Plenty of films have been released over the years that were geared toward the whole family. And yes, a lot of those films featured villains that were far, far too scary for their otherwise innocent subject matter (the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, anybody?). But many of those films actually went a step further and featured good guys who were just as scary, if not scarier, than any of the villains. Here are some of the most skin-crawling cinematic protagonists from the annals of family-oriented film.
5. The Watcher in the Woods Disney's first attempt at that unique '80s trope, the family-oriented horror movie, wound up with mixed results. A decent story and a great performance by Bette Davis was marred somewhat by cheesy acting from the lead character and a confusing ending. The theatrical ending wound up so confusing, however, because test audiences didn't like either of the original endings. You've had a few decades to watch this damn movie, so please don't complain about the following spoilers: The movie revolves around a creepy patch of woods that everyone thinks is haunted, but the haunting turns out to be the result of a bizarre transporter accident courtesy of some apparently incompetent aliens (really) resulting in the disappearance of a young girl. Well, in the original ending, one of the aliens showed up, and holy shit. Look at that thing. All it did was teleport the movie's heroine up to some kind of stasis dimension where she was able to free the disappeared girl before promptly returning, but with the way it moves, sounds, looks, and shocks the bejeezus out of a guy, kids would've thought it was taking that girl away to skin her alive. Even when the thing returns her, we would have suspected she was now an alien doppelganger, and mere seconds after the credits rolled, her face would have exploded into an array of twisted alien mandibles which she would use to feast upon her former family. Now, clearly the thing was supposed to be kind of scary (it's a horror movie, after all) but it wound up way scarier than intended, which is why the makers of the film left it on the cutting room floor. As creepy as the alien visitor is, though, it's not as creepy as the returned "girl," who looks like Corey Feldman in drag.
4. The Garbage Pail Kids The Garbage Pail Kids trading cards were supposed to be gross. They were supposed to be examples of the kind of juvenile, transgressive humor that kids love. What they were never, ever supposed to do is walk, talk, and be your friends. But that, sadly, is exactly what The Garbage Pail Kids Movie attempted. The main character, a young boy who looks like your typical androgynous wuss of a Hollywood child actor (but with a denim vest and earring so we know he's actually a tough embittered outcast), is going about his business of receiving his daily ass-kicking from the neighborhood bullies, when suddenly a trash can tips over and out comes a generous helping of Nickelodeon's green slime followed quickly by these ... things. Instead of picking up the nearest blunt object and hitting them with it until they stop twitching, the kid befriends them. We never saw the rest of the movie, but we assume they later turned on and devoured him.
The Garbage Pail Kids are unsettling not because they're gross, but because, despite being humanoid, they're definitely not human. They fall into what's called the Uncanny Valley, which is another word for the sensation you get when something is close to being human, but just a little bit off. Suddenly its similarities make it more disturbing instead of less. That these things had weaponized all of their bodily functions was perfectly fine, but the fact that their faces looked and moved like nightmare claymation was not.
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3. The Wise Old Owl The Secret of NIMH is a wonderful animated film from the days when animated films could get G ratings while remaining scary and violent enough to keep a kid awake for days. There's all kinds of frightening, horrible shit in NIMH, but nothing quite so frightening as the Wise Old Owl, from whom heroine Mrs. Brisby has been instructed to seek aid, in order to save her desperately ill son. Lion King aside, in most animated films with talking animals, either the rules of predator and prey are ignored, or the predator remains animalistic and unsympathetic while only the prey are given sentient traits. That's not the case here. Owls eat mice. Both the film and the Wise Old Owl are very clear about that, and no sooner has he opened his eerie glowing eyes when he stomps on a huge spider and then noisily chews on a nearby moth while Mrs. Brisby looks on in terror. The thing is, while he's definitely supposed to be a little bit scary, he's not a bad guy, and that ambiguity makes him way scarier for a little kid. Children have very little ability to comprehend more subtle character traits, and for them the line between "otherworldly" and "demonic" is perilously thin. By the movie's own rules, if the Wise Old Owl leaned down and bit Mrs. Brisby's head right off her little mouse body, he still technically would not be a villain. Adults can accept that with little trouble, but kids? That's a different story, particularly when your ambiguous character speaks with the booming voice of John Carradine and twists his head around like little Regan in The Exorcist.
2. Aughra Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal is filled with scary shit. The evil skeksis look like decomposing vultures, and their insectoid minions lumber around like tank-sized battle ticks. You get to see a miniature bat monster spying on the film's heroes, and a cute little pod person drained of his soul. One character who the filmmakers may not have intended to be as scary as she turned out, however, was Aughra. She's a withered old scientist / fortune teller who lives in a house with a gigantic model of the film's peculiar galaxy, speaks with the voice of Lunchlady Doris, and has the rather off-putting habit of plucking her eye out of its socket and holding it closer to things so she can examine them. Reared on many fairy tales that included evil witches, even after we learned Aughra was a benevolent individual, we could never completely lose the lingering feeling that she might still be planning on baking the heroic Gelflings into some kind of pie. She's the reason why, all these years later, we're still scared of Della Reese.
1. Mac and His Family Many people would include E.T. in this number one spot, but once you got past his semi-suspenseful introduction and his habit of emitting the occasional blood-curdling shriek, E.T. was just about as cute as a blue-eyed little poop turtle could possibly be. Much worse were the aliens from family film / McDonald's commercial Mac and Me, a shamelessly godawful E.T. rip-off from the late '80s. When we first meet the aliens, they're a sickly-looking gaggle of fleshy hobgoblins with mouths in a perpetual "Ooooo!" shape, which is supposed to make them look filled with wonder but actually makes them look like they may, at any moment, charge at you, latch onto your forehead and suck out the juice. And they're just as nude as all hell. It was a mistake to make the aliens as Caucasian and humanoid as they are, because even children can tell how awkward it is that these shambling pink skin-devils are walking around with their naked alien asses on display for all to see. The characters in the film seem to feel the same way, because every time they find one the first thing they do is put clothes on it, which changes it from creepy to pitiful. This is especially true of the little alien Mac; as soon as his Earthling friend lets him borrow some of his clothes, Mac looks like a human child stricken with some kind of wasting disease. Is that really the atmosphere you want to create in a kids' movie? Especially when the film's centerpiece is a lavish birthday party that takes place inside a McDonald's? It was difficult to work up an appetite when we were looking at Mac's hairless, emaciated visage poking out from under a tragically large baseball cap like one of those poor Make-a-Wish kids.