’80s Fantasy Movie Moments That Terrified Us as Kids

Fearsome monsters, grasping hands, and a suggestive tree. Here are 10 fantasy movie moments that scarred us as kids...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Sooner or later, you’re going to see a scary movie. Whether you sneak down and watch a horror film on late night television, watch a Nightmare on Elm Street sequel at a friend’s house or watch clips of slasher movies on YouTube, horror movies are always out there, waiting in the wings for the young and curious. But long before most of us graduate to the stage in our lives where we start seeking out R-rated movies of gore and terror, we reliably encounter scary moments in what might initially seem to be harmless family adventure films.

The 1980s was an unusually fertile period for dark fantasies where the seeming lightness of their subject matter–dragons, unicorns and other mythical beasts–was joined by odd jabs of darkness, melancholy, and outright horror. Here, then, is a selection of 10 fantasy movie moments that came out of nowhere to haunt our dreams. The ’80s may be long gone, but the scenes laid out here still linger in our memories.

All together now: “Artaaaaaaaxxxx”…

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Clash of the Titans (1981)

Medusa’s Terrifying Eyes

Animator Ray Harryhausen went out on a high with this Grecian fantasy, which is full to the brim with the monsters he loved bringing to life. One of the more violent films in Harryhausen’s long career, Clash of the Titans had a few brushes with the BBFC before its release, and even in a somewhat altered form (both to the script, submitted to the board before release, and to its final cut), the movie has more than a few disquieting moments. For us, the most terrifying monster of them all was the Medusa: a fearsome beast whose gaze can turn mortals to stone. With her writhing hair and rattlesnake tail, she’s an unforgettable creation–far better, for our money, than the cackling CGI thing (played by Natalia Vodianova) in the 2010 remake.

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Dragonslayer (1981)

Crispy Princess

Ah, Disney’s dark phase of the ’70s and ’80s–something we’ve written about in a bit more detail in the past. Long before the studio brought up our childhoods–Star Wars, Marvel, and the like–it was busy scarring them with a series of left-field and shadowy live-action and animated movies. Dragonslayer, which features some stunning animation work from Phil Tippet, is still one of the most startling.

The movie’s dragon, called the Vermothrax Pejorative, establishes its villainous reputation early on as it descends on a sacrificial victim. As the young woman, clad in white and chained to a post, looses her bonds, you might be forgiven for thinking that she’ll escape just in the nick of time. No such luck: backed into a corner, she’s torched to death by the dragon right before our eyes.

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read more: Was Dragonslayer Really a Disney Film?

The burning corpse was one thing; what really damaged our tiny minds was the detail of the blood running down the woman’s wrists as she wriggles out of her chains. Long before we got to see Alien, the Vermothrax Pejorative became the terrifying big-screen monster to beat, thanks in no small part to this grim scene.

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Krull (1983)

The Emerald Seer

This wonderfully weird fantasy may not have had the profile of Return of the Jedi, released the same year, but then again, George Lucas’ Star Wars movie didn’t have Bernard Bresslaw as a cyclops, former Grange Hill (and future EastEnders) star Todd Carty as a bandit, or that cool, boomerang-like weapon, the Glaive.

When you’re a little kid, you don’t really care about how much movies cost, so it came as a surprise, when we got older and started looking into these things, just how much money was spent on Krull: about $47 million, which is even more than Return of the Jedi cost to make. What director Peter Yates gave us for that money was one of the most eccentric fantasy films of the decade, with disconcerting cinematography from Peter Suschitzky (who’d later go on and make a series of films with David Cronenberg, which figures) and some properly nightmarish images.

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read more: Hidden ’80s Gem – Krull

Topping the list in the Krull nightmare-fuel rankings is the scene captured above, where the Emerald Seer (John Welsh) is replaced by a black-eyed, long-taloned Changeling. If you were a youngster not yet versed in the ways of R-rated horror films, the sight of a screaming, melting old man was heart-stopping stuff.

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The Neverending Story (1984)

Artax the Sinking Horse

Another fantasy movie, another disturbing swamp scene. A thick streak of melancholy runs through The Neverending Story like a blue vein in cheese, with the movie taking place in world consumed by a deadly force called the Nothing. The most upsetting scene in the entire movie, however, is the one where hero Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) loses his horse Artax in the Swamp of Sadness.

Atreyu pleads and tugs at Artax’s bridle, but to no avail: The animal slowly sinks beneath the deep, black ooze. Parents in the audience, who’ve endured years of waking up for work each Monday morning, probably just nodded along to the metaphor. We kids, on the other hand, were left wailing into our Transformers T-shirts. Yes, Artax is restored to his equine glory at the end of the movie, but by then, the emotional damage has already been wrought.

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Fun fact: the film’s cinematographer Jost Vacano was also Paul Verhoeven’s cinematographer, and would traumatize us all over again with the startling violence in 1987’s RoboCop.

The Black Cauldron (1985)

The Caludron-Born

Another item from Disney’s mean and moody period, The Black Cauldron was the studio’s first PG-rated animated film. In its original state, the film was considered to be so graphic and frightening that Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg famously tried to edit the film down himself. After some angry exchanges behind the scenes, Disney’s fantasy adventure was eventually toned down, with its more violent scenes either reworked or taken out entirely. Even in its final form, The Black Cauldron remains pretty strong for younger viewers; the Horned King is a formidable villain, and the creatures that emerge from his bubbling cauldron are truly scary.

read more: The Rise and Fall of the Disney Renaissance

In the sequence above, you can spot the cuts where the nastier bits have been cut back–regrettably, it doesn’t look as though Disney’s in any rush to release an unedited version of the movie.

