This past Monday was the 25th anniversary of the release of one of my all-time favorite movies: The Goonies. In reflecting on the film, I began asking myself why I like the movie so much. Obviously there’s the adventure-centric plot and the memorable characters (Will you ever forget Data’s slick shoes or Chunk’s famous “Truffle Shuffle”?), but I realized there’s something less obvious about the film that also makes me like it.
Unlike many modern day family movies, the characters in The Goonies aren’t treated like kids. Not only do they cuss and fight and swear, but they also face some ridiculously dangerous situations. How many kids movies do you know where the lead characters are chased by a criminal gang, get shot at, nearly impaled, and almost drowned? You’re definitely not going to see anything like that in Hotel for Dogs…
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that The Goonies wasn’t the only kids movie with a high danger quotient. There are countless films from the 1980s where kids and teens routinely face imminent death – yet when we watch them today, nobody seems to bat an eye. How crazy is that?
So in honor of The Goonies 25th anniversary and my own personal desire to see more movies like the ones I know and love from my childhood, I’ve assembled a list of the Top Ten Craziest Kids Movies from the ’80s. An important note before I get started: I’ve only included films where the child characters would suffer real world deaths – fantasy world deaths (in a dream or imaginary world) don’t count. Obviously, there are spoilers below as well as some NSFW language based on the films being highlighted.
The Goonies (1985)
I already touched on some of the things that make The Goonies such a crazy movie above, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention perhaps the craziest thing of all: Sloth. Now, anyone who has watched The Goonies knows that Sloth is a good guy, but let’s take a minute to look at this objectively. Sloth is a monstrous man-child who has spent the majority of his life chained up in a basement. That’s not exactly the person you want spending time with a bunch of 13-year-olds. I’d hate to think what would have happened to Chunk if he didn’t have that Baby Ruth bar handy.
Adventures in Babysitting (1987)
Adventures in Babysitting is fun for a few reasons. One, it features a young and attractive Elisabeth Shue. Two, it features Vincent D’Onofrio 150 lbs lighter and surprisingly ripped. And three, it places two teenagers and an 8-year-old girl in countless ridiculously dangerous and life-threatening positions.
Over the film’s 102 minute running time, the characters are caught up in a shootout, hassled by a street gang, and chased by a group of murderous thieves. Of course, let’s not forget the film’s most famous scene where the 8-year-old hangs precariously from the roof of Chicago’s famous Smurfit-Stone Building. Realistically, the characters would have been killed or severely injured within the first 20 minutes. Come to think of it, one character actually is severely injured.
The Last Starfighter (1984)
The first of a few sci-fi films on the list, The Last Starfighter gives us the story of Alex, a trailer park teen whose skill at an arcade game leads him to become an actual starfighter involved in an intergalactic war. Now, the sci-fi nature of The Last Starfighter gives the film a small pass for craziness, but if you really think about the movie, it’s pretty nuts.
Alex becomes the sole individual responsible for saving an entire galaxy. That’s a lot of pressure for one kid (and a whole lot of danger too). Thank God he has the “Death Blossom” in his arsenal.
The Monster Squad (1987)
The Monster Squad, which is being remade by Platinum Dunes, was one of a handful of movies in the 1980s that blurred the line between kids films and horror films. The plot of the movie revolves around a group of kids who love classic monster movies. When those monsters come to life, however, the Monster Squad has to put their movie knowledge to use in order to help save their town.
While the movie is loads of fun, it also provides plenty of perilous moments for its young cast. If I had to fight Dracula, Gill-Ma, and the Mummy when I was 12 or 13, I’m pretty sure I would have just peed my pants and been killed. The kids of the Monster Squad keep their cool, though. Just watch as they first blow up the Wolfman and then, once he’s reassembled himself, finish him off with a well-placed silver bullet.
Little Monsters (1989)
On its surface, Little Monsters is a comedy about the monsters that live under kids’ beds. Over the course of the film, however, the laughs are replaced by screams as Fred Savage is forced to free his kid brother (played by real-life brother Ben Savage) from the grips of Boy, the truly creepy leader of the monsters.
I always enjoyed Little Monsters as a kid, but watching the film from an adult perspective provides a totally different experience . Fred Savage’s character, along with his two friends, face some terrifying obstacles during their rescue attempt, not least of which is the fact that if they don’t escape the monster world by morning, they will be stuck there forever. Of course, they do manage to escape, though not without leaving an interesting unanswered question.
