Entertainment aimed at kids is a tricky bit of business. Most adults (who’ve apparently forgotten all about what it’s like to be a kid) seem to be working under the misguided impression that children are delicate creatures who need to be protected from the horrors of the world, and therefore should only be allowed to see movies that are gentle, safe, happy, bright, sanitized, and above all else, bland. Cute and fuzzy animals help, too. This is why in the ‘80s parents groups insisted that Warner Brothers cartoons be edited all to hell before being broadcast directly into all those impressionable minds on Saturday morning. As a result Daffy, Sylvester, and Wile E. Coyote no longer drank, gobbled pills, got shot in the head, got smacked with anvils, or fell off cliffs. These same parents then wondered why the hell their kids didn’t seem to appreciate these classic cartoons anymore.
Kids, on the other hand (at least those who haven’t been brainwashed by dumb child psychologists) are in general a bloodthirsty lot. For centuries young boys and girls alike have been in constant pursuit of the dark, the violent, and the grotesque. What kid with a Matchbox car ever pretended that car was driving around town nicely, obeying all the traffic laws? No, you give a kid a Matchbox, that car is going to be involved in thousands of horrible and bloody accidents. When I was a kid, my parents let me read anything I wanted with the exception of the one book I really wanted to read, namely Helter Skelter. So I snuck up to the drugstore and read it chapter by chapter over the course of a summer. I know I wasn’t the only twisted nine year-old-out there, either, given the number of kids who lined up around theaters all over the country to see Jaws.
Some artists in the childrens entertainment industry understand this and have profited well as a result (the Harry Potter and Limoney Snicket series, etc.), and sure, with your Internets and what not we’re living in a different age. Kids can log on and watch real beheadings if they like. But there was a time when a handful of filmmakers, whether by accident or because they were sly, sadistic bastards, managed to do an end run around both parents and kids, crafting films which, on the surface, seemed gentle and bright and innocent, films without the slightest whiff of anything overtly terrifying or gross, but which still contained images or characters or situations guaranteed to give kids nightmares. Lots and lots of nightmares for years to come without their overprotective parents ever understanding why. So here are our picks for the top twelve (intentionally or not) creepiest kids movies of all time. And as we go down the list, we have to ask ourselves: what in the fuck was going on in the ‘60s?
Dr. Syn, alias The Scarecrow (1963)
Disney’s remake of a 1937 Roy William Neill film seemed innocent enough, if a little mature and politically complex for typical Disney kids fare. The Robin Hood variation stars Patrick McGoohan as a mysterious 18th century figure who organizes a smuggling ring to circumvent the king’s taxes and defend a small coastal village. To protect himself and anyone who could identify him, he goes about his business in disguise, speaking in a deep, sinister voice. Problem is, the disguise is a creepy scarecrow mask. I’m not sure why he opted for the creepy scarecrow. It’s a little less than comforting. On the surface it’s a plain old period adventure yarn for the whole family about robbing the rich to help the poor, but I tell you that image of a figure in a cloak and a wide-brimmed hat and that horrifying mask riding across the countryside at night still haunts me. I don’t care if he was trying to help the poor; that fucker showed up at my door with a bag of money, I’d scream, then shoot him.
Winter of the Witch (1968)
For reasons I still cannot fathom, this made-for-TV short was inflicted upon me by teachers at least once a year (sometimes more) every year between second and sixth grade. It never coincided with anything, we were never told why we had to watch it, and it was a film with no educational value whatsoever. I think they were just trying to screw with our heads. Narrated by Burgess Meredith, it concerns a young single mother and her son who pick up and move to a new town. Although the mother incessantly complains in vague terms about their “problems” and “troubles” they manage to buy a big house sight unseen for $400. Then more of those troubles crop up when they learn the house is not only filthy, but an old witch is squatting there, too. (The witch is played by Hermione Gingold from Gigi and The Music Man.)
Well, after some initial friction they work out an agreement. As the mother continues complaining about her “problems,” the witch starts reading the papers and gets depressed over the state of the world. Then she decides to start cooking again, and whips up a batch of magic blueberry pancakes for the boy and his mom. What makes them magic, see, is that they make everyone who takes a bite real happy. You can tell this because when anyone shoves some pancakes into his or her mouth, the screen fills with flashing red and blue dots and a quick horn trill sounds. Smiles and uncontrollable giggling follow. They decide to open a restaurant and soon people are lined up down the street to get some, um, “Happiness Pancakes.” I guess it would’ve been a little too obvious if the witch had made Happiness Brownies. But that’s the thing. There was nothing overtly creepy about the film, but every last kid in my second and third grade class recognized it immediately as a drug movie. I mean c’mon, people eat pancakes, then see flashing colored lights, then get real happy? What the hell else do you need? What was troubling was that none of our teachers seemed willing to admit this. In fact they acted like they had no idea what we were talking about. And THAT’S just plain creepy.
