5 Kids Movies That Are (Secretly) Horror Movies
Some of the things we watched as kids most definitely did a number on us. Many a millennial, for instance, can't think of Anjelica Huston in The Witches today without feeling a little queasy, and Danny DeVito as Tim Burton's Penguin was a diabolical vision from Hell that somehow made us crave some cheese. Maybe because he looks like a block of Brie. Or maybe it has to do with the dropping of our blood pressure every time we saw that terrifying beak of a nose.
And don't even get us started on having to watch Judge Doom melt a whimpering animated shoe in that movie about a rabbit with a sex drive and severe anxiety issues. The point is that, sometimes, even kids' movies will feature scenes and elements so scary that we're left wondering why these filmmakers hate children so very, very much. Sometimes, however, it's clear that a filmmaker probably wanted to make a horror movie all along.
A story is considered a horror when the focus of said story is to create and elicit fear. According to AMC Theatres, horrors have the following common elements:
1) A menacing, memorable villain
2) A rule or rules to survive the horror
3) An element of surprise (either a twist reveal or an epic jump scare)
5) An epic showdown
I'll add here that horrors will additionally involve either murder, a supernatural element, and/or some form of disgust and/or grossness. Which really makes you wonder about the following classic kids' movies, out there in the world, parading like family-friendly titles …
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial Is About An Alien Who Slowly Kills A Boy
Steven Spielberg initially wrote E.T. as a horror movie, and boy do those roots still show. E.T. was originally conceived as a movie called Night Skies, a horror story based on a real-life account of a Kentucky family who claimed to have been terrorized by hostile aliens back in 1955. Spielberg, however, decided he liked one of his subplots involving a benevolent alien's friendship with a young boy better than the whole evil alien clan story, and that is how we got the tale of Elliot and the space creature who looks and sounds like a shriveled up lung with emphysema.
While elements of Night Skies ended up in Spielberg's other 1982 classic, the supernatural horror movie Poltergeist, it was only the subplot of "friendly alien" that remained in E.T. … or, was it? Because E.T. is not just a sci-fi movie, it's a creepy sci-fi movie. Just listen to the supposed family-friendly film's intro music:
Jeepers, those are some hair-raising sounds that feel pretty foreboding and such. Continue watching the entire opening scene, and you will quickly pick up on some classic sci-fi horror tropes — from the sounds of nocturnal animals in the dark and misty woods to the weird yelping of a strange creature being chased by scary men in the black of night. Not only is the opening scene kinda spine-chilling, but it also literally ends with the alien creature being abandoned and forgotten. Which, you know, is most kids' biggest fear.
There's that frightening albeit curious scene where E.T. throws the ball back at Elliot from inside the shed, but there's another horror trope that presents itself not long into the movie. It's a trope that I call the "horror hands." You know them — those long-fingered bony hands we see in horror movies edging toward a character, its body (if it has one) often out of frame to cause some extra dread. In this case, we have E.T. shuffling that lung sack of a body up to Elliot like it's going to attack the kid or something, only to stretch out its knobby hands and drop Elliot's candy onto his lap. What follows is a whole sequence of "horror hands" as Elliot lures the alien into his house.
Then there's the whole psychic connection that Lung Sack forms with Elliot. It's a connection that gets Elliot drunk at school and forces him to forcibly make out with a girl. It's a connection Elliot didn't give his consent to, as one anti-fan has pointed out before. It's a connection that truly turns dark when you realize that E.T. is basically (and knowingly) killing Elliot.
Why didn't the alien break the bond between him and Elliot when he saw the kid was dying along with him? Some folks have argued that maybe E.T. actually faked his own death so that the government baddies would let him go and he could escape and go home … which makes Lung Sack even worse, because that means he manipulated Elliot, made him severely sick, and traumatized all three those kids by pretending to die right in front of them, all because he got left behind by his probably alcoholic buddies.
The movie also features a bunch of grown men listening in on the chattering of young boys because Spielberg really stacked the layers of creeps in this one. There's also the shocking chalk-white, bloated body of our dying alien drunk, squealing on the family's bathroom floor while looking like an X-ray of an oxygen-deprived lung.
