I consider myself lucky to be a child of the 80s. But growing up with some of these so-called kids movies of the time was occasionally trial by fire. During that decadent decade of Reaganomics, shoulder pads, and scrunchies, it never really occurred to movie makers just how terrifying some of the scenes in their movies were. To this day, typical horror doesn’t scare me to the level of the scenes in some in these examples. I think there’s something to be said about fear when it’s in relatively small measure compared to the rest of the film. Sure, the Halloween movies are scary. But you expect it. These are a different breed and, in my mind, far more effective.
So in light of the Halloween season, I thought I’d share my top ten scary scenes from 80s movies I encountered in my childhood. Sure, not all of them are kids movies: but they were all movies I saw as a kid. And they probably explain a heck of a lot about why am I am the way I am these days. Other 80s kids know what I mean.
10 – Gremlins (1984): The fountain scene. Gremlins always came on during the Halloween season, and without fail I always managed to tune in just when the damned evil Stripe jumps into the fountain and starts to spawn more Mogwais. It was the fear that the heroes had lost in spite of struggling against the evil Mogwais that really got me. Then, just when Gizmo goes and saves the day he attacks Stripe with a beam of light and his skin just… rots away. Nightmares. You got ‘em.
9 – The ‘Burbs (1989): Any scene with the Klopeks. Sure, it’s a movie with Tom Hanks. Sure, it’s kind of a comedy. Even Carrie Fisher is in it. But the Klopeks, neighbors to the Petersons (Hanks and Fisher) are every bit as horrifying as can be. Not to mention that throughout the movie there’s all this talk of dead bodies and femurs. The Klopeks are supposed to play to our paranoia: they were cast and performed in such a way to make us mistrust them. But man, Reuben just freaked me out.
8 – The Hobbit by Rankin-Bass (1977, but in high rotation in the 80s) – All the Gollum scenes. Brother Theodore, who played Reuben Klopek in the ‘Burbs, was also the voice of Gollum in the Rankin-Bass Hobbit film. Even among Tolkien aficionados, there’s a certain nostalgia for this film. Sure, Andy Serkis is great—the performance is complex and heartbreaking and a wonder of CGI and motion capture technologies. But did Serkis’s voice haunt your dreams for decades like Brother Theodore’s? I don’t think so. Especially when he discovers his Precious is gone and his eyes go all wild. As of yet I’ve never seen a depiction of Gollum that incorporates as much horror, desperation, and emotion as this one.
7 – The Goonies (1985)- The corpse in the freezer scene. Sure, Mama Fratelli is terrifying. But let’s face it: when she tried to cut off Mouth’s tongue we knew it was all in good fun. However, when Chunk is caught in the freezer—all he wanted was some ice cream!—with a huge corpse falling all over him… yeah. The fear was palpable. And while there are many other scenes in that movie I love (“You know something, Willie? You’re the first Goonie.”) the corpse falling is what stood out in my mind for years whenever I thought “Goonies.”
6 - Stand by Me (1986) – The corpse scene. Apparently there’s a Corey Feldman theme going on here, as well as a corpse theme, but we’ll leave that discussion for another day. Stand by Me is a heart-wrenching film, especially when you watch it at a young age (which, considering its R-rating, I probably shouldn’t seen as young as I did, at about 9). However, I did see the film. When the boys finally stumble upon the body of Ray Brower, that finality of death is so sudden, so real, that the whole movie seems to hinge on it. It’s like the whole film holds its breath. Then Gordy loses it, and I lose it… and yeah. Death may be the most scary thing of all, since we all have to cope with it at one point or another.
5 – Labyrinth (1986) – The first goblin scenes. Usually the puppets in Jim Henson’s work don’t freak me out. But the sudden pan to the whispering, waiting, creepy puppets in the Goblin King’s realm hoping Sara will say just the right words… man, what a setup. The whole movie is sprinkled with horrific moments, not the least of which include the constant shots of David Bowie’s, um, costar in his pants. But as far as setting the tone for a film to be truly terrifying, it quite fits the bill.
4 - The Watcher in the Woods (1980) – The Karen in the mirror scenes. While not entirely a horror film—according to Wikipedia it was supposed to be family friendly—The Watcher in the Woods shook me to my core. Bette Davis is in it, too, and she basically tries to make summon the spirit of her missing daughter Karen into the daughter of her houses’s new residents. There’s a bunch of weird stuff, including a seance with a huge bell, and a guy named the Watcher (who’s apparently an alien) among other things. Karen wanders around in a series of scenes, trapped and blindfolded and… I’m going to stop writing right now. I’m still scared.
3 – E.T. (1982) – E.T. pink and bloated by the river. My parents loved E.T. And I pretended to. Except the thing was, every time E.T. ran away and Eliot found him by the river, my brain erupted into flames of terror. So I pretended to fall asleep every time we watched it just so I could escape the horror. Except I couldn’t, because as I tried to go to sleep I would run the scene over and over again in my head.
2 – Return to Oz (1985) – Mombi’s heads. “Dorothy Gayle! Dorothy Gayle!” Finding one horrifying thing in Return to Oz amidst the myriad choices is a little difficult. There’s no place to start, really, considering how weird, wonderful, and warped the film is. I mean, Wheeler dying by turning into sand? Electrocution? The Gnome king? Talking chickens? Well, that all pales in comparison to Mombi’s hall of heads. All these lovely women, their beautiful heads harvested for this hideous witch, all with open eyes and calling Dorothy’s name. Hello, therapy!
1 – The Neverending Story (1984) – The death of Artax. For once we don’t have the Henson Company to blame (though I could have included some scenes from The Dark Crystal on here). Just so you know, folks: when a boy’s horse dies—not just dies, but is slowly consumed by sinking sand while he screams and claws and cries and does everything in his power to save him… but fails… that’s a little intense. I never got over that, I don’t think. Pretty, pretty horsie. *sniff*
How about you? What were the films that scared you in your childhood that weren’t part of the Halloween canon? I don’t know, these scenes are scarier to me than all of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies put together. Mostly because the horror in them is, well, pretty real and unexpected.
[Top Image: MGM, Mombi; bottom image Goblins in Labyrinth, Jim Henson Company]