In Praise of the Scary-As-Hell Kids Movie

Kids movies should still give kids nightmares from time to time.


I miss getting the hell scared out of me, as a kid, by movies that aimed to scare the hell out of me. Movies would serve up nightmarish images and horrifying characters that would stick to the cortex of frightened kiddos for days, weeks, months, years, till adulthood and therapy. But those movies are products of a bygone era, supplanted by action violence masquerading as scares. This will not stand. America should embrace its bygone tradition of pants-shittingly scary kids’ movies.

Not all kids movies need to be scarring experiences, mind you. Happy Feet 2 was dope as hell. Remember Babe? Can’t hate on Babe. But occasionally, tapping into the dark side of fantasy lets kids confront the emotion of fear, safely. There has to be a middle ground between Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and The Exorcist.

Consider E.T., praised for its cuteness, but also — scary, damn! Steven Spielberg’s alien adventure featured an extended sequence in which a pale, pasty, cracked-out E.T., screaming in a creek, was scooped up by faceless government invaders in haz-mat suits. Atmospherically it hit so many notes of childhood fear. In 2015, that sequence might be left on the cutting-room floor, replaced by another extended action/chase sequence. That might be more, what, exhilarating? But it won’t be as resonant.

Ditto Return to Oz, which hits 30 this week. The wheelers are what nightmares are made of, and a queen with a room of interchangeable heads is as disturbing as anything Guillermo del Toro swirled into Pan’s Labyrinth. As Dave Kehr said in his original review of the film, the “bleak, creepy, and occasionally terrifying” Return to Oz has its place. In its surreality bordering on psychedelia, it allows children to confront nightmarish visions and the base notion of darkness.

Disney’s 1986 Flight of The Navigator likewise built an adventure film upon a horrifying premise: 12-year-old David Freeman gets lost in the woods, only to emerge and discover the world has moved forward eight years without him. His parents have declared him dead and moved on, and his little brother is now his big brother. Such a conceptually disturbing life event rarely makes it into today’s kids movies, which, not to paint with too broad a brush here, seem more concerned with “safer” emotions deemed “safer” than the pure, unadulterated fear that comes with a world totally out of their control.

Jurassic World, the biggest movie in the universe, squandered a real opportunity to re-introduce emotional (rather than purely visceral) scares in a film primarily aimed at youth. The original Jurassic Park had two major sequences, the T-Rex attack and the kitchen scene with the Raptors, that were scarier than anything in this latest sequel, which was much more preoccupied with balls-to-the-wall action and dino fights. What about a sequence would make a 10-year-old boy lean into his mother or father, maybe grab their arm? Fear has to simmer. It can’t all arrive at PlayStation speed, which defined so much of the action in Jurassic World — a commercial juggernaut, but an emotional dud.

Disney should lead the charge in bringing the scary beat back to kids movies. Forget the oddly kill-happy Tomorrowland, another forgettable entry in the run-shoot-run-shoot-run-shoot approach to building suspense. Let’s get some of those classic Grimm fairy tales up and running. When my son gets old enough, you better believe I am going to show him Return to Oz, if only to have him question his world, and maybe to feel him dig his nails into my forearm.

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