It’s that time of year again: the leaves are changing, it’s getting chilly, and Halloween is coming. There are a lot of ways to celebrate the upcoming holiday, and if you’re too old to be trick-or-treating, you’re probably getting ready for it by stocking up on horror movies.
Full-length feature films get the love, but there’s a lot to be had in the world of shorts, especially animated shorts, for getting into the Halloween spirit. The following shorts definitely fit the Halloween/horror bill.
Traditionally, although rare today, movie theatres would show an animated short before their feature films, and most if not all of these shorts could work to precede the horror movies of your choice. That said, these shorts can also stand on their own if you want or only have the time for a quick dip into the seasonal spirit.
(Note: This list is in alphabetical order and is not ranked in any other way.)
Rich Zim’s Claymation short “Birdhouse” first appeared on the scene in October 1996. It’s a subtle, creepy tale. A man is building a birdhouse when he’s interrupted by the delivery of a mysterious package containing a cute little creature. They bond, they have a lovely time… But the man does want to finish the birdhouse he was working on before the little guy entered his life. The creature doesn’t handle this well, and acts out. The whole short ends with a cardboard box closing, making the viewer wonder if they’re witnessing an endless cycle, to be acted out again with some other poor, unsuspecting person.
I’ve never seen this short anywhere but online. I first watched it in the very early 2000s hosted on a stop-motion-centric website, and never saw it again until around 2012. It won multiple awards at multiple film festivals following its original release, yet it seems to have slipped into obscurity.
Gahan Wilson’s “Diner” from 1992 follows a health inspector in training on his first field outing. At a nondescript Midwest side-of-the-highway greasy spoon, he finds that things can get much worse than a fly in your soup. Wilson is probably better known for his work as a cartoonist, and his art style adapts well to animation for a frightening world that still has room for some sight gags. The seemingly strange choice of jaunty music gives the short an off-kilter comedic angle to the gruesome sights.
Outside of Youtube, I’ve only ever seen this short on the 24th International Tournee of Animation tape. According to Wilson, Stephen Spielberg loved it, so maybe there will be greater official distribution of the short in the future.
“Everyone Wants to Direct,” Courage the Cowardly Dog:
What sort of list would this be without a Courage the Cowardly Dog short? In this, the hapless Muriel and greedy Eustace are taken in by Benton Tarentella, a reanimated Indie movie director. Of course, only Courage can tell that things are not right with Tarentella, who plans to wake his former partner for a bite to eat. It wasn’t so unusual for Courage to delve into some scary imagery and ideas, but this story is genuinely gruesome. Fortunately, zombies are idiots.
The first season of Courage the Cowardly Dog is available on DVD, and occasionally random seasons appear on the US Netflix. Sometimes Cartoon Network brings Courage the Cowardly Dog, Goosebumps, and The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy back into their programming schedule in October. Since this whole show tends to be a little darker in fare, most episodes fit well into the Halloween “mood” well and it’s worth checking out this month if you’ve never seen it before, or even if you just haven’t seen it in a while.
“A Night on Bald Mountain”:
A classic from the Disney vault! “A Night on Bald Mountain” is the second to last feature from Disney’s 1940 cult classic film Fantasia. On Walpurgis night, the Chernabog raises the dead and revs up his demonic followers to celebrate the holiday. There’s some impressive animation in this piece that creates the perfect mood—maybe a little too perfect. Since Fantasia’s initial release, parents have been writing to the Disney studio to complain about this short terrifying their children, or so the story goes. “A Night on Bald Mountain” passes seamlessly into “Ave Maria,” meant to remind all of the triumph of goodness over evil and light over dark, but the Chernabog leaves everybody too shell-shocked to remember any of that.
Fantasia is available on DVD and, at the time of this writing, the US Netflix. It’s possible that an edited version (there are a couple of demonic nip slips) may crop up on the Disney Channel around Halloween. By the way, this short would probably pair well with the 1931 Dracula, as Bela Lugosi modeled for the Chernabog. It’s often said that none of his test footage was used, but those gestures and facial expressions seem completely Lugosi to me.
