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The Ten Most Disturbing Children’s Films Ever Made.

While every little brat between the ages of two and twelve can watch a sanitized, politically correct episode of iCarly and Dora the Explorer at any given moment via an internet connection or I-pad, back in our day (let me take my dentures out) some of us had to well, dig a little harder for entertainment as children, and boy was some of it totally fucking weird. So what was that about? Whether it was the 80’s urge to make horror movies for kids or some particularly psychedelic re-runs from the 1970’s, or even the permanent classics of the genre, the older you get the lower your jaw drops. But it was the tiiimes, man. My generation’s parents pride and joy was probably going to Woodstock  and totally not remembering it, or taking acid at a Alice Cooper concert. (sorry, Mom!) And even our depression era grandparents idea of fun was surviving off of morsels of food and seeing musical nightmares involving flying monkeys and decapitated puppets.  So naturally, some of these movies are the reason I’m still in therapy and had an uncanny urge to do drugs ages 17-20. So lets take a slightly traumatic trip down memory lane, kiddies and squeeze my hand if you remember some of these gems…

 

10. Pufnstuf (1970) Dir: Hollingsworth Morse

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My Grandmother broke her back in the 90’s and watched a lot of TV, and I mean alot. Her pride and joy was faithfully watching at all hours, taping as many movies that played on channels we couldn’t get up in the sticks where we lived. So every month supplied at least three or four videos in her delicate hand-writing. One week supplied a tape with the title mispelled hilariously to “Puffing Stuff.” So in went the tape…and out went my ability to say NO to drugs… How can one even start on the plot? Based on the popular TV series by those two drug fiends Syd and Marty Krofft, responsible for Land of the Lost, Lidsville, and The Brady Bunch Variety Hour; poor little Jimmy, with his bell-bottoms and Chimney Sweep accent, can’t seem to fit in anywhere. But his luck changes when he finds a magic talking flute…(?) The only problem is that an evil witch named Witchy-Poo wants it! So somehow, he ends up in a magic place called Living Island where, erm, you guessed it! Everything is alive! FUCKING EVERYTHING. How does one masterbate quietly on Living Island? Who knows. Pufnstuf, of the title, is a giant retarded yellow Dragon with a voice that sounds like Quick Draw McGaw on downers, who takes Jimmy under his wing. Thats really about it. But Mama Cass makes a splash debut as Witchy-Poo’s rival, an orange witch with a magic orange rat that gives her the ability to sing! Did I mention she lives in a multicolored bathtub filled with plastic fruit?  Of course she sings a song with a groovy moral about how its hard to be different but that’s ok! This is basically the most drug-induced movie next to El-Topo and makes Yellow Submarine look like a British Kitchen Sink Drama. One has to look no further than the theme song…’H.R Pufnstuf! Whose your friend when things get rough? You can’t get a little…cause you can’t get enough!’ What I couldn’t get enough of was my mother finally confessing her favorite thing to do in High School was to go home with her friends to get high so they could watch H.R Pufnstuf and roller derby. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree! Me too, Mom, me too…

 

