenstein (Boris Karloff) being visited by his nebbish nephew Felix and encountering a whole host of wacky creatures, including the Werewolf, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Invisible Man, Dracula, the Hunchback of Notre Dame (see!), the Mummy and more. The movie, a feature-length affair when a simple television special would have done, was produced by Rankin/Bass, the stop-motion animation company that did the immortal Christmas classics like “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Mad Monster Party,” carries with it a similar kind of shopworn charm. No one is going to mistake this for a classic, but there is something terribly endearing about hearing Phyllis Diller croon “You’re Different,” an ode to lovable monstrousness.