Exploring Disney’s Fascinating Dark Phase of the 70s and 80s

Space horror in The Black Hole. Animated death in The Black Cauldron. The '70s and '80s were a unique period in Disney's filmmaking history.

When George Lucas started writing Star Wars in the early ’70s, the space saga was intended to fill a void left behind by westerns, pirate movies and the sci-fi fantasy of old matinee serials. “Disney had abdicated its rein over the children’s market,” Lucas once said, according to Peter Biskind’s book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, “and nothing had replaced it.”

Indeed, Disney was one of many Hollywood studios that Lucas had approached with Star Wars and they, just like Universal, United Artists, and everyone other than 20th Century Fox boss Alan Ladd Jr., had turned it down flat. Science fiction, the thinking went, was box office poison; even Lucas, who’d insisted that Roy Disney himself might have snapped up Star Wars had he still been alive, thought that his space saga would only just break even.

“This is a Disney movie,” Lucas said at the time. “All Disney movies make $16 million, so this movie is going to make $16 million. It cost $10 million, so we’re going to lose money on the release, but I hope to make some of it back on the toys.”

Lucas’ prediction was, of course, stratospherically wide of the mark, with Star Wars making over $400 million on its initial release. Together with its merchandising, it was nothing short of a phenomenon – the kind of success that left Hollywood studios hunting around down the back of the sofa for sci-fi projects of their own.

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Turning down Star Wars must have provoked more than a little soul searching at Walt Disney Productions. For much of the ’70s, its movie-making division seemed stuck in the doldrums. While Disney’s animated films – Robin Hood (1973) and The Rescuers (1977) were successes, such live-action films Bedknobs And Broomsticks and One of our Dinosaurs is Missing were box-office disappointments. (Ironically, a model dinosaur skeleton from the latter film, left over from filming at Elstree Studios, wound up being dragged off to Tunisia and used in one of Star Wars background shots.)

Younger audiences – particularly teenagers – were looking for more sophisticated, edgy entertainment, and when Jaws and Star Wars broke records, Disney’s live-action films were beginning to look increasingly out of step with public tastes. To this end, Disney embarked on a fresh approach to movie-making at the end of the ’70s, resulting in a string of films that were, by the studio’s standards, unusually dark.

The new direction

Former football player Ron Miller took over as president of Walt Disney Productions during one of its most turbulent periods in its history. In 1978, the company was still reeling from the death of its founder Walt Disney in 1966 and Roy Disney in 1971. Miller, Walt Disney’s son-in-law, had worked at Disney since the ’50s, serving as a producer on such movies as Son Of Flubber and That Darn Cat! (a brief attempt to start up an acting career was soon nipped in the bud by Walt).

As described in James B Stewart’s exhaustive book Disney War, Miller repeatedly clashed with other executives over the company’s future – not least Esmond Cardon Walker, Disney’s CEO. Miller had long wanted to make more adult movies at Disney; Walker hated the idea, arguing that it would tarnish the company’s public image. Nevertheless, the release of Star Wars appeared to serve as a tipping point behind the scenes, because, by 1979, Miller was talking openly about a creative shake-up at the House of Mouse.

“I’ll tell you, candidly,” Miller told Starlog at the time, “that there appears to be a lid on our product. The age group we typically appeal to just won’t give us the big attendance numbers that some other studios get.”

To this end, Disney began work on the most expensive movie in its history: The Black Hole. Work on the sci-fi adventure had begun in the mid-70s, where it began as an unpublished story called Space Station-One. For years, the project floated around Disney’s offices, with writers coming and going and the name changing first to Probe One and then finally to The Black Hole. It wasn’t until January 1978 that pre-production began in earnest, and by this point, Star Wars had punched a planet-sized hole through public consciousness, and sci-fi was suddenly the hot genre.

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The Black Holes then-huge $20 million budget wasn’t the only precedent the movie would set: it was to be the first Disney production to carry a PG rating. This might not sound like a big deal today, but at the time, it was quite a departure; traditionally, Disney had a policy of only releasing G-rated movies, which it stuck to rigidly – when the company’s 1950 film Treasure Island was reissued in 1975, a brief shot of a bullet wound was snipped out to avoid a PG rating from the MPAA.

Watch The Black Hole on Amazon

With The Black Hole, Disney – or at any rate, Ron Miller – was actively courting a more edgy kind of movie. Long before the film was even finished, let alone submitted to the MPAA, cast and crew alike were talking about how different The Black Hole would be from previous Disney films. 

“Imagine,” a makeup artist said, with the seeming intention of catching the ear of a journalist, “a PG-rated Disney movie!”