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953)
The beloved live-action musical fantasy by Dr. Seuss is at heart (no matter what people say) a film about childhood fears of all kinds, together with some less than subtle Freudian conflicts. Young Bart Collins hates his piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conreid in a brilliant, over the top villainous performance) more than anyone or anything in the world. Not only is Terwilliker a sadistic tyrant, he also seems to be making moves on Bart’s mother. Bart, meanwhile, secretly hopes his mom will get involved with the plumber instead. The “lighthearted” fantasy sequences that dominate the film find the kid imprisoned in the Terwilliker Institute, an inescapable fortress of a piano academy surrounded by a barbed wire fence and filled with prison cells, where five hundred young children are forced to practice 24 hours a day, seven days a week at a single, massive, twisting and endless piano keyboard. Dr. Seuss always had a dark side (don’t get me started on Cat in the Hat), but never was it more evident than it is here. With its wildly surreal sets and sharp b/w photography, Bart’s nightmare comes off like a cross between early David Lynch and the funhouse sequence at the end of Lady From Shanghai, but with more musical numbers. Sure, blissfully ignorant parents will look at it and think, oh, it’s about a boy who doesn’t like piano lessons ha ha ha isn’t that cute, but it’s so much more sinister than that, a film about torture and simmering Oedipal violence.
It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown (1966)
Having watched this again recently for the first time in thirty years or more, I’m hard pressed to pinpoint exactly what it was about Snoopy’s World War I Flying Ace fantasy sequence that so profoundly disturbed me when I was young. I was fine with Lucy’s witch mask and that sincere but grim pumpkin patch and Charlie Brown’s growing collection of rocks (something I could sympathize with), but whenever Snoopy took off after the Red Baron I had to leave the room. Maybe it was the early psychedelics of the shifting perspectives, camera angles and color palette so common in drug films of the era, or maybe it was the change in Vince Guiraldi’s music from bouncy piano jazz to moaning horror film atmospherics, or maybe it was Snoopy in silhouette, that stylized night sky behind him as he creeps behind enemy lines after being shot down. More than anything I think it was that this sequence, dropped into the middle of a simple, straightforward, crudely-animated cartoon, was such a radical departure in style, both visually and on the soundtrack, that it represented a sharp smack to a four-year-old brain unable yet to sort things like that out. Back then it was like dropping a long clip from Eraserhead into the middle of Gilligan’s Island. It made my head hurt, and it scared me.
Charlotte’s Web (1973)
The astronomically popular animated adaptation of E.B. White’s astronomically popular children’s book featured an all-star voice cast including Debbie Reynolds, Henry Gibson, and Paul Lynde in the story of Wilbur, a runty and hapless pig who lives on a farm and is, in all likelihood, doomed to the slaughterhouse. But when the barn spider charlotte takes pity on him and starts weaving pro-Wilbur slogans into her web, (“Some Pig”), people begin to take notice, and Wilbur becomes a local celebrity. With charlotte working as his one-spider p.r. team, his fame grows. Then charlotte dies. DIES, ya hear me? End of the movie she poots out a big egg sac, curls up, and DIES. And Wilbur, presumably, goes on to become an Easter dinner for some fat Midwestern family. That’s the way I always interpreted it anyway, and I don’t think I’m alone given how many kids left the film in hysterics.
Santa Claus vs. The Devil (1959)
Twenty years before making exploitation wonderments like Survive! and , Mexican director Rene Cardona gave us one of the most baffling and disturbing holiday films in history. Toss everything you think you know about Santa out the window, because it simply doesn’t apply here. The title pretty much says it all, and for all the cutting back and forth between scenes in Hell and scenes in Santa’s Magic Castle on the Moon (?), I gotta say Hell seems preferable. For one thing, as the opening twenty minutes of the film reveals, Santa seems to be holding groups of children from every nation on earth hostage up there on the moon, and he forces them to perform songs and dances from their native lands for him on a daily basis. Merlin, who’s also up there with him, runs a drug lab, and is under constant pressure to come up with new chemical compounds to get the fat man high. Most disturbing of all, the Magic Castle is actually a massive, high-tech surveillance complex that would put the NSA to shame. Not only can Santa see you at any moment of any day, no matter where you are; he can even watch your dreams as you sleep. Cardona did what he could with what was obviously a microscopic budget to try and create a detail-rich candy-colored toyland with an air of magic infusing each frame, but the results are cheap and sad and shabby. In the end it’s a masterwork of accidental and disturbing Surrealism that’s far more frightening than it is joyous. Maybe that’s why Cardona found it easier to switch to straight horror later in his career.
