What is a Disney film? Over the years “Disney” has become a kind of shorthand for a particular, cloying sentimentality and vacuous wholesomeness. In fact Uncle Walt’s surname has become an adjective, and not a good one either. When cultural commentators refer to the Disneyization or Disneyfication of society they are not describing an increase in musical numbers, Technicolor spectacle and good old-fashioned decency, but rather an increased corporatism under the guise of good old-fashioned decency, utilising musical numbers and Technicolor spectacle to brainwash children into archaic gender roles and a passive acceptance of the capitalist machine. From Dorfman and Mattelart’s seminal How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (1971), Henry Giroux’s The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (1999), to Annalee R. Ward’s Mouse Morality: The Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film (2002) the Disney corporation and its output have been the subject of much criticism. Meanwhile, Walt Disney himself has become something of urban legend, no longer a kindly Uncle but a racist despot whose head has been preserved in cryogenic suspension. As Jean Baudrillard ( in America, 1989: page 48) put it:
The whole Walt Disney philosophy eats out of your hand with these pretty little sentimental creatures in grey fur coats. For my own part, I believe that behind these smiling eyes there lurks a cold, ferocious beast fearfully stalking us.
All of which is good fun, to be sure and undeniably some of Disney’s output is deeply problematic (Song of the South being perhaps the most egregious example) but still others are widely accepted masterpieces of animation (Dumbo, Bambi, The Lion King). The purpose of this post however is not to sort ‘good’ Disney from ‘bad’. Instead, I want to highlight a brief period in Disney’s history (roughly 1979-1985) when, by a combination of accident and design, some truly odd films emerged from the studio. Films that trouble Disney’s reputation for harmless, child-like fun.
Of course, we might argue that this reputation was already false. After all, Disney have never shied away from parental death, which serves as a narrative driver in both Bambi and the Lion King, for example. Meanwhile, Dumbo, Fantasia and Snow White all feature famously nightmarish sequences. But these are all still fundamentally children’s films; their terrors are real, but fleeting, little islands of horror in a sea of hi-jinx and catchy tunes. What interests us here are those few films made between 1979 and 1985 that explore unfamiliar genre territory for Disney: sci-fi and horror. Incidentally, while this post is about live-action features, Disney’s dark period also saw the release of The Black Cauldron (1985), the first Disney animated film to ever receive a PG rating. The Black Cauldron is still considered one of Disney’s biggest box-office failures; reaction was so negative that Disney did not distribute it on video for more than ten years after it was released. The live-action features that comprise the ‘Dark Disney’ mini-cycle proved equally problematic for Disney and its audiences because, as Rohan Berry puts it, these films represented an,
awkward collision between traditional Disney family entertainment and a more ambiguous conception of childhood, laced with horror, mystery and more challenging philosophical concerns.
In other words, these films, marred by troubled productions and middling box-office came to close to revealing the “cold, ferocious beast” that Baudrillard saw lurking behind Disney’s smiling eyes.
1979-The Black Hole
Appropriately for the film which kicked of the Dark Disney mini-cycle, The Black Hole has the distinction of being the studio’s first PG rated production (as stated above, The Black Cauldron, which marks the end of the cycle, was their first PG-rated animation). Hoping to capitalise of the new trend for science-fiction ushered in by Star Wars – Star trek: The Motion Picture, Alien and the Bond-in-space Moonraker were all released the same year as The Black Hole – it was also the most expensive feature they had ever made, with a budget $20 million (plus $6 million for advertising). Not quite a flop, the film was still only the 21st highest grossing film of the year. A deeply odd film, but not without its charms, not least of which are its John Barry score and some well-designed ships and space sequence effects. Here’s a handy montage of them!