That's it, everyone. E.T. is a horror movie warning kids that smoking kills. Also, government people are bad and scary and shouldn't be trusted. But hey, maybe some families enjoy watching a little boy and his little alien friend slowly die together while the boy's mother gets terrorized by government officials in her own home.
The Secret of NIMH Doesn't Even Hide That It Wants To Terrify Us
I see you, everyone who saw this Don Bluth film when they were kids and who are vehemently nodding in agreement right now. As much as the filmmakers would want to say that it's a family fantasy movie based on a children's novel, it's one of the scariest animations ever — one that managed to give an entire generation nightmares. The main plot is fairly simple: A field mouse named Mrs. Brisby needs to figure out how to move her kids, and her very sick son Timothy before the farmer's plow destroys their cinder block home. The story also involves a subplot of rats being genetically altered/tortured in a science lab, some class politics, and a dose of rat assassination. That's just how you write a kids' animation in the '80s, people.
Oh, would you look at that. The movie literally starts us off with some horror hands:
Seriously, the entire opening sequence is just frames of those bony, warty hands, and it sets the tone quite nicely for the many, many unsettling images to come. You know how most people think of cats as cute and fluffy? Well, these guys created a cat named Dragon who looks like this:
That is one deranged kitty, who we are told murdered poor Mrs. Brisby's husband Jonathan … who was trying to drug the cat. It's a lot, just like that cat's actual mustache. There's also the terrifying Moving Day sequence in which the farm animals need to get the heck out of Dodge because it's plowing season and the sky is burning red and this is a horror movie:
Now let's play a game of "Name Another Animation Featuring So Many Bone-Crunching Sounds:"
Yeah, the Great Owl with his Angry Grandpa voice in his spider-invested lair messed us up gooood. And so did this:
There are so many scary (and let's face it, brilliant) images and sequences in this movie that we can't possibly show you all of them.
As we've discussed earlier, every horror movie must have a memorable and menacing villain. In NIMH, that is undoubtedly the power-hungry and general douche-rat Jenner:
The movie also checks all the other boxes, and its "surprise element" delivers because the scariest scene in this kids animation — that also features a rat extermination/genocide plot — is the scene where the wise yet undead-looking Nicodemus shows Mrs. Brisby the origins of the rats of NIMH:
There's probably a reason we don't often see needles in a kids' movie. Unless, you know, it's a horror movie.
Matilda Is A Horror Movie With A Happy Ending (Sort Of)
In general, stories by Roald Dahl can get real dark. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory features a grown man who "gets rid of" a bunch of gross kids. It's like Saw, but with candy. The Witches sees a coven of women with body issues turn kids into mice, and The BFG is about an abused orphan who gets kidnapped by a giant who turns out to be the only friendly giant among a group of evil child-eating giants. Dahl truly is one of the greatest kids' storytellers of all time.
Then there's Matilda, a story that's been noted for its dark undertones as well as Dahl's classic "terrible adults" trope, but I would argue that there's more horror to Matilda than simply the universal notion of crappy parents. In fact, when you start comparing Matilda's story to that of horror master Stephen King's classic, Carrie, it's surprising how much these two tales have in common.
Remember how in Carrie, our titular character was bullied at school and abused at home? Yeah, same with Matilda. Remember how, while her mother was berating her yet again, Carrie couldn't take it anymore and her telekinetic superpowers were activated? It's literally this entire scene in Matilda:
Menacing villain? Check. Matilda's horrid parents somehow only come second to the tyranny she experiences at the hands of Miss Agatha Trunchbull — the school principal who tortures children in literal torture chambers:
Oh, that's kind of like when Carrie's mom forced her to go into a closet with a Jesus shrine and pray her womanly sins away. Talk about torture. Of course, Miss Trunchbull had many favorite torture forms. She also enjoyed swinging little girls around on their pigtails before launching them through the air:
And there's also this entire sequence where Miss Trunchbull literally attempts her some murder:
Rules to survive? Check. Matilda is cheeky in that she can observe her morally ambiguous parents and deduce how their rules work … and then use those rules against them. For instance, when Daddy DeVito says people who do bad things need to be punished (meaning kids and, specifically, Matilda), she understands it as a rule that fairly applies to everyone, adults included. So she punishes her parents in turn, because not only is her father a horrid little crook but they’re just awful people in general.
