Sci-Fi And Fantasy Kids Movies You Thought Were A Fever Dream

Kids are tougher than we give them credit for. They love the spooky stuff like scary stories about kids fending off child-eating monsters, haunted graveyards, and alien invasions. Author Neil Gaiman understands why, telling a Canadian interviewer that what's important is to tell kids that "a bad thing can be beaten." Kids want to overcome their nightmares, so they can grow up and feel a little more confident about themselves.

But we grow up, and sometimes we remember snippets of the stories we read and the movies we watched. Some of them are incredibly weird, and we think, "Is that right? Are we misremembering something? Was that really in a movie?" Forums exist to track down some of these fragmented memories, bringing back a rush of feelings. "Who let us watch that?" being a common one. These are some of those movies. Screwy sci-fi and freaky fantasies that lit our kiddie imaginations — and gave our adult selves nightmares.


Released in 2009, director Shane Acker and producer Tim Burton's movie "9" is like "Watership Down" in that we're not sure who the audience was supposed to be. It wasn't marketed to kids, but they sure found it. With its creepy green-hued CGI world, it does look and feel like a kiddie movie but with a Guillermo del Toro sensibility.

Taking place in a steampunky alternate universe, 9 is the story of an Earth ravaged by a robot apocalypse. What remains are the Fabricator's endless machines and nine hacky-sack homunculi called Stitchpunks, who are driven to live and maybe find a way to revitalize a world where not even bacteria has survived. Millennials who encountered this movie too young may remember some truly horrifying sequences. One Stitchpunk is harpooned through the chest. Others undergo a "Dark Crystal"-style soul extraction. What's likeliest to be lodged in your memory is the Cat Beast, a robot with a cat's skull strapped to its head and a glowing red Terminator eye fixed on its prey.

Unico In The Island Of Magic

Osamu Tezuka is more than a legend. He's the icon of Japanese manga and animation, the man that invented "Astro Boy" and became Japan's answer to Walt Disney in the 1960s. One of his more obscure projects, still beloved by many, is "Unico." The first anime adaptation of Tezuka's short series, it's the saga of a chibi unicorn so lovable that the gods decree he must be exiled or killed. But it's the second film that goes off the rails into horror, embedding itself in the minds of Gen X adults like a sleeper cell.

"Unico in the Island of Magic" aired on the Disney Channel in the early and mid-'80s, and holy crap was it something. Lord Kuruku is an orb-shaped goblin hell-bent on turning all the people in the world into featureless puppets. He has a willing servant named Toby, and the scene in which Kuruku stalks his apprentice while menacingly chanting Toby's name that's lodged itself in a lot of people's brains. Not content to hassle his acolyte, Kuruku turns the entire village into eerie, blocky puppets that march their way to their new lord's service. It was terrifying then. It still is.

The Gate

Everybody has the memory of their first horror movie chained up in the brain's basement, ready to shove its way back into their adult dreams. Unless you saw "Poltergeist" way too early, 1987's "The Gate" is a pretty good contender for looking back and wondering why the hell you did that to yourself.

It's the film debut of Stephen Dorff, playing a kid named Glen, and it contains the '80s gag that everyone's parents feared: the devil might be lurking in heavy metal. After a hole opens in the backyard and grants Dorff and his friend a geode carrying a demonic message, things take a turn for the ominous. Glen's friend, Terry, has a metal album whose liner notes contain a scary amount about demonology, but playing it backward might help them out. Unfortunately, the involvement of a dead dog as an accidental sacrifice undoes any good intentions the kids had. This flick is loaded with creepy visuals like demonic parents, hordes of tiny demons, and human corpses boarded up in the walls. It's the shot of a demon's eyeball sprouting from Glen's hand that may linger the most. In any case, it's a great starter horror movie with a resolution that'll help new horror fans sleep that night.

Return To Oz

If you shudder at the phrase "the Wheelers," then you remember "Return to Oz," the utterly bizarre sequel to "The Wizard of Oz" that came out in 1985, 46 years after Dorothy's big adventure. This time, Dorothy doesn't bonk her head in the barnyard. She's in a sanitarium because her family thinks she's mentally ill over the Oz thing, which is already a hell of a step up from dealing with flying monkeys.

