Tom Jolliffe looks back at two terrifying kids films from the 80’s…
Before terms such as snowflake and millennial were brought into common use, and before the world descended into a constant keyboard manned war over matters of offence, the world was a simpler time. PC and Health and Safety gone mad wasn’t a thing. Kids could play conkers. You could put Christmas decor up around towns and schools without fear of offending people. You could even not be privy to fake news about people being offended by Christmas decorations.
Most importantly though…throughout the 80’s, it seemed that films aimed at younger audiences were quite happy to terrify the bejesus out of youngens. Maybe it was a giant spider in Krull, Skeksis in Dark Crystal, or Christopher Lloyd’s Toon reveal in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but this would give a kid as many nightmares as if they’d sneakily watched Alien, or Predator when they shouldn’t have.
Halloween is on the horizon, and while many a site will be filled with horror film themed lists in the build up, I offer an alternative. A double bill retrospective on two 80’s kids films that were far too terrifying for their target audience. Lets begin with…
Ask someone these days if they saw Legend, chances are most would raise a quizzical eyebrow and ask, ‘That Tom Hardy film about the Krays?’ What they really should be asking is, ‘You mean the Tom Cruise film with the amazing creature makeup?’
Legend by any standard isn’t a particularly good film. It’s a mess in fact. Ridley Scott was possibly at the height of his visual indulgence back then. He had enough clout too, to make a big budget kids film in the way he wanted. On a visual level, it’s utterly beguiling. It looks exquisite, and everything is done practically. It’s all there in camera. The vast majority of the film was lensed at Pinewood studios on hand built sets.
Scott was never entirely at home with making a kids film, and it shows. Whilst a lot of the dialogue and themes come across like something atypically childish, from a visual standpoint it’s firmly adult. Creatures are gruesomely detailed, dripping in slime. Whether it’s Goblins, or Meg the swamp creature, the creature FX are almost unmatched to this day. The pièce de résistance is Tim Curry as ‘Darkness.’ Curry has a great legacy of terrifying audiences, having played Pennywise the Clown in the first screen incarnation of It. He revels in the role. His voice does as much as the visual side.
Curry’s Darkness exists entirely in the dark (light is his killer). This only adds to the visual impact of his character. Often emerging from shadow, or lit via candle. He might have an arse-chin but he’s still scary.
Now you’re warmed up and ready for…
Return To Oz
Speaking of films which almost forget what their target audience is…Return To Oz. Pardon my French, but this film is fucked up. The opening isn’t so much terrifying as it is disturbing. A young girl is forcibly taken to a medical room to be experimented on with electric shock therapy. The film is firmly a direct sequel to The Wizard Of Oz, and whilst the Judy Garland original had the Flying Monkeys, it’s pretty tame in comparison to what comes in this sequel (with Fairuza Balk as Dorothy). There are two key 80’s kids film moments that are almost unnecessarily gut wrenching. One is the aforementioned electrocution therapy in Return To Oz and the other is probably the Horse sinking into a swamp of despair in The Neverending Story. I recall re-watching that as a kid, and obviously much of it is shot practically. It was genuinely, even as an adult, difficult to watch.
Like a lot of 80’s fantasy films, studios were spending fairly decent money on what was deemed to be ‘in’ at the time following the success of things like Indiana Jones or Star Wars. The box office results didn’t always concur with what Studios felt they could spend and get a return on, but regardless, there are some pretty great looking films from the era, and again, at a pre-CGI time when everything was done practically and large scale sets were a pre-requisite.
So Return To Oz, full of dark 80’s visuals and creatures and odd design has some really memorable sequences. The kind that gave many kids of the era nightmares. You can’t speak of this film and not mention the Wheelers. They were creepy and then some. And then you have the corridor of heads. Owing something to the macabre and grandiosely fantastic visuals La Belle et La Bete (Cocteau) when you think particularly of that dark corridor of arms holding candles that Belle passes through. Arms holding candles is one thing, but disconnected heads? That’s just demented. It used to creep me to my very core. Even now, looking back it gives me the willies.
So there we have it. By all mean watch your Nightmare On Elm Streets, or your Halloweens this frightful season, but perhaps also take a dip into the kids section for some unnerving thrills. What are the most terrifying kids films you’ve seen? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.