Oct 31

Is “The Wizard of Oz” a horror movie?

Gertie (Drew Barrymore) confronts the unholy horror that is E.T. in "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial."

Believe it or not, these family films offer unexpected scares

Every child, no matter how bold or adventurous, gets scared every once and a while.

Some of us get spooked when we sneak into the living room while the grownups are watching “Poltergeist.” Others fear shadows, thunder storms and the myriad monsters lurking inside our closets and under our beds.

More often that not, however, the thing that we find most frightening is something truly non-terrifying.

For instance, two movies gave me the willies as a young child: “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and “A Christmas Carol.”

I hated everything about E.T.: his wrinkly face with its giant saucer eyes, his stretchy neck and his scratchy little voice. I found his love of Reese’s Pieces confusing, and his glowing body parts disturbing. What kind of benevolent alien has a finger that lights up like a flashlight?

I’m not alone. There are plenty of people who feared E.T. as much as I did. But “A Christmas Carol”? Basically, I was deeply scared of skeletons — especially the bony fellow that George C. Scott encounters toward the end of the film.

Here, in honor of Halloween, are a few of the films and television shows that unintentionally terrified my friends and colleagues at an early age.


“The Wizard of Oz” (1939)

“I’ll get you, my pretty … and your little dog, too!” Easily one of the scariest villains to appear in a so-called family film, the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) has a terrifying visage, a creepy cackle and an army of flying monkeys at her beck and call. Plus — spoiler alert — her demise is rather gruesome by G standards.

“Fantasia” (1940)

What makes Walt Disney’s symphonic music masterpiece so scary? My friend Jamie, who saw the movie with her mom at the Fremont theater in San Luis Obispo, remembers being terrified by the film’s famous “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” scene, in which Mickey battles enchanted buckets and brooms. She also didn’t care much for the spooky “Night on Bald Mountain” segment.

“Bambi” (1942)

What could be more kid-friendly than the story of a cute little fawn and his woodland friends? This animated classic seems harmless at first. Then you remember the hulking hunter who guns down Bambi’s mom, or the huge wildfire that threatens to destroy Bambi’s forest home. Yikes!

“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971)

Willy Wonka is not a nice man. He speaks in riddles. He makes nasty, backhanded jokes. Plus, he seems to have zero concern for the young children he takes on a tour of his famous candy factory — barely raising an eyebrow when one little boy falls into a chocolate river, another boy gets miniaturized, and a girl turns into a giant blueberry. (This is the same man, after all, who operates a psychedelic paddleboat ride.) Tim Burton’s 2005 remake, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” manages to make the sweets-obsessed entrepreneur even creepier.

“Time Bandits” (1981)

This fantasy about pint-sized time travelers ranks among Terry Gilliam’s saner projects, which isn’t saying much. My friend Rosina was among the many kids who found the film frightening.

“I was exposed to it way too young, and my dad loved it,” she recalled. “I never knew when I walked in the living room if he’d be watching the VHS of it again from when he taped it off TV. I just remember images of the clearly malicious, maniacal little people, the cavernous eerily lit spaces, the sinister makeup–the sense that somehow, all those creepy bastards knew every time I told a lie and would hunt me down while I slept at night.

“Thirty years later,” Rosina added, “I love horror movies–I’m a connoisseur of slashers, sharks, psychos, suspense–but nothing is as unsettling as fragmented recollections of ‘Time Bandits.’”

“The Dark Crystal” (1982)

Jim Henson’s weird, wonderful fantasy is full of strange creatures — elf-like Gelflings, stilt-legged Landstriders and small, round Podlings.  But the scariest race depicted in the film are the sinister Skeksis, wizened, hideous vulture-like villains with high keening voices. They’re enough to give even the most courageous moviegoer the creeps.

“The Secret of NIMH” (1982)

In this animated tale, based on the book “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH,” a timid field mice seeks out the help of hyper-intelligent lab rats to save her home from destruction. The forces threatening Mrs. Brisby and her family may not sound so formidable — an evil house cat, a precocious kid, a farmer’s plow — but they are.

“Ghostbusters” (1984)

It might be a stretch to call “Ghostbusters” a horror movie, but there’s no denying that this supernatural comedy serves up plenty of scares. Our intrepid team of ghostbusters — Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson — encounters a ghostly lady librarian, a slimy green ghoul and two terrifying demon dogs, as well as multiple spirits and spooks. Repeat after me: “I ain’t afraid of no ghost!”

“The NeverEnding Story” (1984)

Much like “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth,” “The NeverEnding Story” transports viewers to a fantasy world far different than our own. The film’s young protagonist, Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), faces a number of terrifying enemies including Gmork, a werewolf with a poisonous bite, and The Nothing, an all-consuming cloud-like force.

“Edward Scissorhands” (1990)

Just like Tim Burton’s first film, “Frankenweenie,” “Edward Scissorhands” features an appearance by the horror icon Vincent Price. In this case, Price plays an inventor who dies before giving his son real hands. It’s hard to decide what’s more frightening: Edward, a tragic innocent who has blades for fingers, or the scared suburbanites who turn on him.


Finally, I’ll let Tribune features writer Pat Pemberton tell you about his childhood experience watching the television series “Soap.”

I didn’t see “The Exorcist” until I was well into my teens. But I knew enough about it to be freaked out by the concept of demonic possession. Which is what gave me the willies about a particular story line on the sitcom “Soap.”

If you don’t remember “Soap,” congratulations – you’re younger than I am. But it was a sitcom in the ’70s and ’80s that spoofed the soap opera genre (It actually featured three former soap actors), focusing on two families – the Tates and the Campbells. It’s probably mostly known as being the launch pad for actor Billy Crystal, who played TV’s first openly gay character.

Anyway, in one story line, a character named Corinne Tate ends up marrying an ex-priest, and the two of them have a baby that turns out to be possessed by the devil. As a result, toys fly around the room, fluids are spewed from the crib and threatening words are uttered in a scary Cookie Monster voice.

While I knew this was all done – oddly enough – in a humorous way, the notion that a devil could occupy the body of a little baby gave me goosebumps and nightmares.

If that wasn’t enough, the show also explored alien abduction, cults and murder. And one of the main characters was way too attached to his ventriloquist dummy.

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