Hopefully the title itself explains what I'm aiming for, but for the sake of clarity, these are movies from the 80's - live action only - that are geared towards children yet have elements or scenes that may be especially frightening for kids. Nowadays a lot of kids are probably desensitized to what these films have to offer, but I'm hoping those of you who grew up watching them can confirm being freaked out a bit.
As much as films like Gremlins and Ghostbusters seem to fit into this list, I feel they are more horror/comedies that are aimed at adults, and so they didn't make the cut.
5. The Dark Crystal (1982)
I knew one of Jim Henson's films had to appear here, and it was either this or Labyrinth. As scary as David Bowie's outfits were Dark Crystal is the creepiest of the two.
Overall the whole film is dark and foreboding, but what makes the movie particularly scary for kids are the Skeksis. A cruel, evil, grotesque race of creatures that look like a cross between a vulture, a raptor, and a corpse. The movie even kicks off (pun intended!) with one of them dying in bed; rotting and crumbling to dust.
In fact, almost all the creatures and characters in the movie (even some of the apparently "good" ones) seem freakish, menacing, or gross. It's a movie that is depressing and frightening, so it's bound to depress or scare children.
4. Little Monsters (1989)
Not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but this isn't a list of the best family films. Yet what makes it scary? Was it Howie Mandel's annoying performance as a loud-mouthed, unfunny monster? No. Was it the scene where a fat bully drinks a bottle of piss? Gross, but no.
It's all about the villain of the film, named Boy. The leader of the underworld of monsters, this pale dude in a school boy's uniform steals the show in his few scenes. His human form turns out to be a poor disguise when he is burned by light, and ends up peeling off his own face to reveal a bug-eyed demon that is a thing of nightmares. It's bloodshot eyes will pierce your soul!
3. The Goonies (1985)
If your child is bothered by things like skeletons and decomposed bodies, then this film might be one to avoid. And, hey! What family flick would be complete without a giant deformed freak chained up in the cellar?
2. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Maybe this is a surprising choice, but before we even address what happens in the movie, just look at E.T.. Look at him! Her! It! That thing is undeniably freaky. Sure this character is adored and recognized the world over, but we've had 27 years to get a good look and get used to it. But for a kid seeing him for the first time ... it's a bit of a shock.
The scenes where Elliott first make contact with E.T. were particularly frightening to me as a kid. We get to see things from Elliott's perspective as he pushes his way through the dark cornfield with nothing but a flashlight and suddenly comes face to face with a squealing wrinkled frog-pig! I don't care what age you are, if that was you in his shoes, you'd shit your pants. (Note: I recently watched the 20th anniversary edition of the movie, and was really annoyed to find that Spielberg had tinkered with the movie, including using CG to completely ruin this scene. Isn't it funny how film-makers feel the need to "fix" their critically acclaimed and beloved films? Apparently the world loving his movie isn't enough to convince Spielberg that he did it right the first time.)
So as the movie rolls on we learn to like E.T. and care for him. He becomes our friend. So isn't it equally traumatizing to see him die? The final third of the movie is riddled with haunting imagery: Michael finding E.T.'s pale lifeless body in the river, faceless government goons in spacesuits storming into Elliott's home, a drawn out death scene where everyone frantically tries to revive E.T. and the children look on in horror weeping. Of course we get our happy ending, but that's intense stuff for some kids.
While being perhaps the greatest family film ever made, it does have its fair share of creepy, startling, and scary moments.
1. Return to Oz (1985)
One of my personal favourites from my childhood, this film is one of the strangest sequels ever made. If you're expecting more songs, dance, and Dorothy cheerfully skipping down the yellow brick road ... think again.
Where to begin? Well, the movie starts with Dorothy back in Kansas and we find that her stories of Oz seem to be concerning those around her. So Aunt Em whisks her off to a nightmarish mental hospital to have the memories of Oz burnt out of her mind with the wonders of electricity! The hospital is filled with creepy doctors and orderlies, and when the power goes out in the middle of the procedure, the place fills with wailing and moaning. I swear it's like something out of Silent Hill.
When Dorothy does arrive in Oz (via flood), she finds the yellow brick road destroyed and the Emerald city in ruins and then we get introduced to a mess of terrifying characters. Who can forget the Wheelers? These gangly masked madmen with wheels for hands and feet may look like Cirque du Soleil rejects now, but as a child they made me squirm. Just the sound of their squeaking wheels and deranged laughing is scary enough without seeing them.
The Gnome King and his shifting rock minions are scary as well, especially when he becomes angry, but the character that takes the cake is Mombi, the new queen of Oz. Mombi is some sort of witch who can remove and switch her head as she pleases, and keeps a collection of heads in a hall of glass cases. She locks Dorothy in the attic, in order to harvest her head once she's older. When Dorothy hatches a plan to escape it requires her to sneak into Mombi's quarters at night and steal her powder of life, which is kept in a case with Mombi's disembodied head. This scene is goddamn horrifying! So much so, that I present you with a link to watch it for yourself.
Return to Oz is not just a surprisingly dark film for children, it seems to take every opportunity to terrify its young audience. With crazed villains, scary creatures, haunting settings, and suspenseful encounters, it pushed the limit of what a children's movie can get away with.