Disney's 'Dark Phase' in the '80s Resulted In These Surprisingly Scary Movies

Disney wasn’t always known for family-friendly and animated films. They’ve been known to release horror movies. In the 1980s, for example, the company dabbled in some seriously dark material. Here are three disturbing 80s Disney movies.

80s Disney movie ‘Watcher in the Woods’ features late screen legend, Bette Davis

It’s not often that a movie is classified as both “horror” and “children’s film.” However, look up Watcher in the Woods, and that’s precisely what you’ll get. The Walt Disney Company was in a weird spot in 1980. Gone were the days of cutesy teen comedies like Hayley Mills’ The Parent Trap. And Walt and Roy Disney were dead by late 1971. 

Disney subsequently floundered, trying to find its new place in the American film landscape. Like a confused adolescent, the company stumbled into its own period of 80s Disney movies known as the ‘Dark Phase.’ 

Out of it emerged The Watcher in the Woods, an adaptation of Florence Engel Randall’s 1976 novel. The movie was meant to appeal to teens and young adults. And they didn’t shy away from making a truly scary 80s Disney movie. 

According to Fandom, Producer Tom Leetch presented the potential horror movie to Disney exec Ron Miller. “This could be our Exorcist,” Leetch told him. And it was their Exorcist, in that it was memorably terrifying, especially to younger audiences. Similarly, a less interesting 2017 reboot starred Anjelica Huston years later. 

Watcher in the Woods notably stars the late Bette Davis as the creepy old caretaker of an English gothic mansion, Mrs. Aylwood. Kyle Richards of Halloween Kills also appears in the movie as the sister of the movie’s star, Lynn-Holly Johnson.  

Jan and Ellie find themselves unraveling a dark mystery about Mrs. Aylwood’s daughter, who seems to haunt the house. 

As a result, their world gets more and more chaotic and less and less safe. The Watcher in the Woods is an excellent 80s Disney movie for pure supernatural thrills. 

‘Something Wicked This Way Comes, a Ray Bradbury adaptation, followed in 1983

In the same vein of scary 80s Disney movies that are as creepy as they are inexplicable, Something Wicked This Way Comes hit theaters in 1983. 

The movie might be even more terrifying, and definitely more nightmarish, than Watcher in the Woods. If you’ve seen that spiders-on-the-bed scene, you know what we’re talking about. It’s classic Ray Bradbury source material. Muted and hopeless. 

A carnival owner named Mr. Dark grants the wishes of unsuspecting townspeople, including two twelve-year-old boys, for a terrifying price. Jonathan Pryce stars brilliantly as Mr. Dark. 

This is, without a doubt, not just one of the scariest 80s Disney movies. It’s terrifying by any standard, and the disturbingly adult premise and creepy cinematography are great for a Halloween movie night. 

‘Return to Oz’ is an exceptionally unsettling 80s Disney movie 

Back in 1985, promos for Return to Oz felt misleading. It was Disney, we told ourselves. It’s The Wizard of Oz, we also told ourselves. 

But Disney was now deeply entrenched in its subversive Dark Phase, and Return to Oz lived up to the challenge. 

Appropriately starring goth/indie darling Fairuza Balk as the child Dorothy, Return to Oz came from L. Frank Baum’s The Marvelous Land of Oz. But the crumbled yellow brick road led somewhere entirely different. 

There’s an unfortunate pumpkin head named Jack (go figure) and an army of screeching, wheeled terrorists called “Wheelers.” Moreover, there’s a frightening witch queen, sprung from a mental hospital, who has a collection of severed heads. 

This time around, Dorothy’s trip to Oz actually begins on Halloween, in a psychiatric facility, with a small carved pumpkin and a darkened hospital room. It’s chilling and atmospheric in the extreme, and we love it. 

And if that doesn’t make you want to see this 80s Disney movie first on your Halloween movies list, we don’t know what will. 

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