Joe Dante, the man who unleashed two small armies of snarly Gremlins on our childhoods, is back with another wee’un-worrying slice of family horror, The Hole 3D. It’s a scary return to form for the one-time acolyte of Roger Corman, another man who knew a thing or two about getting the maximum fang for his buck (check out Little Shop Of Horrors for proof). It’s inspired us to mull over the movies that scared the little life out of us in our formative years, and pick a few that you can show your kids without leaving them traumatised and you dealing with Social Services. And in case you’re wondering, Hannah Montana didn’t make the list. Some things are just too scary.
Watching Venkman, Stantz, Spengler and Zeddemore battling Zuul and his minions as an adult is about as much fun as movies can offer. As a kid, it’s a different matter. No film, perhaps excluding Withnail And I, changes genres faster as you get older than Ghostbusters. It’s horror-turned-comedy-turned-‘80s-nostalgia fest. The funny stuff (“It’s true, this man has no dick”) isn’t so important when you’re, say, eight and there are giant marshmallow men to be gawped at. The scariest ‘busting moment is tough to pick. Zuul is pretty fearful – hey, they bring ‘em up tough in ancient Sumeria – but the prize goes to the New York Library’s resident ghoul unleashing her full toothy terror on our favourite parapsychologists (we were hiding behind our cinema seats at the time). It’s Sam Raimi for the under-nines.
*Scariest monster:* The Gatekeeper and the Keymaster, big puppies with the big plans. They’re the kind of mutts you can pick up at the Battersea Home For Demonic Psycho Dogs, but you’ll need a very long leash.
*Spookiest scene:* That library hag, unhappy to be disturbed while (possibly) perusing the Dan Brown section, is a landmark in jump-shock history. Booooo!!!
*Redeeming ‘aww-shucks’ moment:* Surely it’s Slimer, the acceptable face of ectoplasm, affectionately redecorating all he encounters an interesting shade of green.
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Like a B-movie E.T., Gremlins is all pitch-black comedy, helter-skelter action and skewed violence. And while we love that about it, as a teatime watch it’s got enough spooks and frights to punch your childhood peace of mind square in the face. Come on, there’s even a bit where a monster gets explodificated in a microwave. In fact that scene was deemed too subversive for kids – there was genuine concern that impressionable youngsters would start defrosting their hamsters – and ended up getting snipped from the TV release. But even without it, Joe Dante’s original (and best) creature-feature taps into some pretty serious childhood phobias.
Scariest monster: Stripe, the ringleader of the Mogwai, is a critter with a bigger appetite for destruction than Axl Rose and even sillier hair.
Spookiest scene: Fresh from finding his teacher defunct on the classroom floor, Billy Peltzer has a bathroom encounter with a gremlin that’s almost guaranteed to have your niece and nephew leaping out of their skin.
Redeeming ‘aww-shucks’ moment: The Gizmo training montage in Gremlins 2 is pretty adorable – and his tool-up definitely beats Bruce Campbell’s in the cuteness stakes.
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Ray Bradbury is the writer who gave the world dystopian sci-fi thriller Fahrenheit 451. You can’t show that to kids – it’s brutally depressing and they’re probably too young for François Truffaut – but you can show them Something Wicked This Way Comes, safe in the knowledge that they won’t forget it in a hurry. Bizarrely, this spookfest is a Disney film, although, The Watcher In The Woods apart, it’s far from your average Mouse House offering. Seriously, check out the poster. Does this look like the kind of movie to give tweens a warm glow? No, it looks like the kind of movie where Jonathan Pryce will scare the hell out of them with Nosferatu fingers and a sinister hat. Beautiful scripted by Bradbury and gothically spooky, it’s a horror movie for all ages. Just don’t expect the kids to sleep afterwards.
Scariest monster: Mr. Dark's (Pryce) Pandemonium Carnival rolling into town by train. Nothing unusual there, except there are no passengers and no driver. Tony Scott and Denzel Washington, eat your hearts out.
Spookiest scene: In a moment of deep unease, Mr Dark squeezes his hand until blood drips from it – and, at the same time elsewhere – one of the boys' heads. See what we mean about those vampire fingers.
Redeeming ‘aww-shucks’ moment: We’re not sure there is one. After all, Mr. Dark is Satan incarnate, kinda, which basically makes this Angel Heart for children.
