Think back to when you were a kid and you discovered horror movies. How old were you? What was your first exposure to the genre? According to my parents, I was a thrill-junkie from day one, at four years old pining for roller coasters and loud music but a year later I would see something that captured my imagination like nothing else. My dad took me to see The Empire Strikes Back at a theater in Binghamton, New York and at the same theater, Friday the 13th was still playing. He didn’t take me to see the movie but the poster was compelling and fascinated me. I couldn’t read and my dad only told me that I didn’t need to know about it so I knew nothing about the movie but you’ve seen that poster. It speaks volumes. It probably explains my undying devotion to that tired franchise. Needless to say that come hell or high water I was determined to see Friday the 13th, whatever it was. A couple of years later we would move from New York to Marblehead, Massachusetts, a town without cable and only a handful of UHF TV stations, all of whom ran a robust menu of cheap exploitation movies and sitcom reruns. WLVI, now a CW affiliate, was my particular favorite due in part to their saturday afternoon Creature Double Feature. By the time I caught up to it, the show was on last legs having been on the air since the 70’s and facing ratings in decline but it was an important stepping stone for me. Their rotation of movies prominently featured three of my enduring favorite production houses, Hammer Films, Toho and American International Pictures, all of whom are represented on the following list.
I bring this to your attention for a couple of reasons. Kids love this stuff and while I’m sure that few of these movies will hold their attention for lack of Hannah Montana or the cast of High School Musical, the cool kids are going to get it and with luck, will launch them on a journey into a rich genre of cheap thrills and grossly under appreciated genius. The other reason is that horror movies directed at kids are hardly horror movies at all. Typically, they’re goofy adventures without a real scare or hint of danger. Since they’re so heavily marketed, the dangerous scary stuff has to be kept to a minimum if parents are to approve and buy all the companion merchandise. Where’s the fun in that? The movies on this list are genuine horror movies. They were not necessarily made with kids in mind but are appropriate, at a parent’s discretion, for most children who want to get a taste of the real deal before they’re old enough to dive into the genre headfirst. So read on, the list begins after the jump.
Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, 1965
Dir. Ishiro Honda
You could probably pick just about any Godzilla movie and put it on this list but this is a personal favorite of mine and one of the bigger fan favorites. Astronauts from Earth descend on Planet X to explore the newly discovered planet only to find a race of people there who are dealing with their own giant monster problem, King Ghidora, the three headed dragon. They ask to borrow Godzilla and Rodan to fight the monster in exchange for a wonder drug, but all is not what it seems. Monster Zero is one of the more ambitious of the Gozilla daikaiju movies featuring some of the best special effects and miniatures and some of the most entertaining monster fights in the entire series. The movie proved so successful that in 2004 the Xillians from Planet X would be revived for the final Godzilla movie, Final Wars.
The Raven, 1963
Dir. Roger Corman
Of the Roger Corman/American International Pictures filmography, this is arguably Corman’s finest hour. Between 1960 and 1964, Corman engaged in a series of loose adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe stories, paired with Vincent Price for what is also largely considered to be the high point of his entire career. The movie, barely having anything to do with Poe’s poem, pits three competing sorcerers against one another and the hilarious consequences of an escalating battle of magic. It features three of the genre’s greatest personalities, Price, already mentioned, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre not to mention a very young Jack Nicholson. The charm in the movie is evident as everyone involved seems to be having a great time.
The House On Haunted Hill, 1959
Dir. William Castle
William Castle made a reputation for selling his movies with silly gimmicks that usually worked in his theater owners’ favors. You had movie seats equipped with joy buzzers to shock the patrons at the right time, life insurance policies and nurses on hand in case the movie was too scary and red and blue cellophane to either see or remove ghosts in the original 13 Ghosts. His gimmick for House On Haunted Hill was a plastic skeleton that seemed to float over the audience in the theater. Unfortunately, this is really difficult to emulate in the home theater but you can give it a try. Send me photos. In House on Haunted Hill, Vincent Price plays the eccentric owner of a haunted house, offering ten grand to whomever can spend an entire night in his home. Piece of cake, right? Of course not. We wouldn’t have a movie otherwise, would we? Again, you get the corny Castle production paired with brilliantly ghoulish Vincent Price.
The Monster Squad, 1987
Dir. Fred Dekker
The best kind of cult movies are the ones that set out to be theatrical blockbusters and wind up in the bargain bin, held so dear by a devoted following that sees something that the mainstream missed. Directors who make more than one of those movies are hard to come by. Chief among them, Fred Dekker, whose other cult flick, Night of the Creeps, is even harder to find that Monster Squad (until the 20th anniversary DVD was released). Monster Squad plays out like The Goonies for kids who like monster movies, featuring the line-up of the classic Universal Monsters stable. Dracula’s plans for world domination are foiled by a gang of pre-teen horror fanatics. Parents take note, the film is hardly violent or gory but does feature some pretty salty language. Hey, it was the 80’s. Read our review here.