Unfortunately, whenever the film turns its attention to action set-pieces the energy and enthusiasm seems drained (one notable exception being a terrifying where the evil robot Maximillian appears to tear open Anthony Perkins chest open with a rotating blade!) . Take this final less-than-spectacular battle between the good robot VINCENT and bad robot MAX, for example:
Don’t let that put you off though, because the ending of The Black Hole is bat-shit crazy. Plunging into and through the black hole our heroes and villains are confronted with a confusing but seemingly theological dimension. The evil Dr. Hans Reinhardt becomes fused with/trapped inside the robotic shell of Maximillian, a fitting end given that we have already found out, in a nicely macabre twist, that Reinhardt’s humanoid minions are in fact the deceased crew of his vessel, reanimated by cyborgian technology. This takes place in a genuinely haunting vision of ‘hell’, all fire, brimstone, and black-robed masses, while the slightly less impressive vision of ‘heaven’ involves a seemingly endless corridor composed of glass archways, populated by ethereal beings. Here it is below in all its trippy glory.
In short, this sequence is Disney’s answer to the stargate sequence in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. the telling difference is that where Kubrick opts for something phantasmagoric but ultimately ambiguous and non-human, The Black Hole, still being a Disney movie after all, draws on more conventional Judeo-Christian imagery and morality. It’s almost certainly coincidental but the final shot of Maximillian/Reinhardt standing above Hell reminds me of the statue of the demon Pazuzu in the desert in The Exorcist as well. Speaking of The Exorcist…
1980/81- Watcher in the Woods
While sci-fi spectacle of The Black Hole sought to capitalise on the success of Star Wars, The Watcher in the Woods was Disney’s attempt at horror. As producer Tom Leetch (once an assistant director on Mary Poppins) said, “This could be our Exorcist.” The film even featured Bette Davis, who by then was well into her late-career horror-dame pomp (following Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, The Nanny, and Burnt Offerings). The film itself was directed by John Hough who had previously helmed The Legend of Hell House, a fine horror film in its own right. Despite Leetch and Hough’s vision however, the head of the studio, Ron Miller constantly interfered with the filming of scenes, concerned that they were too intense for a Disney production (where was he when a mad robot was eviscerating Anthony Perkin’s heart in The Black Hole?!). For example, Scott Michael Bosco points out how the film was supposed to begin:
The film originally opened with a prologue and different Main Title sequence. A small girl is seen in the woods playing with a doll. The WATCHER’S presence (a roving camera POV) sneaks up to the girl from behind. She suddenly turns to the camera and screams, dropping her doll and running off. The camera changes it view from the running girl to the doll. There is a growl, the doll floats upward, becoming air borne, and is swiftly launched against a tree where it is struck by a blue beam of light igniting it. The Main Titles are played over the burning doll face which melts as the credits continue accompanied by striking “psycho-like” musical strings. This important beginning set up a tone for what would follow casting a much darker atmosphere on every scene to come.
In an interesting article over at Retrojunk, it’s pointed out that this opening was scrapped, replaced with a POV stalking-through-the-woods scene that, while still creepy, is perhaps not quite as jarring as the opening credits of a Disney movies playing over a doll’s burning and melting face. More’s the pity. According to Retrojunk the footage still exists, “though an overzealous Disney worker wouldn’t let it appear on the DVD because it seemed very un-Disney-like.” The ending also proved to be a sticking point. Re-shot and re-edited, the ending of the official version of the film is confusing and anti-climactic. The original ending is no less anti-climactic, but at least features an appearance by the alien Watcher which is well-designed and creepy. The alternate ending can be seen below.
