It is said that your childhood days are the happiest of your life. While I wouldn’t disagree, the person that came up with that statement clearly never entered a cinema screen, never watched television, or definitely had some kind of allergy to VHS. Yes, you didn’t have to worry about bills, social etiquette, or general hygiene, and perhaps the hardest decision you faced was coming up with the next reason in a long list of why eating broccoli would most definitely kill you. But, my God, childhood is a harrowing time – if you’ve seen any of the below films (and many others) then you’ll know exactly what I mean. Filmmakers can often be the most sadistic of folk, and none more so than those who make Children’s films. Throw at us all the torture porn you can, and none of it will even come close to the horrifying things our 6-year old selves subjected us to.
Sit up, don’t relax, as you’re about to re-live those nightmares you thought you’d finally escaped from. These are the Children’s films that terrified the most…the Horror, the Horror….
10. Oliver! (1968)
Despite the songs, despite the dancing, Oliver! is pretty dark from start to finish. An abused, orphaned boy is drafted into a criminal underworld of likewise parentless youngsters, led by an elderly geezer with an unhealthy obsession with young boys, who in turn is a business associate of an unpredictable, alcoholic psychopath. Although it won six Academy Awards, has some memorable performances, made a star of both Oliver Reed and Jack Wild, and surprisingly good lip-singing, this is one musical that hits all its terror notes a little too well for a kid’s flick.
Scariest Moment: You mean, besides Mark Lester’s scarily high-pitched singing voice (later revealed to have been dubbed by Kathe Green)? I guess it would have to be Nancy being mercilessly bludgeoned to death by Bill Sikes atop London Bridge. It’s clear by this point we are very far from those market square all-singing, all-dancing numbers. Be back soon? Well, Nancy certainly won’t…consider ourselves suitably terrified.
9. Coraline (2009)
From the (brilliantly twisted) brain behind The Nightmare Before Christmas, we suspect that Henry Selick must get something out of scaring the pants off children (and adults alike). Coraline follows the titular protagonist as, feeling neglected by her parents, she discovers a door to a seemingly happier parallel world – ‘seemingly’ certainly being the operative word here. Because behind the door is a world of terror and sinister characters in abundance. Walking that delicate tight rope between smiles and scares, Coraline is a beautifully crafted nightmare, and one of the best so-called ‘Children’s Films’ of recent times.
Scariest Moment: When Coraline meets her parents’ doppelgangers, complete with button eyes, unnerving smiles, and disconcerting over-friendliness. We most definitely won’t be staying for tea.
8. Jumanji (1995)
Not since a festive family game of Monopoly has a board game caused so much distress. Jumanji – starring the late, great Robin Williams – tells the story of a game that unleashes all manner of jungle beasties and vegetation at the role of a dice – basically Sir David Attenborough’s dream Christmas present. Yes, it quickly becomes a relentless safari of silliness, but there are some genuine moments of terror here that will certainly make you think twice before opening that Snakes and Ladders game again.
Scariest Moment: So, a stampede of elephants through your house would be pretty terrifying; but really the most frightening moment happens before all that, when bullied, lonely, neglected rich kid Alan is sucked into the Jumanji game one night before the eyes of best friend Sarah. Later rumours of child murder only add to the allegorical bleakness of Alan’s disappearance.
7. Toy Story (1995)
So, did no one else think that alongside the awesomeness of the idea of Toys coming to life when we’re not around, there is also something inherently creepy about it too? The thought that they’re watching, thinking and scheming might make you hesitate the next time you decide to fill your bed with all those Beanie Babies. To this day, we are forever thankful to Disney/Pixar for giving us one of the most memorably dysfunctional bromances of all time in Woody and Buzz, but equally a searing hatred for giving us Sid. His creations are plucked right off the set of a David Lynch film and plonked firmly in every child’s subconscious forever more.
Scariest Moment: Bringing two of my biggest fears, spiders and babies, together in one entity, the Spider Baby is only one of the many twisted fantasies of Dr. Frankenstein/Human Centipede surgeon hybrid Sid, but by far the most terrifying. Even though it turns out to be an ally of our heroes, the damage has most certainly already been done.
6. The Neverending Story (1984)
So, it might have one of the most untrue film titles in history; had it been called The Neverending Nightmare, however, and we most certainly wouldn’t be saying the same. Masked by its fantasy and adventure genre tropes, Wolfgang Petersen’s 80’s adaptation of Michael Ende’s novel is actually a harrowingly bleak tale of despair, loss, and unstoppable destruction. Bullied bookworm Bastian stumbles across the titular book and chooses to skip school to read it, despite warning from the grumpy bookseller (the equivalent of the creepy gas attendant in teen horror films). The story depicts the world of Fantasia as it is slowly devoured by a menacing force known only as ‘The Nothing’ (and no, it’s not wearing a Donald Trump wig). Cue depressing cannibal rock-giant testimonies, killer large breasted Sphinx, some more than questionable acting, and there are enough scares to keep the little ones up past their bed time.
Scariest Moment: The death of Atreyu’s beloved horse Artax in the Swamps of Sadness is mega disturbing, but the scenes involving the malevolent wolf-like agent of The Nothing, Gmork, are terror at its most raw.
5. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
My goodness, who’d have thought a factory of candy could taste so bittersweet? With more moments of surreal terror than calories in a Wonka Bar, this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic is the perfect dentist advertisement. After 5 lucky brats (besides our hero, of course – despite having a grandfather who has been bed ridden for years yet is able to dance around like a first-year Uni student as soon as chocolate is mentioned) win exclusive access to Willy Wonka’s infamous chocolate factory, they think they’ve got it sweet. One by one they are ‘dispatched’ in increasingly extreme and ironic ways as Gene Wilder’s sociopathic Wonka quickly becomes a PG version of the Jigsaw killer. And then there’s the eternally creepy Slugworth and the Oompa Loompas…
Scariest Moment: THAT Boat ride. Ribena Rapids at Thorpe Park will never be the same.
4. Pinocchio (1940)
He’s got no strings, and neither does the film’s attitude to scaring children shitless, apparently. The story has had a million imitators: naïve, naughty boy learns valuable life lessons from a bug and ultimately becomes good – something we’ve all undoubtedly gone through. But, there are some seriously disturbing scenes in Disney’s iconic classic, as this wooden boy certainly learns things the hard way (an analogy for puberty/libido, anyone?). Abductions, imprisonment, forced child labour, man-eating whales; I mean, not even The Shining had all that.
Scariest Moment: Stromboli would be up there, but a totally bonkers YouTube remix ruined that one for me. The whole Pleasure Island concept remains to this day utterly harrowing, however – Lampwick’s final cries for his ‘mama’ before completing the donkey transformation will never not be terrifying.
3. Watership Down (1978)
Never has a film classification been so, so misleading. For all those thinking this would be a cute animation about fluffy bunny rabbits playing happily together in the field, my God are you in for a shock. Yes, you’ve got rabbits, but take out the fluffy part, the happily playing part, and replace with explicit bloodshed, death, Holocaust analogies, and you’d be closer to the mark. Watership Down is as bleak and depressing as they come, as we follow Hazel, Fiver and the gang in their attempts to evade the rule of the incomprehensibly cruel rabbit dictator General Woundwort. Raw, unflinching, and overwhelmingly honest, Martin Rosen’s film is a lesson on life that even I, at age 24, still refuse to accept.
Scariest Moment: Like, the entire film? Fiver’s field of blood premonition, Captain Holly’s recount of the massacre at Sandleford, Bigwig’s violent showdown with Woundwort, Art Garfunkel – take your pick.
2. The Dark Crystal (1982)
So, anyone thinking a film with those ol’ muppets Jim Henson and Frank Oz at the helm would be cut from the same mould as Kermit and co. would be very, very misinformed. The Dark Crystal is, well, just that: dark. The film follows Gelfling, Jen, the sole remainder of a race extinguished by the evil Skeksis (think vulture meets your Gran without make-up), as he embarks on a dangerous mission to find the missing shard of the mysterious Dark Crystal and fulfil the foretold prophecy. There are certainly shades of Tolkien here, but glossed with a dazzlingly hippyish colour and character pallet that makes for both a delightful and terrifying adventure quest. With names that would likely feature in any nerd’s wet dream, Henson contrasts do-gooding Gelflings and wise, gentle Mystics, with squawking and screeching Skesis and villainous crab-like Garthim. The result – a narrative that is part rip-roaring adventure, part emotional journey, and part harrowing, disturbed acid trip.
Scariest Moment: Anytime those vile Skeksis are on screen….
1. The Witches (1990)
The clue should really be in the title of this other, incomprehensibly terrifying Roald Dahl adaptation. The Witches is certainly more horror film than it is children’s film. In fact, the film will keep you up at night much longer than any Paranormal Insidious horseplay could hope to. So, this is marketed as a kid’s film, right? Yet this is a film about children being killed by demonic women with a genocidal hatred for anyone below the age of 12 – Tom Six may have surgically connected people together mouth to anus, but I doubt even he could stoop to such sinister levels. In the end, it’s up to a plucky orphan and his diabetic grandmother to bring down the occult establishment led by Anjelica Huston’s Grand High Witch who, by the way, is easily the closest thing we’ve seen to the personification of pure evil (and we’re counting Batman & Robin director Joel Schumacher). Combining creepy folklore, more obvious visual horror, and the idea that almost anyone – your neighbour, your teacher, your creepy, purple-eyed Aunt – could be one of them, The Witches will remain eternally frightening for anyone who saw it as a child, and those who watched it later, and basically anyone who watched it ever. And for anyone planning on laying any mousetraps down anytime soon, you might just be killing off our only line of defence against a witch revolution.
Scariest Moment: The more obvious choice would of course be Huston’s ghastly true-form reveal, but for my money, the most frightening moment is the earlier tragic tale of young Erica (a name that will be forever creepy to me, as a result). After being abducted by a witch, her body is never recovered, until one day her father spots her lifeless image in the large painting hung in their home. There she stays, silent and inanimate as she literally grows old in the painting, only to finally one day disappear completely. Holy fuck…