9. Santa Claus (1959) Dir: Rene Cardona

My mother was obsessed with Christmas when we were kids back in the early nineties, probably more so than either me or my sister. The house immediately turned into some sort of Holiday theme park and all of December was dedicated to shopping, and I’m sure, mind-numbing debt.  Mom was doing some last minute shopping at the Mall. She chanced upon the Dollar Store, and what do you know? There was a bin of videos for sale, a dollar apiece. And lo and behold, they were CHRISTMAS videos, what a great last minute holiday treat! So off she trotted home with a bag of videos, making popcorn and setting the family down by a glowing christmas tree. Me and my sister enthusiastically picked a movie with the innocuous title of Santa Claus. We thought it was Santa Claus: The Movie, that big budget flop of the eighties that me and my sister owned the movie tie-in storybook of. Oh how wrong we were. How very, very wrong we were. As my mother popped the video in the VCR I noticed the cover showing that jolly red faced Santa…with an image of what appeared to be Satan. And so on Santa Claus played, and the nucleus of all my Childhood nightmares was born. Santa, in Mexico, doesn’t live in the North Pole or have elves. No, he has a paper mache castle in the sky and basically has child slavery that looks like the United Nations in midget-form. Of course, the plot of the film is Santa fighting Satan. That’s right, Satan, Lucifer, Dark lord of the Underworld. In fact, we are shown burning hell fire in all its burning souls, brimstone glory. Here, Satan plans to turn all the children of earth into his minions of evil and sin! One subplot has Satan tempting a little girl into stealing a doll by giving her nightmares of demonic devil dolls that live in Christmas box caskets. Devil dolls, hell, a dancing Satan and parents that come out of magic boxes like animated corpses are but one of oh so many nightmares I had from ages five to eight. My mother was of course, mortified and tried to sell the tape at every yard sale we had. According to my mother, the video was always returned, their money demanded back after at least two days.

But lets go back, way back. There was a sleazy Florida-breed producer named K. Gordon Murray whose claim to fame was riding in a hearse and turning it into a bingo carnival, working as an attendance roster for munchkins on The Wizard of Oz in 1939 and then he decided he’d become a producer after working with Cecil B DeMille after a few years. By what could only be called the powers of Satan, K. Gordon Murray discovered a tidy roster of bed-wetting, mortifying Mexican Children’s films, obviously made to get as much money out of all those Monster movie sets and costumes as they could. So what did K. Gordon Murray do once he discovered  Mexican horror films for kids? Why, invent the Kiddie Matinee and start a slimy cottage industry that had the folks at Disney drooling in jealousy! K. Gordon Murray brought his sleazy circus of Cinematic shit town to town, basically maneuvering a form of Four-Wall Distribution, playing his horribly dubbed, horribly edited and slightly rotting reels of film in Shopping Mall Cinemas and Dollar Theatres nationwide, getting practically all the profits in the process! Thus the Kiddie Matinee was born, and the nightmares of many a baby-boomer passed generation to generation of children whose parents looked in dollar bins…

 

8. Little Red Riding Hood and the Monsters (1962) Dir: Roberto Rodriguez

Here, in what should be a tie with Santa Claus is the magnum opus of that Cinema slaughter house Churubusco-Azteca Studios, is Little Red Riding Hood and the Monsters! Starring Mexico’s equivalent to Shirley Temple, Maria Gracia in her sequel to Little Red Riding Hood, here she and Tom Thumb have to battle a Legion of Bad-Doers, lead by a Copyright Infringement Evil Queen from Disney’s Snow White! Of course, other such Copyright sneakers as Dracula and Frankenstein appear on the team, but in fear of Universal Studios, are named ‘The Frankenstein Monster’ and ‘The Vampire’, who happens to wear a law-suit hiding top hat and mustache no less! Well, this evil legion has the Big Bad Wolf in jail, torn from his gay lover Stinky the Skunk, for not being bad enough, and has to capture Little Red Riding Hood to prove their badness. Fucked-up-ness abounds in ways I can’t even begin. Just watch the trailer, writing can’t do it justice.

 

