What with all the Dark Crystal sequel news that’s been flying around lately, I’ve been thinking about the original, and the slew of dark children’s movies from the ‘70s and ‘80s. The opposite of brightly-colored, pop-culture-referencing Pixar flicks, films like The Secret of Nimh, The Last Unicorn and Watership Down were violent, dystopic and set in dense forests populated by bizarre creatures. Like the fairy tales from which some of them were drawn, these movies were not safe places to lose yourself. However, many of these films were feats of artistic prowess. Here is a look at 20 of the creepiest (and most awesome) kids’ movies of all time, from ‘30s to 2009.
20. Where the Wild Things Are 2009
Spike Jonze’s adaption of the classic features James Gandolfini as the alternatively lovable and wild Carol, who’s not afraid to bare his teeth and sever some limbs.
19. Alice In Wonderland 1951
Disney’s Lewis Carroll-adaption is nearly as bizarre as the book, with Cheshire Cats fading into black, haunted woods and blood-thirsty tyrannical queens.
18. Snow White 1937
The Disney classic is sweet and enchanting, except for the forest scene.
17. The Wizard of Oz 1939
The witch and woods are frightening, but the flying monkeys really take the nightmare-inducing cake.
16. Return to Oz 1985
From the disembodied talking heads to the Wheelers, Return to Oz was ten times as terrifying as the original.
15. Fantasia 1940
Dinosaurs battling each other and eventually dying out, mice summoning walking brooms and demonic mountains did not a family-friendly Disney flick make.
14. The Hobbit 1977
The Rankin/Bass-created TV movie based on J.R.R. Tolkein’s masterpiece featured dragons, Gollum and giant spiders who spun the journeyers in sticky cocoons and hung them up to drain their blood.
13. Winnie the Pooh: The Blustery Day 1968
Two words: Heffalumps and Woozles.
12. The Last Unicorn 1982
Another Rankin/Bass production, this animated novel-adaption about a unicorn trying to find the last of her race features a vengeful, bloodthirsty harpy. It also starred Jeff Bridges, which isn’t creepy, just worth mentioning.
11. The Neverending Story 1984
This gorgeous German-made film about Bastian’s journey through Fantasia was not without its fear-inducing moments, notably the scene where the knight tries to pass the Sphinxes’ gaze and gets fried alive.
10. Anastasia 1997
The Don Bluth-directed animation about Russia’s lost princess featured Meg Ryan as the protagonist and Christopher Lloyd as the villainous Rasputin, who ended up trapped in a dark, skull-filled chamber of Limbo, preserved as a living corpse with eyes that would randomly fall out.
9. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory 1971
The Mel Stuart-directed, Gene Wilder-starring adaption of the Roald Dahl novel was pretty weird all around (Oompa Loompas!) but the sequence that conjured nightmares for generations was the psychedelic tunnel trip, below. It’s so scary, in fact, that we wrote a whole essay on its heinous-ness.
8. Gremlins 1984
They’re really cute, unless you feed them after midnight.
7. Labyrinth 1986
Directed by Jim Henson and produced by George Lucas, this fantastical journey through the Goblin King’s never-ending maze looked lighthearted (singing, dancing Muppets! David Bowie!) but was chock-full of the bizarre. Jennifer Connelly’s 14-year-old protagonist Sarah fell into pits full of green, slimy hands, met critters who ripped their own bodies apart and found herself in an M.C. Escher painting, all while trying to rescue her stolen baby brother from Goblin King Bowie.
6. All Dogs Go To Heaven 1989
Another Don Bluth film, All Dogs Go To Heaven was about death, revenge, Heaven and Hell. It featured a nightmare sequence in which canine protagonist Charlie found himself in Hell, sinking into a lava lake in a boat made of skeletons as small gargoyle-demons tortured him. In the end of the movie, Charlie actually does die and go to Hell. There’s a scene where his ghost comes to say goodbye to Anne-Marie, and the whole screen turns red as a dragon-demon-thing materializes, to show us for sure that he’s ended up in the Bad Place. He repents and goes to Heaven in the last scene, but the child-traumatizing damage has already been done.
The poster for the 3-D stop-motion film bears the words: “Be Careful What You Wish For.” It’s the story of a girl who wishes for a different life, and is granted her wish when she crawls through a door into the “Other World.” Then things go terribly wrong.
4. The Secret of Nimh 1982
The film adaption of Robert C. O’Brien’s award-winning book was another Don Bluth. It’s the story of mouse Mrs. Brisby and her frantic search to move her children to safety as plowing season threatens to destroy her home. Along the way she uncovers N.I.M.H.’s (National Institute of Mental Health) horrific animal-testing past and meets the world’s most terrifying owl.
3. The Brave Little Toaster 1988
This Disney-film is supposed to be an Incredible Journey with vacuums and lamps instead of cats and dogs, but demonic clown nightmares and the horrific junkyard scene rendered it much less cuddly.
2. The Dark Crystal 1982
Aside from being one of the darkest children’s movies of all time, the Frank Oz and Jim Henson-directed puppet film is also one of the most beautiful. Taking place in “A land of wonder,” its the story of a nearly-extinct race, the Gelflings, who are trying to restore a missing shard to the Dark Crystal and establish unity among the races of their world. The buzzard-shaped Skeksis are the objects of terror here, as they die and decompose before our eyes, eat the tendons of small animals and suck the souls (and then drink them!) out of the creatures they capture.
1. Watership Down 1978
This is the most terrifying movie I watched as a child, hands down, and probably the second darkest bunny movie ever (after Donnie Darko). Rabbit Fiver has a vision in which the fields around his warren are covered in blood, so he and his brother Hazel set off on a disaster-fraught journey, trying (and failing) to avoid cats, foxes, hawks, dogs, rat-infested cemeteries and the powerful Rabbit Police State enforcers, the Owsla. Even the trailer is creepy.
What were the creepiest films you watched as a child?