For parents seeking age-appropriate Halloween viewing, a visit to the video store can be more trick than treat. R-rated scares, the stuff that nightmares are made of, rule, especially with teen audiences. There has been a comparative dearth of horrifically correct programming for preschoolers and preteens.
This year, the situation is noticeably less grave. Freddy, Chuckie and Jason still haunt the shelves, but joining them are friendly ghosts, killer tomatoes and vegetarian vampires.
"A lot of mothers come in and ask if we have anything their kids can watch," said Steve Mabry, manager of Video Tyme in Ventura. "This is a pretty good niche for someone to fill."
Typical of this trend in tot-friendly terror is Walt Disney Home Video's "Frankenpooh," a program of "not-so-scary stories" about "bumpities and spookables." A behemoth Winnie the Pooh searching for honey and the wail of Eeyore the donkey as he learns to use a tree swing are about as scary as this gets.
"Children like to celebrate Halloween," said Cynthia Di Ruscio, a manager for the Vide-O-lympix chain in Huntington Beach. "There is an increase in videos for children that don't focus on scaring the daylights out of them with the kind of gore that teen-agers like."
This Halloween, no ghost has been friendlier to retailers than the PG-rated "Casper," already a big seller and hot renter for MCA/Universal Home Video after less than three weeks in stores.
"It has something for everyone," De Ruscio said. "The only kids who seem to be a little bit afraid are the 2- to 5-year-olds, but they get through it sitting with their parents."
These toddlers might better appreciate the original "Casper" cartoons, also available from MCA/Universal, for the suggested retail price of $9.98 each.
Disney, which made a big play earlier this year for the preschool market with its "Bright Beginnings" collection, recently unleashed "House of Happy Haunts," a 14-title collection of Halloween-themed features and new and classic cartoon compilations, each retail-priced between $12.99 and $19.99.
In addition to "Frankenpooh," the collection includes the golden turkey "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes" and "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas," repriced to $14.99 retail.
The cartoon compilations include "Donald's Scary Tales," the classic featurette "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Trick or Treason," featuring Alvin and the Chipmunks.
When it comes to marketing "safe-scary" Halloween videos, the Sony Wonder label is not playing dead.
"It is important to provide families with an alternative to adult-oriented Halloween videos," said Wendy Moss, Sony Wonder senior vice president of marketing. "Parents are focusing on Halloween as another holiday to share as a family. To make a fun night at home, they're looking for something they can watch for the occasion that has an element of scariness but is not too scary."
Sony Wonder recently introduced to home video the Nickelodeon series "Aaahh!!! Real Monsters," recommended for children ages 6 and older. The two volumes--"Meet the Monsters" and "Monsters Night Out"--retail for $12.98 each. Also available from Sony Wonder are two new-to-video volumes in its "Tales From the Cryptkeeper" animated anthology series. "Chuck (and Melvin) and the Beanstalker" and "Dead Men Don't Jump" also retail for $12.98 each. The label also distributes episodes of the Nickelodeon series "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark."
There is nothing like Halloween to scare up business, especially on long-dormant horror titles.
"Our horror section may sit there collecting dust," Mabry said. "Then, a week to 10 days before Halloween, the titles start to rent. After Halloween, it's back into hibernation."
Because Halloween is so genre-specific, parents who may not be horror buffs are at the mercy of video store personnel for recommendations. If first choice titles such as "Casper" and "Hocus Pocus" are unavailable, it helps to have someone who knows where the sleepers are buried.
"The Lady in White" (starring Lukas Haas), "The Witches" (starring Anjelica Huston) and "Beetlejuice" are oft-cited titles that are recommended to families with children ages 7 and older.
To parents of younger children, Mabry recommends a personal childhood favorite, the animated "Mad Monster Party," and for children over 7, Disney's "Something Wicked This Way Comes," based on the story by Ray Bradbury.
Turner Home Entertainment's "The Halloween Tree," the award-winning animated adaptation of another Bradbury story, and "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," from Paramount Home Video, are also among the most active family Halloween titles.
New to video this Halloween and vying for perennial status are Warner Home Video's "Double, Double, Toil and Trouble," starring the "Full House" twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Vidmark Entertainment's release of the ABC animated special "Monster in My Pocket" and, from Just for Kids, "The Ketchup Vampires," narrated by human cartoon Elvira.