7. Return to Oz (1985) Dir: Walter Murch

Something had been eating at Walt Disney since at least the mid-thirties. After the massive success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, old Uncle Walt had his eye on one property and one property only, it was a book called The Wonderful Wizard of Oz written by L. Frank Baum in 1900. It was an American zeitgeist, James Thurber going as far as saying one should not be considered an American citizen if they hadn’t read Mr. Baum’s classic books. Old Walt and the Land of Oz were American as apple pie, so it was only natural, right? Wrong. Samuel Goldwyn held the film rights and was not budging on selling without a big price tag, one even Walt couldn’t afford. Louis B. Mayer at Metro was impressed with Snow White’s receipts and decided he was going to make a big fantasy of his own. Before Walt could scramble to get the money, MGM bought Oz for $75,000, one of the highest sums for a literary property up to that time.
Though a flop on its release, MGM’s The Wizard of Oz became the classic it is now. But Walt wasn’t keen on losing. So once the fifties rolled around he paid a massive sum to buy the film rights to not only Baum’s entire catalogue of Oz books after Wizard, but the rest of the series as written by his predecessor Ruth Plumly Thompson. He planned on making a massive live action musical called The Rainbow Road to Oz, starring his Mouse-keteers from his hit television series The Mickey Mouse Club. But Disney knew he had a problem once pre-production started. He knew he couldn’t replace Judy Garland, a score by Arlen and Harburg, or the class of a slick MGM production, so quickly the project is shut down, eventually making his magnum opus Mary Poppins instead.
Flash forward to the 1980’s when Jim Henson proves serious, Tolkien-esqe fantasy for adults and children in his The Dark Crystal could mean big money overseas and Spielberg’s dark tear-jerker E.T meant blockbuster gold, Disney studios wanted in on the racket. The studio realizes, much to its surprise, that they still own the rights to the Oz Books. But time is running out on the contract, and the books will quickly fall into Public Domain thanks to Copyright law. Onward production rushes, with a new director, Walter Murch, already a legend for editing Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and with help from Jim Henson studios. But Return to Oz was quickly taking big risks by not trying to replicate the original 1939 film, staying close to Baum’s original books which had long passed from the public conscience. The executives are mortified by the rushes coming from the already over-budget production in London. The film is saved from being shut down after Murch’s friend George Lucas comes by giving his approval. But that’s not the end to the films troubles. Its clean up time at Walt Disney Studios and the powers that be who made Return to Oz are replaced by Michael Eisner’s team, who is less than thrilled with the massive price tag the film has garnered. Return to Oz is flung into theaters with no fan fare and little publicity, and rarely seen afterwards. But the film has grown a strong and rapid cult following from 80’s boomers with vivid, traumatic memories to bare. and rightfully so.

How the films script was approved and didn’t even leave Executives pissing themselves in terror like five year old’s is beyond anyone. Based loosely on Baum’s The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz, Dorothy Gale can’t stop thinking about Oz. So naturally Auntie Em decides what better way to get ideas of whimsy and fun out of Dorothy’s head than a round of torturous Electro Shock Therapy at the nearby Insane Asylum? In Dorothy goes, but manages to escape thanks to a mysterious, ghostly girl who warns her she’ll end up like the ‘rejects in the cellar’, winding up in a chicken crate in the river during a storm (?) and back to the Land of Oz. The only problem is that Oz looks like war-torn Bosnia and is now ruled by an evil sexy Witch who has a collection of severed heads she wears on her own body from day to day, and an evil transvestite Gnome King whose angry about the people of Oz stealing his Emeralds to build the Emerald City. Return to Oz gets one thing right, it visually replicates the world of Oz as depicted by Baum, with a faithfulness comparable to Jackson’s Middle Earth in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. But the corn-pone humor and joy of Baum’s world is decidedly absent, terrifyingly so. But as a work of pure horror, Return to Oz is as effective as a 30’s screamie by James Whale and is one of the most astonishing cult classics in the canon.

 

