Ever since I was a kid I have loved animated films. And it’s not just me. You simply need to look at the money taken by smash hits such as the Toy Story, Shrek, Despicable Me, and Madagascar franchises as well as the likes of Frozen, Cars, A Bug’s Life, Antz, The Lego Movie and so on and on and on. Going back into the history of cinema we have a dominance of Disney in the box office from Bambi, Pinocchio and Cinderella through to the Lion King, Aladdin and The Little Mermaid alongside other animated films from Europe such as a spate of Asterix films and Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin. Millions and millions spent to entertain us. The target audience for these films is predominantly children with the right mix of content to keep parents engaged too. Yet where is the darker side of this painted cinematic world? What is out there purely for an adult audience? Where are the terrors which come to life from the skill of the artist’s pen in celluloid framed glory?
A quick look on IMDB under horror will suggest 5,545 animated horror films with a further quick look showing that a lot of those are either shorts, TV series, Japanese or a combination. As with a lot of things horror, Japan latched on to this idea and has run with it in a unique and wonderful style. I remember first coming across Japanese animation in the 90s whilst working out how to navigate the social interactions of university campus life. A friend of mine was heavily into anime and introduced me to a plethora of films which pulsed with life in their exaggerated fashion. Some films people may be familiar with are Perfect Blue, Blood: The Last Vampire, Vampire Hunter D and Demon City. Now several years later I came to pondering why this visibility in the Japanese market hasn’t translated itself to the Western world. Therefore I decided to spend the last few weeks seeing how prevalent animated horror films are on this side of the globe.
Over here you might think that animation is solely a gateway drug to get children into horror though I suspect the influence would more likely come from online games nowadays. Kids’ horror films do great business. If you don’t believe me then look at the figures below from a small selection:
The Nightmare Before Christmas (33rd highest ranked film for worldwide box office in 1993)
The Corpse Bride (Budget $30 million, sales $114 million)
Hotel Transylvania (Budget $85 million, sales $470 million)
Frankenweenie (Budget $39 million, sales $106 million)
Monster House (Budget $75 million, sales $218 million)
(Source: The Numbers.com)
And this ignores the behemoth which is Scooby Doo with its massive horror traits. To this day I swear they paid homage to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in an episode of Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated.
Horror in children’s animation is nothing new. These of you who grew up in the late seventies or early eighties will invariably have been scarred by the images of General Woundwort ripping out throats in Watership Down combined with the more spectral imagery of the black rabbit El-ahrairah. And though whilst firmly in the fantasy camp, it would be impossible not to mention Ralph Bakshi’s incomplete telling of The Lord of the Rings whose raw animation style through the use of Rotoscoping made for a dark and gruesome film at times.
A few years after both Watership Down and The Lord of the Rings we were presented with Jimmy Murakami’s adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel When The Wind Blows. This was back in an age where the fear of nuclear war felt omnipresent and when films like the grim (but unanimated) Threads would be shown in schools up and down the country as educational pieces. Set in rural Sussex, When The Wind Blows presents us with a naïve elderly couple who can readily be described as quaint in their approach to the oncoming destruction (one scene has the wife, Hilda, rushing to get the washing in as the three minute warning sounds). There is almost a charm to the film, as much as there can be for one dealing with nuclear holocaust, filmed in similar style to the likes of The Snowman and Father Christmas (both Briggs again with the former also directed by Murakami). Surprisingly, When The Wind Blows carries a PG rating in spite of the stark reality of radiation sickness and the inevitability of the storyline.
Nuclear war is also the subject of Peter and Joan Foldes' short animation from 1956 A Short Vision. In a little over six minutes we are given a brutal, bleak, matter-of-fact depiction of what happens when the bomb drops: “Their leaders looked up, their wise men looked up, but it was too late.” Originally funded by a BFI Development Fund, A Short Vision can be found online as part of the BFI National Archive. And as we’re discussing war films, let’s give a little nod to Ray Harryhausen who was chief animator on Tulips Shall Grow (1942), a short animated film set in Holland. A Dutch boy and girl’s lives are ruined when Nazi-like creatures called Screwballs lay waste to their land but redemption is on hand. If we were to focus more on science fiction and fantasy then a whole section could be given up to the late, great Harryhausen who has rightly inspired and awed generations of cinema-goers and filmmakers alike.
Speaking of science fiction, before we move up the age ratings, it would be remise not to mention the work of René Laloux. Back in 1973 he presented us with La Planète Sauvage (The Fantastic Planet), a joint French/Czechoslovakian production. A film about oppression, slavery and revolt with the humans (Oms) captive to their giant masters (the Draags) on the planet Ygam. The film won the special jury prize at Cannes in the year of its release. Perhaps lesser known is Laloux’s Franco-Hungarian film called Les Maîtres du Temps (Time Masters) based on a novel by Stefan Wul and released in 1982. French comic book artist Mœbius (who people will also know from his work for Alien, Tron and The Abyss) provides the visuals for this clever futuristic science fiction film which has some reasonably dark scenes for a children’s film. Both films have stunning visuals which are worth the entrance price alone.
So, what about the non-PG market?
Michael Gornick’s Creepshow 2 from 1987, a mixture of Stephen King’s works and George A. Romero’s screenplay, brings us a trilogy of live action tales with animated interludes which follow young Billy alongside Tom Savini’s The Creep though these pieces total little more than six minutes of the film’s running time. Creepshow 2’s animation team featured the talents of Rick Catizone, Gary Hartle and Phil Wilson. Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice from 1988 brought us stop-motion animation sandworms developed by Doug Beswick who was also involved with Evil Dead 2, where he provided the stop-motion animation to bring to life Linda’s dancing corpse, as well as a host of many more films everyone will be hugely familiar with. Beetlejuice itself went on to spawn its own animated series running from 1989 – 1991 with an eye-popping 94 episodes as well as a video game and Burton clearly continued with using animation in later films (see our list of children’s films earlier).
