There’s something to be said for taking an idea so outlandish as say, a haunted halloween store and turning it into an actual film. Sometimes, depending on the execution, these risks can have big payoffs. The success or failure often rests solely on the self awareness of the filmmaker. It’s a tricky balance of not wanting to be so aware that no one takes you seriously but also not be so serious that viewers start to believe you’re not in on your own joke. “Spirit Halloween: The Movie” doesn’t quite strike the balance it should, tonally shifting from self satire to tongue in cheek family fun to blatant brand awareness advertising. All of these conflicting ideas collide into make a film that is sometimes fun and enjoyable and sometimes exhaustingly stupid and unwatchable. It instead bounces aimlessly from family fun to a marketing commercial, never really being imaginative enough to tap into whatever it could be.
Directed by David Poag (making his feature film debut) and written by Billie Bates, “Spirit Halloween” follows three young teenage boys who are on the cusp of growing up and transitioning from middle school to high school next year. Jake desperately wants to hold on to their yearly trick or treating, costume traditions, while Carson wants to grow up right now and leave it all behind. Caught in the middle is Bo, who is too afraid to side with either one and tends to go with whatever the more dominant opinion is. Undecided on what the group should do, they decide that testing their spooky limits is the way to go, and decide to spend the night in a Spirit Halloween on the outskirts of town after it closes. Of course, this particular store is haunted by an evil spirit who was trapped on the land in the 1940s, and needs a body to takeover and leave the store forever. It’s a classic battle of kids vs ghosts, and they must use what they can find to stay alive and ghost free until midnight.
When stripped down to its bare bones, “Spirit Halloween” should probably work in the vein of things like “The Goonies” and “Monster Squad.” Bates is clearly influenced by these childhood adventure stories, and Poag most certainly has a desire to enter his own vision into the genre. Unfortunately, the film simply can’t escape its branding origins, failing to capture any of the magic from the films it’s influenced by and unable to do anything imaginative with its premise. There isn’t really a conflict outside of the infighting between some boys we just met and a manufactured ghost story that is never really fleshed out in any meaningful way. If Bates and Poag had done their homework, they would find that there is already lore surrounding the haunting of the halloween store. We even did a write about it last year (story here), and it has plenty of rich, spooky history to draw from that could’ve created a better framework with which our young protagonists get to operate in.
But instead of drawing from a well already full, “Spirit Halloween” goes for the dull and obvious, cramming in a weird backstory featuring Christopher Lloyd (who I have no idea why in the world he’s in this thing) as the villainous real estate mogul (yes, really) who gets cursed by a witch that may or may not have ties to Bo (Jaiden J. Smith) and his family tree. Of course, “Spirit Halloween” isn’t exactly interested in getting into why or how any of that relates, just that we need a ghost and a recognizable voice to do some voice work over the anamatronic takeovers. In addition, “Spirit Halloween” never fully uses all of the tools at its disposal, only giving us a decent setting of an actual store then abandoning it entirely to go down into a basement with a spooky house that becomes a huge set piece of the second act. Or, locking our child heroes in a boiler room for a large chunk of that same act. It’s as if “Spirit Halloween’s” only wink at the audience is that some of the film takes place inside one, and that should be enough to get you off the couch and into a store near you.
For all its faults however, “Spirit Halloween” isn’t a total train wreck, nor is it completely oblivious to the kind of the film it’s making. There is some fun to be had, and Jake (Donovan Colan) and Carson (Dylan Frankel) are well rounded enough to make their characters and friendship dynamic interesting sometimes. And there is enough laughs and playful spooks to not be completely dull. I did find myself actually paying attention at times, and even laughing a bit and feeling like it could be a ride I’d be willing to take. The biggest problem with “Spirit Halloween” is that it simply doesn’t go far enough into its ridiculousness, having only glimpses of fun moments instead of just being generally fun all throughout. I don’t think anyone (myself included) was expecting the next “Monster Squad” here, but there is true potential in its premise alone that it never quite plugs into in order to deliver the kind of tongue in cheek ride we would want from something like this.
While Lloyd is a strange addition to this one, Rachel Leigh Cooke deserves far better than this. I don’t know if she’s just hurting for roles right now or just trying to collect a few paychecks, but neither are worth her time or efforts. Plus, she is vastly underutilized as the concerned mom watching her kids grow up from afar, and while this would be a pretty decent role for her in a better movie, she is most certainly punching down in this one. I get it, “Spirit Halloween” is about the kids and not the parents. But if you’re really trying to tap into the childhood adventure stories of the late 80s and early 90s, maybe not cast a 90s darling as the mom for 5 minutes of screen time. I’m sorry, but Cooke and Lloyd aren’t the hooks you want the to be. And if you’re gonna go through all the effort to get them to BE your hooks, then by god give them something more to do than just exist.
Truthfully, your kids will probably get a kick out of “Spirit Halloween,” as it has just enough halloween fun to be mildly enjoyable. And it isn’t insufferable for adults, either. But while it can be mildly enjoyed by a family, it is largely forgettable. The only real takeaway is that there is probably one around the corner from your house, and if you need some last minute Halloween shopping ideas, you should probably stop watching the movie and head to the store near you.
That’s it. That’s the “Spirit Halloween” commercial, drawn out to an 80 minute movie.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Stars
“Spirit Halloween” is currently playing in Select Theaters and available on VOD. You can watch the trailer below.