If you’re a kid of the ’80s and ’90s like I and pretty much all of the writers here at Nerdist are, then there is one thing we can all agree on with regards to our childhoods: they were scary as sh*t! The sole purpose of everything was terrify us back then. Kids now have it easy, says the 35 year old man sounding like a 90 year old. No media scares or disturbs them at all. But when we were all youngins, the movies marketed to kids were full of frightening imagery and themes. But, because nostalgia, we still love them; it’s just boggling how many of these films came out.
Below is an UNRANKED, CHRONOLOGICAL LIST of movies for kids that make some horror movies look tame. (Your mileage may vary.)
Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977)
I wasn’t alive for this movie’s initial release, but I certainly remember watching it at my grandparents’ house (my grandma taped it off of PBS at some point). Outwardly, it seems like a normal, kind of pre-Toy Story adventure cartoon; the famous dolls Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy have to find their way back to their owner-kid’s house. They left to rescue a French doll named Babette from a pirate. So, noble reasons. They of course also encounter various other creatures and beings along the way. But these creatures and the squiggly, distorted, Ralph Steadmany animation style caused me a lot of grimaces over the years. I didn’t stop watching it, of course. The below clip features the part where they fall into a vat of gooey candy stuff only to find out it’s a living glob person who eats himself. So, acid, huh?
The Watcher in the Woods (1980)
There was a time at Disney, the pre-Katzenberg days, when there was an active goal to make scary movies for kids. As a result, some really interesting, really weird, and very dark films came about, including the animated The Black Cauldron and the live action Dragonslayer. However, it also produced some straight up horror. The first of them was this film from director John Hough (Legend of here House, Escape to Witch Mountain) and writer Brian Clemens (Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter). A creepy-ass Bette Davis is the main character, so that’s nightmare fuel already; this trailer has the same narrator as Jaws and the cutting makes it look like The Omen. DISNEY did this.
The Secret of NIMH (1982)
Little mice as the cute main characters of animated films is not a new concept, but Don Bluth’s first film as director makes everything about their world terrifying. A mother field mouse named Mrs. Brisby has to seek help for her ailing son from a colony of hyper-intelligent and mystical rats, where she learns the titular secret about the tests performed on them. It’s kind of like an alien-abduction story but about mice, where human scientists are the aliens doing experiments and so on and so forth. There’s lots of great scary stuff in this one, but perhaps my favorite scene is when Mrs. Brisby goes to find the Great Owl who loves in a cave full of moths and giant spiders and things. And they even got horror legend John Carradine to do the voice! Bluth and company knew what the here they were doing.
The Dark Crystal (1982)
Disney and Bluth weren’t the only traditionally-child-friendly sorts to go super duper dark. Jim Henson had long wanted to make his puppets more grown up, despite the family-friendly tradition of puppetry. I mean, The Muppet Show was about as zany as it gets. But for his first of only two forays into creepy fantasy, Henson made an entirely puppet world and wrote a very dense and world-building plot about creatures called Gelflings who had to save their world by finding a missing piece of a powerful crystal.
It’s a little Tolkien-ish, but I didn’t know that as a kid. I also didn’t know what the storyline meant because I was too busy being petrified by the vulture people known as the Skeksis. They kept little blind creatures as slaves and sat in bourgeois luxury whilst bad stuff happened around them and because of them. Honestly, I still don’t know what this movie’s about; someone please tell me. [Editor’s Note: Duality, perhaps?]
Another from Disney, and practically the end of them trying to be edgy and scary. Ray Bradbury adapted his own novel and didn’t really shy away from any of the truly disturbing moments. It follows a pair of kids in their turn-of-the-century town who see bad things happening because of a strange traveling carnival headed up by the mysterious Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce). He grants people their deepest wishes, but always for a price, like the best Twilight Zone episodes.
The thing is: this wasn’t a Twilight Zone episode; it was a Disney movie for families. The movie included bleeding and despair and a guy who, let’s face it, is probably the Devil himself. It also has scary calliope music and Jason Robards trying to be helpful, and it’s just traumatizing for a little kid. I bet I’d like it now, though. Interesting fact: all of these darker Disney movies have been all but disowned by the studio in recent years despite the fact that they’d probably clean up if Blu-ray releases were ever made available. My two cents; what do I know?
