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Dark Disney: A History Of Horror At The House Of Mouse

Who here likes Disney? If you didn’t say yes, you’re lying! Of the few things you can count on in life it’s that The Walt Disney Company can provide wholesome family entertainment.

Personal beliefs aside, if it wasn’t for this man, we wouldn’t have any of the beloved characters that have delighted so many

Aside from attractions such as the Haunted Mansion, The Pirates of the Caribbean, or the Tower of Terror, there doesn’t seem to be much malice in Disney. But, what if I told you that they had, at one point, decided to travel another path? Instead of weaving dreams, they sowed nightmares? Read our Dark Disney: Horror at the House of Mouse list to see what horrors hide at the House of Mouse!

Watcher in The Woods (1980)

Anyone want to watch a convoluted ghost story? We begin our Dark Disney: Horror at the House of Mouse descent into darkness with Watcher in the Woods. Released in 1980, this is a tale of two girls separated by time and linked by fate. The story starts with the Curtis Family taking up residence in a large house in England.

Clockwise: NCIS’s David McCallum, Lynn Holly Johnson, Carrol Baker, and Kyle Richards as the Curtis Family.

Daughter Jan Curtis (Lynn Holly Johnson) begins to have visions of a mysterious girl wearing a blind fold, beckoning her for help. Her sister, Ellie (Kyle Richards: Halloween 1978), then becomes a conduit for a mysterious force, causing her to have strange visions of the future. The two girls must race against time to uncover a secret the town elders had vowed to take to their graves.

This is completely normal to see… if you were on LSD, anyway!

This one scared the crap out of me as a kid. I ended up not seeing Watcher in the Woods again until much later in life and loved it. Both Lynn Holly Johnson as doting older sister, Jan, and Kyle Richards as Ellie were great in this film. On the other hand, screen veteran Bette Davis brings a level of poise and grace to her role as Mrs. Aylwood, who is initially perceived as sinister but is revealed to be quite kindly. She even managed to rescue Jan after she fell into a creek. Also of note, during the flashback scenes, Bette Davis initially wanted to play her younger self. Several scenes were shot with Bette in makeup, but upon viewing, everyone agreed that the scenes did not work. When confronted with this fact by Director John Hough, Bette Davis merely replied, ” You’re goddamned right!”

Bette Davis as Mrs. Aylwood with her co stars, Holly Lynn Johnson and Kyle Jennings

The original run of this movie was initially around 100 minutes. It was then cut to 84 minutes after critics slammed the original ending. A new ending was eventually shot, and that is what’s on most of the home video releases. Currently, you can view all three wrapups, including the original “Other World” ending, on YouTube or on the Anchor Bay release.

There’s also a Lifetime commissioned remake starring the legendary Anjelica Huston as Mrs. Aylwood. While I’ll admit I prefer the original, the remake is definitely worth a watch!

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

“By a pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes” is the line that greeted us at the beginning of the next film on our Dark Disney: Horror at the House of Mouse trip. Something Wicked This Way Comes is an adaptation of the classic Ray Bradbury novel that tells the story of Will Holloway (Vidal Peterson) and Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson), best friends who live in the sleepy village of Green Town, Illinois.

Shawn Carson and Vidal Peterson as Jim Nightshade and Will Holloway.

During a particularly cold night, a train arrives, and the next day, a carnival has been set up. The carnival workers seem to know the deepest desires of the townspeople, granting several their wildest wishes. The boys soon face the wrath of Mr. Dark (William Pryce), the mysterious leader of the carnival. As Mr. Dark sets his sights on the boys, the only person they can trust is Will’s elderly father who may already know the carnival’s secret.

William Pryce as Mr. Dark, aka the Illustrated Man.

The film’s themes focus on the power of friendship between Will and Jim as well as the unconditional love a father has for his son. The film also focuses on the desires of the townspeople with some of them sharing similarities to the seven deadly sins. Examples include the boy’s school teacher, Miss Foley, wishing she was still beautiful, and the town barber wishing for the love of beautiful women. Of course, these wishes have the usual Faustian consequences.

