I'm going to tell you guys something that will come as a shock to you, a shock, I say: I was an odd kid. Part of it was because of an imagination that just didn't quit, but looking back, it's clear the movies I watched played a larger part in my formative years than I realized. Anyone who grew up in that time can attest to the fact that it was virtually impossible to escape that decade unscathed.
There was just something about the lack of helicopter parenting, Jim Henson's dark influence, and the use of practical effects over CGI that made so many 80s children's films, well, terrifying. Think I'm exaggerating? Here are nine of the most messed-up things that you'd never see in kid's movies today.
1.) Return to Oz (1985) - Beware The Wheelers
Really, there is just so much about this movie that is a perfect example of why acid trips and sadism are a bad combination when it comes to making a kid's movie. The movie starts off with Dorothy being sent to an insane asylum to have electroshock therapy to stop her memories of Oz, so that right there tells you the movie is going to be effed. up. But nothing scared us more than The Wheelers, those surreal, humanoid psychos with wheels for hands and feet. The responses to this tweet I made about it a month ago say it all.
2.) The Neverending Story (1984) - Gmork the Wolf
If you were a kid growing up in the 80s, you didn't have to wonder what that shadow was outside your window at night. You just knew it was Gmork the Wolf from The Neverending Story. The relentless hunter was the henchman of The Nothing and stalked Atreyu all throughout the film. In the end The Nothing just looked like a giant stormcloud, an abstract concept that was only vaguely troubling in theory to a child. But a gigantic, predatory beast that never slept and never stopped hunting you? That was a terrifying concept.
3.) The Dark Crystal (1982) - The Podling Slaves
When most people think of Jim Henson, they think of the cheerful, childhood staple Muppets. But most people forget that Jim Henson's Creature Shop has also churned out some of the darkest, most grotesque character designs in the past few decades. And that includes the Skeksis, malformed lizard-bird hybrids that enslaved gentle Podlings by draining their life essences and leaving them mindless shells. This scene with the Podling getting his mind wiped was a truly horrific moment that messed me up as a kid.
4.) Labyrinth (1986) - Helping Hands tunnel
While most people maintain the most truly terrifying thing about Labyrinth was David Bowie's prominent codpiece, kids knew Bowie-package was the least of our worries. Lots of my friends were scared by the ugly Goblins, but they were too silly and absurd for me to take seriously. No, the real scary bit was the tunnel of Helping Hands. Sarah being grabbed and groped by a bunch of disembodied hands dragging her deeper into darkness was all the "NOPE" my brain could handle as a kid.
5.) Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) - The Tunnel scene
Okay, granted, the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was planted firmly in the 70s, not 80s. But if you think the most terrifying Willy Wonka moment was Johnny Depp's bad-plastic-surgery nightmare-face in the 2005 remake, guess again. The real terror was the Hell-trip boat ride that started out innocently and ended as the visual representation of every bad acid trip ever, led by a deranged Willy Wonka who seemed determined to drive his guests insane. All in an attempt to weed out the unworthy. Seriously, who does that?
6.) Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985) - Large Marge ghost scene
Pee Wee's Big Adventure was a weird movie all around - I mean, it was to be expected, coming from the mind of Tim Burton. But what was a generally wacky, oddball adventure took a turn for the nightmare-inducing with an out-of-the-blue jump scare during the Large Marge scene. Actually, "jump scare" is too mild a phrase and implies kids forgot about it a few seconds later. But just say "Large Marge" to anyone who watched Pee Wee's Big Adventure as a kid and they'll nod knowingly, both of you bonded together by the unexpected terror of that moment.
7.) Howard the Duck (1986) - The Tongue
Apparently, hitchhiking via big rigs was just a bad idea altogether in the 80s. But if the Large Marge scene was scary, the Tongue scene in Howard the Duck was terrifying on a different level. Even as a kid, it was grotesque and perverse and slimy and made your skin crawl in a very adult way you hadn't yet experienced. Maybe a creepy foreshadowing of the things to come for Jeffrey Jones. Who knows, really?
8.) Gremlins (1984) - Stripe death scene
Of all the movies that messed me up the most as a child, it was Gremlins that gave me more sleepless nights than any other (at least until I watched Child's Play 3 while at a poorly-supervised sleepover a few years later). Something about the scaly, vicious little monsters freaked me out on a primal level. It may have had something to do with the horrible, gory ways in which the Gremlins met their deaths. Being terrified was bad enough, but being terrified and revolted was a combination that permanently warped my brain. Thirty years later, I still maintain the practical effects used during ringleader Stripe's death scene are some of the most disturbing ones I've ever seen.
9.) Watership Down (1978) - Rabbit fight scenes
Alright, so this is another movie from the 70s, but it's late 70s, so close enough. If I'd told you that one of the most graphic, bloody, violent movies made was an animated movie about the life of rabbits, you'd have thought I was high. Until, that is, you watched Watership Down, with its apocalyptic vision sequences and graphic scenes of rabbits tearing each other apart in gruesome battles to the death. This was up there with me learning as a kid that hamsters will often eat their newborn young - and then seeing that happen in front of me, teaching me about the vicious circle of life in a way The Lion King never could. Thanks, rabbits.