The 1980s were filled with terrifying horror films, the likes of Freddy, Jason and Michael traumatising kids who caught their celluloid kills. But there was also a vicious streak running through the family films of the era. Which as maybe preparing the youth of the period for adulthood. But equally messed most of us up. The following 12 of the most disturbing movie moments from the decade.
Test of Manhood — Flash Gordon (1980)
Flash Gordon is a mad movie for many, many reasons. Most notably the sadomasochistic streak that runs throughout what’s ostensibly a movie aimed at children. But the ‘Test of Manhood’ on Arbia is also pretty messed up. The initiation involves a young man thrusting his arm through a hole in a tree, then endeavouring to avoid the sting of the pulsating creature that waits within. “Choose your passage, into this world, or the next,” the young Treeman is told. But he selects the wrong hole. And you should never select the wrong hole. The chap duly gets stung, and bright green puss oozes from his wrist. “Send me on my way,” he begs soon-to-be James Bond, Timothy Dalton. “Spare me the madness.” Which pre-007 does, killing him in cold, green blood. A moment that was made all the more disturbing for British youngsters when the actor playing ‘Young Treeman’ — Peter Duncan — started presenting educational children’s show Blue Peter that same year.
Medusa — Clash of the Titans (1981)
The 1980s were all about sword, sandals and sorcery epics. The violent Conan movies were aimed at teens and adults, while 1981’s Clash of the Titans — featuring adorable golden owl Bubo — was more family-friendly. Aside from the scene in which Perseus does battle with Medusa; a monstrous Gorgon, whose hair is made of snakes, and who turns men to stone with just a look. Which resulted in six-year-old me closing my eyes whenever she was onscreen. The character was brought to life via terrifying stop-motion, with Medusa so very messed up that even her blood transformed into deadly scorpions.
Earworm — Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
The Ricardo Montalban iteration of Khan is the greatest villain in Star Trek history. And this scene features his most dastardly act. Having captured Chekov and Terrell, Khan educates them about Ceti Alpha V’s only remaining indigenous life-form. While poking it with tongs, Khan claims that the Ceti Eel killed 20 of his best people, including his wife. He explains that their young enter humans via the ear, and wrap themselves around the cerebral cortex, rendering the victim susceptible to suggestion, and precipitating madness followed by death. Khan then grabs a couple of the slugs and sticks them in helmets which are popped on our heroes’ heads. What follows is body horror worthy of David Cronenberg, the eels crawling ear-wards as Chekov and Tyrell emit terrified screams. Similar to audiences who had signed up for a sci-fi romp, and were now watching hardcore horror.
Robopocalypse — Superman III (1983)
I remember seeing Superman III with my family at the cinema, catching a glimpse at an image from this sequence on a lobby card, and being so scared that I asked to go home. My mum made me stay and told me it would be fine. It wasn’t. The sequence in question sees a super-computer turn the villainous Vera Webster into a cyborg, with metal soldered onto her skin as she makes an ungodly noise. Vera awakens more machine than woman, twisted and evil; firing lasers from her fingers and eyes. Pretty sure I started crying at that moment, and the sequence has haunted my dreams ever since.
Artax Dies — The NeverEnding Story (1984)
The concept of ‘The Nothing’ consuming vast chunks of Fantasia is enough to give any kid an existential crisis. Combined with the death of Artax in the Swamp of Sadness, it’s a wonder we weren’t all dribbling wrecks come the end of The NeverEnding Story. “Everyone knew that whoever lets the sadness overtake him would sink into the swamp,” we’re told via voiceover. And that’s exactly what happens to Atreyu’s trusty steed, with Artax looking genuinely heartbroken as he slowly descends. “Fight against the sadness,” pleads Atreyu. “You have to try. You have to care. For me. You’re my friend. I love you.” But it’s too late. Artax is gone.
“There is no Santa!” — Gremlins (1984)
In spite of its horror elements, Gremlins was also marketed squarely at kids. Indeed I remember requesting a Mogwai for Christmas, and being disappointed when I received a toy version and not the real thing. So families got a shock when they watched the actual film. The scene when a kindly teacher offers a Gremlin chocolate, and promptly gets his hand bitten off, is the one that upset me. But for the majority, it seems to be a monologue that’s funny if you’re an adult. But deeply disturbing if you are a kid. Explaining her hatred of Christmas, Kate (Phoebe Cates) reveals that her father once went missing on December 24th. Days later, she lit the fire in her living room, “And that’s when I noticed the smell.” Turns out Dad had slipped while climbing down the chimney — presents in hand — and broke his neck. “That’s how I discovered there was no Santa Claus,” says Kate, the adults in the audience laughing at the macabre story; their kids gently sobbing.
