Back in the day, however, it managed to release some dark and, in some cases, disturbing tales.
Disney does dark? That’s right! Read on to discover the obscure and ominous side of the “House of Mouse”.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Starring Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, and Diane Ladd, Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) was a frightening fantasy.
Robards, Pryce, and Ladd aren’t the first names you think of when it comes to sentimental stories. And Ray Bradbury’s dark fairy tale was anything but that.
The scenario is like something out of a Stephen King novel. Set in Green Town, Illinois (a location based on Bradbury’s home turf Waukegan), it shows what happens when a sinister carnival rocks up. The traveling show promises to make wishes come true.
Young Will (Vidal Peterson) and Jim (Shawn Carson) see something strange in the carousel. This attracts the attention of carnival owner Mr. Dark (Pryce). Naturally, he’s a villain, selling a – shall we say – “unique” anti-aging process.
Eventually Dark… spoiler alert… gets his comeuppance. Nerdist describes Pryce’s onscreen demise as “even more drawn-out and grotesque than the guy’s face melting in Raiders of the Lost Ark”. The gruesome scene carries on “for full minutes”.
Even more alarming is a sequence where Will gets decapitated. You see the severed head and everything! Extraordinary for a Disney offering.
The original plan for Something Wicked This Way Comes is curious, to say the least. Before it was a book, it was a movie idea. Dance king Gene Kelly wanted to direct Bradbury’s 1958 screenplay. That fell through, so a novel was written instead.
Jack Clayton occupied the director’s chair for the screen version. His previous credits include “kitchen sink” drama Room At The Top and horror classic The Innocents. He was far from a conventional choice.
And it isn’t a surprise to learn several scenes were redone (to the tune of nearly $5 million) after test audiences and Disney top brass found the film too scary. Even the music score was changed!
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
When director Tim Burton made Sleepy Hollow 1999, it was an epic Gothic nail-biter. Based on the story by Washington Irving, it actually had another key inspiration… Walt Disney.
Back in 1949, Bing Crosby narrated this under-the-radar anthology film, also referred to as a “package”, featuring an Irving-inspired short. The other section was based on The Wind in the Willows. Presumably, this didn’t give kiddies nightmares.
No such luck with the Mr. Ichabod entry. Burton and star Johnny Depp wanted to capture the Disney production’s vibe in their outing. As mentioned by Collider, Depp nearly donned prosthetics so he’d look more cartoon-like. The infamous Headless Horseman alone will have you scurrying behind the couch.
The Watcher In The Woods
Golden Age Hollywood star Bette Davis was arguably scary enough, without casting her in a ghostly tale from the House of Mouse. Directed by John Hough (The Legend of Hell House) in 1980, The Watcher In The Woods was adapted from Florence Engel Randall’s novel.
The English countryside forms the backdrop for a spine-chilling mystery involving the vanishing of a young girl. Davis played the girl’s mother Mrs. Aylwood, with Carroll Baker and David McCallum in support. As written about by The Digital Cinema, the movie was pitched to Disney as a rival to The Exorcist!
It’s also remembered for its famously tinkered-with ending. The final showdown happened with a – spoiler alert – mysterious light show, representing aliens. However, before that, a so-called scary E.T. had been created. Mental Floss notes the result was “so bad that the premiere audience broke out laughing”. Hough had to “reshoot the climactic final scene with the aliens as a vague blur of light.”
The ditched scene is available to watch online. This alien terror looks like Lord Voldemort, only made from trash can liners.
Mental Floss dug up this otherwise-overlooked creepshow from 1986. The title character Mr. Boogedy (Howard Witt) was one of three colonial ghosts knocking around a mansion in the appropriately-named town of Lucifer Falls.
Rick Stratton’s design adds a touch of Freddy Krueger to Boogedy’s hair-raising antics. Intended as a TV pilot, there was a sequel but the series died there.
The Black Cauldron
The previous year, 1985, saw the release of a full-blooded animated fantasy adventure. Author Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain series was the far-flung source material, taking inspiration from medieval Welsh legend. Collider describes it as an “endless procession of nightmare fuel.”
In addition to bone-shaking skeletal warriors, the movie boasted scary creatures and even scarier characters. One of these, Gurgi (voiced by John Byner), bears a weird resemblance to a certain ring-snatching cave dweller from The Lord Of The Rings. Andy Serkis, the voice actor for Gollum, was reportedly struck by the character’s guttural tones.
Return To Oz
MGM’s The Wizard Of Oz (1939) is an enduring classic that gives viewers around the world a warm, cozy feeling inside. It has its unsettling moments of course – those flying monkeys! – but overall, it’s fantastical fun for all the family.
In 1985 Disney released a follow-up. If anything, this was going to be even warmer, and cozier than a marshmallow recliner, right? Right…?
Amazingly, Walter Murch’s adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s much-loved saga frightened young audiences to death. Not to mention some adults.
‘Different in tone’ doesn’t begin to cover it. The film is also notable as the big-screen debut of Fairuza Balk (The Craft), playing Dorothy. Other talent on the production included Muppet legend Brian Henson and stop motion animator Will Vinton.
The story changed the way in which Falk’s protagonist reaches the magical land. Rather than a tornado, writes Collider, “it’s a bout of – and this is not a joke – electro-shock therapy” that sends her to Oz.