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964)
There’s just something about the holidays that brings out the creepy and savage in people. I’m convinced Rankin and Bass were actually a couple of evil child-hating sonsabitches who buried subliminal messages in all of their animated holiday specials. That’s why I always found I felt uneasy and a little nauseous by the time the closing credits ran. The messages weren’t always subliminal either. Sometimes they were just plain, um, liminal. In the case of Rudolph I’m not just talking about that first shocking appearance of the Abominable Snow Monster, either (though that didn’t help). Much more troubling for me were the deformed playthings on the Island of Misfit Toys, all weeping and suicidal when they think Santa isn’t coming. AGAIN. But even when he finally does come to pick them up on Christmas Eve to deliver them to children, I can’t help but wonder what kind of poor, crippled children will end up receiving these loser toys. What the hell kinda Christmas present is that? Goddamn train with square wheels. And what kind of future awaits these sad sack toys? Whatever kid gets them will probably just set them on fire or rip their arms out or something.
Even worse than the mutant toys is Hermie, the gay elf who wants to be a dentist. When we first see him, he’s about to rip the tooth out of a doll. What kind of sick fuck is this? You almost expect him to ask the rag doll, “Is it safe?” Then at the end, Hermie saves the day how? By grabbing a big honking pliers and ripping out all the Bumble’s teeth. It takes place off-screen of course, but when the Bumble opens his mouth revealing that dark toothless maw and everyone laughs, I could never help but think his mouth must’ve been a bloody, mushy mess at that point, and he must’ve been in extraordinary pain. Is it safe, indeed. That creepy sadistic little fucker. I know there are reindeer and the like in this too, but all I ever took away from it were those doomed toys and that monstrous, evil gay dentist.
Dumbo, Bambi, Fantasia…Oh, hell, Just Make That Every Disney Animated Feature Released Between 1937 and 1985
Where do you even begin with Walt Disney? Calling him Satan’s Chosen Son would be an insult to Satan. His boiling anti-Semitism and political extremism aside, I never trusted his whole smiling “Oh, I love the children” charade. Or maybe it’s not that he hated children, exactly, but parents. Specifically mothers, and that’s why his films are overpopulated with evil queens and witches and stepmothers, together with gentle, kindly, loving mothers who get shot to death or nabbed by poachers. Disney films may be the epitome of wholesome, righteous family entertainment filled with songs and magic and cute furry animals,, but my god how many millions of children have left theaters devastated, sobbing, and swimming with new-found separation issues (or a paralyzing fear of foxes)? Bambi’s mom gets blown away, Dumbo’s mom gets snatched, there’s that pederast Gepetto, Christ. And has anyone else noticed that the shot of the Dwarfs marching off to work eerily echoes the final shot in The Seventh Seal?
Then there’s Fantasia. I have no trouble with the Night on Bald Mountain sequence. I thought the demon and the ghosts and all the mayhem were pretty damn cool, and for me anyway made the film worthwhile. No, what got to me was The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. All those marching, faceless mops, all that splashing water. Forget about Mickey (I won’t get into one of my Mickey Mouse tirades here), it was those damn mops that scared the shit out of me, together with seeing Mickey’s shadow as he raises the ax over his head. I knew other kids who were equally unsettled by the experimental piece at the beginning, and still others who were completely traumatized by the hippos in tutus. Yes, people blame a lot of things, but I think in large part we can place responsibility for the explosion in American neuroses over the last fifty years square on Walt Disney’s shoulders.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Of course it’s a classic family favorite, filled with songs and Gene Wilder and candy and a big happy ending for that poor Charlie and his whole poor family. But Roald Dahl knew what he was doing, and all his children’s books have a sharp, dark edge to them. In fact as far as film adaptations of Dahl go, The Witches might be the more obvious contender here. Trouble is, The Witches is a little too obviously and deliberately dark. In this case, that smiling Gene Wilder singing “Pure Imagination,” nice as he is (despite his grumpy entrance and freak out near the end), is as Satanic a character as you could hope to find in the movies. That’s not what unnerved me, though. Nor was I bothered when all those snot nosed kids started getting picked off one by one as a result of their own brattish behavior. Still, there are so many troubling images in Willy Wonka (and god bless it for that): the psycho boat ride later aped by Oliver Stone for Natural Born Killers, Charlie and Grampa Joe floating toward the whirling blades of the massive exhaust fan, Augustus Gloop drowning in a river of what we’ve been told is chocolate, etc. But somehow nothing is quite as spooky as all those stiff, uncomfortable, straight-faced song and dance finger wagglings from those damned Oompa Loompas overlayed with psychedelic graphics. Somehow the idea of being told what to do by a group of moralistic orange midgets just made me very uncomfortable. Especially when one tries to do a cartwheel.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)
United Artists made some deliberate encroachments into Disney territory with this sprawling, big-budget live action musical comedy adaptation of Ian Fleming’s children’s fantasy novel. It was a guaranteed winner for the whole family, with plenty of catchy, memorable songs (I could still sing them all after 40 years), slapstick and even Disney regular Dick Van Dyke as an eccentric crackpot inventor who somehow ended up the father of two cockney children with an equally eccentric British imperialist grandfather or father or father in law or something. Oh, it has romance and more songs about candy and laughs and thrills and best of all a flying magical car.
