Grade:  A-
Not rated (would be PG)

Maybe the kids aren’t old enough for Donnie Darko and that old slasher pic Halloween, or they’re still unsettled after you broke your own rule and let them watch it . . . or It.

Maybe they’re too old for Charlie Brown and the Great Pumpkin, and maybe Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, like retail stores these days, lumps Christmas and Halloween a bit too uncomfortably together in one tidy package.

Or maybe everyone has had their fill of Hocus Pocus, Hocus Pocus 2, and Monster House and you’re all Halloweentowned and Beetlejuiced and Sleepy Hollowed out.   

If so, you might turn your attention this trick-or-treat season to the most benign (and still funny) serial killer film ever made.

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) begins, “This is a Halloween tale of Brooklyn, where anything can happen—and it usually does.” We see all sorts of Halloween decorations before the cameras zoom in on the old gabled Brewster house, which is located next to a cemetery—the next best thing to an isolated haunted house. But there aren’t any ghosts here, and the only “monsters” are two sweet, misguided little old ladies . . . who flavor the elderberry wine they offer lonely older gentlemen with arsenic and strychnine. 

Criterion released a Blu-ray of this classic black-and-white dark comedy just in time for Halloween, and it’s going to be one of those films that sticks with you because of the situation, those little old ladies, and star Cary Grant. Even more than His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby it reinforces what a wonderful comic actor Grant was. Though Bob Hope was the first choice of director Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life), Grant so totally made this role uniquely his that you can’t imagine anyone else as the star.

Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, a recently married writer who returns to the home where he was raised by two elderly aunts so he can tell them the good news and introduce them to his wife (Priscilla Lane). But very early in the film he learns that Aunt Abby (Josephine Hull) and Aunt Martha (Jean Adair) have taken to offing the men who respond to their ad for a boarding house room. Why? Well, it all makes perfect sense in their sweet, twisted minds. And while it comes as a surprise, it’s not a complete surprise to Mortimer, who knows that insanity has haunted the Brewster family for generations. A brother still living with the aunts (John Alexander) thinks he’s President Teddy Roosevelt and yells “Charge” every time he runs up the main staircase, while an older brother had been institutionalized for being criminally insane (Raymond Massey as a Boris Karloff lookalike). That brother shows up with classic horror actor Peter Lorre in tow as Dr. Einstein, while the familiar-voiced Edward Everett Horton (Fractured Fairy Tales) appears as Mr. Witherspoon.

Halloween may be the season of cornstalks and corn mazes, but Arsenic and Old Lace isn’t Capracorn—a derogatory term critics have applied to Capra’s unapologetically sentimental films. Though it doesn’t check all the boxes, Arsenic and Old Lace feels more like a screwball comedy because of the fast pacing, the manic behavior, the appearance of eccentric “screwball” characters, the fast and overlapping dialogue, ironic twists, and mix-ups revolving around perception vs. reality. There’s also a bit of the social class commentary typical of screwball comedies, with the upper class getting special treatment.

That helps to explain why Arsenic and Old Lace still plays well, even nearly 80 years later. But the point is, it still does work as an entertaining comedy. Very small children likely won’t appreciate it as much, but third grade and older ought to find the screwball comedy tropes amusing and these Halloween killers as innocent as the old ladies sitting in church pews . . . and twice as memorable.

This Criterion Collection edition features a new restored 4K digital transfer, with an uncompressed mono soundtrack for ultimate clarity. Like all Criterion releases, it’s rich with bonus features, among them a commentary from the author of There’s a Body in the Window Seat!: The History of Arsenic and Old Lace and a radio adaptation of the original Broadway play starring Karloff (who was featured in the Broadway production).

Arsenic and Old Lace ranks No. 30 on the American Film Institute’s list of Top 100 Comedy Movies of All Time. If your family has a playlist of favorite movies that have been a part of your holiday activities, you might give this one and its innocuous serial killers a try.

Entire family:  Yes, but small children might not appreciate the film’s nuances
Run time: 118 min. Black & White
Aspect ratio:  1.37:1
Featured audio:  Uncompressed mono
Studio/Distributor:  Warner Bros./Criterion
Bonus features:  B+
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for some drinking and smoking)

Language:  1/10—I caught nothing offensive

Sex:  2/10—Some extended full-clothed stand-up kissing on several occasions and an implication that the couple has kissed rather heavily in a taxi

Violence:  2/10—Aside from a mild skirmish between one character and police, there’s only the reference to people having been murdered and the bottom half of one body is shown briefly; but in the spirit of Halloween, there are a few jump-scares

Adult situations:  3/10—There’s that plot-essential elderberry wine and some smoking that, frankly, gets lost amid all the screwball comedy tropes

Takeaway:  Some of these old classic black-and-white comedies appealed to the whole family, though that wasn’t their intent . . . and they still hold the same broad appeal today