The aforementioned films have a monopoly on the "horror" label and deservedly so. They are a willy-giving bunch, but at least they're safely marked by their given genre. Below are my top six favorite "hidden" horror movies. You will not find these under a horror label, but in their way they are a scary lot. Note: I have not included any war movies or movies built around atrocities. I don't know anybody who was surprised by the horror of Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan. Instead, these are movies with an eerie atmosphere despite being hidden under non-horror labels, that provide a frightening journey no matter the conclusion. I know these six are not the only hidden horror movies out there. There are many more that I know of. It should be noted that I first saw four of these six movies in childhood and these four are all officially considered "kids' movies." Whether that label is appropriate for all of them is debatable. However, I don't think this label prevents them from being scary movies as well. Maybe not hardcore horror, but frightening just the same. These are six movies I have seen many times and know very well. They are all favorites of mine and they all have a reputation for getting under my skin.
And so without further ado:
My Top Six "Hidden" Horror Movies
I'm going to try really hard not to include any spoilers, but read at your own risk.
In my humble opinion, Bob Fosse's 1972 adaptation of the classic Broadway musical is chilling enough to rival any blood'n guts horror movie. Set in Germany in 1931, it revolves around the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy nightspot, and its performers and patrons. The movie lures you in with promises of good old-fashioned musical fun. Fun sex jokes! Liza Minnelli! A gorilla in a dress! What's not to love? What's there to scare the shit out you? Well, Germany in 1931. We see early on that the Nazi Party is beginning to make waves, but this isn't a war movie or even a "Nazis on the side" movie like The Sound of Music. The focus isn't on the Nazis' crimes but on their steady rise to power. We see them before the war and before their countless atrocities, when they were a vision of hope and promise to a Germany devastated by WWI and the Depression. The musical numbers in the Kit Kat Klub eerily reflect the political climate and the main characters' various reactions to it, all the while professing to be a refuge from the outside world. Watching over all is the sinister Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey in an Oscar winning performance), a grinning enigma who recognizes the coming evil with a knowing wink as if it's a private joke for us. Ultimately, Cabaret is a meditation on the nature of escapism and how easily it can curdle into apathy. Very scary, indeed.
The Scariest Scene: Just over halfway through the film, we find ourselves at an outdoor cafe in the heart of the German countryside. People of all ages are talking, listening to music, and having fun. It's a pleasant, even familiar scene. Then an angelic-looking young man (blond hair, blue eyes, innocent face) gets up and starts singing a lovely song about the glory of the Fatherland with the refrain "Tomorrow Belongs to Me." At first, the camera stays fixed on his face and on a few faces in the audience, all listening intently, before panning down and revealing the boy's uniform and swastika armband. As the song continues, people in the audience stand up one by one and passionately join in, until almost everyone in the cafe is singing, except for an old man who wants nothing to do with it. Relying on our knowledge of what lies ahead, the scene paints a chilling picture of the seductiveness of evil. Because it's such a rousing, beautiful song and because the scene is filmed with such intensity, I always feel compelled to sing along. Terrifying.
I know that Disney is generally considered a far cry from what most people think of as "horror," but for many kids (myself included) they are some of the first movies we see, and so they are some of the first movies to scare us. This has a psychological effect that doesn't fade easily. Pinocchio and the other animated Disney movie on this list (I restricted myself to two) both scared me more as a child than The Exorcist scared me as an adult.
Released in 1940, Pinocchio was Disney's second full-length animated movie. Based on Carlo Collodi's 1883 cautionary tale of a wooden puppet's quest to become a real boy, I think it's their best animated product to date. In addition to breathtaking artwork, an excellent voice cast, beautiful music, and a truly touching story, there's a distinct darkness to Pinocchio, far from anything Disney produces nowadays. Over the course of the episodic story, the titular hero ventures from one character/situation to another. And because he's a day old block of wood, he has a bad habit of falling in with the wrong people. This leads to the stuff of nightmares (I can vouch) including a crazed puppet-master, a terrifying carnival, a whale named Monstro (Monstro!) and the scariest close-up of my childhood. None of these villains are defeated by the way; they are merely escaped. Though Pinocchio gets his happy ending, the world remains an unsafe place.
