Looking back on the horrifying world of Disney
Disney movies, at their finest, tap into something in all of us that remains untouched by time and bitterness. A part of us that is still receptive to beauty, even if we think we have outgrown it in our cynical climb to adulthood. No matter your age, you can’t deny Disney’s timeless ability to move you in ways that become harder and ever more remote in this dreary world. And back in their prime, they accomplished this with beautiful music, a superb class of animation that we will likely never see again, and story lines possessing the archetypal simplicity and appeal of fairy tales.
And like fairy tales, they had their fair share of darkness, too. Because the long-gone artisans who created the Disney classics were wise not to skim over the unpleasant parts. The darkness as exemplified by the sound of a single gunshot turning Bambi into an orphan, or of mighty Tchernobog turning life and death into an obscene nocturnal farce in Fantasia’s Night on Bald Mountain. Disney knew how to make audiences gasp in awe, then in genuine horror when need be.
For a time, from the 70s to the late 80s, they dedicated many film projects to the strict bottom line of horror. Not the gory R-rated kind; they didn’t need to stoop too low to work their black magic. Just being scary doesn’t require gore. If you’ve been on Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride, then you know what I mean. And if I accidentally, yet unavoidably, put you in mind of the Eddie Murphy Haunted Mansion movie, then all I can do is apologize and recommend that you do everything possible to put that cinematic atrocity out of your mind and into a deep hole in the ground.
Anyway, back to the main topic. Though not categorized as a horror film, 1979’s The Black Hole was the first ‘mature’ movie to begin traumatizing the poor kids whose parents thought they were taking them to see the latest light-hearted Disney romp. Instead, what they got was an apocalyptic space tale about homicidal robots tearing apart smaller, cuter robots in a doomed spaceship floating near a black hole that turns out to be literally the gateway to Hell!
Imagine all of the adorable forest critters in Bambi were robots, and then imagine that the unseen bastard that killed Bambi’s mom was revealed as a hulking fascist murder bot and you’ll understand the trauma that was unleashed on unsuspecting audiences. The Black Hole went on to be nominated for a best special effects Oscar, but was otherwise a critical dud that is only now remembered for the traumatic imagery it burned into many a young mind.
Disney’s next attempt at proper horror was The Watcher in the Woods, an eerie tale of the supernatural that was directed by John Hough, who helmed the haunted house cult classic Legend of Hell House. Watcher diplomatically eschewed gore and extreme content, but was a bonafide horror film that easily and deliberately succeeded at terrifying its audience.
The plot involves an American family moving into an English manor and finding themselves being stalked by an invisible entity that can only communicate through the family’s youngest daughter. Though genuinely scary, the film’s most terrifying asset was Bette Davis who played the bitter yet benevolent housekeeper. Both the living and the dead have learned to fear the real-life human ragestorm that was Bette Davis; so naturally, the ‘watcher’ doesn’t bother her.
The next example I can honestly say was my gateway into scary movies. It was my beginning; the first film I can remember that made me afraid to turn off the lights at bedtime: Mr. Boogedy! A 1986 Disney TV movie, Mr. Boogedy started me on my lifelong diet of cobwebbed haunted houses infested by cackling fiends. The premise isn’t much different from Watcher, but the overall tone was more tongue-in-cheek and playful in a way that leaves you unprepared for the surprisingly gruelling scenes of suspense and choking atmosphere.
The titular villain, Mr. Boogedy, is a safe Disney knock-off of Freddy Krueger, but still manages to be a truly frightening figure to both the characters and the film’s young audience. The fact that Mr. Boogedy closely resembles Freddy may probably be intentional considering how, allegedly, the late Wes Craven tried to get his original Nightmare on Elm Street script picked up by Disney. Yes, Disney nearly optioned Freddy.
I’ve listed some strong examples, and some honorary mentions include Something Wicked This Way Comes and Escape to Witch Mountain. Regardless, I’m personally glad that Disney never went the full horror direction. I don’t think the world could have handled it. But even without balls-out horror, Disney always knew how to twist the dagger emotionally.
Image credits: Disney