Watcher in the Woods ends up being a peculiar, disjointed film. There are moments of genuine creepiness and in a neat reveal the true nature of the Watcher turns out to be more misunderstood monster rather than a menace. But of all the films in this post, Watcher in the Woods has the strongest feel of being meddled with; of messy and uneasy compromise, and its travails continue even today. Anchor Bay licensed the film from Disney for its first DVD release in 2002 but encountered enormous resistance from the corporation in their efforts to find the original film elements and enlist director John Hough’s help in re-editing the film for a director’s cut. Clearly a labour of love, featuring numerous extras, an audio commentary from Hough, and a collectible booklet, the Anchor Bay DVD is now permanently out of print. Disney’s 2004 DVD release, the only version currently available, includes just the two alternate endings and two theatrical trailers. And this disclaimer has been tacked on before the credits:
1983-Something Wicked This Way Comes
A box-office failure that cost around $19.000, 000 and took around half that in the US, Something Wicked this Way Comes remains the best of Disney’s mutant progeny. An adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel it is at once a horror film for children; a coming of age tale with a sprinkling of dark fantasy; an elegiac meditation on age and ageing; and, towards the end, an effects driven horror. Having first caught this on television at about two in the morning one Christmas when I was 13 or 14, several of its key images are seared into my brain, including Mr Dark, searching for the two boys with tattoos of them on the palms of his hands, then squeezing his fingers into a fist until blood begins to drip between his knuckles. even back then i had no idea what to make of the film. was it for kids? Was it for adults? Why had I never heard of it? tracking it down later in a video shop (ah, nostalgia) I was genuinely surprised to find it was a PG. I’d assumed it had been shown so late because of its borderline ‘horror’ elements. But, no. this was a children’s film. From Disney. In which this happens:
Directed by Jack Clayton, who already had a bona-fide horror classic to his name with The Innocents (1961), and co-written by Bradbury himself, Something Wicked was, like the others on this list, a troubled production. As Bmoviedetective helpfully points out, the film was actually completed in 1982, but met with negative feedback from test audiences. In reaction to this:
[Disney executives] pushed the film’s release back a year while they filmed new scenes, removed other ones, and hired James Horner to compose a completely new score to replace Georges Delerue’s original score, all in a vain effort to make the whole project “more commercial” and probably tamer. Reportedly, both director Jack Clayton and Bradbury (who also receives final credit for the screenplay) were not involved with the alterations, and Bradbury later stated in a commentary that the Disney-enforced changes destroyed some of the film’s original intentions (from Bmoviedetective)
But where Watcher in the Woods and The Black Hole are, to greater or lesser degrees, scuppered by the tension between the Disney remit and the story they actually want to tell, Something Wicked This Way Comes emerges relatively unscathed. It manages to be both scary and about childhood, because childhood IS scary. or rather, the end of childhood is scary- Something Wicked also has things to say about ageing and regret. It’s also extremely well-acted, no scene more so than this fantastic confrontation between Jonathan Pryce’s Mr Dark and Jason Robard’s as the father of one of the boys.
It’s no-one’s idea of a fun, family movie (unless your family consists of precocious but existentially troubled children, in which case, what are you waiting for? go and watch it now!), but it’s a good movie on its own terms, a neglected gem due for reappraisal, and certainly the best film to emerge from the Dark Disney period. Never the less, for many of a certain generation, 1985’s Return to Oz will always be, if not the best, then certainly the most nightmarish children’s movie ever made. In this respect, Return to Oz represents the perfect celluloid crystallisation of Dark Disney.
1985- Return to Oz
It would be impossible to number the amount of children of the 1980s whose unwitting parents left their children to enjoy Disney’s belated sort-of-sequel to MGM’s beloved classic The Wizard of Oz. “Oh, I loved the Wizard of Oz as a child,” they must have thought, “and now my children can enjoy a new story of Oz from those lovely, gentle people at Disney!” perhaps they should have advertised it as, “From the studio that bought you The Black Hole, Watcher in the Woods and Something Wicked this way Comes“, because I’m telling you now that every one of those children had the most frightening 90 minutes of their lives. Adult men and women (and genders between and beyond) still wake in cold sweats dreaming of this particular moment:
And these things:
Oh, and let’s not forget the bit where A PSYCHIATRIST ALMOST ADMINISTERS ELECTRO-CONVULSIVE THERAPY TO DOROTHY FROM THE WIZARD OF OZ. If you’ve never seen it, take a look.
Return to Oz is a strange beast indeed. Starting with the fact that it is only tangentially related to its 1939 sibling, a film which has taken on an almost archetypal power in the popular consciousness. But Disney’s film was not made with the involvement of MGM, because by 1985, the Oz books were in the public domain, and others optioned by Disney years earlier, although Disney still had to pay MGM a fee to use the ruby slippers, which were still MGM’s intellectual property. This is one of the many disconcerting qualities of the film; while the ruby slippers are retained, evoking the memory of the original, the characters are redesigned to resemble something more like the illustrations that accompanied the original Oz books than the iconic MGM designs. Also, they are creepy as shit.