“I don’t think there’s anything in The Black Hole that would offend anybody,” Miller told Starlog, before adding that he didn’t “think it would matter if the film got an R-rating.”

“If it’s good,” Miller said confidently, “it’s going to succeed regardless of rating.”

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Not everyone was happy with Disney’s newfound edge, however; Miller admitted that he’d received letters from people who were concerned that The Black Hole would be some kind of expletive-laden stain on Walt Disney’s memory. “We’ve gotten a lot of letters, and we’re going to get a lot more,” Miller confided. “I got one from a woman doctor – and a couple of days later her husband or her son – saying that they hope the picture flops.”

What audiences might not have been prepared for, when The Black Hole emerged in December 1979, was just how nightmarish it was. Although it drew heavily on Disney’s old adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea – right down to Maximilian Schell playing an eccentric traveller in a byzantine vessel  –  The Black Hole was considerably darker and more surreal than George Lucas’s star-crossed fairytale. Fears of a foul-mouthed script were wide of the mark – only a few “damns” and hells” here – but movie-goers were instead confronted by a scene where Anthony Perkins dies horribly at the hands of a crimson robot. Then there were zombie-like drones in chrome masks, an ominous vortex of a score by John Barry, and a genuinely freaky ending that takes place in hell.

The Black Hole has since grown into a cult favorite, but it was far from a Star Warssized hit at the time; Disney executives would likely have noted that the sci-fi oddity made far less than Herbie film The Love Bug in 1968, a comedy romp made at a fraction of the cost.

“This could be our Exorcist”

As producer, Ron Miller pressed on with his interest in pursuing darker projects at Disney as the ’80s dawned. Based on a  novel by Florence Engell Randall, The Watcher in the Woods took the plunge into pure gothic horror, with an American family moving to a British manor house which plays host to a malign presence. Boasting a sterling cast, including Bette Davis and David McCallum, the movie was beset by conflict behind the scenes; Miller reportedly clashed with director John Hough over its tone (Miller, ironically, wanted to reign in some of the more violent moments), and the film wound up being pulled from release and put out again with a new ending.

In its reworked form, The Watcher In The Woods is a tonally odd beast, with lots of on-the-nose dialogue and somnambulant performances – even Davis, who’s normally an imposing presence, seems out of sorts here. There are odd moments, however, where the atmosphere really ratchets up: the low camera angles and prowling camera angles through misty woodlands could have come from Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, which emerged the following year. Stanley Myers’ howling soundtrack also helps.

The horror tones of The Black Hole and The Watcher In The Woods continued into Dragonslayer, a moody fantasy featuring some stunning animated sequences from Phil Tippett. Dragonslayer was the second joint venture between Disney and Paramount, who’d previously joined forces on Robert Altman’s expensive Popeye, and the result was a surprisingly gritty tale of man versus giant serpent.

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If Disney had received letters objecting to the swear words in The Black Hole, we can only imagine what they’d have thought about Dragonslayer‘s scenes of death and sacrifice: in one early sequence, a young woman struggles at her chains for what feels like an eternity, gore running down her wrists, as a fearsome dragon closes in for the kill. For a brief second, we think she may escape – but no: in full view, she’s toasted by the dragon’s fiery breath. Dragonslayer was far from a hit, but it remains a superb-looking movie, and Tippett’s monster – Vermithrax Pejorative – is one of the few truly imposing dragons in cinema. 

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The other live-action movies from Disney’s early-80s period were a similarly mixed bag in terms of reception, but they were certainly different in style and approach from the fare it was producing a decade earlier. The Devil and Max Devlin was a fantasy comedy starring Elliott Gould and Bill Cosby; Night Crossing, starring John Hurt and Beau Bridges, was a drama about a family trying to escape from East Germany; Never Cry Wolf, directed by Carroll Ballard, was a drama about arctic wolves. Condorman was an ahead-of-its-time comedy about a comic book writer (Michael Crawford) who becomes a winged superhero.

Even Tron, which on paper was another family-friendly action adventure, was bold in its approach; directed by Steven Lisberger, it featured groundbreaking CGI and scenes of color and abstract design that wouldn’t look out of place at an exhibition of modern art. Again, the movie wasn’t a Star Wars-level hit, but its jazzy attempt at capturing the “golden age of arcades” zeitgeist soon earned it a cult following.

Something Wicked

Arguably the most successful live-action film from the era – at least in creative terms –  came in 1983: Something Wicked This Way Comes, based on the novel by Ray Bradbury. About a mysterious carnival which shows up in a sleepy Illinois town, it’s directed with real flair by Jack Clayton, who made the equally effective supernatural film The Innocents. Jonathan Pryce is perfectly cast as Mr Dark, the carnival’s sinister owner, and while this film was, like The Watcher in the Woods, subject to a certain amount of reworking during its production, Something Wicked is one of the best adaptations of Bradbury’s work made so far – as Roger Ebert once pointed out, it’s certainly one of the few films that captures the tone of Bradbury’s hackle-raising prose.