Phil Tippet’s 1984 “Prehistoric Beast” follows the last day of a monoclonius’ life. Yet it plays out in a way that might be considered old hat if the cast was human. A monoclonius wanders deeper and deeper into a forest until he is well into the lair of a tyrannosaurus Rex. The camera begins wavering, as if we’re watching the doomed dino from someone else’s point of view, we see the T. Rex in the periphery, and finally, the monoclonius finds the remains of the T. Rex’s last meal. It ramps up the tension effectively, and the climactic struggle between the two dinosaurs is exciting and convincing. The short even ends in true slasher fashion, with the implication that our killer will be back for more victims.
Tippet’s short can be watched on (but not embedded from) Youtube. This is a digitally remastered version of the short. “Prehistoric Beast” can also be found in whole on the 24th International Tournee of Animation tape and in pieces on the 1985 Dinosaur! documentary. By the way, Tippet would be the man to thank for the convincing dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.
Nothing to do with Neil Gaiman’s famous comic book series. The 1991 stop-motion short follows a boy who doesn’t want to sleep. The Sandman in this tale is not benevolent, and has a tendency to take things from children that won’t go to sleep. As if the story itself wasn’t scary enough, the visuals seem to borrow much from German expressionism, which distorts reality in order to get a visceral or emotional response from the viewer. Everything in this world is already a little off to begin with.
This is a haunting short, especially if you watch through the credits. The only thing that really softens the blow has to do with one of the crew members, Ian Mackinnon. His company, Mackinnon and Saunders, would go on to create commercials for Puffs tissues from 2001-2011. The child victim in The Sandman kind of resembles the Puffs kids, doesn’t he?
“The Skeleton Dance”:
This early Silly Symphony (think Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks!) short isn’t the scariest on this list, but it’s a Halloween classic. First appearing in theatres in 1929, the short shows skeletons rising in a graveyard and using each other as musical instruments for a literal danse macabre. They finally flee back underground when the rooster crows the next morning.
Obviously this short is available on Youtube, but if you’re lucky you may catch it on the (main) Disney channel before or on October 31.
“A Touch of Deceit”:
This short was a student project for animator Michel Gagné in 1986. It’s extremely short, but effective. A Disney-cute bunny is captivated by a Disney-cute butterfly that isn’t quite what it appears to be. This isn’t exactly horror, but it’s surprising, and the butterfly’s true form still gives me the creeps.
This short is also available on the 22nd International Tournee of Animation tape, and I found it on a cheapo animation disc at a dollar store about ten years ago. Though I no longer have the DVD and couldn’t tell you the name (something like World Animation Vol. [X]), I picked it up because it had a badly redrawn version of the rabbit and butterfly on the cover. The short available on Youtube has an original score composed for the film; the version on the Tournee of Animation tape and the dollar store DVD used preexisting music which had been licensed at the time.
“Treehouse of Horror IV,” The Simpsons:
Every year from Season 2 on, The Simpsons has put out a special Halloween episode. These are usually parodies of movies or TV shows done with the Simpsons cast. I admit I’ve cheated a little with this one by picking out a whole episode made up of independent shorts instead of just one short, but it really is too hard to pick just one short out of the entire “Treehouse of Horror” series. I decided to consider the episodes as wholes, and although there are a ton of good ones—seriously, check some of the other “Treehouse of Horror” episodes out—the fourth episode won out.
In the season five installment, Homer contends with the devil for his soul (and a forbidden donut), Bart tries to avoid certain death at the claws of a much more threatening gremlin than the one in the episode of The Twilight Zone it parodies, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” and finally, the whole family has to avoid doom at the hands of C. Montgomery… Dracula. The wraparound story that introduces each segment is also a parody of The Night Gallery, Rod Serling’s show after The Twilight Zone. It’s a strong episode through and through, consistently funny thanks to clever writing, and the middle segment fits the “horror” bill well.
The fifth season of The Simpsons is available on DVD, and FX/FXX usually runs a “Treehouse of Horror” marathon before Halloween.
So, how was it? Are you feeling any more ready for Halloween and all that comes with it than you were before? And do you have any other shorts that haunted you as a kid — or that you’ve seen recently — that you think could or should be on here? Let us know! The n3rdabl3 crew is always down for a good short-subject scare.