But any kid who’s seen it, whatever age they saw it, will remember it for one thing and one thing only: The child Catcher. He doesn’t appear until after intermission (it’s a long film), and only appears in two brief scenes, but that’s enough. Slinking across the screen like a spider, the cadaverous Robert Helpmann has a greenish face, long stringy hair, and dresses like an undertaker or grave-robber. He sniffs the air and in that leering, whining voice says, “I smell CHILDREN!” Hear that? He SMELLS CHILDREN! Which is good, I guess, given that it’s his job to track down all the children in town and make them DISAPPEAR! He’s one of the creepiest and most memorable (if by “memorable” you mean “psyche-scarring”) characters in children’s films, and would go on to inspire the Marilyn Manson album I Smell Children. For me, though, the scene that was even more unsettling than the Child Catcher was near the end, when Potts the inventor (Van Dyke) and his romantic interest truly scrumptious perform a song and dance number disguised as a wind-up clown and music box dancer as part of the plan to rescue the children. It’s supposed to be a funny, exciting scene, but with their immobile features and dead staring eyes they always struck me more like twitching animated corpses than life-sized toys. But maybe that’s just me.
Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)
Disney’s at it again. What is it with these people? When I walked out of the theater with a friend of mine after a screening in the early ‘70s, my only comment was, “Jeeze, that movie could give a kid a complex.” Oh, it’s a happy St. Patty’s Day musical fantasy about an old man who’s spent a lifetime telling yarns about the time he almost tricked a leprechaun out of his pot of gold. Over the course of the film he eventually pulls it off, but then he learns there’s a downside to winning a leprechaun’s gold, and hooboy you better believe the leprechauns are pissed. Oh, it’s a fine and silly bit of Irish stereotyping with dancing and musical numbers and some bad trick photography and what have you. It’s bright and breezy and light.
But near film’s end when the shit hits the fan, well, that’s when the Banshee appears on Darby’s doorstep. He hears the screaming, opens the door, and the Banshee swoops down from the sky. Let’s just say I hadn’t been expecting that one at all. The special effects are mighty cheap even by ‘59 standards, but when you’re that young you don’t notice things like that, all you know is there’s a fucking Banshee at the front door. Then, even after the Banshee goes away, here comes the ghostly horse-drawn hearse with its faceless driver gesturing to the open door and commanding in that ghost voice, “Darby O’Gill…Get in.” In the years that followed I couldn’t open the front door after sundown without half expecting to find a Banshee standing there, or a waiting hearse in the driveway. Sometimes I still expect this. To my mind those films that claimed to be horror films had nothing on Darby O’Gill and the Little People. And perhaps the most terrifying thing of all about it? I mean beyond even the Banshee and the hearse? It’s so far as I know the one and only film in which Sean Connery sings.
Wizard of Oz (1939)
Would anyone deny that one of the most beloved family films of all time is also the creepiest? I could fill pages with a list of specific images and moments from the film that were particularly disturbing on so many levels, from Dorothy falling into the pig pen to the ornery apple trees to the balloon slipping away at the end to that horse of a different color. Even without the witch or the Munchkins, Wizard of Oz would be the champ. The film is an endless parade of assorted separation anxieties and one unsettling image after another. But instead of trying to write them all down, I think I’ll sum it up in two words: Flying Monkeys.