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Something Wicked was, alas, a major financial misfire, and as the middle of the ’80s approached, Disney’s dwindling fortunes saw it fend off takeover attempts from rival companies. In the boardroom, there were still disagreements over the kind of movies Disney should be producing and how they should be marketed; the book Disney War goes so far to suggest that the reason so many of the studio’s movies flopped was because E. Cardon Walker refused to spend money on advertising them. Author James B. Stewart notes that, in 1982, such rival movies as Annie and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial were given marketing campaigns amounting to as much as $10 million; Walker spent a mere fraction of that amount, and Tron struggled to gain traction.

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Ron Miller did, at least, find a means of getting adult movies made at Disney. Under his aegis, Touchstone Pictures was set up, a separate division of Disney which could distribute films with a more adult tone without tarnishing the brand of its parent company. The first film from the Touchstone stable was Splash, a low-budget mermaid comedy that, despite Walker’s attempts to trim out some of its more risque scenes, became an unexpected smash. Miller, it seemed, was right about the kinds of films Disney ought to be making – not that he had long to bask in his success. With his leadership gradually eroded by in-fighting and hostile takeovers from without, Miller was removed from his role of CEO in 1984 and replaced by a new group of executives, including Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

The last vestiges of darkness clung to Disney until the middle of the 80s, as two long-in-gestation projects finally made it to the screen. The Black Cauldron, a fantasy adventure based on a series of stories by Lloyd Alexander, had been in production since the late 1970s, and subjected to a series of delays; directors and animators came and went, and when the film was finally completed in 1984, its budget had soared to an extraordinary $44 million. For The Black Cauldrons team of animators, the project’s nadir arrived when Katzenberg, who’d just joined Disney as chairman, sat and watched the finished film.

Katzenberg was ill-prepared for the film’s dark and sometimes disturbing fantasy.  

In one scene, we see an army of ghouls stepping out of the titular cauldron. In another, a group of guards have their skin stripped from their bones. Katzenberg sat in the dark, baffled by the story and appalled by the violence and, as soon as the lights went up, stated in no uncertain terms that the film had to be cut. When a producer tried to explain that you can’t just cut hours of painstakingly hand-drawn footage from an animated film, Katzenberg marched to the editing room and began re-cutting The Black Cauldron himself. He was eventually talked out of hacking the film up himself, but Katzenberg’s edict remained: approximately 12 minutes were taken out of The Black Cauldron, and some of those scenes have, tragically, been lost forever.

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Watch The Black Cauldron on Amazon

Even in its softened form, The Black Cauldron was an unusually intense animated film by Disney’s standards. It’s flawed, for sure, but then again, its creative risks are what make it such a fascinating part of the studio’s long history. Its villain, The Horned King, may have given little kids nightmares, but shrouded in mist and shadow, he’s a truly fearsome creation. Audiences failed to flock to Disney’s attempt at a darker fantasy film, however, and The Black Cauldron proved to be another commercial disappointment; at the US box-office, it failed to earn back more than half of its huge $44 million investment.

Likewise we have Return To Oz, Walter Murch’s unexpectedly stark follow-up to The Wizard Of Oz. A project that had begun under the earlier regime at Disney, the fantasy adventure was another creatively audacious film that failed to make its money back. But again, like so many of these Disney films from the period, Return To Oz has grown in to a cult favorite; with the benefit of hindsight, the elements that critics suggested were too much for kids – the bleak tone, the surreal and often frightening sets and character designs – are what set it apart from more generic family fare.

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Today, it’s hard to believe that there was a time when Disney was in genuine danger of being taken over, given their dominance of recent box office trends. But Disney’s long journey back to a major powerhouse began in the late 80s, as the live-action adventure Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and animated classic The Little Mermaid went on to astonishing success. But while Disney’s confidence continued to grow over the next decade, as it enjoyed a string of hits like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, there’s still something magnetic about that weird, dark phase its movies went through from 1979 onwards. Whether you think films like The Black Hole, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and The Black Cauldron are cult diamonds in the rough or plain duds, they’re a fascinating by-product of a company interrogating its own legacy – and if nothing else, they’re far dull and predictable.

As Ron Miller explained back in the late 70s, “The last thing I want to do is go back to the formula Disney Picture. I want them to say, ‘Hey, look, Disney isn’t that predictable…'”