One effective way of preparing kids for the adult world is to scare the crap out of them. Many of the early pre-20th Century fairy tales were terrifying horror stories full of monsters, witches and ghouls seeking to devour children. In a considerable chunk of these stories, Hansel and Gretel and The Lost Children among them, the kids are must fight back against the threat, alone, if they are to see another day. The message is simple: Sometimes, adults won’t be there to save your weak prepubescent ass, so you better push that witch into the oven before you end up as her pie’s mystery meat.
Modern forms of family entertainment have watered down these cautionary tales to appeal to wider audiences. In many ways this makes sense, since no parent wants to spend a fortune on therapy after their child watches a direct adaptation of the original Little Mermaid and comes face-to-face with the nihilistic misery porn pre-20th Century it actually is. However, film history is also full of tales that carry on the old fairy tale tradition—full-on horror or edgier family fare that pits kids against some of the gnarliest and downright deadly creatures, with nothing but their own wits and resources to rely on. Let’s pay tribute to these brave and badass youngsters by looking at eight movies where they face off with their supernatural foes (ranked by the level of threat and peril that awaits them).
The Monsters: A trio of witches (Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy) who awaken from their 300-year nap ready to resume their lives’ goal of sucking out the souls of children so they can look youthful.
The Kids: A whiny city slicker (Omri Katz) who spends half the movie complaining that he was forced to move from LA into a small town without any consideration of the city’s insane 1993 real estate prices. Oh, and his adorable little sister (Thora Birch).
The Setting: It’s a Halloween family classic about witches, so of course it takes place in Salem, Mass. Although don’t expect much mood setting, it mostly looks like any other ’90s suburban town.
Threat Level: Cakewalk. Even though the witches’ goal is to straight up murder the children, they can easily be distracted by simple Halloween tricks. Also they’re stupid enough to let Sarah Jessica Parker sing solo with Kathy Najimy and Bette freakin’ Midler in the cast.
The Monsters: A witch named Aggie (Jodelle Ferland) pretty rightfully looking for revenge after being wrongfully accused and murdered. She can also command an army of zombies, because why not?
The Kids: The main character is an oddball named Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who can speak to ghosts, which turns him into an outcast in his conservative community. This gives him a “both sides of the same coin” style connection to Aggie, as the protagonist and the antagonist suffer from the same prejudices of the outside world, which in turn gives Paranorman more depth than its peers, since the inner conflict of whether or not Norman will follow in Aggie’s footsteps takes precedence over the surface threat.
The Setting: A place where people are so afraid of any strange development they can’t easily understand and categorize that they’ll destroy it without a second’s thought—so basically Any Town, USA.
Threat Level: Small, but bring some weapons just in case. Aggie’s motivation is not to kill, but to have living people understand the injustices inflicted upon her. But the zombies are out to gnaw on some delicious and juicy brains, so best to stay away from them.
The Monsters: Look at the title and take a wild guess. This truly creepy adaptation of Roald Dahl’s already boundary-pushing kids’ horror novel contains one of the most ruthless and terrifying witch in film history, courtesy of Angelica Houston’s Grand High Witch. This is what happens when you give directing duties of a children’s film to the crazy Australian who once turned David Bowie into an alien who resembled a giant condom with green eyes.
The Kids: A precautious little nerd (Jasen Fisher) and his “contractually obligated for all ’80s kids’ movies” chubby comedy relief friend (Charlie Potter), who are surprisingly brave for their meek statures. I know I’d call it quits if I were turned into a mouse by Morticia Addams.
The Setting: A posh English hotel, which is a perfect backdrop for wanton juvenile grotesquerie such as a room full of tea-sipping witches painstakingly slowly and agonizingly transforming into giant rats.
Threat Level: Moderate. The children can outwit the witches if they’re smart, but the witches are so hellbent on killing kids, that they feel like transfers from R-rated fare.
The Monsters: Sheer nightmare fuel where a creepy and then horrifying entity awaits in a nearby alternate dimension who lures unhappy children to their ends in the initial guise of attending to the needs the child feels are being neglected by the parent. The “Other Mother” overseeing it all, as well as the alternate versions of people from the other side, are decently convincing at first—except for that whole buttons-as-eyes thing.
The Kids: The titular character (Dakota Fanning) is an imaginative and extroverted ball of energy who’s mainly ignored by her real-life parents. This leaves an opening for the evil creature to lure her into the parallel world. Coraline is a sharp, resourceful child, which comes in handy during the climactic escape that probably gave half the child audience night terrors for life. But her yearning for a family that loves her the way she wants them clouds her judgment.