The NeverEnding Story (1984)
Okay, now I’m pretty sure we’ve all seen this one, right? I’m going to say 90% of it should never have been shown to impressionable young kids. It’s crazy how dark and how effectively scary so many of the situations and creatures are. Following the adventures of Atreyu, the hero of a story being read by Bastian (who becomes part of the story by reading it), the movie tracks the appearance of a terrible entity called “The Nothing” which literally negates existence. Very heady, plus it made kids fear the absence of anything, which is an existential horror show for parents.
From Artax the horse drowning in the Swamps of Sadness to the Rockbiter lamenting not being able to save all his little friends from being sucked into the void, this movie was enough to make any kid question their own mortality. But easily the most frightening (and still frightening) part is the massive wolf creature G’mork who follows Atreyu throughout the film and eventually fights him to the death. Holy… just holy…
I don’t think this one was really for kids, but that didn’t stop parents everywhere from taking their children and/or renting it for their children because of the cute and furry little face of Gizmo used to sell the movie. Director Joe Dante didn’t trick anyone; that’s just how the movie was marketed, and surely with Steven Spielberg’s name attached as producer, families would have been like “Oh, this’ll be just like E.T.,” forgetting just how traumatizing THAT movie was.
Gremlins was one of the movies that contributed to the need for the MPAA to instigate the PG-13. I can’t really say I blame them. This is much more violent that anything branded a simple PG should be. The scene most people point to is the brightly-lit kitchen scene in which Billy Peltzer’s mom has to dispatch of three cackling green guys. It’s something else, all right.
Return to Oz (1985)
I lied earlier; this is another scary-ass Disney movie. You all remember how great and joyful you feel after watching The Wizard of Oz, right? You may have been scared of the flying monkeys or the trees with faces, but ultimately, the movie was bright and chipper and made you remember the power of being home. Well SHUT UP with that happy garbage! The world’s a terrible, unfair place and not even Dorothy Gale is safe.
This very oddly-judged sequel, made some 45 years later, begins with Dorothy (now played by the decidedly Wednesday Addams-looking Fairuza Balk, who does do a good job of sounding like Judy Garland) in a mental hospital receiving shock treatment for her delusions about the Land of Oz. She is somehow freed and taken back to Oz in order to save it from destruction at the hands of a Nome King and an evil witch (of course). There are things in this movie called “Wheelers” which were taken, I think, directly from the nightmares of kids, and there’s a whole scene devoted to the witch woman’s hallway full of heads. Even the helpful people are scary – Jack Pumpkinhead?!?!? I mean, honestly. No wonder they played this way late at night on the old premium-cable Disney Channel.
This animated movie had a very long and complicated history. The project crossed the paths of many famous filmmaking and animation types including George Lucas, Hayao Miyazaki, Ray Bradbury, Chuck Jones, and Brad Bird before finally landing on Masami Hata and William Hurtz, the first Japanese/American animated collaboration. The story follows a kid whose dreams are so powerful they begin to invade reality. It’s fine when his dreams involve flying around on his bed and looking at cool things; less so when he has nightmares.
The scene that gave a lot of kids (including our VP of Brand Rachel Heine) nightmares of their own depicted a river of living black grossness that breaks into the palace and eventually engulfs and abducts the goodly, Santa-looking King Morpheus, who it’s safe to say does not know Kung fu in this version. The clip of it on YouTube is even titled “The Nightmare Scene.” [Editor’s note: Scariest. movie. ever.]
The Witches (1990)
Roald Dahl’s books always walked the line between fanciful and disturbing, and that was part of the fun of it. The 1971 film of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory did a pretty good job of balancing the two halves. But, if a director with a penchant for heady terror takes charge, it’s very easy to go from fun scary to mostly scary and hardly any fun. This happened with the adaptation of The Witches; I can’t imagine any 6 year old (which I was at the time) not recoiling is revulsion.
The director of this fair piece of filmmaking is Nicolas Roeg, whose previous works included Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession. Yeah, let’s give him a movie for kids! Anjelica Huston portrayed the lead witch. The scene in which our main character sneaks into a witch convention is not something you’ll soon forget. God bless the Jim Henson Creature Shop.
These are just ten that affected me. Mr. Boogedy, Labyrinth, and even Pee-wee’s Big Adventure could have made the list (even though that one wasn’t REALLY for kids). What movies scared the crud out of you growing up? Let’s all have a group therapy sesh down in the comments.