Wes Craven got his start in 1972, with the horrific Last House on the Left. Since then he’s unleashed a stream of celluloid nightmares, including the ones on Elm Street.
In the 80s and 90s, Craven turned his attention to children’s films, hiding his dark vision beneath cheerful titles, puppets, and colorful animation. When he finished, an entire generation was traumatized for life.
Okay, that was all a lie. Craven did not direct any of these films. But when you remember these movies from your own childhood, you’ll see why it seemed true for a second.
1. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
This 1971 Gene Wilder classic connects with kids instantly. Who hasn’t felt like the downtrodden Charlie, and wished for a real-life golden ticket? Yep, it’s got everything. Who doesn’t like charming songs and magical intrusions?
The movie is perfect for kids—until the scene where they get into the boat. That psychedelic death-trip down the river of chocolate is brutal on children. “Are the fires of Hell a-glowing?” Wonka intones. “Is the grisly reaper mowing?” Yikes! We get chills just thinking about it.
Yes, the danger must be growing. For the rowers keep on rowing.
2. The Dark Crystal
Jim Henson and Frank Oz must have gotten sick of thrilling kids with the Muppets when they made this bizarre fantasy in 1982. The evil Skeksis were bad enough, with those screeching voices, but even the Gelflings had this sort of Botoxed Rebecca De Mornay, uncanny valley kind of thing going on.
And don’t even get us started on Podlings.
3. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure
Remember when Tim Burton made good movies? By 1985, he and Danny Elfman were just hitting their riotous stride, and their collaboration with Paul “Pee-wee Herman” Reubens was a nonstop nugget of pure childish abandon.
Yep, our inner 8-year-old is still right there with Pee-wee, as he searches far and low for his lost bicycle. But then there’s the Large Marge sequence. A creepy truck driver gives us a scary story about a car wreck that’s bad enough, but the jump-scare with Burton’s signature effects is still downright terrifying.
“Yes sir,” says Large Marge. “That was the worst accident I ever seen.” We’ve seen her face in our nightmares ever since.
4. The Witches
Funny that two children’s films based on Roald Dahl books have made this short list. There must be something to that.
Anyway, director Nicolas Roeg didn’t pull any punches with this 1990 adaptation of Dahl’s novel. Every time the Grand High Witch, played devilishly by Anjelica Huston, removes her face, we die a little bit inside. That would probably make the witches happy.
David Bowie, trolls, and furry creatures that want to remove your head—How is that not terrifying? (Those creatures are Fireys, if you’re keeping score.)
If this list has taught us anything, it’s that Jim Henson had a dark side. His studio was involved in The Witches, too. Plus, Labyrinth is stuffed full of Henson DNA. Man. We miss Jim Henson.