The Scariest Scene: Pinocchio thinks he's in for the time of his life at Pleasure Island, a so-called "happy land of carefree boys," with no school, no parents, no rules, and nothing to do but be bad and have fun. It's a politically incorrect extravaganza complete with free cigars, free beer and one of the most frightening atmospheres I have ever seen on film. You know right away something's not right with this place and before long, you and Pinocchio get a disturbing wake-up call. It's nighttime and all the other boys have mysteriously disappeared, leaving Pinocchio alone in a pool hall with his new friend Lampwick, a tough guy who's taken him under his wing. Elsewhere in the park a spurned Jiminy Cricket looks on as the demonic Coachman loads donkeys into crates headed for the salt mines and the circus. These donkeys are none other than the bad boys transformed. Back at the pool hall, Lampwick jokes with Pinocchio as his transformation begins. First Lampwick grows ears, then a tail, and finally, his head changes to a donkey's. Lampwick starts panicking and begs a terrified Pinocchio for help but it's too late. In silhouette, the transformation completes itself and Lampwick, once a know-it-all tough guy, disappears into donkeyskin, screaming for his mother. And before Pinocchio can catch his breath, he sprouts a pair of donkey ears.
3. Return to Oz
The 80's was really a wild card decade for kids' movies. We got such dark, experimental fair like The Black Cauldron, Labyrinth, and their comrades that nowadays it's hard to believe what got past the censors. This 1985 unofficial sequel to The Wizard of Oz (made by Disney, believe it or not) offers a dark, depressing, downright frightening view of the Oz we thought we all knew so well. Based on the second and third books in L. Frank Baum's series, the movie finds Dorothy back home in Kansas, suffering from insomnia brought on by worry about those she left behind in Oz. Talk about never being satsified. It should be noted that this movie follows the books in that Oz is a very real place, not a dream world. Dorothy must contend with quack head-doctors, a mental asylum where cries of the damned echo through the corridors, and even a near brush with electro-shock therapy. And all this before she gets to Oz. And when she does reach Oz, it's a sort of post-apocalyptic Oz. The yellow brick road is in pieces, everybody in Emerald City has been turned to stone including the Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow is nowhere to be found. Being the badass she is, Dorothy sets out to discover what the hell's going on, rescue the Scarecrow, reclaim the ruby slippers, and basically set the world to rights. Along the way, we get a witch who collects the heads of young maidens and switches several times a day, a pumpkin-headed creature who I am sure laid the foundation for Jack Skellington, scary faces floating from rock to rock and a king voiced by Nicol Williamson! Clearly, the Oz of our childhood lies in shambles and we have to clean up the psychological residue.
The Scariest Scene: The Wheelers. The freaking Wheelers. Men with wheels for hands and feet who burst out of nowhere in the Emerald City courtyard, laughing manically, with nothing but the worst intentions for our heroine. Turns out, they're lackeys for a higher power--latter day flying monkeys if you will--but that doesn't make their first appearance any less terrifying. It's especially effective because the scene starts out with Dorothy in the silent courtyard. Then, from out of nowhere, a creaking wheel...and a hint of something dashing out of sight behind a column. That's all it takes to make the scene scary. But sure enough, there's more.
4. They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
This movie is the cinematic equivalent of being kicked in the stomach. Based on Horace McCoy's 1935 novel, it follows a number of very different characters as they participate in a dance marathon. Dance marathons were a real phenonemon during the Great Depression. Contestants would dance for as long as possible, breaking only for ten minute "naps" every few hours. In return, they were fed and taken care of (so to speak) and provided entertainment for a live audience. The last couple left standing won a huge cash reward. Some went on for months. McCoy's novel is a depressing read, so much so they couldn't film it in the already depressed 1930's. They had to wait until 1969. At the center of the film is the friendship between a pair of Hollywood hopefuls, gentle Robert (Michael Sarrazin) and cynical Gloria (Jane Fonda), though it's a relationship that proves to be as destructive as it is tender. The marathon has a kind of purgatorial feel to it. The characters all want something, whether money or food or recognition, and they all think the marathon holds the key to getting it. But the emcee Rocky (Gig Young in an Oscar winning performance--anybody noticing a trend here?) knows better. Worst of all, like Cabaret, this movie implicates you. You can't sneer at the goggly-eyed audience watching the spectacle without realizing you're one of them.
