It’s Friday afternoon and I’m feeling a little tired so I’m repurposing something I wrote on a blog two years ago about horrifying children’s movies. For some reason, the topic has come up twice recently on blogs I read, so I figured I would throw this little piece into the mix.
Happy weekend everybody!
It was horrible. It was grotesque. It was the scariest thing that I had ever seen. And yet somehow I couldn’t stop watching.
I had to have been three or four at the time and my mom, in an attempt to occupy me for the afternoon came back from the video store with a tape of the movie Return to Oz. Thinking it was a light hearted sequel to 1939’s Wizard, she popped it into the VCR and went off to attend to other household chores, leaving me alone in the basement rec room to enjoy it.
At first the movie seemed cute and folksy. The Gales were rebuilding the house that was destroyed in the original OZ tornado and working hard on their farm in a very Little House on the Prairie kind of way.
But before I knew it, things went horribly, horribly wrong and barely half an hour into it, I was screaming my little toddler ass off at the absolutely horrifying events that were unfolding before my eyes.
There were mental patients. There were henchmen who threatened to tear the protagonist to pieces. There was a possessed headless body. And although it made me scream and no doubt inflicted all kinds of trauma to my psyche that still resonates today (I clench every time I hear squeaky shopping cart wheels – damn you, Pons Maar!), I loved every minute of it.
So while other websites celebrate the passing of Halloween by listing the top horror movie villains, I celebrate the horrible string of “kids” movies that no doubt shaped me into the lovably damaged person I am today. Read onward and enjoy reliving your own childhood traumas!
Here we go:
10. Return to Oz – Plagued from the beginning with money and creative problems (the film’s budget ballooned, shutting the production down for days and causing the director, Walter Murch, to walk off the set), Return to Oz wasn’t the happy little sequel to Judy Garland’s original that many expected. Working around the darker themes of Baum’s original books, the film detailed Dorothy’s commitment to an insane asylum and her attempted electroshock treatment and featured a number of creepy characters, including the Wheelers (who appeared to be some sort of bizarre hybrid of PeeWee Herman and rusted out shopping carts) and the evil Princess Mombi (who, as the result of some magic power, could remove and change heads like most people change socks). In a sequence that haunted me throughout my childhood, during an attempted escape from the evil Mombi’s clutches, all of the glass-encased replacement heads are awakened and begin screaming in unison at Dorothy, while the headless body ineffectively chases her. Much fun!
9. The Watcher in the Woods – Pop Quiz Hotshot: You are a Disney executive in a production meeting with a producer who pitches you an idea for a children’s movie he touts as being “(Disney’s) Exorcist.”
a) run screaming in the opposite direction, or
b) cast batty old Bette Davis and let ’er rip.
If you answered a, you are a sane person, but if you answered b, then you must be Ron Miller, the executive who put The Watcher in the Woods into production. A troubled film which was revised so many times, its script was reported to have over 150 alternate endings, this gem from 1980 survives in three different cuts so you can choose how you would like to be traumatized. You can enjoy the witchcraft, the alien abduction, or for you old school purists, you can watch as a young girl is terrorized by an invisible demon who sets her toys on fire! Nice job, Miller!
8. The Black Cauldron – The first Disney animated film to receive a PG rating, The Black Cauldron is the black sheep of the House of Mouse. In an attempt to cash in on the disposable incomes of fantasy-loving teens, a team of young designers (including Tim Burton) set out to make what they thought would be a film which would fill this niche. Twelve years and several cuts later to remove the film’s more graphic shots (which included a person being sliced into pieces and a man being dissolved by a poisonous mist), the film was released in theatres where it flopped, but not before freaking out various small children who attended the film thinking it would be a fun loving Disney sing-along instead the dark zombie infested nightmare it was. Whoops!
7. Labyrinth – Unlike the previous entrants on this list, Labyrinth fails as a film for children, not because of its darkness (although the whole goblin kidnapping plot was probably not so smart) but because of its weird sexual overtones. Watch in horror as David Bowie (borrowing from his Ziggy Stardust persona) struts around in metallic stretchy pants flaunting his member and awkwardly seduces an underage Jennifer Connolley because, as we all know, nothing says kid’s movie like a weird old pedophile.
6. Something Wicked This Way Comes – If any of you out there are aspiring children’s movie directors, if you’re searching for material, I might suggest staying away from anything penned by Ray Bradbury. Awesome writer of science and dystopian fiction? Yes. Awesome writer of cuddly and heartwarming children’s stories? A resounding NO. For reasons that are still unclear, executives at Disney (what the hell is up with you, Disney?) greenlit a story revolving around an evil carnival that possesses people’s souls, with the idea that they would tone it down. How they thought including things like a tarantula infestation or a beheading was toning it down, I’ll never know, but Something Wicked’s definitely ruined the idea of a carnival for many children of the ’80s.
5.The Black Hole –When most of us think of full-frontal lobotomies, we don’t think of children’s movies, but that’s because, according to Gary Nelson, director of The Black Hole, we’re just not creative enough! Watch as evil robots drill holes into people’s heads, slice spinning blades into people’s chests and display what many have referred to as “Robo-Wang.” Plus it has Maximillian Schell and if he’s not old and spooky looking, I don’t know who is!
4.Watership Down – Doing a little better than the other films on this list, Watership Down at least gets the idea that children’s movies designed around animals do well. However, after getting the fuzzy bunny part right, the movie then proceeds to launch into what can best be described as a bunny bloodbath with many characters dying tragic, horrible deaths. Think the death of Bambi’s mother was traumatic? Enjoy as the film’s beloved Blackavar gets bitten in the throat and has his neck snapped. So creepy.
3.Captain EO – I have to be fair and admit that this was added in retrospect, but it was still scary. The neon colours! The singing! But most importantly, Captain EO was the first time I noticed the transition from Jackson Classic to the New Jackson. If only, like Coke did, we could have somehow taken New Jackson off the shelves when people noticed it sucked.
2. Darby O’Gill and the Little People – Said to be the movie that helped Sean Connery land the part of James Bond and noted as one of my mother’s favourite childhood movies, having watched this movie, I can’t really understand why. Not only does it feature a screaming banshee and a whirling death coach, but it also has several scenes featuring the musical stylings of Mr. 007 himself. Oh, the horror!
1. Gremlins – Deciding the best way to follow up his werewolf horror flick The Howling was with a kid’s movie, director Joe Dante took many of his scary sensibilities with him into the filming of Gremlins. Naturally, this decision was not without backlash from the studio who argued with the director about including scenes in which the main character’s mother got decapitated and in which the Gremlins supposedly ate the patrons of a McDonald’s while leaving their burgers untouched (what a tragedy not to be able to get a Happy Meal tie-in!) When it hit the theatres, even though the film made back its entire budget in its opening weekend, the trouble with Gremlins continued as critics slammed the film as “racist,” “gross,” and “violent,” with Roger Ebert even going so far as to urge parents to keep their children away from it. Well, maybe Roger Ebert was right but, to be honest, I can’t picture Christmas now without Phoebe Cates’ dead-dad-in-a-chimney monologue . . .
So that’s basically the string of nasty kids movies I grew up with. Feel free to write me to share the nasty cinematic moments you experienced as a young’un and I’ll be sure to check them out. But until then, I think I’ll just curl up over here in the fetal position and let all this research wear off . . . (the squeaking wheels . . . I can still hear the squeaking wheels . . .)
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