I don’t mean to go all Andy Rooney, but back in my day, Disney wasn’t so friendly. They were MOSTLY friendly, sure, but there was a time, in the pre-Katzenberg, pre-Eisner days where the studio wasn’t making its usual kid-accepted, doe-eyed family fare. There’d always been an element of fear or danger in even the softest of Disney’s animated features, especially early on, but by the mid-1970s, the House of Mouse was beginning to try new things, live-action things, things for an older audience, and most importantly, scary things.
For about ten years, between 1975 and 1985, Disney was putting money into effects-driven horror, sci-fi, and dark fantasy in a way they never had before, still “for kids,” but decidedly more frightening. Largely, Disney nowadays pretends that that period didn’t exist, certainly not in keeping with today’s ultra-sunny mood. But, oh, my friends, if you were a child in the ’80s and ’90s and you had a VCR, it’s likely these films shaped you, disturbed you, made you the misanthropic geek you are today. In a good way.
Escape to Witch Mountain
They didn’t go all scary right away; they had to ease into it. But they certainly knew what they were doing with this 1975 movie about kids with paranormal abilities. Tony has telekinesis while his sister Tia is telepathic and can communicate with animals. Turns out the kids are aliens and an evil billionaire and his cronies are trying to get the kids for medical research, meaning they have to jump in a motor home with an embittered old drifter to get to Witch Mountain to meet their “true” family. This is pretty intense if you’re a little kid, and the movie definitely has horror pedigree; the director, John Hough, directed Twins of Evil for Hammer Films and The Legend of Hell House for Fox. The movie also starred horror film staples Ray Milland and Donald Pleasence, the stuff of nightmares for any kid.
This was followed in 1978 by a sequel Return from Witch Mountain which had some new bad guys (Christopher Lee and Bette Davis, also terrifying) kidnap Tony and use his powers against Tia and anyone else trying to stop them. Pretty grim, also directed by Hough.
The Black Hole
This film, in 1979, is where Disney REALLY started getting dark. The story goes that following the success of Star Wars, everybody was looking for a cash-in space movie. The only script Disney had lying around was this one, written to be a brooding thinkpiece response to 2001: A Space Odyssey. It involves the crew of a ship who come across the thought-destroyed vessel on a mission to study a black hole. The ship is staying stationary, not getting sucked into the rift. They board to find only one man left, the mad doctor obsessed with the black hole, and his crew of robots. That Disney’s answer to Star Wars was actually full of murder and evil and has people in it like Maximilian Schell, Ernest Borgnine, and Anthony Perkins is the true anomaly. They added some cute floating robots in an attempt to soften the tone, but it didn’t work. The movie ends in Robot Hell. The special effects were so good, however, that they were nominated for an Oscar.
The Watcher in the Woods
There’s no two ways about this 1980 film; it’s a horror movie through and through. Disney brought John Hough back to weave a ghost story full of misty country vistas and manor-house cobwebs. Something is watching the family that just moved into the old house, and especially keeping an eye on their eldest daughter. Is it the ghost of Bette Davis’ long-lost daughter, or is it something far more malicious? Disney knew what kind of thing they were doing and even said so in the trailer. It ends with the voice saying “This is no fairy tale,” and then there’s a written disclaimer stating “As proud as we are of The Watcher in the Woods, Walt Disney Productions strongly recommends that parents pre-screen the picture for pre-teens. It is not for small children!” Disney actively turning away children is not something they’d ever done. It’s because of this that Touchstone Pictures was created, as a means of separating Disney’s name with more adult content.
In 1981, Disney partnered with Paramount (which could take the burden of name off of the Mouse) for a dark fantasy epic which showcased the visual effects work of the great Phil Tippett. A kingdom is being terrorized by a dragon known as Vermithrax Pejorative (perhaps the greatest dragon name ever, eat that, Smaug) and the cowardly king sets up a highly-rigged lottery to send two young girls or virgins to be sacrificed to it per year. A young woman posing as a boy seeks Ulrich of Craggenmoor (Sir Ralph Richardson), the last sorcerer, to help them destroy the beast. He has an apprentice named Galen (Peter MacNicol) who, through circumstance, has to fight the dragon himself, using only a mighty spear known as “Dragonslayer.” The dragon itself is quite terrifying and the go-motion process used to make it move [Go-Motion is a stop-motion process Tippett created which incorporates motion blur in order to make it seem less artificial] was so innovative, it was nominated for an Oscar. But, yeah, this is not an uplifting movie for kids.
This is perhaps the only movie on this list that Disney hasn’t all but swept aside, and I think that’s mainly because they made a sequel and saw the inherent value of it. But back in 1982, this movie was very much a gamble. No film had used computer graphics this extensively (they definitely look dated but are still pretty cool) and the movie was surprisingly not super goofy, played very straight and was largely successful at it. I certainly remember being scared of Tron when I was a little kid, mostly because of David Warner’s villain and the huge, swirling face of the Master Control Program. The programs in the movie, though, are all meant to be like insurance and accounting software, so if this WERE made for kids, they really missed the mark.
If you want to ensure a movie based on a book at least hues close to the source material, getting the author to write it is a good step. Ray Bradbury adapted his own novel for the 1983 Disney scare-fest, and he sure did keep all the really disturbing elements inherent to a carnival run by the devil coming to town and granting wishes. Jack Clayton directed this movie, who also did the 1961 Gothic horror film The Innocents. Good pedigree for scares yet again. Jonathan Pryce’s Mr. Dark is suitably freaky and all of the unfortunate, Twilight Zoneesque scenarios played to the wishers would give some kids nightmares for sure. Clayton, however, softened Bradbury’s original script a bit, but it doesn’t make all that much difference.
Oh, a sequel to Wizard of Oz! That’ll surely be all nice and safe. Wrong, dumb-heads! This is pure, uncut nightmare fuel masquerading as a children’s movie. First of all, you cast Fairuza Balk as Dorothy, you’re already much creepier, but then you start out with Dorothy in a mental hospital getting shock treatment and end up with her heading back to Oz to aid Jack Pumpkinhead (GAH) save the Scarecrow from the Nome King. Oz is completely in shambles, half-destroyed, and everyone is pursued by creepy as shit Wheelers. There’s also a witch named Mombi who keeps different heads on pedestals and can swap them out whenever she wants. JEEZY CREEZY, how was this a movie? True to form, this ALSO got nominated for best special effects.
The beginning of the end came in 1985 when Disney went so far as to actually make one of their prized feature animated projects reflect the studio’s dark direction. The Black Cauldron was about as unfriendly and scary as you could get, while still having silly and cute characters and a brave hero and heroine. The trouble was, nobody liked this movie, despite its 70mm filming and state-of-the-art sound. This was one of Disney’s least-enjoyed animated movies (though I quite like it) and it was after this that the Dark Time began to fade away. Disney’s animated features for the rest of the decade were The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver & Company, and finally, The Little Mermaid which, despite Ursula being scary as poop, began the upswing in happy-silly Disney.
It was a brief period, but one that produced some really interesting, out-of-the-norm films. And, for the most part, Disney wants nothing to do with these. Though HD versions exist, and you can rent or buy them from various digital retailers, there have never been Blu-ray releases for the ones listed, except for Tron. We’re lucky to have barebones DVDs. These movies are a snapshot of a very important time in the studio’s history and deserve to be treated as works of art from a scarier period, and not just the “Oh, we did those things” outcasts they’ve become. Special editions for all!