Facing Your Fears: The Top 13 Movies That Freaked Me Out When I Was a Kid

I loved movies my whole life. There were a lot of things I saw in movies that really freaked me out when I was young. These are the ones that left the most profound scars on my youthful psyche. I give you: The Top 13 Movies That Freaked Me Out When I Was a Kid.

Seriously. Why do this to children?

Seriously. Why do this to children?

13. Pink Elephants, Heffalumps and Woozles. Thank you, Disney, for haunting my childhood with not one, but two very scary songs about elephants. Dumbo (1941) has the “Pink Elephants on Parade” song—where drunk Dumbo and Timothy Mouse hallucinate some truly nightmarish pachyderm-themed imagery. Winnie the Pooh’s nightmare after meeting Tigger was also frightening to me as a kid.

Eerily prophetic of what would happen to the real life Val Kilmer.

Eerily prophetic of what would happen to the real life Val Kilmer.

12. You’re all pigs. Most people might remember a nasty troll turning into the two-headed Eborsisk and ripping his brother in half in Willow (1988), but for me there was a scarier scene. The scene where the evil sorceress turns the army into pigs. It was a particularly jarring morph scene that rattled my young impressionable mind.

Two decades later this image still really bothers me.

Two decades later this image still really bothers me.

11. Pigs are still scary. The song “I Found a New Way to Walk” performed by the Oinker Sisters on Sesame Street. I actually can’t explain this one. Something about those dead-eyed, floppy mouthed, felt pig puppets with no pants singing in that black void really got to me. That the song is frighteningly catchy too only makes it worse. For whatever reason, this clip from “Sesame Street” scared me when I was little and, truth be told, still kind of unnerves me today.

That's a bone-chilling image to thrust into your kiddie space adventure.

That’s a bone-chilling image to thrust into your kiddie space adventure.

10. There’s a wolfman in Star Wars?! The glowing eyes, drooling maw, nightmarishly slow and calculated movement, and that jarring noise he makes are all super scary to a kid of four. I dreaded the Tatooine cantina scene for that reason. Outside of that, the only other thing that ever bothered me in the entire Star Wars universe was when Luke takes Darth Vader’s helmet off. I think it was his scabby head.

Dwight Frye always dies.

Dwight Frye always dies.

9. Dwight Frye dies twice. He got to play two different creepy sidekick guys who die in Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). In the original he is the doctor’s hunchbacked assistant, Fritz, who gets his comeuppance off-screen—although you do hear his cries echo through the moldy castle corridors. When Dr. Frankenstein arrives, the monster has hung Fritz’s lifeless corpse from the rafters. In the sequel he is Dr. Pretorias’ nasty henchman, Karl. The enraged monster throws him off a castle during a storm. Something about the lifeless dummy falling, arms akimbo, accompanied by Frye’s hideous screams is still unnerving in its fakeness.

Alfred Molina's first movie appearance,

Alfred Molina’s first movie appearance,

8. The first 10 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Spiders, booby traps, impalements, rotting corpses, poison darts, and a terrific sense of suspense—especially for children. Had I stuck around for the grand finale at that tender age I don’t know where I’d be now.

It's the ever advancing closeups that did it, man.

It’s the ever advancing closeups that did it, man.

7. A Hitchcock trifecta. I succumbed to the terror of Psycho‘s shower sequence (1960) and I’ve had trouble with shower curtains ever since. The wonders Hitchcock must have done for the glass shower industry. The Birds (1963) also has some good scares, especially when she finds the dead old man with his eyes pecked out. No one remembers Torn Curtain (1966) and it’s not a great one, but the scene where Paul Newman murders the hitman with the oven disturbed me.

No one ever listens to the old Chinese guy.

No one ever listens to the old Chinese guy.

6. The Gremlins in Gremlins (1984). The sequel was hilarious, but Joe Dante’s first movie was nightmare fuel. It forever changed how I experience the Christmas song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Those little slimy cocoons and the gleefully malevolent violence that followed really rattled my young, impressionable mind.

