As we look forward to the cinema release of family-friendly fare like DC League Of Super-Pets, we ask – what happened to making horror films for kids?.

Minions: The Rise Of Gru, The Railway Children Return, and DC League Of Super-Pets are the biggest cinema releases this month for families with younger children. If you’re looking for a lighthearted, entertaining film to sit through with the family they’re surely all good choices. It’s been a while, though, since we’ve had anything on the scarier end of the spectrum made for a younger audience.

If you search for suggestions for scary kids films, you’ll inevitably see the usual Halloween-themed favourites pop up – from Hocus Pocus, to Casper, to Hotel Transylvania. But these aren’t scary films at all, they just happen to be tales of witches, ghosts and vampires. Casper is, after all, known for being a friendly ghost.

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In fact, most of those above, and others like Disney’s Haunted Mansion, and more widely considered to be comedic than genuinely frightening.

Even those films with a few jumpy or creepy moments – namely the animated work of directors like Tim Burton – quickly normalise their horror elements and make us feel comfortable around typically scary character types. 2005’s Corpse Bride is an excellent example of this. When the title character emerges from the grave and pursues our protagonist Victor and introduces his to the underworld, it’s a scene that could be at home in any zombie movie. It’s probably also what earned the film its PG rating. Well, that and the various times eyeballs pop out of their sockets.

But as soon as we get to know Burton’s corpse characters we realise they’re just ordinary people – albeit dead ones. The Bride, Emily, has a tragic past that makes her immediately sympathetic. It’s also revealed through song, and who doesn’t like a good musical number? Some really great voice work from Helena Bonham-Carter just makes her even more likeable, and the moments that would otherwise be creepy (the aforementioned eyeball) are portrayed as just a bit of morbid fun.

Even more recently than that, we’ve had films that tried to provide some child-friendly horror, but ended up more in the realm of fantasy or science fiction. The Sam Raimi-produced Netflix film Nightbooks is one of those. Directed by David Yarovesky and adapted from the novel of the same name by J.A. White, it was a movie aimed at being a gateway to horror for younger viewers. It focuses on young horror fan Alex (Winslow Fegley) as he’s lured into a witch’s magical apartment and made to tell a new horror story to her every night.

It may pay homage to writers of the genre, like Stephen King, and 80s classics like teen vampire flick The Lost Boys, but Krysten Ritter’s witch Natacha is far too fashionable to be frightening. It’s also more on the whimsical side in terms of production design, featuring strange creatures and an impossibly large library full of wonders. Not to mention the fact that the final act culminates in a traditional battle between good and evil. It’s not hard to guess which side wins.

Krysten Ritter as Natacha in Nightbooks

Nightbooks

So, when was the last time a proper kids horror film was made, and what makes a great one?

The two most recent and successful attempts that spring to mind are Henry Selick’s Coraline and Monster House. The feature directorial debut of Gil Kenan (who’s since worked on the 2015 remake of Poltergeist and the Scream TV series, as well as co-writing Ghostbusters: Afterlife), Monster House is a film I remember as being truly terrifying. Released in 2006, I distinctly remember going to the cinema to watch it. I would’ve been about eight years old, and I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t sit through the whole thing. We left about halfway through.

Admittedly, I was a bit of a wimpy child, but I did eventually watch the rest of it. I think it says a lot about the power of kids horror, though, that you can watch those movies as a child and still remember years later. It might be because it scared you shitless, or because it sparked a lifelong interest in the genre (in my case, both). Either way it’s a good thing to have a memorable cinematic experience during your formative years.

What made Monster House so creepy? Well for one, it starts with an old man, Mr Nebbercracker (voiced by Steve Buscemi), presumably dying from a heart attack. That’s certainly one way to let your audience know what they’re in for. It also deals with some pretty dark stuff thematically, especially where Nebbercracker is concerned. His rumoured cannibalism, for instance. And if the Polar Express-style animation wasn’t scary enough, there’s some striking imagery found inside the house, too. The sight of Nebbercracker’s wife, Constance, being encased in concrete and kept in the basement is chilling.

Selick’s Coraline is similar in many ways, dealing with themes of abandonment through both the main character of Coraline and her friend Wybie. When she enters a parallel world where her ‘other’ family has buttons for eyes, it gradually shifts from a fantasy land to a dangerous trap. Really, is the concept of Coraline having buttons sewn into her eyes not a children’s introduction to body horror?

The creepiest of kids horror doesn’t shy away from dark themes or frightening imagery. Just take 1985’s Return To Oz, where Fairuza Balk’s Dorothy is taken to a mental hospital to receive shock treatment. For gruesome makeup, look no further than the true form of Anjelica Huston’s Grand High Witch in the 1990 version of The Witches. Those tales are nowadays adapted to be more fantastical than horrific. 2020’s The Witches cast Anne Hathaway in the same role as Huston, but considerably toned down her hideous appearance.  I’d recommend sticking to the original.

With Coraline released in 2009 and Monster House in 2006, it’s been quite some time since a proper kids horror film has been made. In a time of comedic franchise blockbusters and lighthearted legacy sequels, it’d certainly be good to see more of them around.

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