Children’s movies are traditionally designed to comfort. There’s an unspoken contract between parent and filmmaker: “For the next 90 minutes, your child will be entertained, but not threatened. No need to worry about your little darlings waking up at three in the morning, bawling in terror. This movie is guaranteed not to trouble anyone’s mind. Most people are inherently good. The bad guys don’t win.”
Children’s movies, for the most part, have abided by this contract, but for a brief period during the 1980s those rules went out the window. Children’s cinema was in transition¬. The old standbys, musicals and animation, were out, and sci-fi and fantasy were in. Disney and Jim Henson, in particular, were looking to forge new identities, away from their trademark brands. The result was Something Wicked This Way Comes, Watcher in the Woods, The Black Cauldron, Return to Oz, and The Dark Crystal. These films were guaranteed to give children nightmares, populated as they were by creepy carnivals, screeching lizard-like Skeksis, and rooms full of shrieking severed heads. Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches, released just as Disney’s renaissance restored the old rules, was the last and darkest of this bunch—the best and perhaps the only horror movie made for children.