A supernatural element? Check. An epic showdown? Check. Seriously, Matilda has so many comedy-horror elements executed so incredibly well that it's kind of surprising everyone's not referring to it as a classic example of the subgenre. Yes, it's clearly not as dark as Carrie because not only is it a prepubescent story, but it also has a somewhat happier ending. I say that with caution because all that Trunchbull torture will most definitely come back to haunt these kids by the time they hit puberty.
Holes May Be Disney's Riskiest Family Movie Ever
We start off with a young boy basically committing suicide by allowing a rattlesnake to bite him in the desert because he can't be forced to dig one more godforsaken hole anymore. Yes, we double-checked. This is a Disney movie.
This 2003 neo-Western comedy-drama based on the young adult novel with the same name certainly goes places. It involves forced labor of a group of juvenile delinquents, murder, a serial killer, gypsy curses, more attempted murder, and many creepy-crawlies to add some old-school critter-jitters.
And while Sigourney Weaver plays the main villain in her classic Weaver Villain style, it is Jon Voight (as Mr. Sir) who walks around all menacing-looking like he's trying to decide which child to (finally) eat first.
Directed by Andrew Davis — who, up until that point, was making movies like The Fugitive, A Perfect Murder, and Collateral Damage — this movie is about Stanley Yelnats IV (played by a young Shia Labeouf) and his unlucky family who was supposedly cursed back in the day because sure, just go with it. Young Stanley ends up at a juvenile detention camp where the kids are all forced to dig up the desert because the camp warden (Weaver) is searching for some old-timey treasure. That is the main story, but it's also somehow only one-sixth of the whole story because this movie touches on everything from interracial relationships to prejudice to greed to goddamn public lynching. Yes, in a Disney movie, featuring everyone from Weaver and Voight to Patricia Arquette and Henry freakin' Winkler. We have to constantly keep reminding ourselves that this is a movie from the House of Mouse.
A total of three characters die in this movie, and two of those deaths are suicides. Oh, and we see all three characters die. It doesn't happen off-screen or is merely mentioned in passing. For a young adult story, it's fine. Just don't tell us it's not a neo-Western comedy-horror.
Horror Fans Have Always Regarded Jurassic Park As Part Of The Genre
While the most iconic dinosaur movie of all time is regarded as a creature feature yet billed as an action-adventure, there's just no denying that it has all the elements necessary to classify it under horror, too. Because, in case anyone's forgotten, a movie can have multiple genres added to it. Movies do it, like, all the time.
Heck, I've written before how South Korean horror filmmakers have proven time and time again that you can create a mish-mash of genres without muddling a movie's logic or atmosphere. Many American movies have done this, too, so I see no reason why Jurassic Park can't be classified as an action-horror movie. Or better yet, a sci-fi action horror because that probably sums it up best.
Surely we don't have to remind anyone of all the death and carnage unleashed by these genetically engineered monster creatures. Surely we don't have to pull out the horror checklist again. We will, however, remind everyone of this specific scene:
Yep, that's the kind of scene that'll fit into any horror movie because it's a sequence that works to build both tension and dread. Here's the thing about Jurassic Park: It's a movie that starts off as an action-adventure, filling us with awe as we, along with the characters, gape at all the amazing creatures. But then, halfway through, the movie takes a turn (even though the music has been feeding us ominous tones all through the first half), and it switches to terror and horror, shattering the fantasy of Dino Petting Zoos and serving us reality in the form of dinosaurs chomping people to death.
Still not convinced? They even feature a classic jumpscare and a perfect off-screen death with some good old horror gore:
Yep. That is as terrifying as it is terrific.
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Thumbnail: Universal Pictures, TriStar Pictures