Hollywood's Horror History — For Kids There have been a slew of animated family comedies based on horror classics in theaters recently — ParaNorman, Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie, to name a few. NPR's Bob Mondello explores the monster movie's transition from scream-inducing to family fodder.
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Hollywood's Horror History — For Kids

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Hollywood's Horror History — For Kids

Hollywood's Horror History — For Kids

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Finally this hour, monster movies for the middle school set. Tim Burton's animated film "Frankenweenie" opens today. It tells the story of a boy and his not entirely alive dog. Our critic Bob Mondello notes it's the third recent computer animated kid flick to reinvent early horror movie tropes for a younger generation.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: My dad told me that he and his big brother had to sneak out to see "Frankenstein" in 1931 because grandma thought they were too young - 12 and 13 at the time, they had plenty of Bronx swagger but...

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDER)

MONDELLO: As they huddled together in the far-reaches of the balcony and Boris Karloff's lifeless fingers twitched for the first time, they were both scared shoutless.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FRANKENSTEIN")

MONDELLO: My own first exposure to the Frankenstein story was comic, on TV, where at about the age of eight, I saw the monster, played this time by Glenn Strange, chasing Abbott and Costello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN")

MONDELLO: Decades later, my nephews were also introduced to him on TV by Peter Boyle's tap dancing monster in "Young Frankenstein."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN")

MONDELLO: Now, Tim Burton gives us the world's first stop-motion black-and-white Imax movie "Frankenweenie," about an animated kid who reanimates his pooch Sparky, after an auto accident.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FRANKENWEENIE")

MONDELLO: What's happened to Frankenstein has also happened to most of the creatures from Universal's horror vaults. Dracula, who runs an inn for monsters in the new kid flick "Hotel Transylvania," has been so thoroughly eclipsed by his pop-culture cousins that should real vampires venture into an elementary schoolyard these days, they'd likely inspire more tweets than shrieks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA")

MONDELLO: Same thing with werewolves. Especially if they've been working on their washboard abs like "Twilight's" Taylor Lautner. And the hunchbacks, mummies and phantoms who used to haunt cathedrals and opera houses, all mere objects of fun these days.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORROR MOVIE)

MONDELLO: Which is maybe as it should be. Parents don't want tykes traumatized on Halloween. But it's interesting how monsters have evolved into such tame kid stuff since their '30s movie heyday. Credit that to a little animated poltergeist named Casper and his descendants.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME SONG FROM TV SHOW, "CASPER THE FRIENDLY GHOST")

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "STAR WARS")

MONDELLO: To ogres...

(SOUNDBITE OF "SHREK")

MONDELLO: And a buddy act involving a big eye and fur ball.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MONSTERS, INC.")

MONDELLO: In 2001, "Shrek" and "Monsters, Inc." reset the whole kid flick genre by becoming the two biggest computer animated movies ever. And that cued this burst of movie vault grave-robbing. "Frankenweenie" is an obvious riff on "Frankenstein." "Hotel Transylvania" has Count Dracula hosting critters from Wolfman to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And "ParaNorman" centers on a kid who sees dead people in a distinctly "Sixth Sense" sort of way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PARANORMAN")

MONDELLO: Kids will get a little life lesson, while parents hear movie references, which is how kid flicks almost always work these days. No one expects children to know the star of the silent horror classic "Nosferatu" was a guy named Max Shrek but cinema buffs might. They'll also recognize whole scenes from the original "Frankenstein" in Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie." And some will even note that Winona Ryder is voicing a surly little girl...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FRANKENWEENIE")

MONDELLO: Who looks and, of course, sounds just like the character she played in another Tim Burton horror spoof, "Bettlejuice."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BEETLEJUICE")

MONDELLO: It's worth noting that monsters, even the ones these new films aim at children, have the same purpose that they did when they were terrifying older generations. They represent our fears: fear of the dark, of the unknown, of illness, of things unpredictable, feelings untamable - which is why even the tamest of these new monster movies gets rated PG, not G. The difference is, these monsters are not designed to be scary. They're designed to be outwitted. And happily, although grownups are so clueless that they sometimes don't even believe in monsters, kids are around to outwit them. I'm Bob Mondello.

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