Friday, June 26, 2009

I Believe The Children Are the Future (so stop trying to kill them)

If the Brothers Grimm taught us anything, (aside from to beware of strangers or step-families) it’s that kids can generally handle macabre humor and violent justice. Cinderella’s stepsisters had it a lot worse in the 19th century, when their snotty dishonesty cost one foot arch and four eyeballs. Walt Disney’s 9 Old Men toned down the crow pecking finale, but anyone well-versed in the Disney canon can probably remember gasping at Pinnocchio’s donkey dance or the zombie-like horde of marching broomsticks hungry for Fantasia era Mickey Mouse brains (that is what they wanted, right?).

Here are a few more moments, characters, and movies made specifically for a younger audience that will leave even the most seasoned horror veteran shaking behind their Teddy Ruxbans and Good Guy dolls.

The Witches

Gene Wilder’s madcap take on Willy Wonka gets the Tim Burton remake and hipster t-shirts, but it’s this 1990 adaptation of another Roald Dahl novel that truly captures kiddie horror. Angelica Huston brings Oscar cred to one of the best screen villainess of the 90s as The Grand High Witch, a Sam Raimi-like crone and possible long-lost sister of the Crypt Keeper. Smaller moments--like seeing a little girl live out a haunted life inside a faded oil painting hung on her parents’ wall-come straight out of a gothic ghost tale, while witchy face transformations give Rick Baker werewolves some fierce competitions. And I can’t think of a single moment in any of the Friday the 13th films more suspenseful than watching a plucky 10 year old orphan morph into a mouse--only to then be chased by a mass of bald British women pent on the genocide of the juvenile population.

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure

Speaking of Tim Burton, one of modern cinema’s most innovative (and frustrating) directors has specialized in ‘family’ films with underlying (and overt) creepiness. See Beetlejuice, The Corpse Bride, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and just about any other entry from his resume for further proof. I choose to discuss Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure for very personal reasons. Sure, one eccentric man-child set loose on roadside America unsettles a few moviegoers, but Burton does a funny dance to get us on Pee-Wee’s side: he terrorizes the poor guy with a series of creepy encounters far weirder than Jombi’s smiles or Billy Bologna’s beady eyes. A few examples: a neon dinosaur park, Twilight Zone-ish road to nowhere, and, worst of all, the most terrifying dream sequence to ever appear in a PG-rated film, featuring cruel and gleefully sinister clowns who hate bicycles. Sure, it all ends well enough, but Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is not a film for the weak-kneed. If you haven’t seen it since your last bowl of Mr. T cereal, then I recommend at visit to your local video store. Just be sure to tell ‘em Large Marge sent ya! (and then scream and hitchhike for your life).

The Wizard of/Return to Oz

It’s hard to find a living or recently dead person who has never seen Judy Garland skip down the Yellow Brick Road and of that nearly 98% of the human population, I would bet some ruby slippers that the vast majority will admit to having been scared green by Margaret Hamilton’s portrayal of The Wicked Witch of the West. That sharp cackle, emerald skin, and allergic reaction to what every other living creature requires to live is, to put it mildly, disturbing. What could be more frightening?

Oh, I don’t about an equally evil witch who collects the heads of pretty young women and displays them in a museum hall? Or her army of gangly-limbed goons dressed like punk jesters yet suited up for roller derby? Yup, 1985’s Return to Oz replaced catchy dance numbers with spooky eyed Fairuza Balk fleeing electro-shock treatment requested by  Carrie’s mother. Incredibly enough, it didn’t break any box office records upon its release. That being said, Return to Oz offers an engrossing story, strong performances, and an incredible visual design. Think of it as a stopover bridge between Labyrinth and Pan’s Labyrinth.

Sesame Street

Personally, I’ve never had a negative experience with anything created by Jim Henson (although the The Jim Henson Hour does still send some chills down my spine) but I felt that I owed America’s most beloved destination a mention for some of its more colorful (and perhaps questionable) residents. While I spent my childhood hiding from the invisible Chucky I was sure was constantly hunting me, my older brother’s boogyman was none other than public television’s most cuddly vampire, The Count. Cookie Monster has more than likely devoured a small child or two in a sugar-fueled bender and I once babysat a little girl who suffered from reoccurring nightmares starring the unibrowed Bert. So I guess there’s some people would prefer to not to get, get to Sesame Street.

and a show that inexplicably does NOT scare children, but should

In 50 years, the world will undoubtedly be a very different, much less pleasant place. We can certainly point a few foreboding fingers dim-witted world leaders and irresponsible energy resourcing, but I reserve the brunt of blame for a far more diabolical enemy that has been hard at work in manipulating, corrupting, and possibly possessing the future of mankind.

How else can one possibly explain the fact that kids born in the late 90s seem to have no fear of brightly colored, tv-bellied aliens living a Memento-like existence of short-term memory loss surrounded by bunnies? My theory--and I can’t possibly be alone in this--is that the messiah overlord/sungod baby is communicating--via the antenna connections atop the fat-four’s heads--a master plan detailing world domination. I never thought I’d say this, but Barney’s message of peace and love suddenly feels like must-see viewing for the youth of the world. 

I can’t imagine how many films, shows, and toys I’m leaving out, so please share a few of your own below. 

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