The 1980s - everyone’s favourite nostalgia playground, from bright colours and mullets to iconic films that continue to thrill, well into the 21st century. It also served up a dizzying array of dark kid’s films, some scary, some magnificent and some just ugly. Please find below the top 10 films that were only suitable for children in the decade of decadence…
1. Howard the Duck (Dir: Willard Huyck, 1986)
Probably the most famous of the ‘80s oddities, this George Lucas produced film, based on the Marvel Comics character, was a huge flop. It’s suitably goofy and matches the feel of the period but failed to appeal to anybody. Howard (voiced by Chip Zien but played by multiple small actors and children) is dragged to Earth from Duck World by a laser beam (he smashes through a neighbouring apartment where we are treated to duck breasts - in a family picture!?), he then teams up with rock singer Beverly (Lea Thompson) and they mingle and even get in bed together, all of which takes up half of the film. Eventually, our antagonist arrives in the form of the Lord of the Universe, who inhabits the body of scientist Walter Jennings (Jeffrey Jones), all ending with a rock concert because, well, it was 1986. It was a strange idea to adapt such an obscure character, who is housed in a slightly unnerving looking costume. Some of the early jokes and situations are not suitable for children (the burgeoning romance between human and duck is just weird) however much of the film is too wacky for adults. On the DVD commentary, George Lucas said that in 20 years the film will be seen as a masterpiece, give it another 20 George.
2. The Garbage Pail Kids Movie (Dir: Rod Amateau, 1987)
The fondly remembered sticker trading cards were popular enough for a feature film to be made, and even though the film is horrifying, it's probably not in the way the filmmakers intended. Dodger (Mackenzie Austin) is being viciously bullied by older teenagers (in fact, they look like adults who are tormenting a young boy, including pouring sewage on him. What's wrong with these guys!). He is saved by the Garbage Pail Kids, who appear to have come to Earth in a trash can spaceship and hang out in the antique store where Dodger works. The Kids are played by little people with animatronic masks, however, unlike the great work used on the 1990 Turtles film, only three years later, their faces hardly move, which makes for a petrifying experience. The actors look like they're desperately trying to break out of these death masks. Much of the film consists of the Kids singing terrible songs and sewing clothes to help Dodger impress a sympathetic member of the gang, Tangerine (Katie Barberi), who turns out to be nasty anyway. The whole thing leaves you feeling unclean and revolted.
3. Mac and Me (Dir: Stewart Raffill, 1988)
This E.T. knockoff is mainly remembered for being an excuse to advertise McDonald’s and Coca Cola, representing everything that is wrong about the 1980s. When a group of aliens on a desert planet are accidentally sucked into a probe and returned to earth, the youngest alien hides out in a family’s minivan, coming to the attention of wheelchair-bound Eric (first-time actor Jade Calegory). The rest plays out like the Spielberg classic, with Eric naming him Mac (short for Mysterious Alien Creature) and agents on their trail, keen to exploit any powers Mac might have. The difference is that the aliens look awful, like life-size Boglins, most of the film is spent at a McDonald’s party, complete with an extended Ronald McDonald cameo and, most egregiously, the alien family are brought back to life with the power of Coca-Cola. Of course, many of the most successful cartoons of this period, including Transformers and GI Joe, were merely created to sell toys - the difference being that creativity was prioritised when imagining the worlds of Cybertron and Cobra-La. Mac and Me ended up, like so many Happy Meals, half-eaten and thrown in the bin.
4. The Masters of the Universe (Dir: Gary Goddard, 1987)
This film represents the first time many children were disappointed in a movie, a hard task to accomplish. As news surfaced that He-Man (one of the most popular toy series and cartoon characters of the era) was getting his own feature film, most kids would have accepted anything. For the first five minutes, all seemed present and correct. We find He-Man (played by genre favourite Dolph Lundgren) battling Skeletor (Frank Langella) in the mythical land of Eternia but very quickly, the film's McGuffin (the Cosmic Key) transports everyone to Earth. Yes, that’s right, it’s on this dark and drab-looking Earth that we remain for the rest of the picture, what a disappointment! The budget is low, the costumes shoddy, and the action poor. A young Courtney Cox, dealing with the death of her parents, also eats up most of the runtime. What no child could have known at the time, was the fact that this was one of the last efforts produced by Cannon Films (a low budget studio known for the Death Wish series, and brilliantly exposed in the documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild Untold Story of Cannon Films). Their attempt at sci-fi fantasy was a complete failure, managing to disappoint an undemanding core audience who wanted to love the film. No wonder Cannon folded shortly after.
5. The Secret of NIMH (Dir: Don Bluth, 1982)
Don Bluth’s beautifully animated feature has Disney tropes but quickly leans into the darker side of humanity, with scary scenes and experiments on animals at the forefront of the plot. Based on the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, the titular mouse is trying to save her home from being bulldozed and cure her son’s tuberculosis. Not only does she need to visit the Great Owl – a character that is terrifying to younger children, complete with booming voice and murderous intent (he kills two animals while they are speaking) - she must contend with the Rats of NIMH. When we find out this is an acronym for National Institute for Mental Health, we cross over into the horrors of the real world, where rats that have been experimented on have developed intelligence and created a society in a farmer’s rosebush. Of course, this is a refreshing and imaginative story to revisit, complete with wonderful hand-drawn animation, however, for little ones used to more sugar-coated affairs, The Secret of Nimh may prove too frightening.
