For many horror fans, our first exposure to the genre was by way of allegedly "kid-friendly" horror fare, which we were able to get our hands on because it was marketed to children... regardless of the fact that it may have contained themes and scenes too frightening for young kids. The MPAA has become more strict regarding family fare in recent years, so today’s youngsters must turn to the kid-friendly horror titles of the ‘80s and ‘90s to get their scare on. The films outlined below undoubtedly resulted in a a lot of sleepless nights for young fans of fright flicks...
Something Wicked This Way Comes
This Ray Bradbury adaptation gave an entire generation of children nightmares, and furthers my long-held assertion that carnies are not to be trusted. It was incredibly dark for a Disney production... or a less family-friendly studio, for that matter. Something Wicked is the tale of a mysterious traveling carnival that sweeps into a sleepy Middle American town, where its proprietor Mr. Dark scares the living hell out of a pair of boys while trying to capture the souls of the townspeople. For me, the peril that the two youngsters confront in this film seemed incredibly real, and Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) was terribly wicked. Jack Clayton, director of The Great Gatsby (1974), brought plenty of spooky atmosphere, and Ray Bradbury effectively adapted the screenplay from his novel of the same name.
The Watcher in the Woods
Another early '80s Disney production, The Watcher in the Woods chronicles the tribulations a family experiences after moving into a country villa just brimming with supernatural and/or paranormal occurrences. This was a later role for screen icon Bette Davis, but she still brought her signature flair to the role of Mrs. Aylwood. The film terrified me as a youngster; there are séances, ghost-like creatures, and more assorted paranormal activities. It’s surprising to find Disney behind this title, but it gave plenty of children a taste for horror films at a young age, so we see no cause for complaint.
I watched The Witches for the first time on "movie day" in elementary school, and was equal parts thrilled and shocked that we were exposed to such a frightening film. Nicholas Roeg, who helmed the 1973 supernatural classic Don’t Look Now, adapted this terrifying tale from the novel by famed children's author Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), so it’s no surprise that it's loaded with spooky atmosphere. Anjelica Houston is perfectly wicked as the Grand High Witch, and the scene where the witches take off their masks is especially jarring. It still amazes me that a movie where witches try to hunt and kill children received a PG rating.
Return to Oz
Here's another Disney entry, adapted from the L. Frank Baum Oz books. It adopts a much darker tone than the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz; the scene where the witch Mombi takes off her head was shocking to see in a movie geared towards youngsters. Casting Fairuza Balk as Dorothy was an ingenious move; Balk is brilliant in the film, and has gone on to do a series of dark roles since, including a diabolical turn as wicked teen witch Nancy in 1996's The Craft. Interestingly enough, this was the only feature from director Walter Murch, which could be due to the film's less-than-favorable reaction from critics. It finally found its audience on home video, and has since gained a cult following.
The Gate finds young Glen and his best friend Terry exploring a hole in Glen’s backyard – the result of a recently removed tree – which they soon realize is a gateway to hell. Among the film's horrific images are the lead character’s parents melting into green goo right before their very eyes, the family dog murdered, demon-like creatures doing demon-like things, the deaths and subsequent resurrections of young children, and a giant scary monster with velociraptor arms. There's even a plot point involving devil worship. I caught this treasure of a film on cable one Saturday morning, and it scared the tar out of me... but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it and re-watching it repeatedly.
The Monster Squad
The Monster Squad might not be outright terrifying, but it still pits youngsters against Dracula and other legendary monsters and has some legitimate scares, so it’s certainly a bit much for younger viewers. It's also responsible for one of the most quoted lines in genre cinema: “Wolfman’s got nards!” The film is directed by genre vet Fred Dekker, who also brought us the '80s horror cult classics House and Night of the Creeps, so it’s not surprising that the end result brought audiences a pleasant mixture of scares and chuckles.
I rented this on VHS at an impressionable age and absolutely fell in love with it; that’s not to say that it didn’t terrify me, however. The ghost pirates were a bit much for an impressionable young lad such as myself, but I quickly got over that. The film showcases the adventures of a couple of boys who break out of a foster home and go treasure hunting. Of course, they encounter unexpected consequences along the way. The disappointing thing about this picture is that it is currently only available on VHS, and still awaits a proper DVD release.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
We end on another Disney production, which is a film made for children but appreciated just as much, if not more, by adults. The Nightmare Before Christmas is not exactly a horror movie, but it nevertheless has plenty of horror elements. Making such a dark film that centers around the most wonderful time of the year was a bold move for writer/producer Tim Burton, but we would expect nothing less from him. Jack Skellington and his kin are sure to be frightening to younger children, and when Jack attempts to take on Christmas, things really go off the rails.
Honorable mentions go out to Watership Down, Paranorman, and Frankenweenie.