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If there’s one thing scarier than a haunted house, it’s a haunted house that’s also a monster, a prospect to confound even the most creative estate agent. But then this is a kids’ horror that’s even unafraid to throw Steve Buscemi into the mix (he’s the voice of ghoulish landlord Mr Nebbercracker). For Buscemi, this joins a CV positively packed with movies guaranteed to deprive your children of sleep (although in the name of God, don’t show them Reservoir Dogs). This one is an animated schlocker with real spooky pedigree – exec-producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis providing the family-film know-how, and debut director Gil Kenan delivering the spooks. It’s scary stuff for anyone wee’un, albeit not nearly as scary as a dead-eyed CG Tom Hanks.
Scariest monster: The vile Nebbercracker, haggard, wizened and clad in the kind of string vest even Rab C. Nesbitt would turn his nose up at, will send a shiver down any child’s spine.
Spookiest scene: It’s probably when our three intrepid but mis-matched heroes venture inside the Monster House – which appears to be sleeping but could wake up at any moment.
Redeeming ‘aww-shucks’ moment: There’s plenty of cute and cuddly moments for the youngsters, and a peppering of adult humour (“My dad is at the pharmacy and my mom is at the movies with her personal trainer”) for, well, the adults.
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If the Last Airbender’s giant flying bison shares fur-matted DNA with The NeverEnding Story’s luckdragon, that’s where the movies’ similarity ends. Unlike Shyamalan’s element-bending fantasy, which packs all the brooding menace of a newborn aardvark, there’s plenty of freaky fairytale chills in Wolfgang Petersen’s fantasy/adventure/humungous acid-trip. This is, after all, the man who gave us the bogeyman of financial services, Hans Gruber. In this case, the cold-blooded psychopath to raise our hair is a bit furrier and has sharper teeth. It’s called gmork and it’s a wolf-like predator that pursues Atreyu pitilessly across Fantasia. And rightly so, the little tyke is kind of annoying.
Scariest monster: The gmork, of course. Even if he does a lot of yakking for a psycho-killer beast, he’s still a petrifying prospect for any youngster, what with those vampiric gnashers, lazily sinister eyes and big snotty nose.
Spookiest scene: It’s the overall fact that the world of the Neverending Story is vanishing into nothingness behind Bastian as he travels.
Redeeming ‘aww-shucks’ moment: The NeverEnding Story is basically one long ‘aww-shucks’ moment.
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While Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s fantasy-adventure was sold as a family-friendly treat for young and old alike, it’s not exactly an uplifting Labyrinth-like fun ride (mind you, if you dwell too much on David Bowie’s mullet, neither is Labyrinth). In some ways, the darkness just gets darker as you get older. It’s mystical in ways youngsters will be busy soaking up – when they’re not busy staring at that giant ostrich thing – but also colossally weird, hippyish and pretty frightening. The freakily avian Skeksis see to that. They’re family-friendly, but only if you’re in the Addams Family.
Scariest monster: Part reptile, part bird, part dragon, the evil skelses are basically velociraptors after a really big night out. You wouldn’t want to take any of them to school for show-and-tell but we’re plumping for the cruel and unusual SkekUng as the most skin-crawly.
Spookiest scene: The skelses torturing the gelfling to extract its essence. It’s done with a crystal, which makes them some kind of freaky new age Nazis.
Redeeming ‘aww-shucks’ moment: There’s not much cuddly here (the clue’s in the ‘dark’), but Fizzgig is pretty cute.
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Nicolas Roeg’s delightfully twisted take on Roald Dahl’s delightfully twisted tale boils and bubbles with gleeful malevolence. Kids tend to come through the Dahl mangler in a battered state, whether bullied, neglected or set upon by squirrels, but it’s an even darker fate that awaits young orphan Luke. He finds himself stuck in the middle of an AGM of England’s nastiest, meanest witches. Their motives are grim. Their strategy – to transform all of the county’s tykes into nibbly rodents – is sinister. Their method for doing it, a potion called Formula 86, is ingenious. The only flaw is that Luke hears all of it, setting in motion a mousehunt for all ages. Only a dwarf in a red coat could possibly make this any scarier for children.
Scariest monster: Angelica Houston makes a hag-like and heartless Grand High Witch, who presides over the coven with the briskness of Sir’Alan and the compassion of the Child Catcher. She’s guaranteed to scare the little ones (and some of the bigger ones).
