This Summer we ran a piece examining eight of the scariest movies marketed to children, and thanks to popular demand, we're bringing you a second round of films that aren’t all necessarily proper horror titles, but that still terrified entire generations of kids. This list features a few legit horror films, as well as other genres with scary elements (whether intentional or not). Even the non-horror selections here still quite likely played a part in shaping - and traumatizing - young minds, while encouraging aspiring horror fans to seek out the macabre in all forms.
Without further fanfare, we bring you eight more of the scariest movies marketed to children:
Joe Dante is somewhat of a master of family-friendly genre filmmaking. Aside from Gremlins, his resume includes films like Explorers and most recently The Hole. One of his most successful efforts – Gremlins – pushed the boundaries of what one could get away with in a PG-rated film (and helped instigate the creation of the PG-13 rating). While the cuddly Gizmo was demure and thoughtful, his spawn were evil little monsters that certainly gave young and impressionable viewers some serious scares. The "gremlin in a blender" scene is particularly brutal, and certain to terrify almost any impressionable youngster.
This tale of monsters under the bed predates Steven C. Miller’s Under the Bed by a couple of decades, but it certainly provided fodder to terrify younger viewers. The film is surprisingly graphic for PG-rated children’s fare, but to its credit, Little Monsters sparked an interest in the horror genre for a lot of children who grew up in the '80s and '90s. Though Howie Mandel’s character Maurice is ultimately an ally to protagonist Brian (Fred Savage), he's still somewhat terrifying in appearance, and the monster universe scenes are also a bit jarring. This was director Richard Greenburg’s only proper feature film; he went on to helm a documentary and direct an episode of Tales from the Crypt.
Pee-Wee's Big Adventure
This Tim Burton classic is a fun, creative, and well-made film. However, it’s not without a few terrifying moments. The dream sequence was a bit unnerving for younger viewers, and the notorious "Large Marge" scene is equally or maybe more terrifying. Also, I always found myself frightened by Pee-Wee running out of the pet shop with his hands full of snakes. [Fun Fact: Burton was let go from Disney after his short film Frankenweenie, which they considered too dark for their target audience, but after Pee-Wee himself Paul Reubens saw the short, he called on Burton to direct his big-screen debut... and its success began the director's rise to fame.]
The Dark Crystal
Muppets creator Jim Henson had a definite dark side, which is also apparent in his creature work on The Witches (which we covered in the first installment of this series). 1982's The Dark Crystal scared the tar out of me when I saw it as a very young kid; I was expecting something tantamount to The Great Muppet Caper, but was surprised to learn that the puppets in this film were much scarier than Kermit and friends. The villainous Skeksis frightened many a young viewer way back when, thanks to a scene depicting their attempts to drain the life essence from of one of the main characters, as well as multiple horrific deaths.
This fun film has often been discounted as a Gremlins rip-off, but there’s more to it than that. The script for Critters was actually written prior to Joe Dante's classic, and was retooled after production began to eliminate as many similarities as possible. The alien "Crites" are fairly nasty in appearance and demeanor, and lack the good-natured, cuddly qualities of Gizmo. Crites are also prone to chomping on humans with their super-sharp teeth, and the attack scenes are surprisingly graphic. This film is fairly violent for a feature that was partly geared toward children and families, even with the new PG-13 rating.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
I’m not sure if the now-infamous boat sequence from this 1971 classic is meant to be scary, but I can't imagine it was intended to comfort young viewers. There are all sorts of unsettling images taking place during this scene, and Gene Wilder as Wonka singing creepily about the fires of Hell doesn’t help matters. Beyond that, seeing young children harmed in a delightfully inventive variety of ways was a little disconcerting to me as a child... but as an adult I think it’s hilarious, and I love seeing those little brats get what’s coming to them. (Yes, I am a curmudgeon.) Tim Burton would also adapt Roald Dahl's original story for the screen in 2005.
Speaking of Tim Burton, yet another of his films lands on our list – the man seems to enjoy using his own love of the macabre to scare children. The title here pretty much sums it up: it revolves around an undead woman who is attempting to marry a living man. Moreover, a large portion of the film takes place in the underworld, which is pretty spooky. Plenty of scary sequences ensue, and undoubtedly many children were terrified. This film also gets props for employing the legendary voice of iconic horror actor Christopher Lee.
The NeverEnding Story
This one is a childhood favorite of mine, as well as many others who grew up watching it. However, This 1984 release has some very dark elements, and scared the living daylights out of more than a few children. The film is excellent and a great time, but the ominous, all-consuming void of "The Nothing" spooked an entire generation of youngsters, and I remember being slightly terrified of this dark force which devours everything it touches.