Dir. Tobe Hooper
I saw this one when I was 10 on TV and it scared the crap out of me. Though rated PG, there was no PG-13 at the time. Has this been released post-1984, it would have easily gained a PG-13 rating. It’s a rather hard PG and produced by Stephen Spielberg, features a couple of scenes on par with the finale of Raiders of the Lost Arc, so parents be warned. This was Tobe ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ Hooper’s first foray into the mainstream and is a genuinely spooky horror movie about a family living in a house built on a cemetery. When their daughter disappears through a portal to the “other side” they do everything they can to get her back. It was a HUGE success in the summer of 1982 and its cultural influence carries forth to this day even having an entire episode of Family Guy dedicated to it. See it before it winds up remade.
Something Wicked This Way Comes, 1983
Dir. Jack Clayton
Throughout the late 70’s and early 80’s, Disney made attempts to break out of the animation mold and make much more complex films for an older audience evident in their bizarre genre attempts like The Watcher In The Woods and this picture, easily the better of the two. The film is based on a short story by Ray Bradbury from a script by Bradbury, himself. Unfortunately Bradbury and the studio conflicted over creative vision and the author split. The remaining picture is still pretty good, though. A small town in Anywhere, America circa the 1920’s is terrorized by a carnival that offers the townspeople the fulfillment of their childhood wishes at a terrible cost. The only people who know the carnival’s true nature is a pair of pre-teen boys. It’s quite spooky and features a menacing performance by then newcomer, Johnathan Pryce and blaxploitation beauty, Pam Grier. Read our review here.
Dir. Joe Dante
The reason for the PG-13 rating. Another parental word of caution. Gremlins isn’t particularly violent or gory when it comes to people but it involves Joe Dante’s typically gleeful violence toward its evil gremlin puppets involving a practically hour long festival of mayhem involving gremlin interactions with modern kitchen appliances. The movie involves teen, Billy Peltzer in his race to get a sudden population explosion of mogwai creatures under control before the nasty little monsters tear his town apart. Dante’s common theme among his movies is horror in the suburbs and often ties twisted black comedy into every one of his movies. Gremlins is the pinnacle of his art; deliriously funny and completely out of control. His films, including Gremlins have a smirking ghoulishness about them, like any given issue of Tales From The Crypt.
Quatermass and The Pit, 1967
Dir. Roy Ward Baker
Before there was Dr. Who, the British had the Hammer produced sci-fi/horror hybrid, Professor Quatermass. Not particularly well received in the United States under the title Five Million Years To Earth, Quatermass and the Pit is one of the finest examples of British science fiction and horror. Professor Quatermass is summoned when an excavation in the fictional Hobb’s End subway tunnel turns up a buried alien spacecraft containing the bodies of three beings. Upon bringing them to the surface, the corpses exhibit a corrupting influence over the population and naturally, the authorities scoff at Quatermass’ warnings about the bodies untl it’s too late and all hell breaks loose throughout London. Quatermass and the Pit is expertly written, paced very well and extremely scary. Its influence can be seen in the works of Stephen King, John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper’s film, Life Force.
Horror of Dracula, 1958
Dir. Terence Fisher
Hammer Films is best known for a couple of things. They made exceptional gothic vampire movies and were practically kept afloat by the screen chemistry of two actors, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Cushing and Lee, as Abraham Van Helsing and Count Dracula, respectively are as best known for their Dracula roles as Bela Lugosi in his iconic role as the vampire. Horror of Dracula, like most adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel, takes some grand liberties with the source material but adds a degree of Grand Guignol grue where Tod Brownings legendary movie for Universal has none. Browning’s Dracula was all about sex appeal and atmosphere, Fisher’s Dracula is an update for a then-modern audience looking for a little more bang for their buck. You get a little blood around the neck and a faster paced movie that kicked off a UK film legacy. what horror kid doesn’t like Dracula, anyway? Particularly Christopher Lee Dracula?
The Gate, 1987
If there was one thing I couldn’t get enough of at 12 years old, it was this notion of kids my own age finding themselves in impossibly perilous situations facing down either evil carnies, Dracula or in this case, Satan. The removal of a tree in the backyard and the lyrics of a heavy metal album let loose demons on earth and it’s up to three kids, left alone for the weekend to stop them. The Gate lies on the outer limits of this list as it can be a little intense at times as with Poltergeist but the waves of schlock and the absolutely ridiculous finale balances the scales a bit. It hasn’t aged well since no one is afraid of heavy metal anymore, but it’s still a lot of fun.