6. Little Monsters (Dir: Richard Greenberg, 1989)
Described as a ‘family comedy’, genre stalwart Fred Savage stars in this strange attempt to address monsters under the bed, something done with more heart in Pixar’s Monsters Inc. Brian and his brother Eric (played by Fred and real-life brother Ben) have moved to a new town and Brian is struggling. Enter Maurice, a blue, horned monster, who delights in playing pranks on children. Soon Brian is his best friend, introduced to the world under kids' homes, which looks like a cheap studio lot. This includes making the school bully (Devin Ratray, or Buzz from Home Alone) eat cat food and drink his own piss. It’s a nasty scene but played with aplomb by Ratray. The Monsters look genuinely terrifying, capped off by Snik – a hunch-backed, smoking bully, who pulls off a child’s head at one point. An ‘80s oddity that doesn’t quite work for adults and certainly not for children.
7. Return to OZ (Dir: Walter Murch, 1985)
Coming a whopping 46 years after the original, this is one of the largest gaps between sequels and it couldn’t be more different from the 1939 all-singing spectacular. Based on the books The Marvellous Land of OZ and Ozma of OZ by L. Frank Baum, this is a dark fantasy that only the ‘80s could deliver. Dorothy (Fairuza Baulk) is still dreaming about OZ but convinced she’s nuts, Aunt Em sends her to get shock treatment at a mental facility (wow, this is dark already!). After escaping in a storm, she finds herself back in OZ, which is in ruins, ruled over by the evil Nome King. Most things are terrifying about this film; from the Wheelers, who could be the villains in a Mad Max sequel to the Deadly Desert, which consumes all that touch it. However, the scariest scene features a witch named Mombi, who can swap her heads around. Dorothy trying to retrieve a key while screaming heads call for help is excruciatingly intense and chilling. Unsuccessful at the time, the film has gained a cult following for its unique special effects and truly imaginative premise. You'll want to return to Oz again and again, but maybe without young children.
8. Legend (Dir: Ridley Scott, 1985)
A fresh-faced Tom Cruise stars in Ridley Scott’s classic fantasy tale. It features the Lord of Darkness (a nightmare-inducing Tim Curry) stealing unicorn horns to plunge the world into an eternal winter, with Cruise’s Jack and Mia Sara’s Princess Lili determined to stop him. The film could come from any number of fantasy novels with a beautifully realised world, and dwarves and goblins aplenty. Although it was sold as a dark fantasy, the film was rated PG and watched by many an impressionable child on VHS. The star of the show must be Curry’s villain, his look, mannerisms, and presence were the embodiment of Satan to many wide-eyed children of the ‘80s. He is the ultimate antagonist and contains little of the campiness Disney came to use to make their villains less terrifying. Worthy of its cult status despite the surprisingly low guidance rating.
9. The Dark Crystal (Dir: Jim Henson and Frank Oz, 1982)
Jim Henson was keen to move away from his more child-friendly work with the Muppets to create something darker. The first result was The Dark Crystal - innovatively using puppets to create the mythical world of Thra. It is here that a Gelfling named Jen must find the titular crystal to fight back against the vulture-like Skeksis. Like many before it, the film wasn’t popular when it was first released but has again reached cult status, with a Netflix-produced prequel released in 2019. The Skeksis are especially gruesome and cruel, human-sized, decaying birds that have effectively committed genocide against the Gelflings, sucking out their lifeforce to gain immortality. Children and adults used to the fun that puppets could bring to their world were not ready for such a dark fantasy dealing with mature themes and dank places. It represents a unique period where physical creatures constructed by great minds had the ability to terrify.
10. Labyrinth (Dir. Jim Henson 1986)
Jim Henson again brought us another cult offering - this decade does seem to be the king of cult. A young Jennifer Connolly is selfish Sarah, who is not bonding with her baby step-brother Toby. After reading a book about goblins, she wishes the crying bambino would be taken away by the creatures, which he duly is. Jared (the one and only David Bowie) is the king of the goblins, despite looking like a sex-fuelled rock star. He places Toby at the centre of the Labyrinth, so off Sarah goes on her adventure. Bowie’s villain is the strangest thing about this film, he seems to desire the 16-year old Connolly a little too much for modern tastes and is sporting one hell of a codpiece! There are many harrowing scenes as well, Sarah falling down a pit of hands and characters pulling their own limbs off, in what is a bizarre but hugely imaginative watch. Jim Henson (who was taken away from us far too soon) proves again what can be done with puppetry and his unique imagination. Despite some questionable motivations and scary moments, Labyrinth encapsulates why so many love this decade.
Fancy scaring the kids or want to rediscover the films? You can buy them at the STARBURST Amazon Storefront!