My earliest memory of being scared at the movies was in 1983. My dad, sister and I went to go see The Return of the Jedi at a movie theater in Jersey City, probably the closest theater that still had tickets available for the blockbuster conclusion to the original Star Wars trilogy. I had just turned three, and to be honest all I can remember from that day is sticking my head into the empty seat next to me as soon as Jabba The Hutt made his first appearance. It was the only time I had this reaction to the giant slug mobster, and in retrospect my reaction was probably similar to that (most likely untrue) old yarn about the people running in terror when they saw the 1895 silent film Arrival of a Train at La Ciodat, the one where the train is rolling right towards the camera.
After that initiation into cinematic primal terror I would have many others, and weirdly the ones that sunk the deepest were from PG movies meant for children. To this day any one of the following movies still causes that unique reaction of nostalgia, heebie-jeebies, and a general pondering of “what the fuck were they thinking?” In many ways they are still way more effective than most recent horror movies.
First up is The Dark Crystal. Released in 1982 and directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz, this movie, Disney’s Robin Hood and Return of the Jedi were probably watched the most by me in my early years. My mom is a voracious reader, and any time she went to the Ridgewood Public Library back in the day and I was with her, I would always pull out the tag for one of those three movies, and more often than not I think The Dark Crystal (I don’t think anybody else was checking it out.)
Everything about it, from the cover artwork to the incredible effects were appealing to me, and yet I was wholeheartedly creeped out by it. To this day those opening scenes in the Skeksis castle still send a chill up my spine, especially when it’s revealed as the movie goes on that there are other creatures besides the foul villains lurking in the shadows. The old school and newly invented tricks employed by Henson and his crew for this movie may never be matched again, and honestly I don’t think a sequel or prequel should ever happen.
One deep cut from my creepy PG library is The Peanut Butter Solution. A Canadian film from 1985, The Peanut Butter Solution falls firmly into that “what the fuck were they thinking?” category, which is often typical for Canadian children’s programming (see also You Can’t Do That On Television).
Since this movie is very rare the quickest way to absorb its lunacy is to look up its Wikipedia page. A boy named Michael and his friend Connie stumble upon a haunted house; Michael is frightened by the ghostly inhabitants, which then causes all of his hair to fall out. He’s bummed out and made fun of over it, so the ghosts visit him in his sleep and tell him how to make a hair growth formula.
The secret ingredient for this hair growth formula is peanut butter, but he can’t use too much of it – of course he does, and what happens next is where the movie gets really weird. A random subplot about a teacher harvesting children’s hair is also involved. Just a strange, strange movie which weirds me out even more in adulthood now that I’ve lost my hair. Oh, it also features the first English language songs by Celine Dion on the soundtrack.
Another highlight is the 1985 cult classic Return to Oz. This bizarre sequel to The Wizard of Oz stars a young Fairuza Balk as Dorothy, and actually is more faithful to the L. Frank Baum source material than the original Wizard of Oz. I did not know this at the time though, and wondered why the magical kingdom of Oz was such a nightmarish hellscape.
You’ve got Wheelies, the Nome King, Jack Pumpkinhead, and a couch with a moose head that flies. On top of all that insanity there’s Princess Mombi, a woman who can switch her heads as she pleases. There’s one particularly creepy scene of Dorothy sneaking down a hallway of Mombi’s heads in hopes of silently retrieving a key that will help her rescue her companions. She wakes them up, and what follows is a large number of decapitated heads screaming, and then a headless body chasing her in the darkened hallways of the castle. It’s horrifying and fascinating at the same time, and I don’t think I slept well for a week after watching it.
Finally: 1990’s The Witches, based on the classic Roald Dahl book of the same name. Dahl’s books always had a dark edge to them, and in a way some were like a modern twist on the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. The Witches tells the story of Luke, a British boy who is put into the care of of grandmother Helga after his parents are killed in a car crash. Due to Helga receiving some bad medical news, they decide to go to a seaside hotel. It is there where Luke stumbles upon a meeting of the Royal Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (or the RSPCC).
Luke eavesdrops on their meeting and discovers that they are all witches in disguise, led by a head witch named Evangeline, played with exceptional wickedness by Anjelica Huston. These are hideous, hunchbacked witches, like something out of the aforementioned Grimm fairy tales. They discover Luke and turn him into a mouse, the transformation scene of which is also crazy and disturbing. The sheer panic of mouse Luke is conveyed effectively as he scurries around the hotel, avoiding feet, witches and cleavers. Despite all of its creepiness The Witches is fantastic, a great adaptation of a great book. (Also much like Dahl, it doesn’t sugarcoat anything. A little scare never hurt anyone, right?)
Unfortunately new U.S. films like this are harder and harder to find due to the current demands of the domestic movie marketplace for another Young Adult CG-Fest. There are children’s films coming out of Europe and Asia that don’t hold back, which makes sense, given the origin of a lot of the movies I listed. But a big factor on what makes current children’s films different is the reliance on CG.
Movies like The Dark Crystal owe a lot to the physical presence of the things onscreen, and the physical space that they occupy. With CG it’s always difficult to pull this off, and a lot of monsters and characters created digitally always have the ghostly air of not occupying the physical space that they’re in. In The Dark Crystal the Garthim physically come out of the shadows like giant cockroaches, in Return to Oz Dorothy is being chased by a stuntperson with no head. While it may lack the smoothness that CG provides, and may look jerky and silly to children now, there’s something to be said for something that actually occupies physical space doing the stuff of nightmares. If a headless witch was chasing me down a hallway, or a group of headed witches were chasing me around a British seaside hotel, that’s what it would look like.
I’m not saying there’s no value to current children’s films. Pixar’s movies are for the most part are excellent, and occasionally I’ll watch something with my nephews that really impresses me with the sophistication that they manage to sneak by in a movie targeted for kids. Obviously a lot of the people making these movies grew up with the movies I mention above, and would probably like to make movies more like them.
It should come as no surprise (aside from maybe the exception of The Witches) none of these movies performed well at the box office when they were released, and the continuing failure of challenging childen’s movies is what led to a switching of gears in the 1990s. With Disney ripping things up in the box office with films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast studios initially tried to ape the formula of those films, or they just put out a movie involving intelligent babies, rascally animals or just aliens.
As weird as some of these movies are they should still be in circulation with all of the other children’s classics, and are charming in their outcast way. Obviously The Dark Crystal and The Witches are classics, and are movies that should be watched with the kids where they know that there’s some scary stuff ahead, but it’s all make-believe.
If you, the person reading this, remember any or all of these movies from your childhood and haven’t watched them in decades then try and hunt them down. With the exception of The Peanut Butter Solution, they’re all available in at least a DVD format. They still hold up to this day, and are remarkably creepy for PG movies. You may even find yourself burying your head in the seat next to you.