The Scariest Scene: The exhausted contestants are forced to don track suits and run around the race track for ten minutes straight in what is known as the derby. At the race's end, the last three couples will be out. Shot in real time, the scene is physically and emotionally painful to watch especially when you remember that every contestant is there willingly and desperate enough to submit to this humiliating brand of torture. Most frightening of all are the close-ups of the contestants' faces after the derby is over, ranging from relief to hysterical crying to sheer terror, as the crowd cheers all around them. The reality show will be premiering any day now.
5. Watership Down
This 1978 adaptation of Richard Adams's modern classic is one of those unfortunate films that gets dismissed as a "kiddie movie" simply because it's animated. But anything that begins with a stark creation myth featuring slaughtered bunnies and "the Black Rabbit of Death" ain't for the kindergarten set. I received it at the age of ten as a replacement for The Velveteen Rabbit. My father's reasoning: "Well, this is about rabbits too. You'll probably like it." Thing is, it's about rabbits killing each other. The fun begins when one of the rabbits living in a seemingly peaceful warren has a vision of a "bad danger coming." The few rabbits that believe him flee from their home in search of a new place to live. Along the way, they encounter all sorts of dangers, some from other rabbits, some from other dangerous animals, and some from the ever-reliable Man. The animation is great and the voice cast is one of the best ever assembled (including some of the best actors of the 20th century: John Hurt, Richard Briers, Denholm Elliot, and Nigel Hawthorne to mention a few) but it holds nothing back. It's one of the most violent films I've ever seen, animated or otherwise, and it tells a serious, even bleak, story. And yet every time I see it in Barnes and Noble's, it's in with the kid's movies. I guess kids need their serious, bleak stories too.
Scariest Scene: During their journey, the rabbits encounter an officer from their old warren, badly bruised and terror-striken. Sure enough, the bad danger came and sure enough, it was Man building on the land. What follows is a horrifying recreation of the destruction of their warren. Despite or perhaps because of the surreal animation, the scene is all-too realistic. Most of my Watership Down scars have healed since I first saw it, but this is the one scene I still can't watch.
This movie more than any other makes me wonder how Disney became synonymous with dumbed-down, sugar-coated kiddie faire. It's a devastating misnomer considering how dark the early movies are. Released in 1941, Dumbo runs a tidy 63 minutes and for the first 53, it's downright nihilistic. Life is shit. Worse, life is a shitty circus. You may be the cutest, sweetest creature ever born (or drawn in this case) but if there's something a little different about you, you will ridiculed and abused by everyone around you. Only your mother will love and care for you, but she will be taken away and locked up for trying to protect you from the cruel circus patrons (damn you, Baby Mine). After she is gone, you will be disowned by everybody you know and forced to work with scary, drunken clowns who don't care about your well-being at all.
The animation in Dumbo draws heavily from German expressionism (as did Cabaret, appropriately) where reality is distorted and exaggerated to convey internal angst. One of the most impressive and unsettling shots in the movie shows the construction of the Big Top from the perspective of the center pole, creating the sense that this giant dark shadow is consuming the world. It's really no wonder I grew up thinking of the circus as the gateway to hell. Most of the human characters are caricatured or seen only in silhouette and most of the animals are much larger than little Dumbo, emphasizing how alone he is for most of the movie. Thank goodness for Timothy Q. Mouse, (Edward Brophy in an Oscar winning performance--sorry, just kidding. Couldn't resist.) his one and only friend. Thank goodness for those last ten minutes. Dumbo is a character who truly earns his happy ending. His victory is joyful, but it follows a hell of a journey. Like Pinocchio, no villains are defeated. There aren't even any real villains. Life itself is the villain. A shitty circus of a villain. Thanks Disney.
The Scariest Scene: How do you think this would go over in modern day Hollywood? Imagine a storyboarder brainstorming. Okay, what if the clowns spilled some alcohol in Dumbo's water bucket and he and the mouse drank it all? What if they got so drunk that they actually started hallucinating? Hallucinating what? Big, pink, terrifying elephants without eyes, of course! Yeah, that would go over great. The Pink Elephants on Parade scene is the definition of random, obviously born of a desire to show off some awesome animation. It does cause Dumbo to fly for the very first time (not that he can remember it the next morning) but holy cow! That monster made up of elephant heads? Craziness. I couldn't watch it all the way through until I was 12. It makes me regress faster than you can say the two times table. The fitting climax of an hour long nightmare.
And that my dears, is all there is. There isn't anymore. Till we meet again.