Once upon a time, the House of Mouse went to the dark side, dabbling in the occult, the weird, the downright macabre. "Creepy Disney movie" isn't a phrase that comes readily to mind in the era of films like Frozen and Zootopia, but back in the '70s and early '80s, it was the highlight of Disney's tentpole pictures. A few more attempts at scaring us with bizarre material appeared in the '90s and '00s, though not with the same frequency and verve as they did in the decades of yore.
From spine-tingling ghost stories to tales of human sacrifice and spaceships hovering at the mouth of Hell, the '70s and '80s were replete with scary Disney films that served as nightmare fuel for a generation of children. This wasn't a fluke, but more an escalation of a thread that's run through Disney fare since the beginning. This list examines the long, often-overlooked tradition of Disney horror and dark fantasy.
If you're an adult of a certain age, you'll probably remember being scared silly by many of these flicks. Watching them now won't give you the willies, but you'll be able to see what frightened you as a kid. And if you have kids who like scary stuff, these movies can provide them with hours of (mostly) safe and family-friendly scares. Watch these movies again with your horror-loving little ones, and re-discover the joys of Disney's dark side.
Be warned that this list does contain some SPOILERS for the movies, if that sort of thing matters to you.
There's no getting around it: horror director John Hough's third go-around with Disney was squarely in his wheel-house, a bona fide horror movie, deliberately spooky from its first frame. The Watcher in the Woods makes excellent use of Gothic horror tropes: an innocent young woman, trapped in an isolated old mansion, menaced by sinister forces. Legendary actress Bette Davis lent Disney her unsettling visage for the role of a spooky matron with a dreadful secret, who runs the house heroine Jan finds herself constantly pulled back to, despite all efforts to escape.
There's something out there in the woods surrounding the house, and it wants Jan's little sister. And Jan, too, for reasons that seem utterly horrible right up until the film's final minutes. Is it the ghost of Davis's daughter, who disappeared during an occult ritual years ago? Or something worse?
Disney pulled out almost all the stops for this film. Apart from the company's logo during the opening credits, there's nothing about The Watcher in the Woods that lets a viewer know this is a Mouse movie. It feels a lot like other horror classics of the day, such as The Exorcist and The Omen. And that's what makes it so good.
As a bonus, there's an alternate ending to the film that gives the proceedings a much more Lovecraftian explanation. Save it until you've watched the whole movie, though.
Something Wicked This Way Comes, based on the Ray Bradbury novel of the same name, is a straight-up, no-apologies horror movie. With the possible exception of having kids as the main characters, there isn't a single thing about this flick that pegs it as a Disney production to anyone who didn't already know. Not only was the script written by Bradbury, but the movie and book served as inspiration for Stephen King's Needless Things. That's some pretty serious horror cred.
Jonathan Pryce turns in a spine-tingling performance as diabolical Mr. Dark, master of a carnival, who arrives in a post-WW2 small town in October, granting wishes for a price. While the tale is told from the kids's point of view, the real hero of the piece is Jason Robards, as an aging father carrying terrible regret in his heart, which gives him a reputation as a coward.
Not to be missed. This is one of the best horror movies of the 80s, Disney or not.
Disney, we need to talk. When you set out to make a sequel to The Wizard of Oz, arguably the most beloved children's movie of all time, parents the world over expect you to bring your happy-silly A-game. If you instead deliver an eerie, post-apocalyptic dream realm to serve as nightmare fuel for their kids... well, your artistic boldness deserves applause, and your effort to stay faithful to the original book's tone is commendable, but it does make us wonder how you got a reputation as marketing geniuses.
We start with little Dorothy getting shock treatment at a Victorian-era mental ward. From there, we're catapulted into a bleak hellscape, where the Yellow Brick Road has been torn up, the Emerald City laid to waste and all its people turned to stone, a place in which demented Wheelers prowl wastelands in search of human prey. We meet an evil princess, who keeps a collection of living severed heads in her closet and wears a different one each day. Dorothy's new friends in this off-kilter Oz, including an early incarnation of Jack Pumpkinhead, are just as weird and unsettling as her enemies.
It's no wonder Return to Oz flopped at the box office. It's not that the movie is bad - quite the contrary, it's rather wonderful if you love scary dark fantasy movies - it's that it just wasn't what families expected from a movie with the word "Oz" in the title.
Like The Black Hole and Dragonslayer before it, though, Return to Oz was nominated for a special effects Oscar. Which should tell you something about its production values: when Disney does anything, it goes all in, even if that means scaring the daylights out of its core demographic.
They tried, bless them, they really did. Disney tried to cover up the creeptastic ambiance of this animated fantasy feature with their standard big-eyed humans and cute animal characters, but it didn't work. The Black Cauldron, based loosely on the beloved Prydain fantasy novels by Lloyd Alexander, was the first animated Disney feature to earn a PG rating, thanks to its dark tone and occult themes.
And it was almost a PG-13, pushing an R-rating, until it was re-edited to remove some particularly disturbing scenes (especially for kids) involving throat-cutting, flesh-melting, and partial nudity.
The Black Cauldron is pretty standard hero's journey stuff, but the villainous Horned King and his mastery of necromancy set the movie apart from Disney's usual fantasy fare. Like Dragonslayer before it, this film lacked the typical charming princes and fairy godparents of Disney lore, favoring a darker world, in which it seemed few people had any hope for the future. The main character, Taran, is a pig-keeper leading a squalid life of obscurity, but dreams of a great destiny. His attempt to rescue his pet pig Kenwin (who produces visions in puddles of water) sets him on the path to confront one of the creepiest villains in all of Disney's filmography (voiced with icy menace by the great John Hurt).
The movie isn't considered one of Disney's better animated films (though it does have a devoted following), but it is notable as the last time the studio attempted to release a mature feature under its standard brand. After The Black Cauldron, with a couple of exceptions, Disney stuck with the bright, peppy content upon which the brand was built, and moved most of its dark content to Touchstone Pictures.
But it looks like Disney is going to take another swing at adapting Alexander's fantasy series. Let's hope it comes out better, but no less dark, than The Black Cauldron.