This is less surprising when you discover that the director drew historical inspiration from Wisconsin Death Trip, surely the only children’s film ever to have done so, and probably the only children’s film to have considered it for even a second.
A troubled production, the film went through two management changes at Disney and was the first, and to date only, film directed by Walter Murch, sound designer on The Conversation and American Graffiti. Running behind schedule, and the studio unhappy with his footage, Murch was fired after five weeks, only being rehired at the insistence of Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. As Murch told filmfreakcentral,
The film was ambitious and expensive, and then turned out to be neither a critical nor a commercial success, which is a heavy hit for someone’s first directing job.
In the end, Return to Oz cost $28 million and sold just $11 million worth of tickets on its North American theatrical release.
It’s not too difficult to see why. Return to Oz ramps up the ‘was it real or just a dream?’ question of the original by replacing the word ‘dream’ with ‘schizophrenic breakdown’. Just as in the Wizard of Oz Dorothy’s companions bear a striking resemblance to the her family back in Kansas, so too do the characters in Return to Oz resemble the people from the mental asylum in which Dorothy is interred. Even to the point where the loyal and brave robotic man Tik-Tok resembles the ECT machine Dorothy is almost subjected to and the noise of the Wheelers echoes the hospital gurneys, while their long coats call to mind the hospital orderlies who push them. It’s basically a kid’s version of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. There’s a good article listing all of the links between Oz and Dorothy’s reality over at, tellingly, The Horror Digest .
Oh, and there are no songs either.
Strange and distressing as the film is, Return to Oz remains much-loved among a certain generation. The brilliantly titled fan-made documentary Return to Oz: the Joy that got away. The love people still retain for the film, and the others in this list, is a love for another era of film-making, especially for family films. As Rohan Berry writes in his review of Something Wicked This way comes, Disney were not alone in their experiments with genre, and the “maturation of kids films“:
The early eighties, in particular, saw bleak works like The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, E.T. and The Neverending Story brought to the big screen during holiday season. Whilst blockbuster fare like The Goonies and Ghostbusters (as well as the essentially adult Gremlins) pushed the envelope in terms of what constituted family entertainment. This made growing up in this period akin to a late-Victorian childhood, where a moral education appeared most effectively conveyed through the restrained use of horror and pathos (think Dickens, Le Fanu, M.R. James, M.P. Shiel and the later Edwardians like Algernon Blackwood).
The brilliance and legacy of these mature kids films could probably fill another blog post, but in terms of the Dark Disney cycle specifically it is clear that Disney’s brand strength was also its weakness. Having viddied the famous Disney logo at the start it becomes difficult to simply enjoy the films on their own merits. Somewhere in the viewer’s mind is an incredulous voice whispering, “This is a Disney movie?! How did that even happen?” Even now, as Scott Michael Bosco points out, Disney have a problematic relationship with these films. When Anchor Bay license some of these films for DVD release it was, “Disney who originally edited all trailers given to Anchor Bay [on Black Hole and Something Wicked] deleting the Walt Disney Studio name – notice it doesn’t appear on the packaging as well, even on Watcher.”While Disney has since reissued these films under their own label, they “still have somewhat of a “bastard stepchild” reputation among studio insiders.” Maybe so, but they remain loved by all those children lucky enough for their unsuspecting parents to have mistakenly plonked them in front of the television to be babysat by a harmless Disney movie, mentally scarring them for life in the best possible way.
The 1985 releases of The Black Cauldron and Return to Oz were arguably the last examples of Dark Disney. While the PG rated Never Cry Wolf (1983) was well-received, despite being the first Disney film to feature naked male buttocks, but Trenchcoat (1983) deemed too mature for Disney audiences and too immature for general audiences suffered the ignominy of being released as an orphan movie. So it was that, in 1984, the then-Disney CEO Ron W. Miller set up Touchstone Pictures, where those films deemed too dark and deranged for the Disney brand could develop relatively unmolested. Touchstone Picture’s first film was Splash, PG-rated movie featuring Daryl Hannah’s bottom. It was a huge hit.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Except the readers of this post wondering why I never mentioned Escape from the Dark, Tron, Flight of the Navigator or Return from Witch Mountain.