Sticking with stop-motion, let’s take a moment to look at the incredible work of Jan Švankmajer, a Czech filmmaker and artist. His first theatrical release was a short film in 1964 called The Last Trick with over thirty more shorts and feature length films made since then. His take on Alice in Wonderland entitled Něco z Alenky (Alice) is a dark and surreal interpretation of LewisCarrol’s masterpiece and features a taxidermed rabbit who leads Alice into misadventures where she meets a whole gamut of bizarre beasties along the way. I thought it excellent but was more taken with another of Švankmajer’s films called Otesánek (Little Otik). Little Otik was made with his wife Eva, as was Alice, and is a glorious example of how the use of stop-motion animation can work within a film shot in ‘real life’. Little Otik tells the story of a childless couple who create a child from a tree stump. However, the child needs feeding and it has a taste for the family’s neighbours. There is a deliciously dark humour running throughout Little Otik and Švankmajer does a superb job of creating perhaps the most disturbing baby since Eraserhead and one you end up rooting for, if you will forgive the pun, as his demise begins to seem apparent. Both films are to be highly recommended.
On to a cruder type of storyline. In 2009 Rob Zombie gave unto us The Haunted World of El Superbeasto. The blurb pitches this as ‘a washed-up luchador and a super-spy investigate Nazi zombies, a nefarious scientist, and a stripper with a Satanic birthmark’. It falls under the reasonably unique category of ‘adult animated exploitation musical black comedy horror’. Personally, I only mention it here for a bit of completeness but if it sounds like your thing then go check it out. Equally, if that does sound like you then you may wish to view Hell and Back (2015), a Claymation comedy featuring the vocal talents of Bob Odenkirk, Mila Kunis and Susan Sarandon. A feature film where two best friends have to rescue their mate who is dragged to hell. The jokes are puerile and not especially funny though it does feature some great animation from production company Shadowmachine. It would be good if both could have taken a leaf from the book of City of Rott (2006). While not the greatest film ever made, City of Rott is a fun 2D animated zombie feature which has the feel of an early nineties video game. A pensioner called Fred braves the hordes of zombies in his town to go and get himself some loafers. His companion is his metal walker which talks to him in his head and warns him of danger. This is a work of love from Frank Sudol who was a one man production machine having written, directed, animated, edited and voiced the entire piece. At seventy-five minutes it does feel a bit overlong for the storyline but worth a one-off watch for those seeking something a bit different in the zombie genre – grab some mates plus some beverages of your choice and you could have some fun with this splatterfest.
For something more stylish and chilling then Fear(s) of the Dark (2007) is an excellent French horror anthology. The film boasts six different directors: Blutch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Pierre Di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattotti and Richard McGuire. This mix of directors gives us different styles in this largely black and white offering. In the film we meet a man who collected insects as a child, a Japanese girl bullied by her classmates, a mysterious beast brings death to a village and a man fleeing a snowstorm seeks safety in a spooky house. All these stories are interspersed by an aristocrat out hunting with his dogs and the voice of a woman talking about her fears. Worth seeking out for those who like a quieter horror and the fifth story is one of the tensest pieces I’ve seen on screen in a long while.
Another anthology film I would give a nod to is Extraordinary Tales. Raul Garcia (who has worked on the likes of The Lion King, Hercules and The Hunchback of Notre Dame) brings us a collection of five stories based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Released in 2015, Extraordinary Tales features the vocal talents of Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi (taken from a recording in 1946), Julian Sands, Guillermo del Toro and Roger Corman. We are treated to The Fall of the House of Usher, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, The Pit and The Pendulum and The Masque of the Red Death all depicted in differing animation styles. My favourite was the starkness of The Tell-Tale Heart, drawn in the style of Uruguayan born Argentine cartoonist Alberto Breccia and narrated by Lugosi. Other adaptations of The Tell Tale Heart worth highlighting are a version from 1953narrated by the rich tones of James Mason and more recent version from this decade by German animator Annette Jung which has a dark humour running through the film. Both are under ten minutes in length and can be found quite readily online.
And it was here my journey ended for now in my brief foray to find what was out there. At this point I fear that I have only scratched the surface of what Western animation has to offer to the cinematic world of horror. There will undoubtedly be films I will kick myself for missing off this list. I haven’t mentioned Dante’s Inferno: An Animated Epic made by a mix of US and Japanese studios, I have overlooked the wonderful ‘9’, a delightfully dark science fiction affair about handstitched dolls come to life in a world destroyed by war between robots and man, and I have completely failed to mention the animated movies of the Hellboy franchise which I am sure may be one of the more glaring omissions. This has been a whistle-stop tour and there will be many others you, as readers, will be aghast have not been listed. It strikes me that perhaps we should be seeing animation used more readily in cinema horror releases than we do currently. I think it is a medium which has a lot to offer. Over the past few weeks I have gazed with glee and awe at some of the films I have watched, marvelling at the style and imagery to be found therein. All I hope from this article is that I’ve highlighted a few treasures people may not have been fully aware of and that maybe there’s an animator or two reading this who may feel inspired to provide us with some new horrors on the silver screen. In conclusion, the West has a lot to offer in the world of animation and horror but it isn’t half hard to track down!