If you grew up in the 1980s, then you are probably married with children now and age 40 is crashing towards you like a runaway freight train. Chances are you might be sitting down with the kids on Halloween night to watch a family-friendly movie -- one that you remember watching all those years ago. A more innocent time? Not if you choose one of these flicks, which are full of murder, the occult, kidnapping, betrayal, black magic, monsters, spectral truckers, haunted houses, and creepy, creepy puppets.
Mr. Boogedy (1986), Bride of Boogedy (1987):
Disney went through a few dark periods before its 1989 renaissance with The Little Mermaid. As a kid, several productions from the Wonderful World of Disney scared the bejeezus out of my younger brother and me. Most notably was Mr. Boogedy in 1986 and its feature-length sequel, Bride of Boogedy, in 1987. Ostensibly, it’s supposed to be a horror-comedy about a family who move to a small town in New England named Lucifer Falls to open a joke-shop franchise. They move into the spookiest house in town that has been repeatedly burned down and rebuilt since Puritan times when a powerful but cruel man named William Hanover made a pact with the Devil to win the heart of a widow named Marian. Classic children’s fare!
In the first movie, we only see Hanover in human form, though his green slimy footsteps are found walking up walls and evil laugh is heard in hallways at night. By the time he does appear in the final act, his skin is burned like pizza bubbles, and he gets sucked into the family vacuum -- which means he’s gone for good, right? HARDLY. In the sequel, the family realizes that his magic cloak is the real source of his power, and it will possess anyone who wears it, including Eugene Levy, who plays a rival shopkeeper. For years, I tried to buy this movie online, and, lo and behold, it is finally available on Amazon Prime.
The Secret of NIMH (1982):
Definitely one of the most beautiful and powerful animated films EVER, this story of a widowed mouse named Mrs. Brisby trying to save her family -- including one very sick child -- and home from being destroyed by a farmer’s plow places adult elements in a context that neither panders to or downplays its target audience. All the elements of gothic fantasy are present: a menacing rosebush housing a secret lair; the fiendish cat, Dragon; a Great Owl; the dreaded Moving Day; a wizened seer named Nicodemus; a magic amulet. The flashback scene of animals being experimented on in a lab is horrifying, while the scene where Dragon chases the terrified mother mouse through a field and old mill keeps the viewer on edge. Regardless of scenes of terror or tenderness, the animation and coloring of Don Bluth’s film is gorgeously detailed -- from the opening sequence where Nicodemus dips a quill into golden ink and records the events of the animal community in a massive tome to the heart-wrenching disaster when the Frisby home is being moved. And am I alone in having a teensy crush on Justin the rat?
Return to Oz (1985):
My best friend aptly described this film as “devoid of any joy whatsoever.” Six months after returning from Oz, Dorothy Gale has frequent insomnia, and her stories of the magical land are dismissed as delusions from her head trauma during the twister, so Aunt Em takes her niece into town to receive electroshock treatments. When Dorothy escapes during a sudden storm, she washes downriver and ends up in the wasteland of the former Oz, where the flying monkeys have been replaced by hideous new henchmen called the Wheelers who serve Mombi, a witch with a detachable head. The grotesque imagery of the film, including a hall of severed heads at Mombi’s disposal, a garden of statues, and the lair of the Nome King, give this sequel a pervasive darkness that lacked the humor that made the 1939 film a surreal classic. In addition, Dorothy’s new friends/helpers (mechanical man Tic Toc, Billina the chicken, and Jack Pumpkinhead) that are considerably less animated and charismatic than the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion from her first adventure in Oz. Before, the inhabitants of Oz were perplexed but fascinated by the little girl from Kansas; here, they just want to destroy her.
The Gate (1987):
How many kids on your street had a tree stump or hollow in their backyard? I had BOTH. Glen (Stephen Dorff) and his sister Alexandra (Christa Denton) are home alone for the weekend when their dog mysteriously dies and Glen’s best friend, Terry (Louis Tripp) plays his favorite heavy-metal band’s album backwards, unwittingly playing an incantation aloud that summon demons from the hollow that demand sacrifices. Amputated arms disintegrating into hundreds of tiny trolls, melting wall-mounted phones, eyeballs that appear on palms, and possessed children who pop out from behind clothing racks are just some of the terrors awaiting the siblings while Mom and Dad are out of town for the weekend.