Royal Dano as Tom Fury. Dano also appeared in Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Ghoulies 2, and House 2.
Pam Grier appears as the menacing Dust Witch. Most people know Pam as the Queen of Grindhouse Cinema, with her most famous role being Foxy Brown.

One of the oddest bits of information I could find on this film was something that happened during post-production. Because test audiences hated the original film, Disney decided to bring in a second unit director to reshoot several scenes and change the musical score. Vidal and Shawn were asked to come back for a scene where they are attacked by tarantulas. In the scene, it’s obvious that the boys had aged significantly as their voices were deeper. Even with all of the changes, the movie still did not do well. After several years, Something Wicked This Way Comes has gained appreciation through late night and video rentals, ensuring its cult status.

Return to OZ (1985)

This is the part of our trip through Dark Disney: Horror at the House of Mouse that gets weird. In 1958, Walt Disney Productions bought the film rights to L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. The intention was for a live action series to be produced as part of the Wonderful World of Disney. There was one movie in production called the Rainbow Road of Oz but it was never completed. In 1980, Walter Murch, who was an editor on several films including Apocalypse Now and the Godfather trilogy, suggested making an Oz film for his directorial debut. While in production, Murch was briefly fired during a management shuffle, but eventually returned to finish the film. The film turned into 1985’s Return to Oz and is easily my favorite film on this list.

Return To Oz is an unofficial sequel to MGM’s original Wizard of Oz, adapting the books Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz. It follows Dorothy (Fairuza Balk in her first leading roll) dealing with the aftermath of her trip to Oz. Dorothy believes that the inhabitants of Oz are in trouble while Aunt Em (Piper Laurie: Carrie 1976) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) struggle to rebuild their home. So, she is taken to a hospital where she is to have electroshock therapy to deal with her wild fantasies. I wish I was making this up.

Jean Marsh, Fairuza Balk, and Piper Laurie.

Before the therapy is performed, she is rescued by a mysterious girl during a power outage. As they make their escape, the girl disappears. Dorothy awakens to find herself in a portion of Oz with a talking hen named Bellina. They manage to navigate their way back to the Emerald City where the inhabitants have turned to stone. The mystery deepens as they earn the wrath of the head swapping witch, Princess Mombi, and her army of Wheelers.

The Wheelers

This movie is another cult favorite, although it earned mixed reviews upon release. Most of the criticisms were about the film’s darker tone compared to the MGM classic, which is why it’s on this list. Locales like the Deadly Desert, which never appeared in the original, were nightmare-inducing, especially after you see several Wheelers turn to dust after falling into it. Also of note is the Nome King’s mountain, a seemingly normal land foundation that can turn into a chilling hellscape at a moment’s notice.

Wrath of the Nome King!

Princess Mombi’s private chambers are also quite chilling, with several of her sentient heads on display in glass cases. One of the more horrifying scenes happens after Dorothy steals a magic potion from one of these cases.

Corporate head hunting at it’s worst.

I should also add that the Ruby Slippers, made famous in the original film, were actually owned by MGM. Disney had to pay a large sum to use them in Return to Oz.

Like the original, several actors play multiple roles through out the film. Two actors, Nicol Williamson and Jean Marsh, play Dr. Worley/Nome King and Nurse Wilson/Princess Mombi’s primary head. Pons Maar, who played the Lead Wheeler and one of hospital orderlies, also worked as a movement coach for Jack Pumpkinhead and the Tin Woodsman.

One thing this movie does differently is the use of large puppets to portray the majority of Dorothy’s friends. Also, up until 2006, Return to Oz held a Guinness World Record for longest time in between sequels.

Dorothy with her new friends Tic Toc, Jack Pumpkinhead, and The Gump.

I love this movie and highly recommend it.