Heart Attack — Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Raiders of the Lost Ark had already messed us up with that climactic face-melt. Which has since been commemorated in a novelty candle. But Temple of Doom took Indiana Jones movies to the next level, via a scene in which a man watches as his beating heart is ripped from his chest. Then gets lowered into a river of molten lava. And it could have been worse. As according to Nizwar Karanj — the actor who played the unfortunate victim — there was more horror planned. “They made a life-like face of mine for the film, including my eyes,” he told Yahoo. “That was because, once the cage was lowered into this pit of molten lava, my body would disintegrate and you would see my face floating. But that scene was too gory for the censors, so they cut it!”
The Clone — The Last Starfighter (1984)
If you were a kid in 1984, this was the scariest thing EVER. pic.twitter.com/guMUlb4hqq
— Chris Tilly (@TillyTweets) March 21, 2018
The above Tweet — and its subsequent comments — inspired me to write this article. As this moment not only scared me and my mates senseless. But also — as I discovered from the comments beneath — the writers of Arrival and Rogue One. It happens mid-way through The Last Starfighter, when Alex Rogan jets into space to save the universe, and he’s replaced by a Beta Simuloid. Which is a synthetic life-form that takes Rogan’s shape, effectively covering for him while he’s gone. But the Beta takes time to turn human, and before then, Alex’s younger brother catches a glimpse at the Beta in bed. And his pale, bloated, pulsating, skin-less form gave a generation of kids sleepless nights.
Library Ghost — Ghostbusters (1984)
Ghostbusters is horror. But it’s comedy-horror starring your favourite comedy stars. So it can’t be that scary, can it? Well yes. Yes, it can. The film kicks off with an elderly librarian having her rounds interrupted by flying index cards, only to come face-to-face with something that causes her to let out a blood-curdling scream. But when the Ghostbusters investigate, it’s just a sweet old lady. She happens to be a ghost, but she’s reading, and just wants a bit of quiet. So it’s inadvisable when Stanz yells “Get her!” Quick as a flash, the apparition transforms into a hellish monster that flies towards them, the Ghostbusters fleeing in fear; their young fans realising that the film might be less a laugh, and more an ordeal.
Losing Your Head — Return to Oz (1985)
We aren’t in Kansas any more, kids! The Wicked Witch of the West scared everyone in The Wizard of Oz. So belated sequel Return to Oz had its work cut out following the 1939 classic. The Wheelers were pretty messed up. But Princess Mombi losing her head was worse. The beautiful villain escorts Dorothy through her palace, where she has scores of severed heads on display. Settling in front of one she says, “I think number four will do for this afternoon.” Mombi then removes her own head, selects another, and holds it under her arm as it talks to Dorothy. All while every other severed head stares at the poor girl. Making this scene pure nightmare fuel.
Large Marge — Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Pee-Wee Herman is strange. An oddball man-child with a weirdly wonderful way of looking at the world. Which is probably why Tim Burton gravitated towards the character, making his feature film debut with Big Adventure in 1985. And committing to screen this massively messed up scene. Which kicks off with the title character being picked up by a truck while hitchhiking. The driver explaining that “on this very night, 10 years ago, along the same stretch of road, in a dense fog just like this, I saw the worst accident I’d ever seen.” She describes the sound and the twisted burning wreck, then says, “It looked like this!” as her face contorts into a stop-motion monstrosity of bulging eyes, rotting teeth, and a flailing tongue. Brought to life in terrifying fashion by the brothers responsible for both Critters and Killer Klowns From Outer Space. Pee-Wee makes a sharp exit as the driver says, “Be sure and tell ’em Large Marge sent ya!” Which Herman does at his destination, only to discover that his driver was killed in said car crash 10 years ago. Large Marge’s description of her own death making this one both horrific, and tragic.
Shoe Dip — Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)
Disney messed with ALL of us on this one. Creating truly terrifying villain Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Introducing the cutest character possible in the shape of a toon shoe. Then having the former plunge the latter into his deadly “Dip.” Traumatising audiences as the shoe screams, whimpers, then melts into a gooey stew. Thanks Uncle Walt!