Alas, no photos could be found of the nasty executioner guy.

Alas, no photos could be found of the nasty executioner guy.

5. The ugly torturer guy gets sandwich impaled. Remember the crappy Disney Three Musketeers from 1993 with Chris O’Donnell and Tiger Blood? The scene where Oliver Platt fights the jailer at the end is horrific. The guy is big and ugly and sweaty and half naked for starters. Then he gets slammed onto a wall of nails. He twitches and Platt moves in to inspect and he suddenly starts yelling like some sort of animal. Finally the other half of the spike-wall hinges shut—sandwiching the poor bastard in a bloody grid of iron and spikes. Rated PG.

Remember me, Eddie?

Remember me, Eddie?

4. Judge Doom gets run over by a steamroller. I was two years old when I first saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). It’s one of my favorite movies now, but when I was little I was scared to death of this movie. The scene where Judge Doom (Doc Brown! No!) gets run over by a steamroller is an unsettling bit of family-friendly horror. That he peels his own flattened body off the floor, sucks some helium to re-inflate himself, pops his eyeballs out, and somehow becomes stronger is just bone-chilling to a two-year old.

He doesn't eat people though. He just chews 'em and then throws 'em.

He doesn’t eat people though. He just chews ’em and then throws ’em away.

3. All the deaths in King Kong (1933). The original King Kong has also graduated to one of my favorite movies. Again, it was horrific and brutal as a child. People get chomped, smashed, and squished by a rampaging giant gorilla. Additionally, the budding dinosaur fanatic in me was flabbergasted that the apatosaurus was portrayed as a carnivore.

Nightmare fuel, that is.

Nightmare fuel, that is.

2. Gold guy’s face after getting impaled in Flash Gordon (1980). I never watched all of the ridiculously stupid-awesome movie that is Flash Gordon until I was much older and more appreciative of the camp factor. When I was but a lad, the only portion of this film I saw was the ending where green-cloaked guy with a gold mask comes out and says some dick things before he is thrown onto a big plank with spikes on it. His body flattens on the spikes and then there’s a disturbing closeup of his face: a gross sound-effect accompanies the dude’s eyes and tongue bugging out like worms emerging from a metal apple.

I couldn't find a really good still so you're just gonna have to watch the whole movie.

I couldn’t find a really good still so just take my word for it.

1. Violence and Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). A lot of the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies blend together for me and most of them had scary finales where everyone is captured, tortured, or horrifically killed by politically incorrect tribal guys. This first movie was the scariest to me. Never mind the animal cruelty, racism, and the fact that Tarzan is pretty much a rapist who gets lucky when his captive lady gets Stockholm syndrome. For starters, if memory serves, a pack of territorial hippos capsize the explorers’ rafts and then crocodiles get a bunch of the guys. That’s nothing. The ending is where it became too much. The surviving explorers and their porters are captured by a tribe of scary pygmies who sacrifice them to a man in a giant sloppy gorilla suit. One by one they are thrown into the pit. Before Tarzan shows up to graphically gouge apart the ape’s face with his knife, the monstrous primate repeatedly smashes Cheeta (the Chimpanzee sidekick) against a rock—the image of the big faux-ape swinging the smaller doll ape around still haunts me. Finally they use the carcass as a shield against the pygmies’ arrows before the elephants show up to trample their village. Movies were brutal back then, man. Brutal and racist.

(It was also the inspiration for my own shabby attempt at short film with Stewed).

Originally published for net.sideBar on Sept. 18, 2013.

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Hail to the King, Baby

Shut up!

Yeah. The title is a line from “Army of Darkness.” So what?

One of the most iconic, important, groundbreaking, and memorable movie monsters continues to be King Kong. Any way you slice it Kong is king. Unlike the more prolific Godzilla, Kong starred in only one movie. There was only one sequel (the aptly titled Son of Kong which starred his son and wasn’t as good). Many people have tried to remake King Kong from John Guillermin to Ishiro Honda to Peter Jackson. While Jackson may come closest to the original, none have been able to capture the cinematic magic and horror of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s extravagant original vision from 1933.

