Since 2013 has been a slow year for Monster Kids so far, it’s made me nostalgic for the good ol’ days – like, you know, last year. Yeah, yeah, I know – most “best of” and retrospective lists come at the end of the year in question, or early in January of the new year. Well, that’s okay. Because here at the Corner, we’re too busy watching long past, future Corner contenders like Mom’s Got a Date With a Vampire and How My Dad Killed Dracula to worry too much about the internet status quo.
Still, better late than never. Horror cinema as presented in 2012 featured a few animated family films that weren’t complete pablum, and even a couple of masterpieces. Yes, masterpieces. Don’t laugh.
First, the not-so-bad Hotel Transylvania. On paper, it seemed like it might be a bit of a train wreck, with Adam Sandler voicing Dracula and Disney princess Selena Gomez portraying Drac’s daughter, Mavis. Toss in Kevin James, Jon Lovitz and David Spade, and the first word that comes to mind might be “Really?”
Thankfully, it turned out to be a basically harmless, fast-moving monster homage with some really great moments. Sure, there are more than few groaners and corny sight gags, but more often than not, Hotel Transylvania is a tolerable, fast paced and funny family flick to take in with youngsters who have a burgeoning love of monsters.
It also boasts a surprising number of nods to past incarnations of our beloved beasties, as well as a few original ways to portray some of the creatures; for instance, the werewolf, Wayne, has a pretty insufferable brood of little werepups running around and wreaking havoc. The story of Mavis the vampire and her 118th birthday party should bring a few grins to Monster Kids of all ages. It’s more for the youngsters, of course, but you take what you can get.
Burton has gone a long time between successful genre movies, depending on your opinion of 2007’s Sweeney Todd (I liked it). It’s been an even longer time since he plugged into the magical horror/fantasy storytelling of classics such as Beetlejuice. Skeptical audiences couldn’t be blamed, and those wondering if Frankenweenie would put them more in mind of the wistful and lovely Edward Scissorhands or the disappointing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, made their doubts known at the box office: the Disney release grossed only $35 million.
And that’s a shame, because the black and white love letter to classic Universal fright films turned out to be a beautiful picture, with all of Burton’s strengths finally back there on the big screen – the misunderstood outcast and sweet, witty strangeness alongside strong, spooky-cool, visually stunning imagery.
Most importantly, the storytelling was back. The tale of smart young Victor and his reanimated dog Sparky is clever, well-paced, funny and quite often moving. Burton displays a confidence that hasn’t really been present in his films in years, possibly because he knew the material was strong. And as for the kids, yeah, it’s a winner; my young daughters watched with starry eyes, their expressions ranging from open-mouthed wonder to satisfied smiles to flat-out laughter.
Which brings me to the third film, and my choice for 2012’s movie of the year in the horror genre: the wonderful and haunting ParaNorman.
ParaNorman is a delight and a wonder, packed with horror references but pumping with the life blood of a modern masterwork. Unlike so many monsterfests of recent years, it doesn’t feel like a reach for a bit of nostalgia; it feels like now, with due respect given to what came before.
Norman sees dead people. And just like his counterpart in one of the greatest horror films ever made, 1999’s The Sixth Sense (yeah, I said it), his family doesn’t believe him. But unlike that film’s sad-faced little hero, Norman does have one good friend who has faith in him: the optimistic and hilarious Neil. Still, Neil’s belief in Norman is just one aspect of a morally rich film that teaches but never preaches. The discoveries that Norman makes along his journey are as captivating and often as witty as the lessons he learns.
All of which might sounds rather boring and pretentious, but it’s not. ParaNorman tosses aside a lot of conventions of the animated family movie in favour of challenging and surprising moments. There are even a couple of extremely pronounced, decidedly anti-PC pieces of dialogue that are quite unexpected. The crowd I watched it with at the theatre simultaneously gasped and howled at them.
But even aside from all of that, the visuals aimed at us horror fans are striking. Witches in the sky, zombies prowling the night, the graveyard framed by the dusk – this is really colourful, cool-looking stuff. Somehow – and this is probably ParaNorman‘s greatest accomplishment – this amazingly well crafted stop-motion movie is never stripped of its sense of mystery; it starts out magical and remains that way until the credits finish, punctuated by the brilliant Jack White song playing over the animation.
Unfortunately, ParaNorman was another disappointment at the box office, though it was nominated for Best Animated Feature by the Academy along with Frankenweenie (both lost to Disney’s admittedly very good Brave). Too bad, because both movies deserve a deeper look from horror fans of all ages.
Still, despite the lack of box office attention and the loss at the Oscars, ParaNorman gets an even more coveted distinction: the Monster Kid Corner seal of approval as the best horror film of 2012.
Now go rent it – or better yet, buy it.
Paul Counelis is the author of Kendall Kingsley and the Secret of the Scarecrow, which is available for purchase here. He writes about horror for a number of publications and websites, including suite101. His latest book, 25 Underrated Horror Films (and The Exorcist), is available here.