If you’ve seen Little Monsters, you may recall that the kids finally manage to escape the monster world by traveling from the east coast to California where the sun rises later. Every time I watch the movie now, I wonder what Fred Savage’s parents must think when he calls them from a pay phone in Malibu. How is he supposed to explain that? There’s no way they’re going to believe that he was stuck in the monster world, right?
Whether they’re setting buildings on fire, launching old women out of windows, or driving snow plows into people’s homes, Joe Dante’s Gremlins are among the most delightfully dangerous of all movie villains. Of course, featuring Joe Dante’s 1984 Christmas classic on this list is debatable since the film is a horror movie above all else, but the fact that it was marketed toward children and included a cuddly cute character like Gizmo gives it enough kiddy cred to make the list.
One thing we can all agree on: Gremlins are some seriously nasty little suckers and they don’t go down without a fight.
When I first started compiling this list, I knew that Jim Henson’s bizarre fantasy film Labyrinth had to be on it. Just consider the plot: A 15-year-old girl wishes her baby brother away to Jareth, the King of Goblins. If she doesn’t make it through his labyrinth in 13 hours, her brother will be turned into a goblin. The stakes don’t get much higher than that. Throw in the fact that David Bowie’s genitalia is exposed by his skin-tight costume throughout most of the film, and it’s hard to argue that Labyrinth doesn’t belong on this list.
You may wonder why a film like Labyrinth makes the cut while the arguably more menacing film The Dark Crystal doesn’t, but there’s a simple explanation: As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, this list is focused on movie plots where real kids are in danger. To paraphrase Star Wars, The Dark Crystal takes place “a long time ago in a [fantasy world] far, far away,” so it doesn’t count. Same applies to The NeverEnding Story.
Flight of the Navigator (1986)
Another sci-fi film, Flight of the Navigator cheerfully toys with the idea of a 12-year-old child being abducted by an alien spacecraft and then returned to Earth eight years later. The catch: he’s exactly the same age and doesn’t remember any of it. Of course, everything gets sorted out and the kid (David) learns some valuable life lessons on the way, but if you take a step back and really look at this movie, it’s pretty messed up.
This kid disappears for eight years. God knows what those aliens did to him while he was gone. Even worse, when he gets back, he’s poked and prodded by our scientists to find out why he hasn’t aged. Also, can you imagine what his family had to go through? They thought their son was dead. They went through the five stages of grief and everything. Then out of the blue, their kid comes back and he looks exactly the same! Now that’s truly crazy.
The Wizard (1989)
The Wizard might just be a 100 minute-long commercial for Nintendo, but it’s also one of the crazier kids films of the 1980s. In case you’re unfamiliar with the movie, the plot revolves around an institutionalized little boy (his twin sister’s drowning left him mentally scarred) running away from home with his half-brother to compete in a Nintendo tournament.
Tell me, does the prospect of three preteens hitch-hiking across the country and hustling people out of their money sound okay to you – or does it sound phenomenally dangerous? Add in the fact that the hustler is an escapee from a mental institution and you’re dealing with a pretty crazy movie. On the plus side, it did show the world the awesome power of the Nintendo Power Glove :-P.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
It’s one of the most beloved family films of all time, but E.T. is also one of the crazier movies of the 1980s. E.T. is definitely a cool alien, but the psychic link he forms with Elliott almost leads them both to die. Factor in the menacing, gun-toting federal agents (or radio-toting if you’re watching the lame 20th anniversary edition) and you’re dealing with some pretty dangerous stuff.
Then again, one of the reasons that E.T. works so well is precisely because the plot forces characters into situations with real consequences. A well-made kids movie is no different than a well-made R-rated action film: It must have a strong plot with interesting characters who make compelling narrative choices. E.T. succeeds on all counts.
(My apologies. The best E.T. video on YouTube was the trailer for the 2002 re-release. Yes, the same one I just said was lame.)
Bottom line: When kids watch movies they want to be entertained, and there’s nothing entertaining about a boring no-stakes plot. Not all of these movies were great, but at least they offered plenty of danger – and often enough another word for danger is “thrills.”
What do you think of our list? Did I leave out any other movies from the 1980s where kids face almost certain death?