6. The Singing Ringing Tree (1957) Dir: Francesco Stefani

Once upon a time, after World War II, in a land called Communist East Germany, came a bevy of fairy tale films as far from Walt Disney as one could possibly imagine. Keep in mind, Germany is perhaps the most fertile land in Europe for the world of Fairy Tales, immortalized forever by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in their 1812 collection of stories that brought Snow White, Hansel and Gretel and Rapunzel to the reading world. Many of these films are shocking simply because they stray so far from the what we expect to be appropriate for children, Grimm’s violence, sexuality, and nightmarish imagery are left intact. No example shines brighter than The Singing Ringing Tree made in the midst of a golden age of communist fairy tale films. Based on the Grimm’s bizarre tale, the story follows a foppish prince who must find a singing ringing tree for an evil, animal torturing, vain princess. After finding said tree by way of an evil dwarf, the prince is turned into a bear and the princess becomes ugly. Both go on a strange and moral journey, learning the values of human kindness. The Singing Ringing Tree is no fairy tale film you’ve ever seen. Its roots are not cartoons and storybook whimsy, but the stark and expressionist world of UFA’s The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari by way of a technicolor universe that would make Douglas Sirk green with envy. The film gained cult status in the United Kingdom when the BBC grew tired of American programming featuring Bugs Bunny and Westerns, and decided to strike up a deal buying East German fairy tale films and dubbing them cheaply by way of a quiet voice over interpreting the dialogue. What came was bedlam for baby boomers, who still live in terror of paper mache fish and wicked dwarves.

 

5. The Witches (1990) Dir: Nicolas Roeg

By the time I turned nine, I was an over-medicated little smart-ass who’d been suspended for bringing a copy of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange to school and was watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at least every day. By the time J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter books had come out, enrapturing slightly younger children, I was too far gone. Probably because the closest thing we had to Rowling was a better, more sadistic writer by the name of Roald Dahl. Now famous for his immortal children’s classics James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dahl was actually famous in his own life time for writing saucy, naughty and often pornographic short stories for such magazines as Playboy, centering around women who beat their husbands with legs of lamb or a randy pervert named Uncle Oswald. By the time the eighties rolled around, Dahl’s children’s books had often frequently banned and was already widely known by the press as a womanizer and notorious anti-Semite. Not suprisingly, The Witches was published in 1983 to much controversy. Probably his most darkest children’s book, its no surprise Jim Henson bought the rights and gave directing credit to Nicolas Roeg, already famous for his erotic masterpiece Bad Timing and his psychedelic cult classic Walkabout. What appeared is the closest equivalent to Rosemary’s Baby that Children’s film has, or will ever likely get.
Centering around a little boy named Luke, who lives with his Norwegian Grandmother after his parents death, Granny warns him Witches are everywhere, and are not  what they seem. But even her careful advice can’t help Luke when they both go on Holiday by the seaside, where a Witches convention happens to be taking place, lead by none other than the leader of them all, The Grand High Witch as divinely played by Angelica Huston. Of course, Jim Henson goes wild with his magnificent puppetry and special effects where Angelica Huston rips off her human mask to appear as the most repulsive crone the cinema ever produced, surely making many a child piss their pants in terror. The film itself is quite literally, a horror film for kiddies, and works just as effectively on adults. Roeg gives the film the loving attention of a Hitchcock or Polanski and it truly works. Look out for a Battleship Potemkin reference when a horde of witches throw a babies stroller (with baby!) down a sand dune!

 

4. The Never Ending Story (1984) Dir: Wolfgang Peterson

Based on German author Michael Ende’s novel, the end result Ende was apparently less than thrilled with, going as far as to blame his wife’s death on the distress the film caused her. Wolfgang Peterson fresh off Das Boot fame is responsible for what could certainly be called the last old-style Children’s classic in the style of The Wizard of Oz. Lucious matte paintings, masterful puppetry and haunting, unrealistic and effective sets abound in the magic universe of Fantasia, where a Princess is dying from a creature called ‘The Nothingness’ that is slowly destroying her kingdom. A young boy named Sebastian has kidnapped the book of which this universe lives, and vicariously lives the journey through Atreyu, a boy who travels through lands of flesh eating wolves, swamps that devour beautiful horses, giant turtles and statues that destroy those who pass, piles of knightly corpses laying in their wake.
The Never Ending Story is shocking because of its utter reluctance to coddle, or pander to its viewers. The tone is by all means, unsettling, urgent and suspenseful. The journey Atreyu takes is by all means a very real and emotional experience even to an adult. The sense of darkness lingers ever more shockingly. Even the more cute seeming creatures such as a Speed defying Snail and cuddly Bat linger with a sort of creepy-ness that reminds one of toys festering at the bottom of an antique store.  Though certainly not a huge hit on its first release the film has become well loved over time, another 80’s classic that will live on as long as one remembers leg warmers and Atari.

