My love for horror film most certainly stems from that precious time in my youth when even the mere suggestion of horror elements in a movie was enough to scare the bejeesus out of me. I used to run from the room when the librarian ghost let out her horrifying scream at the outset of Ghostbusters. I used to stay up late wondering just what happens to to those poor souls who found themselves inside of a Graboid (seriously, did that one lady have to sit there and wait for her car to be digested around her???). And I’ll never forget the many nights I attempted to sleep with one eye on the spooky tree outside of my bedroom window. Once Poltergeist put the idea in my head that trees could develop an appetite, I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d witness it firsthand.
Yeah, kids are stupid. Which is why it’s so easy (and fun) to damage their fragile psyches through the power of film. I guess this is why so many films from my childhood took sudden left turns into soul-shattering moments of terror. I thank all 5 of the below listed movies for shaping my tastes so aggressively, but I also offer them a big middle finger for putting young me through the ringer.
All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989 – Dir. Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, Dan Kuenster)
Screw you, Don Bluth. First you rock my soul with The Secret of NIMH, and now you try to sell me a mob movie with talking dogs coming back from the dead to enact revenge on doggie hitmen?!? What the hell is wrong with you?⁈⁈ Also, thank you. Because after the horrifying sequence in which our hero, a heavy drinking pup voice by Burt Reynolds, is killed, comes an even more horrifying sequence in which he is sent to and returned from Heaven. This was the first time that adolescent Dan ever had to wrestle with the concept of death. It was a needed lesson that I hated learning, and I never want to watch this awesome movie ever again.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971 – Dir. Mel Stuart)
Find me someone who wasn’t completely destroyed by at least one scene in this movie and I’ll find you a stone cold liar. Perhaps the most iconic scene of terror-inducing imagery is the bad-acid-trip-boat-ride, but that isn’t what bugged me. The moment that always caused me distress (and still does) is when that greedy little jerk, Augustus Gloop, falls into the chocolate pond and is sucked up into the disposal/filtration tube. Sure, Wonka deflects any questions about Gloop’s final destination, assuring that he’ll be spat from the machinery safely, but we all know that this won’t be the case. If Gloop doesn’t end up getting stuck in the system and suffocating, he will likely be processed into candy by legions of Stockholm Syndrome suffering dwarf slaves.
Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985 – Dir. Tim Burton)
The Chiodo Brothers, most famous for creating Killer Klowns From Outer Space, are the effects designers behind so many of cinema’s most cartoonishly gruesome moments. But the moment that provided the most sudden and gut-wrenching terror for me was the reveal of Large Marge’s true face in Pee Wee’s debut film outing. It’s just a bit of claymation tomfoolery, but it is uniquely visceral. Preceded by a campfire-style expositional story, the moment is specifically designed to scare children (and what is Pee Wee but the best audience surrogate for a child?), while giving us our first glimpse into the mind of Tim Burton (which we now know is filled with spirals and naked photos of Johnny Depp).
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988 – Dir. Robert Zemeckis)
My favorite sub genre of horror is body horror. The idea of a physical metamorphosis is one that is innately foreign to humans, and in adults can conjure thoughts of disease and entropy. But to a kid it’s just shocking and gross. My first introduction to this came from the final moments of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, in which it is revealed that the evil, toon-hating Judge Doom is actually a toon himself! When rotoscoped animation is used to depict his transformation into a violent toon-monster, it created imagery that stuck with me. In fact, the scene was so horrifying that it took years for me to ever revisit the film . . . and it’s still just as effective.
Return to Oz (1985 – Walter Murch)
I’ve still never seen this full movie. When I was about 7 years old, my Nintendo lived in our basement. Anytime I wanted to play video games, I had to enter this underground cavern of mystery to do so. The way the TV was situated left the entire basement at my back, and as a youngster with quite the imagination, it took an incredible amount of fortitude to ignore the potential horrors that were definitely sneaking up on me as I tapped away at Dr. Mario.
One day, I had managed to do just that, and after about an hour of gaming, I shut the system down to watch some TV. Return to Oz was on, and it was right at the moment where Dorothy discovers the evil witch’s collection of heads. Then the heads start emoting, and it was first time in my life that I was literally paralyzed with fear. During the next few hours, I would check in on whichever channel was airing the film out of a sense of morbid curiosity, and each time I regretted it. Clown monsters with wheeled hands and feet? No thank you.
I really should go back and watch this now that I’m an adult, but I just don’t think I’m ready.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.