With a plot cobbled together from a couple of L. Frank Baum's "Oz" novels, including "Ozma of Oz," our new Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) is freed from the hospital and swept back into Oz with the help of a strange girl. But Oz is more nightmarish than ever, controlled by an usurper king who's not exactly a reliable authority figure. Sometimes, he's a raving stone tyrant — one-eyed and horrible enough to scare off the aforementioned Wheelers themselves lest they face his rage. Masked, inhuman, and mindlessly cruel, they still haunt our memories.

The Last Unicorn

Adapted from Peter S. Beagle's beautiful fantasy about myth and mortality, "The Last Unicorn" is an improbable piece of art. It was produced by Rankin-Bass, the same studio that made "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" a stop-motion star, with art from the Japanese studio Topcraft, whose best animators would later establish Studio Ghibli. From Angela Lansbury as Mommy Fortuna to Sir Christopher Lee as King HaggardIt, "The Last Unicorn" has a shockingly good voice cast.

When necessary, it's also as raw and as nightmarish as its source text. The Unicorn's quest is haunted by the story of the Red Bull, but before she can find out more, she's put on display in a cheap roadside carnival. The carnival is run by a real witch, though, and Fortuna is locked in a dance of death with her previous star attraction, the harpy Celaeno. Celaeno is a grizzled old bird, her chest bare to the night sky and her every rasp loaded with fury. Her escape and revenge on Fortuna are hidden by her wings, but Fortuna's clawed hand and the sounds of joyful carnage from the immortal harpy leave no doubt as to what's happened.

The Witches

Nicholas Roeg is a weird, typically adult director who's best known for giving us David Bowie as the beautiful alien we all knew he was in "The Man Who Fell to Earth." But Roeg is also the man behind 1990's "The Witches," which gave us Anjelica Huston as the beautiful witch we all know she is, too. But Huston, as the Grand High Witch, hides a terrible malevolence under her skin, and she's not above turning all the children in the world into mice.

With creature effects from Jim Henson's studio, this movie is a treat and a trick all in one. Though loathed by writer Roald Dahl, who wasn't keen on the 1971 "Chocolate Factory" adaptation, either, it's a great ride through a kiddie nightmare. The witches are as awful as a Skeksis when unmasked and just as cruel and manipulative. It's also terrifying to see the children go unbelieved when they try to warn the adults of the chaos the High Witch wants to unleash. Yeah, there's a 2020 remake. Don't bother. Stick with the original, although it's got some hugely problematic issues, and cuddle up with a favorite plush toy. You'll need it afterward.

Superman IV: The Quest For Peace

Without getting into an internet slap fight, it's still fair to say that for several decades, Christopher Reeve was the best incarnation of Superman we could have asked for. Polite, charismatic, and chameleonic, his light makes the first two "Superman" films seem as fresh and real as ever. The third movie, with Richard Pryor, isn't up to par, though it still has some great sequences. And then there's "The Quest For Peace," a movie so crappy that most people forget it exists.

Yet, kids in the late '80s would have encountered this bag of garbage just long enough to have a couple of things lodge in their memories, namely the villain, Nuclear Man, a hairspray'd wrestling reject in a hot yellow leotard. This incarnation of the evil that faces the world if we don't get rid of our nuclear weapons sprouts claws — some nice acrylic nails — in his big fights with Superman. As for the gentleman who played a villain so bad it killed the movie franchise for decades, Mark Pillow is living a quiet life, taking the infamy of one of the worst movies of all time in stride — as he should, since none of this was his fault.

The Black Hole

Arguably the strangest Disney movie to date, "The Black Hole" was released in 1979. We're not suggesting anything, but the drug of choice in the 1970s was cocaine. "The Black Hole" is a kid's introduction to "Event Horizon." A ship of explorers discovers a long-lost research vessel at the edge of a black hole and boarding it reveals it's still in operation. The man in charge, Dr. Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell), has a blood-red terminator robot named Maximillian at his side at all times. Maximillian haunts many a dream as it is. But it gets worse.

Dr. Reinhardt zombified his previous crew into servitor cyborgs. He'll zombify his new guests if he can, and then he's going to take his whole research vessel through the black hole to see what's on the other side. He partially succeeds, but guess what! He finds hell —  an actual Dantesque hell, and the mad doctor is condemned to be its lord, somehow fused inside of Maximillian's shell. Do not do drugs before watching this one. You will not enjoy the trip.

