E.L. King says David Poag's Spirit Halloween lacks the adventurously contagious frivolity and excitement required to captivate audiences of all ages.
Filmed in Rome, Georgia, and Nashville, Tennessee, it's only fitting that Spirit Halloween screen at the 53rd Nashville Film Festival in The Franklin Theatre. The low-budget passion project fails to capture the essence of the season and our attention due to a gross lack of excitement, action, and adventurous spirit. It's the kind of feeling expertly captured by films like The Goonies (1985) and Capser (1995) with its witty dialogue, fantastical set design, and tremendous score heightening its appeal to all ages.
It follows three middle schoolers and childhood friends, Jake (Donovan Colan), Bo (Jaiden J. Smith), and Carson (Dylan Martin Frankel). The trio decides to spend the night locked inside a Spirit Halloween store because they've outgrown the tricks and treats of going house to house peddling for candy. They'll be in high school next year, although none appear to be older than twelve. The friends discover that the store is haunted by the malevolent spirit of Alex Windsor (Christopher Lloyd) and, with the help of Caron's older sister Kate (Marissa Reyes), they embark on a "thrilling and spooky" adventure in order to survive the night.
First-time director David Poag doesn't take advantage of the film's PG-13 rating—a little push in a decidedly darker, suspenseful, comedic, and charming direction might have saved it from its eventual obscurity. Lighthearted family-friendly horror is great, but Spirit Halloween is unlikely to hold much appeal for audiences of any age due to the absence of deliciously fun thrills and chills. Poag seeks to capture the magic of Halloween by relying on our nostalgia for the pop-up Spirit Halloween superstore—it's an iconic staple of the season—but nostalgia alone isn't strong a spell to captivate us. With its rating, one might hope for Poag to lean into the scares, but Jake, Bo, and Carson's night locked in a Spirit Halloween is about as satisfying as the first bite of stale movie theater popcorn.
Perhaps the film is too derivative to stand alone. It follows the established formula of Hocus Pocus (1993) with each act, right down to its outdated special effects and attempts at an eerie backstory. Sadly, Poag and writer Billie Bates don't give us any characters to care about. We should attach ourselves to Jake, the "horror geek" reeling from the death of his father, but Colan is a relative newcomer whose limited emotional range and Bate's story fail to endear us to the character. The heart of the aforementioned film was Thackery Binx, a character that is established early and beloved up to his death. The Spirit Halloween equivalent, Grandma G is a mere footnote, not worthy of Marla Gibbs. Unlike Mikey (Sean Astin) in The Goonies, and Kat (Christina Ricci) in Casper, Jake never reaches his full potential as a protagonist. Which, makes it difficult to be invested enough in his survival to root for him and his friends to get out of the Spirit Halloween alive.
It's unfortunate that Spirit Halloween lacks a compelling story and interesting characters. While it's wonderful to have Christopher Lloyd roaming the store as the evil and menacing spirit stalking the kids, many characters are inconsequential to the story—including Jake's mother Sue (Rachel Leigh Cook). However, one highlight of the film is Smith's indelible performance as the lovable science nerd Bo, cracking jokes based on the Periodic Table.
Spirit Halloween is hokey and perhaps it's meant to be, but it misses the mark on contagious frivolity and excitement. In addition to its underdeveloped plot, the low-budget Ambilnesque production value is severely lacking. Despite a deep love of the annual trips to the Spirit Halloween store, the film's comedic and horror elements simply don't complement each other, which is a real disappointment. If anything, the film is proof that the formula doesn't work without a little substance to hold up the story.
Spirit Halloween was screened at the 53rd Nashville Film Festival on October 1, 2022, and premieres theatrically on October 11, 2022.