 

3. Pinocchio (1940) Dir: Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske

While Disney is often accused of white washing his fairy tale sources, ‘Disney-fying’ falling into the American lexicon as a negative term, Walt was guilty of some fucked up shenanigans when the genre of Children’s film was young and fertile. After the success of Snow White, came production on adapting Carlo Collodi’s classic book, The Adventures of Pinocchio. Production was halted more than once when Walt was less than impressed with the results, resulting in costly production costs, going as far to spend over one million on a single shot that lasts less than a minute. The film premiered in 1940, when the European market had shut down with the rise of the Nazi Occupation and so began one of the many times Disney Studios almost lost their shirts.
What came was perhaps Disney’s darkest film, and what many consider his best and most beautiful. The animation is to this day, startlingly unrivaled in his attention to detail and mastery. Watching the film again as an adult made me truly disturbed and frightened, leaving me with the same fear and dread one feels after watching Kubrick’s The Shining. One is surprised by how quickly the seemingly joyful film descends into darkness once Pinocchio leaves with the mischievous Fox and Cat. The puppet show Pinocchio is trapped into is a universe of terrors, one scene where a pile of decapitated puppets reminds one of many a gore film afterwards. The Pleasure Island Pinocchio is tempted into joining is yet another nightmarish world of terror. Children are turned into slaves, whipped  into mutant donkeys that writhe and scream like Dante’s prisoners of Purgatory. One scene where children drink and smoke in a den of sin, only to be turned into animals in a frightening transformation is even more jaw-dropping as an adult. I was stunned to look back and realize I had watched it in its entirety undeterred and certainly not frightened as a child, that in fact I reveled and enjoyed every moment. With this, I began to understand children’s psychological need for fear and terror to understand the inadequacies and irrationality of human life. Children, as reflected in many of the films listed, are survivors, and will stay alive at nearly all costs.

 

2. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) Dir: Mel Stuart

Of course, its the film everyone remembers for its horrifying boat ride, the ever present and sinister Oompa Loompa’s and the oh-so-vague notion that maybe all those nasty children never survived the perils of Willy Wonka’s factory.  It is almost surprising  that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has transitioned from a notorious seventies cult film to an immortal, oft-televised Family Classic. The tone of the over all film based of course, on Roald Dahl’s classic novel, is surprisingly nihilistic, sarcastic and cynical. The world of the film as directed by Mel Stuart is one built on Capitalistic greed, material obsession and predatory journalism. One of course, can’t truly be surprised by the films somewhat nasty tone, considering the film was a sore thumb among the cynical 1970’s, where Water Gate, Vietnam and The Third Great Awakening ruled culture. Film had tired of its ever joyful optimism and sought a reality unseen until films such as The French Connection or even The Godfather ruled the box office. The 1970’s, was by no means, a welcome environment for childrens film and its utter rebellion against the genre mostly ruled by Disney is ever present in Willy Wonka, where Gene Wilder plays his role of Wonka as though with a slight hang over, where all children are ever ready to tear apart any fairy tale dream or note of whimsy they are presented with to shreds. But as pure fantasy, the film really works for more reason than one, and needs no explanation.
Of course, darkness abounds throughout the production of the film. The NAACP bit productions ass when they inquired on whether the Ooompa Loompas were to be depicted as black pygmy slaves as they were originally depicted in Dahl’s book. While filming in West Germany on the cheap, the producers were panicked to realize they couldn’t find any midgets in the country to play the Oompa Loompas because nearly all of them had been murdered in the Holocaust. Another Nazi reference appears when the fake golden ticket holder shown on the newscast on Charlie’s TV actually shows a well known escaped Nazi General. One urban legend abounded on the internet in the early thousands that the film was played on video tape while children were being fed poison kool-aid at Jonestown. Just what we needed, more nightmares. You’re welcome.