The Setting: A stereotypical mid-20th Century Americana white picket fence home that compliments the unsettling horrors that brew underneath.
Threat Level: It’s up there, though there is no world destruction or even super-high body count in play. Like the best of modern fairy tales, Coraline uses its spooky premise to dig deeper into children’s psyche, this time exploring the fear of being abandoned by the family unit.
The Monsters: Demons from hell, from dog-sized little agitators to a giant devil that would give Tim Curry’s Darkness from Legend pause, determined to bring the Earth into an eternity of darkness.
The Kids: Regular 1987 suburban children (Stephen Dorff and Louis Tripp) who don’t have anything better to do other than to goof off and cause minor mayhem in their neighborhood because we’re still 23 years away from the invention of Instagram. Thus, a gateway to hell opens up in their backyard.
The Setting: There’s no better setting for a demons vs. human kids battle than a typical suburban house. The giant boss demon’s head crashing through the roof certainly adds a pinch of character to the copy-paste architecture.
Threat Level: High. The tiny demons the kids have to fight are charmingly mischievous in a fairly obvious Gremlins rip-off way. But when the bigger demons come out to play, they go for the kill. Also, the fate of the world is at stake.
The Monsters: Step right up for 1930s Universal monsters nostalgia pumped directly into your veins. We get Dracula (Duncan Regehr), The Wolfman (Carl Thibault), Frankenstein’s Monster (Tom Noonan), Creature from the Black Lagoon (Tom Woodruff Jr.), and The Mummy (Michael Reid McKay), who doesn’t do anything but look like he’s on Quaaludes.
The Kids: Diehard monster movie nerds who have been studying these creatures long enough to know exactly how to fight them when they start wreaking havoc. This was way before the meta approach of having the characters within the story be aware of the pop culture that encapsulates their foes became the go-to trick for every screenwriter who wants to insert an easy wall of ironic detachment to their work. So kudos to writers Fred Dekker and Shane Black on predicting the future.
The Setting: Another regular suburban town. But this time director Fred Dekker, who came from the world of legit adult horror, uses a much darker and gothic look to infuse a sense of natural dread into the locations.
Threat Level: Pretty high. The monsters don’t necessarily want to kill the children, and are after an amulet that might as well have been called The Green Shiny Mcguffin. However, they also have no qualms about draining the life out of any human of any age if they get in their way, as evidenced by Dracula raising a five-year-old girl by the throat and yelling, “Give me the amulet, you bitch!!” (Yes, this happens.)
Writer’s Note: With cinematic universes and horror about kids fighting monsters (It, Stranger Things) all the rage these days, it’s shocking to me that there still isn’t a Monster Squad cinematic universe, let alone a single remake. It would be a hell of a lot more interesting than Universal’s Dark Universe.
The Monster: Pennywise the child-killing clown (Bill Skarsgard)/malevolent ancient entity. He was at least a bit charming when played by Tim Curry in the 1990 miniseries, but Skarsgard is relentlessly terrorizing in every frame.
The Kids: The Losers Club is made up of bullied and troubled kids who decide to fight back against a creature stalking the town. Their bond boosts their bravery, which makes it hard for Pennywise to hunt, since he feeds on fear.
The Setting: It’s based on a Stephen King book, so of course it takes place in a small town in Maine.
Threat Level: Severe. Pennywise’s appetizer is a small child’s arm, and he kills the young ones indiscriminately from then on. He’s placed in number two because there are times when he can easily devour one of his prey, but doesn’t because he seems to be aware that the tension in the scene should be stretched a bit more.
The Monster: Rapid, ruthless, relentless killer aliens who look like gorilla/sea urchin hybrids with cheetah legs and Xenomorph teeth. Their recipe for world domination is simple—a female lands and the males soon follow so mating season (and end of humanity’s hold on things) can commence. When that female is killed, they won’t stop until they tear everyone responsible into pieces.
The Kids: Underprivileged gang of early teens who act tough—the movie starts with them committing robbery—but are gradually revealed to still be children at heart. Yet they have to find a way to mature and take their own lives into their own hands fast, since they’re also the ones who killed the female alien, hence are now being hunted.
The Setting: In a refreshing change of pace, we’re out of the suburbs and in a London projects, where the blocky apartments turn into a labyrinth of terror for the aliens to sneak up on and pick off their victims one by one.
Threat Level: Run, and do not look back! These aliens have no concern for stretching the tension in any given sequence, and will tear off a chunk of your flesh at the slightest opportunity. It also takes about five seconds for one of them to decapitate you. Just like real world circumstances, kids of color who live in the projects have to deal with murder-crazed hyperfast aliens, while white suburban children casually fight against quirky witches.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.