Night at Bald Mountain (1940)

Next on our Dark Disney: Horror at the House of Mouse list is an animated film. When talking about Disney’s Fantasia, the words that come to mind are charming, whimsical, and delightful. The combination of beautifully orchestrated music and wonderful animation helped to entertain millions upon release. But, in between the dancing hippos, colorful centaurs, and Mickey Mouse summoning an army of brooms, there exists a mountain. Upon this mountain, the darkest tale in the musical anthology takes place. I dare you to spend A Night on Bald Mountain.

As night falls upon the mountain, a massive devil named Chernabog rises. He then summons the forces of Darkness, including spirits and feral animals. The only thing that stops his power is the ringing of the morning bell when he is sent to his slumber until he can rise again.

Admiring his handiwork

The beautiful animation is accompanied by a score from Modest Mussorgsky, who had a vision of the Witch’s Sabbath and composed what he called a “musical picture.” The work was said to be completed on June 23, 1867, and would not be played until 5 years after the composer’s death. The score was adapted by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, which is the version you hear in Fantasia.

The character of Chernabog initially only appeared in Fantasia but would later make appearances in Disney’s House of Mouse cartoon series and as a recurring boss in the Kingdom Heart’s series, complete with his own theme music.

Dragonslayer (1981)

Let’s add a little fantasy to our Dark Disney: Horror at the House of Mouse list. The year 1981 was a very strange one for the House of Mouse, who had formed a partnership with Paramount Pictures and produced two cult favorites, Popeye and Dragonslayer. Dragonslayer is a fantasy film that, even by today’s standards, breaks the genre mold. The nights aren’t in shining armor, the king is not fair and noble, and the hero is a bit of a wimp.

Peter MacNicol as Galen Bradwarden

Dragonslayer tells the story of wizard’s apprentice Galen Bradwarden (Peter MacNicol), whose master, Ulrich of Cragganmore (Ralph Richardson), is approached by travelers seeking assistance in defeating a 400 year-old dragon. It seems that King Casiodorous (Peter Eyre) regularly offers the dragon virgins through a fixed lottery, ensuring the nobles will never have to lose their daughters. As Ulrich is about to set out on this journey, he is challenged to test his power by the antagonistic captain of the King’s Guard, Tyrian (John Hallam). Tyrian then stabs Ulrich, which forces the travelers to depart. As Galen mourns the loss of his master, he finds that he’s inherited all of his powers through his amulet.

Galen vs Tyrian, a powerful battle for many reasons within the movie.

This movie managed to put a different twist on the Fantasy genre. Director/Co-Writer Mathew Robbins and Co-Writer Hal Barwood drew heavy inspiration from Fantasia’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but wanted to move away from many of the popular fantasy tropes. While the hero may be brave, he does not have full control of his abilities, proving to be a hindrance at times. Also, the king is more interested in his own riches than his people, allowing his fellow noblemen to rig the lottery. The knights within the kingdom are thuggish brutes, even going so far as to defy their king at times. All of this makes for a very interesting journey.

Caitlin Clarke as Valerian, a young maiden who’s father had disguised her as a boy since birth.

I also want to add that the dragon, Vermithrax Perjorative, is easily one of the scariest creatures put to film. To this day, I haven’t seen a dragon that can match it. The first time you see the Vermithrax rise from its resting place, seeing the damaged scales from years of battle, is truly chilling. The puppet used for Vermithrax is fairly similar to the one used as the Alien Queen from Aliens (1986). You will believe that Peter MacNicol is fighting a dragon. To this day, Geroge R.R. Martin and Guillermo del Toro have listed the Vermithrax as their personal favorite.

If you’re looking to binge this along with some similarly-themed films, I recommend Ladyhawke and Willow. Again, I recommend this movie for anyone wanting something different. If you want, binge it with the movies on this list or even have yourself an old school fantasy night!

So, what did you think of our Dark Disney: Horror at the House of Mouse list? Is there anything we missed? Let us know in the comments!

About Zachary Howard

Just a dude stuck in small town in Washington State. Grew up on bad movies, loud music, violent video games, and I thing I turned out normal!

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