The greatest films linger in your memory long after the credits have rolled, but there’s a particular power to those we watch as children: impressionable young minds latching onto striking images and twisted ideas, warping them into the stuff of nightmares. Eight writers from our friends & partners at One Room With A View look back at ten films still haunting them to this day.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? — Alex Goldstein
Little strikes fear into the hearts of a certain generation more than the words, “remember me, Eddie?”
Looming Judge Doom already made us wonder if all adults can be trusted. Then, he turned out to be a toon — after we’d seen him slowly, painfully dissolve one in a vat of bilious ‘dip’. He took on the qualities we associate with safe children’s entertainment, like a high pitched voice, popping eyes, and slapstick, splicing them uncannily with our world. The madcap violence we’d become immune to suddenly felt very real, and a PG film became the indelible stuff of nightmares.
Pinocchio & Goodnight, Mister Tom — Jack Cameron
The caricatured style of early Disney animations has always held a lasting terror. The face of Pinocchio’s villainous Coachman turning into a leering, demonic visage as he explains what happens on Pleasure Island is the stuff of nightmares. Learning morals is standard fare for children’s movies, yet the stakes were never as high as they were in Pinocchio. Watching the boys cry for their mothers, their words turning into hee-haws while donkey ears sprout from their heads: it’s enough to make anyone swear off indulgence for life. Fear-induced behaviour is good for the soul but bad for sleep.
Meanwhile: Willie Beech is evacuated from London and placed in the care of the intimidating Mister Tom, but soon their dynamic shifts from wariness into a friendship. However, it soon becomes clear that Willie did not just escape the Blitz. When his mother demands he come home, Willie returns to receive violence, abuse, and hateful accusations. He’s eventually discovered chained inside a cupboard clutching his dead baby sister. Seeing a parent treat their child with such cruelty was genuinely shocking when I first watched it, and hearing Willie’s mum scream at him remains one of the most upsetting moments in children’s cinema.
Drop Dead Fred — Angela Moore
“A children’s movie on drugs” is how dismayed producer Mike Medavoy described Drop Dead Fred. When Lizzie (Phoebe Cates) loses her job, car and husband in one lunch hour, her childhood imaginary friend Fred (Rik Mayall) reappears to support her. Sounds wholesome, but Fred’s raucous antics — disembowelling stuffed toys, sleeping upside-down bat-fashion, squashing his head like rolled-out pizza dough — are as frightening as they are funny. But the real nightmare-fuels are the terrors of adulthood: Lizzie’s emotionally abusive mother, sleazebag husband, and unacknowledged depression. Fred takes Lizzie on a fantasy trip through an eerie funhouse version of her family home, where she finally sets her inner child free.
Watership Down — George Howarth
Watership Down was the first time I realised cartoons weren’t necessarily for children. While the visuals are downright horrific (particularly the final showdown which involves several rabbit casualties and the snarling, bloodied face of General Woundwort), it was more the eerie tone and “So It Goes” approach to death that unnerved me — I didn’t realise a cartoon could be so… hopeless? Combined with the warm, muted 70s animation style that I had previously known as comforting and safe, this proved to be one of the most unsettling watches of my childhood. But I’ll be damned if it wasn’t exhilarating.
The Phantom of the Opera — Anna McKibbin
Months of nightmares sprung from my first watch of Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera. There is a silliness that the stage show leans into, with the Phantom’s presence around every shady corner often sending the audience into giggles. But the film works to really humanise the Phantom, including a long sequence which details the horrifying abuse he suffered as a child. So, his looming presence over Christine’s life becomes less grandiose and more unsettling. I was convinced the Phantom’s bellowing voice was waiting around every corner, but, rather than giggles, that thought brought terror.
Matilda & The NeverEnding Story — Jess Goodman
When you think of names in horror, chances are the first that come to mind aren’t Roald Dahl or Danny DeVito. And yet, the latter’s directorial take on Matilda is one that haunts. There are belittling speeches from Harry Wormwood (DeVito). There’s a literal torture device known as The Chokey. But perhaps the movie’s most chilling scene occurs when villain-of-the-piece Miss Trunchbull (Pam Ferris) forces a student to eat cake. Doesn’t sound too bad on paper, right? Here is something that should be enjoyed, twisted and transformed until it’s both sinister and sickening.
Honest question: does a more terrifying film than The NeverEnding Story even exist? The adventure takes our character to the Swamps of Sadness, a place where the feeling of despair is literally capable of drowning you and swallowing you whole. What we see is an entirely-too-visceral scene where beloved steed Artax falls victim to the Swamps’ inescapable anguish. He sinks into the mud and dirt and death, while hero Atreyu screams and sobs to absolutely no avail until he’s left completely alone. If you made it past that point in the film, you’re made of stronger stuff than me.
The Brothers Grimm — Joni Blyth
Bringing the brothers Grimm back to their dark roots is a great pitch. It’s fresh, feisty, and offers ample opportunity for an auteur like Terry Gilliam to get freaky, visually speaking. To an adult, The Brothers Grimm is conceptually fantastic. To a child? Well I can’t speak for everyone, but I bounced about 30 minutes into this ‘family’ movie night. Those familiar with Brazil and 12 Monkeys might have expected this level of uncanny horror, but for me, horse-spiders swallowing kids whole was a wholly unwelcome surprise. We sanitised those weirdos for a reason, y’all — I’ll be playing Burnout in the next room when you’re done.
Lord of the Flies — Daniel Theophanus
Being stranded on a deserted island is stressful enough, but Piggy’s (Danuel Pipoly) misfortunes in the 1990 adaptation were particularly anxiety-inducing for me. I first watched it as a nine-year-old with severe myopia, sporting coke-bottle glasses, and found myself traumatised by the visualisation of unfolding horror. First his glasses broke, then they were stolen, leaving him vulnerable to the elements and the escalating savagery of fellow cadets. The prospect of being stranded a million miles from civilisation, with no parent or optician in sight, left in a state of semi-blindness, is something that still fills me with a sense of complete powerlessness.