Spookiest scene: It’s got to be the Scooby Doo-style unveiling of that witch. With her beaked nose and hideous features, she looks like a character turfed off The Dark Crystal for being too ugly. That’s not entirely coincidental: Jim Henson is co-producer.
Redeeming ‘aww-shucks’ moment: In a redemptive scene, our hero, transformed into a mouse, returns to human form thanks to the witches’ assistant. It’s not much, but it’s a pretty dark movie.
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Neil Gaiman’s novella, delightfully rendered in stop-mo magic by Harry Selick, makes perfect family viewing. Perfect family viewing, that is, from behind the sofa, as Coraline’s adventures in the ‘Other’ world build to a very menacing reveal. Affection, tasty treats and 24-hour fun and frolics all beckon for our young heroine, but for one small snag: she has to give up her eyes for buttons, which her Other Mother offers to sew in on the spot. Disturbing as that prospect is, the movie isn’t a shoo-in for this compendium, since a lot of the kids shrug off the whole having-your-eyes-poked-out-with-a-needle thing while the adults are still quaking. The beautifully realised ‘Other’ world is so enchanting – what kid wouldn’t be uplifted by Mr Bobinski, voiced by Lovejoy no less, trumpeting acrobatic mice around a miniature big top? We were almost too enchanted to put it on this list. Ultimately, though, the eyes have it.
Scariest monster: ‘Other’ Mother, whose sewing kit joins Cruella de Vil’s cigarette holder as one of the scariest accessories in animation history, shows a scary side to voice actor Terri Hatcher that she never showed us as Lois Lane.
Spookiest scene: The stripped-down Other Mother’s chasing Coraline down that interdimensional space tube. Spider-like and mechanical, she’s like the terrifying offspring of Anne Widdicombe and a terminator.
Redeeming ‘aww-shucks’ moment: Before the button-based shenanigans kick off, Coraline is treated to the most sumptuous feast this side of the Hogwarts Christmas party. C’mon, a model train delivering gravy? Best. Dinner. Ever.
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Ah, Tim Burton, the pale-faced Godfather of semi-scary family fun. Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Sleepy Hollow, Corpse Bride, even 9, all delicately mix bumps-in-the-night with gleeful, Burton-esque madness – and Beetlejuice is the king of the lot. Of course, the star of the show is Michael Keaton’s title character, the most obnoxious bio-exorcist ever committed to celluloid. His unpredictable ability to do pretty much anything to anyone, be it whacking two people into the ceiling with a pair of giant mallet hands and a couple of test-your-strength machines, or making a deceased married couple scream by having snakes fly out of his face, make the movie hugely rewatchable. As a child, it’s fabulous, fantastical, and occasionally, really rather scary.
Scariest monster: Shrunken head guy! In the waiting room! Aiiiii! Just us? Okay, fine, be that way.
Spookiest scene: Very tough to pick just one, but let’s say when Beetlejuice turns into a giant-eyed, hissing snake on the stairs and starts tossing people around the room.
Redeeming ‘aww-shucks’ moment: All together now… “Day-o, day-ay-ay-o, daylight come and me wan' go home.” Take a bow, Mr Belafonte.
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You know the number one rule of childhood: never accept sweets from strangers – no, not even Wham bars – and never, ever talk to them. Here’s why. Robert Helpmann’s chilling Child Catcher, the Jaws of the prepubescent set and scourge of our kidulthoods, lures two youngsters into his cart with the promise of lollipops and other sweet treats. But as soon as they shout “Treacle tart! And ice cream! All free!”, you know they’re goners. And that moment when the carnival-style covering falls from the Catcher’s cart to reveal a iron-barred cage beneath? There’s no way someone won’t be screaming – be it the terrified kids or concerned adults. And the Child Catcher’s pointy proboscis and undertaker garb? It’s still scary.
*Scariest monster:* That’ll be The Child Catcher. Truly a monster’s monster.
*Spookiest scene:* When the Catcher is dancing around the square, clutching lollipops and bending his head to the window. Yeesh.
*Redeeming ‘aww-shucks’ moment:* Almost everything else. But to pick just one thing in this otherwise super-jolly, magical-contraption-filled masterpiece? Let’s go for the music-box doll dance number – surely the first recorded robot dance.
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