The Creepiest “Family Movies” of All Time


The fine folks at Warner Brothers are taking the opportunity today to release their umpteenth home video version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory — this time in an elaborately packaged “40th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition” deluxe Blu-ray set. Included in the $65 box, according to, are “a 144-page book featuring color photos and notes, a Wonka Bar pencil tin with scented pencils and eraser and a Wonka Bar box with archival production letters.” What, no chicken and butcher knife?

Yes, Willy Wonka may be going on 40 years as a beloved family classic, but it also contains tiny indentured servants, a kid transmogrifying into a giant blueberry, and an out-of-left-field sequence of sheer terror that has haunted the nightmares of generations of kids. We’ll take a look at that scene, and nine more family classics that are similarly creepy, after the jump.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

One of the many pleasures of Mel Stuart’s 1971 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is how it keeps us off-balance — with its gallows humor, with the pathos of its protagonist, with the genuine darkness of Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka. But we’re still not sure what the hell they were thinking in the thoroughly horrifying and deservedly notorious boat ride to hell sequence, in which the filmmakers apparently decided that the perfect sidebar to their candy-coated narrative is a grisly dramatization of a bum acid trip.

Return to Oz

Let’s be fair — the original Wizard of Oz has its share of disturbing elements, what with all the flying monkeys and grumpy, talking trees. But those of us who were kids when Disney’s unofficial sequel hit theatres in 1985 were thoroughly unprepared for the sinister vehicle that awaited us, which includes shock therapy for Dorothy, a witch who collects decapitated heads, a deadly desert that turns those who cross it into sand (and then kills them), and my personal nightmare juice: the Wheelers, a frightening crew of fast-moving henchmen (henchwomen? henchcreatures?) with wheels for at the ends of their arms and legs. Dave Kehr called the picture “bleak, creepy, and occasionally terrifying,” and we couldn’t agree more.


When you wish upon a star, you could become a real boy! But if you fall in with the wrong crowd and go to Pleasure Island, you could be transformed into a donkey and sent off to work in the salt mines! IIIIIII’ve to no strings, to hold me — wait, what? Those early Disney classics are rife with disturbing set pieces (the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia, the pink elephants of Dumbo, and the standard setter: the dispatching of Bambi’s mom), but the heavy-handed morality play element of Pinocchio may be the most unnerving of them all.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Willy Wonka author Roald Dahl and James Bond creator Ian Fleming were among the big names involved in this 1968 flying-car Dick Van Dyke musical, which has acquired a reputation as beloved family entertainment in spite of the presence of (per Entertainment Weekly ) one of the vilest movie villains of all time. We’re referring, of course, to “the Child Catcher,” who roams the streets of Vulgaria capturing and kidnapping kids. Charming! The character was not in Fleming’s original novel — nope, it was a little touch added by nightmare-originator Dahl. Thanks, pal.

The Witches

Roald Dahl strikes again! This 1990 adaptation of Dahl’s 1983 book was directed by Nicolas Roeg, who also helmed such all-time children’s favorites as, um, Performance, Don’t Look Now, and The Man Who Fell to Earth. So we probably shouldn’t be surprised that the resulting picture is a little bit on the dark side, what with its focus on a plot by a coven of witches (led by Anjelica Huston) to feed British children poisoned chocolate that will turn them into mice. “i resembles a brilliantly told bedtime story,” wrote Caryn James in The New York Times, “though the teller of this children’s tale may well be the slightly cracked relative who can’t judge when scary stories become nightmares.” The Witches also marked the final film credit of the late Jim Henson, who had spent the previous decade on two more entries on our list…

The Dark Crystal/Labyrinth

Jim Henson made his name and his fame creating the cuddly Muppets of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, but there was also an edge to his work, present in early efforts like the experimental NBC TV movie The Cube and the Muppet characters on the first season of Saturday Night Live. But parents were probably expecting something more like The Muppet Movie when they hauled their tykes to theaters in 1982 for The Dark Crystal. This Tolkien-esque tale of the Gelflings and their struggle against the vulture-like Skeksis was bold, imaginative, inventive — and dark as hell. His next film, Labyrinth, was also far removed from something like The Muppets Take Manhattan (which was released between the two); there’s just something hard to shake about David Bowie playing a child-swiping King of the Goblins.

Jack Frost

Few things in this life are more unimaginably traumatic for a small child than the death of a parent. But wait… what if… that parent were able to come back, a year later, in the form of a ghoulish CG snowman? That’d be awesome, right? That’s the premise of this woefully misguided 1998 Christmas effort from director Troy Miller, whose work on Mr. Show make one wonder if he signed on before realizing this was a premise intended to be taken seriously — that our hearts are supposed to be warmed by this mess. “That the character seems more than a little demented is evidently lost on the filmmakers,” noted Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman. “He looks like he could just as well have been an icicle-wielding serial killer (similar to last year’s straight-to-video Jack Frost).”

The Nutcracker in 3D

More holiday fun, this time from director Andrei Konchalovsky (whose filmography ranges from the highs of Runaway Train to the lows of Tango & Cash), who had longed for two decades to make a film version of The Nutcracker. He probably should have kept it in his noggin; Konchalovsky’s dream project is one of the few films to maintain a 0% “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes. What went so wrong? We’re gonna go ahead and go with the Nazi rats. That’s right, the Rat King (poor John Turturro) is clad in fascist apparel, and sends his rat storm troopers to snatch toys from children and toss them into the furnace. Roger Ebert sums it up: “The Nutcracker in 3D is one of those rare holiday movies that may send children screaming under their seats.”

The Polar Express

We know that the hearts of everyone involved — star Tom Hanks, director Robert Zemeckis, his co-writer William Broyles Jr. — were probably in the right place when they set out to make this would-be Christmas classic. But The Polar Express marked the beginning of Zemeckis’ unfortunate and inexplicable infatuation with “motion capture,” the horrid computer-animation technique that renders (just to pick a random example) beloved Oscar-winner Hanks into a glassy-eyed humanoid that makes your skin crawl. CNN’s Paul Clinton suggested subtitling the film Night of the Living Dead and explained, “those human characters in the film come across as downright … well, creepy. So The Polar Express is at best disconcerting, and at worst, a wee bit horrifying.”

Those are our picks — what about yours? What kid’s movies haunted your childhood nightmares?