The Watcher in the Woods (1980):
Another dark Disney entry stars Lynn-Holly Johnson from Ice Castles and Kyle Richards as sisters Jan and Ellie who move to a rambling manor house in the English woods with their musician father and novelist mother, even though, from the very beginning, they are warned of the tragic history of the eerie, remote place. Decades before, a young girl named Karen disappeared under mysterious and possibly occult circumstances that happened to resemble Jan, and Karen’s elderly mother (Bette Davis), who still lives on the property, takes an immediate shine to the kind, protective sister. There is an immediate feeling of being watched, even in the dead of night, from both inside and outside the house. Jan can’t decide if something is trying to warn or take her, and, soon, the malevolent presence starts to take hold of Ellie.
Monster Squad (1987):
A group of horror junkies form a monster club in a kick-ass hideout next to the town swamp, conveniently, the same weekend Dracula comes to town with the Gill Man and Frankenstein’s monster in search of Abraham Van Helsing’s amulet that will grant him unlimited power. Soon, a mummy escapes from a local museum, and a man raving that he is a werewolf shoots up the city jail. For a film about kiddie monster hunters, this has some shockingly violent scenes, such as when the Wolf Man gets blown apart by dynamite or when Dracula gets impaled on a metal fence, and the kids do their share of shooting guns and stabbing vampire women with wooden stakes and kicking the werewolf in his “nards.” My limit, however, was the treatment of the little 5-year-old sister, Phoebe, who only wants to tag along and join her brother’s gang. She gets pushed around and left behind, and Frankenstein’s monster seems her only true friend. When the boys scramble around to find a virgin (apparently, this only applies to girls) to recite a magic incantation, they suddenly decide Phoebe is useful -- even though this puts her in even more danger, as evidenced when Dracula finds her and screams, “Give me the amulet, you bitch!” Geez, she’s five.
The Dark Crystal (1982):
I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Jim Henson’s creatures. As much as I loved Fraggle Rock, I was terrified of The Dark Crystal, a tale of good vs. evil and the scariest puppets since the Krofft grotesquerie of the 1970s. The bad guys are the Skeksis: squatty, vulture-like creatures who have controlled and ruined the planet for a millennium. The good guys are a group of wizards called the Mystics, who kind of look like turtles without shells. The Skeksis destroyed a humanlike race called the Gelflings, but an ancient prophecy says that one survivor will restore order and peace by mending the cracked dark crystal in the Skeksis temple. Naturally, the Skeksis send out brutish henchmen to kill this usurper, a young Gelfling named Jen; in the meantime, they kidnap innocent creatures and literally drain their essences into vials to drink, turning the victims into zombified slaves.
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985):
If you were a kid in the 1980s like me, Pee Wee Herman was the coolest, most bizarre character on television from 1986 to 1991. The man-child in the grey suit whose emotions were gauged by falsetto utterances and laughs appealed to adults, as well, who still saw the fun in pancake-flipping robots or magic tricks or the profound importance of having the Best Bike in the World. In his first feature, Tim Burton turned both the fun and the importance of childhood up to eleven as Pee Wee’s beloved bicycle gets stolen and he will do anything and go anywhere to get it back ... even the basement of the Alamo. Because of this film, the tags on my mattress remain pristine, and, any time I’m on a highway at night, I keep my eyes out for Large Marge in her ghostly rig.
The Last Unicorn (1982):
The voice talent alone in this film adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s fantasy novel is superb: Christopher Lee, Mia Farrow, Alan Arkin, and Jeff Bridges! Even Angela Lansbury kills as a witch/carnival huckster in her pre-Mrs. Potts days. Directed by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr., who did everything from ’Twas the Night Before Christmas to the animated Tolkien adaptations in 1977 and 1980, the film is gorgeously and meticulously done, even down to the bounce of the unicorn’s mane. The demonic Red Bull is terrifying as it tries to capture all the unicorns for the pleasure of King Haggard (Lee), and Arkin is fantastic as the self-conscious magician who doubts his abilities. This is a story of friendship and identity and not wanting to feel alone in the world, and it is a beautiful film to watch.