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Return to Oz (1985)

The Wheelers

Picture this: you’ve watched The Wizard Of Oz every Christmas, and you’re excited about going to the cinema and seeing another light fantasy along the same lines. Instead what you get is something closer to Mad Max 2–the land of Oz is broken down and full of danger, and there are horrifying, nightmare-inducing monsters everywhere you look. It’s a bit like going to Toys R Us to look at the Sylvanian Families and discovering that the building’s been turned into an abattoir.

read more: Return to Oz – A Disturbing ’80s Fantasy Classic

This brings us onto the Wheelers–characters that, to be fair, were created by L. Frank Baum himself in his original Oz books. As brought to the screen by director Walter Murch, however, the Wheelers are little short of terrifying: cackling, long-limbed, mask-wearing lunatics who hurtle around the shabbier areas of Oz like a cross between Richard O’Brien and a Ford Fiesta. As one commenter on YouTube helpfully points out, “They’re actually harmless since they have no hands to grab hold of anything – like any quadruped predator, they can still bite.”

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The Last Unicorn (1982)

Suggestive Tree

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A brief anecdote, if you don’t mind: your humble writer saw The Last Unicorn on its theatrical release in 1982, and still hasn’t quite recovered from the experience. An animated fantasy from Rankin-Bass Productions, it features a starry cast of voice actors, including Jeff Bridges, Mia Farrow, and Christopher Lee–plus too many startling and surreal images to accurately count. First there’s a formidable villain, the Red Bull, played by Frank Welker (most famous as the voice of Megatron). Then there’s a sequence where a witch played by Angela Lansbury is killed by a vicious harpy. Or there’s the bit where the story’s young heroes encounter a talking skeleton with glowing red eyes.

For sheer, mentally-scarring weirdness, we’d go for the scene where the magician, Schmendrick (Alan Arkin) misuses a magic spell and turns a tree into a talking, suggestive-looking tree. We didn’t necessarily recognize all the sexual undercurrents in this sequence as kids, but we knew, deep in our subconscious, that there was something truly disturbing about it.

The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1988)

The King of the Moon

The bubbling cauldron of Terry Gilliam’s imagination overflowed onto the screen with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a fantasy adventure which made headlines for its cost overruns. Decades later, it’s easier to appreciate the film for its visual style and ideas rather than its behind-the-scenes drama–and Baron Munchausen’s age has done little to dim its more out-there moments.

read more: Looking Back on Baron Munchausen

Case in point: the King of the Moon–a giant, disembodied head played by the late Robin Williams in full-on stream-of-consciousness mode. With his suspect Spanish accent and incoherent ramblings, he’s a disturbing character–and that’s before his wife shows up, and things get really, really out of hand. Forget the Saw franchise: Three minutes of watching the King of the Moon tickle his wife’s feet is enough to bring us out in hives.

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Watch The Adventures of Baron Munchausen on Amazon

The Dark Crystal (1982)

The Skeksis

As an achievement in puppetry and artistry, The Dark Crystal is one of the late Jim Henson’s high watermarks. Featuring concept designs by fantasy illustrator Brian Froud, it’s one of those films where every set, costume and puppet is packed with detail–a true labor of love  from Henson and co-director Frank Oz.

One of the film’s most memorable creations is the Skeksis–a race of evil creatures that resemble rotting vultures in long, elaborate gowns. They’re great villains: intimidating and, as the dinner scene above proves, downright grotesque. As kids, we were so convinced by the Skeksis that we never stopped to consider that they weren’t living, breathing creatures. Even as cynical grown-ups, we still find them pretty convincing… and more than a little scary.

read more: The Princess Bride is a Perfect Fantasy Movie

According to Frank Oz, Henson wanted to make The Dark Crystal as an homage to the darker tones of Grimm’s fairy tales. “He thought it was fine to scare children,” Oz told SF Gate in 2007. “He didn’t think it was healthy for children to always feel safe.” Well, if Henson and Oz wanted to give us sleepless nights as kids, all we can say is: mission accomplished.

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Labyrinth (1986)

Helping Hands

Another fruitful collaboration between Jim Henson and illustrator Brian Froud, Labyrinth has grown into a much-loved cult classic about a teenage girl, Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), who finds herself stuck in the titular maze presided over by the Goblin King (David Bowie). It’s a winning mix of catchy songs and superbly-designed creatures. And, as you’d expect by now, some of the images in Labyrinth are really disturbing–as Louisa Mellor pointed out in her look back at the movie. There’s Bowie’s revealing leggings to contend with, for a start.

What really disturbed us as kids wasn’t the Thin White Duke’s wardrobe, but some of the darker alleys Sarah finds on her journey through the labyrinth. Take the scene above, where she stumbles down a hole and has her fall broken by dozens of gray hands poking out of the walls. The sequence only lasts a few seconds, yet as kids, it seemed to last for ages, probably because the notion of being grabbed by loads of grasping hands felt like something from a half-forgotten fever dream.

When, years later, we started watching the zombie movies of George A. Romero, which reliably featured undead hands reaching through walls to grab at unsuspecting victims, our hearts skipped a beat: our minds were immediately transported back to the mid-80s, and the first time we clapped eyes on those weird hands created by Jim Henson. Shudder.

Watch Labyrinth on Amazon

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See also:

The end of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (which is too good to spoil here), every frame featuring Tim Curry in Ridley Scott’s Legend, the bit in Will Vinton’s The Adventures Of Mark Twain where we meet the satanic ‘Mysterious Stranger.’

Seriously, try watching this without spilling your tea.

What movie scenes scared you as a child?