Fearful Wray

Fay Wray: babe of the 30s.

Merian C. Cooper, a bold adventurous man, was inspired to deviate from his wild documentaries—shot in the remotest locations and most dangerous jungles—in favor of this landmark fantasy adventure when told a story by his good friend, Edgar Wallace. Wallace was already a prolific novelist and screenwriter and his tale of a mysterious island fraught with peril and giant monsters sounded exactly like what Cooper had been looking for in his documentaries. Capturing unexplored natural dangers untethered was irresistible and teaming up with friend and producer Ernest B. Schoedsack to make this grand fictional epic was just the icing on the cake. It may come as no surprise that the main character of the wildly ambitious and peril-provoking movie director, Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong), was greatly modeled after Cooper himself. . . which is also another reason I was disappointed Jack Black’s snaky performance for the 2005 version (although it is miles better than Charles Grodin’s in 1976).

Look at that gorgeous matte painting.

Look at that gorgeous matte painting.

With actress Fay Wray as the lovely damsel in distress, Ann Darrow, and Max Steiner’s grand score—that very effectively mirrored the onscreen action in addition to providing a very tone-setting overture—and actors like Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, and Noble Johnson, there was just one thing missing: Kong. In the thirties many special effects were still in their pioneering stages, and Willis O’Brien (who would later teach the great Ray Harryhausen his trade) was a no-brainer for the job. O’Brien’s magnificent special effects which brought to life the prehistoric leviathan’s of Harry O. Hoyt’s The Lost World (1925) caught much attention. The finale of The Lost World, in which a brontosaurus terrorizes downtown London, would be the basis for Kong’s rampage through New York City. O’Brien, who had been having trouble and was forced to scrap several pet projects, was hired by Cooper and Schoedsack and to work they did set.

In watching Schoedsack’s earlier film, The Most Dangerous Game (1932), you’ll notice not only the recurrence of Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Noble Johnson, but also many of the same sets used later in King Kong.

king_kong__1933____the_venture_crew_by_kriegdersterne77-d52mmws

Do you think they’ve spotted us?

The story is simple enough. An “enthusiastic” movie director, Carl Denham (Armstrong), wants to make the greatest wildlife documentary the world has ever seen. He wants to dazzle audiences with corners of the world never before seen by civilized men. His producers demand he get an attractive woman to throw into the picture to give it some sex appeal. Denham then takes to the Depression-era New York City streets in hopes of finding a desperate young lady who might agree to go along on their crazy expedition. He finds Ann Darrow (Wray) and they set sail for Skull Island. Let me repeat that. SKULL ISLAND. During their long sea voyage, Ann begins to fall in love with the stoic first mate, John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). Soon the mysterious island is spotted and they disembark to investigate. A primitive tribal ceremony is disrupted by their presence and the film crew manages to get away, but that night the tribesmen board the ship and kidnap Ann to sacrifice to their mysterious and legendary jungle god known as Kong.

It's not racist if it's film history.

It’s not racist if it’s film history 🙂

Kong shows up (in what is was of the best screen entrances of all time), but rather than kill Ann he takes her deep into the jungle. Perhaps it was merely her screams that sparked his curiosity or perhaps it was her beauty that stayed his hand. Driscoll, Denham, and the crew race into the jungle to save Ann—without any idea as to what awaits them. Inside the jungle, many men are killed by territorial and bloodthirsty monsters, dinosaurs, and Kong himself. It seems the ferocious Kong just wants some time alone to perv out with Ann, but with all the little men, dinosaurs, and giant snakes attacking, he can’t seem to get any peace with his screaming nonconsensual bride.

Kong uses some awesome boxing and wrestling moves to fight a nasty Tyrannosaurus-rex. It’s pretty cool stuff. Giant ape socking T-rex in the jaw and flipping him over? This is why fantasy was invented.

king kong t rex

Just look at how gorgeous this picture is.