Flight Of The Navigator

"Flight of the Navigator" is a cute Disney coming-of-age special effects extravaganza. It has adorable puppet aliens. Paul Ruebens voices a charming if somewhat obnoxious AI assistant. Young David (Joey Cramer) gets to fly a super-cool chrome spacecraft, but first, his family has to live with the trauma of an abrupt, decade-long disappearance that's kept David at the same age. Then, NASA scientists abduct the kid. Very fun.

David's return is kid horror supreme. For him, he's only spent a few minutes wandering around a ravine, but when he tries to go home, it's suddenly not his home anymore. It's all due to a well-meaning attempt to preserve galactic knowledge for science, which runs parallel to NASA's well-meaning attempt to figure out the connection between this kid and the mysterious craft they've recovered. Fortunately, it does have a happy ending, even for the creepy-cute alien puppet David befriends, but it's a wild ride getting there.

Masters Of The Universe

Sure, Dolph Lundgren's oil-slicked physique as He-Man, the Master of the Universe, isn't exactly forgettable once you've seen it. Frank Langella turns Skeletor into a whole meal, stealing an ill-advised adaptation of the Mattel toy-selling cartoon and making it a lot more fun to watch than it has any right to be. But do you remember Billy Barty as Gwildor, a strange little dude who's always up to shred on a cosmic keyboard that can open portals across space and time?

Instead of squabbling over He-Man's famous Sword of Power and trying to overtake Castle Grayskull, the cosmic key is the film's central plot device. To be fair, the movie starts with Grayskull in enemy hands, and the cosmic key is the magic MacGuffin the heroes need to escape the new regime. Of course, the Eternians end up on Earth, Skeletor is hot on their heels, and the timey-wimey music machine immediately ends up in the hands of a pair of teenagers. The plot makes no sense, but the effects (and Dolph Lundgren's thighs) are spectacular.

The Secret Of NIMH

Don Bluth is the unsung master of modern animation. A former Disney employee, he struck out on his own in the early 1980s and set about creating a handful of unforgettable movies. While "An American Tale" and "Anastasia" are probably his most well known, the eerie and beautiful "The Secret of NIMH" shows its age the least.

Adapted from "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH" by Robert C. O'Brien, this dark fable has a widowed mother for its protagonist, a sweet little mouse named Mrs. Brisby. One of her children is gravely ill. Her only choice is to turn to the weird rats living in a rose bush for help, but she has to find that out via the Great Owl, a looming figure that introduces itself by smashing a big spider under its talons. If that scene doesn't wake you up at night, the flashbacks to the experiments at NIMH will finish the job of wrecking your psyche. The rats along with a couple of mice, including Brisby's spouse, Jonathan, suffer physical and mental torture until they make their deadly escape.


From the director of "Gremlins" comes a sci-fi movie that's not meant to give kids nightmares, but it's just as weird. Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix have their big debut in 1985's "Explorers," an honest-to-goodness cult movie that didn't stand a chance at the movie theatre. "Back to the Future" was released nine days earlier. Bad luck, kids.

Spurred on by strange dreams, the kids of "Explorers" build a tiny spacecraft with just enough oomph to break Earth's orbit, but they get picked up moments later by a pair of goofy aliens that apparently only speak in sitcom quotes — kind of like "Contact," but with the "Looney Tunes" instead. It turns out Hawke's new googly-eyed friends are also kids who just want to hang out and play, but everyone is up way past their bedtime. It's a charming movie, a wonky take on first contact as seen through the eyes of those most likely to take it in stride. If you don't have a vague memory of this one, it's still worth the visit.


Everyone loves to shudder at Neil Gaiman's "Coraline," the stop-motion nightmare from LAIKA with the button-eyed mom, but fewer remember "MirrorMask," which was released four years earlier in 2005. Directed by Dave McKean, who created Gaiman's "Sandman" covers and the interiors for Grant Morrison's seminal "Arkham Asylum," "MirrorMask" was designed from the ground up to evoke the same dreamlike, fantastical fears as "Labyrinth."

Young Helena finds herself in a world of shadows. Helena is already distraught from her mother's illness and has no idea that she's switched places with the princess of this dark world. As with Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," so much of this world is drawn from Helena's mind, it's unclear how much is real and how much is her teenage self trying to figure out who she wants to be. With Gaiman, the answer is best left to individual discussion, but first, you have to get the memory of the screwed-up cats with human faces out of your brain.

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