 

1. The Wizard of Oz (1939) Dir: Victor Fleming

Many will roll their eyes at the number one slot, and perhaps rightfully so. It is indeed the most watched, loved, applauded, and over-rated film of all time. But it is also completely taken for granted by the audience that has devoured it since it was televised yearly starting in 1956. Though its impossible, one must try to look at The Wizard of Oz without its ten thousand cultural references, its memories we attach to it, to what we think we know about Judy Garland or presumed hanging munchkins, and realize that to this day, it is a film entirely unprecedented for its time, the golden year of 1939. What is odd to realize is that the films contemporary critical reception  is completely unlike the accolades it is showered with today. Many critics of the time were shocked by its utter sophistication in its musical structure seen only in upscale Broadway Shows, and its frightening content that made many insist that it indeed, wasn’t a children’s film at all. And perhaps, it isn’t. But its magic is more powerful than even the most binding witchcraft. One year I saw the film in a theater that was entirely packed with small children who had never seen the film. I was reluctant, scared even, that my beloved childhood film would be torn to shreds by a generation of children bred on Nick Jr, video games and cynicism. What happened once the projector rolled was stunning. The audience of parents clapped and roared once the credits rolled. The minute Dorothy appears in her sepia colored world, clutching Toto, you could hear a pin drop. The children, aged at least three to five watched the entire film in un-squirming silence, only occasional gasps of amazement abounding, a few tearful children fretfully leaving with their mothers but demanding to return after a few minutes time.
What is surprising about Oz once an attempt is made to detach it from the zeitgeist that has adopted it, is how utterly strange and disturbing the film is in nearly every asset. How nearly everything that seems to not work does beautifully. A man playing a lion in a fur costume, an ambiguously aged Dorothy (age six in the novel). Over five directors, five million dollars, an overhaul in production and over three near-deaths, the film should have been a disaster the industry would struggle to forget but what abounds is a beautiful, melancholy film that surpasses a piece of work for children but instead, becomes a testament to the death of childhood, innocence and the meanings of compromise.
The real story that abounds in Oz is the story of a girl who must realize that she has to grow up, and that doing so is by all means, a painful and upsetting experience that must not be escaped, but endured with bravery and loss. What we gloss over in its ending is not a girl who finally returns home to her happy, humble life, but to a girl who has taken the path to becoming a woman. Dorothy has woken up to a grim reality she knows she cannot truly avoid, no matter how convincing her fantasy may seem. Elmira Gulch is probably not dead like the Wicked Witch, and her dog will more than likely still be in trouble. Dorothy has returned to a world of people who continue to not understand every word she says, every dream she expresses. Reality is the shadow that casts the sad and frightening mood over The Wizard of Oz, though we all are collectively frightened by winged monkeys, Margaret Hamilton and mighty tornadoes. The Wizard of Oz will always be a film to return to.

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3 thoughts on “The Ten Most Disturbing Children’s Films Ever Made.

    • watership down is such an inherently adult film, made by producers and directors who were selling it to an audience not really for kids, a rare, rare move for an animated film from the west, and another example of 1970’s daring.

  1. I want to nominate Labyrinth, Legend, and the live-action, made-for-TV Alice. My grandmother made me turn Labyrinth off saying it was the work of the devil, and as for Legend — “She’s so pretty, I could eat her brains like jelly.” Return to Oz terrified me with the shrieking wheeler men. But the most important for me personally is the Alice. I have both movies memorized (Wonderland and Through…), and save the addition of some excellent songs, it’s completely faithful to the texts. This is why I love Carol Channing. Her main clip in the film, if you don’t know it, is here — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DrjIVhIeGnw. Creepy! Actually, maybe the Adventures of Baron von Munchausen, too. I seem to recall being disturbed. As a total aside — Did you happen to catch Farscape? I’d love to hear what you thought about that series.

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