There’s a lot of build-up leading to the main action, but it is all well paced and ominous. The music doesn’t even start until they get to Skull Island. Once the intrepid (and ill-fated) crew passes the ancient wall and pursues the gargantuan primate into the jungle the action is pretty quick. Stegosaurs, Brontosaurs, Ptersaurs, Tyrannosaurs, and imagined prehistoric horrors abound in the dense foliage, so there is plenty of violence. Life of Skull Island must be a nightmare.

Eventually Driscoll rescues Ann and Kong is captured (but not before he destroys the native village). Denham brings him back to New York City to show the public something they’ve never seen: Kong, the eighth wonder of the world. Long story short; Kong breaks free of his fetters in the opera house and runs murderously amok in the strange new environment, searching for Ann. Instead of giant snakes, Kong battles subway trains. Instead of vicious pterodactyls, Kong must battle biplanes. When Kong does find Ann he takes her to where he can be alone with her: the top of the Empire State Building (and in 1933 it was the tallest building in the world. How romantic). The planes come and Kong must let Ann go as he plummets to his death.

Come at me, bra.

Come at me, bra.

The special effects (although nearly a century old) still have amazing power and wonderful charm. The titanic monster battles are some of the best and most impressive ever filmed. O’Brien and his team had to invent most of the special effects shots for this film as they went along. There are scenes that feature live action people in the foreground and background, while stop-motion monsters battle in between. Plumes of steam from geysers steadily rise, stop-motion birds fly overhead, and the environments are sometimes  miniature sets that extend several feet behind the main action with painted landscape beyond that. The violence is still shocking (as when Kong chomps people in his jaws or mercilessly pummels a passenger train into dead silence), but for some reason we still love Kong. We fall in love with this big, hairy, murderous beast. Even though his performance is only the painstaking animations of a puppet, we still feel he is alive. Unlike other monster movies where we take our point of view from one of the frightened onlookers of the grisly carnage, King Kong makes the monster the central character. Kong is all alone and against the world and the movie audience, for some reason, readily embraces him.

Why you lookin' at my woman like that?

*Samuel Jackson’s monologue from Pulp Fiction*

Subsequent remakes have all tried to cast Kong as a softer, more sanitized, and sympathetic character; a misunderstood animal who the human protagonists eventually come to respect. . . and Kong only justifiably kills bad people. Remakes have cast him as a definite gorilla, but the original Kong’s species is somewhat more ambiguous.

In the original, Kong is a violent force of nature who murders indescriminately: cowering innocents; fleeing pedestrians; even the tribesmen who worshipped him. He doesn’t have a beautiful magical connection with Ann. He’s actually a bit more like a rapist. He is more lost ancient god than biological freak. Ann never warms up to Kong. None of the characters like Kong, in fact. Denham only wants to exhibit him to show the world something they’ve never seen. There is no awkward environmentalist or anti-capitalist message. To the contrary, the film is riddled with cultural ignorance, racism, sexism, and unsentimental depictions of animal cruelty (like the old Tarzan movies). It is very much an escapist product of its time, but for some reason I can forgive it all its faults just as I can forgive Kong for his incorrigible carnage. If it is unapologetic it is because it is a part of our history, and what an entertaining historical document it is.

King Kong 7

Acrophobic yet?

King Kong is easily one of the cinema’s most dazzling adventure stories. The colossal group effort of these daring men in the pioneering days of film, during a time when there was still a lot left of this earth that was unexplored, make King Kong something very special. In setting out to make an adventure movie to end all adventure movies—or maybe a monster movie to end all monster movies—I personally feel that the winning team behind King Kong succeeded with gusto. If you’ve only ever heard of King Kong as legend, myth, or saw him in any of the lesser remakes, I encourage you to revisit this fantastic classic. For my money King Kong (1933) is one of the best American movies ever made and not to be missed.

I am not an animal!

I am not an animal!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” September 25, 2009