Animation isn’t just for kids anymore. Of course, horror themes generally put a film outside the “family friendly” realm anyway, but I am here to tell you that animated horror can get just as dark (sometimes even darker) as a standard film.
As we dive into exploring some dark, animated horror films, keep in mind that we aren’t just talking about cartoons here, stop-motion animation is a very effective medium as well. In fact, the first film we are going to discuss is 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Tim Burton conceived and produced this Touchstone film, which was rated PG. Though there was no blood or gore, the themes of The Nightmare Before Christmas were undoubtedly horror-related, and the imagery was often very, very dark. Think of the oversized, bald zombie-like man with an axe in his head, and of the frightening, bug-oozing appearance of the film’s resident bad guy Oogie-Boogie.
Obviously, Halloween is every horror-lover’s favorite holiday, and the majority of the characters live in Halloween Town. Each of the residents there has his or her own unique look; there are vampires, skeletons, ghosts, even a mad scientist. Jack Skellington himself would look rather frightening to a child, and Sally can actually unravel the threads holding her together in order to remove her limbs.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is enchanting, visually astonishing animated horror, and if you have ever questioned whether it is a Halloween film or a Christmas film, my answer is: Yes. I watch it on both holidays.
Next up is the 2006 cartoon-style animated treasure called Monster House, which was also rated PG. I usually recommend this one to people looking for a film they can show children who are beginning to show an interest in horror. It’s pretty scary for younger kids, though.
The subject matter is a neighborhood house rumored to be haunted, and its sole occupant Horace, who is rumored to have killed his wife. We see kids literally being eaten by the house, and eventually find out Horace’s real story. It’s his wife Constance who has literally possessed the house. She was a very large woman who had been traumatized by her time spent as part of a circus freakshow. She had been kept in a cage, and people were allowed to ridicule her and throw things at her. In later years, when some neighborhood children threw eggs at her on Halloween, she snapped and went after them with an axe. Though Horace was able to stop her, she fell down the basement to her death.
It’s easy to feel sorry for Constance, but the final third of Monster House is pretty scary, making it an animated horror treat for older children and adults as well.
9 was released in 2009, and it’s another animated film that Tim Burton was involved with. Although it is probably more sci-fi than it is horror, its PG-13 rating was well-earned, because it is rather grim and dark.
When a scientist creates a super-intelligent robot, a dictator uses it for evil, and it ends up destroying most of humanity. The anguished scientist creates nine “stitchpunks,” giving each of them a small portion of his soul. He figures this will give them enough humanity to prevent them from going in the same direction as his prior creation. The scientist then dies, and the final stitchpunk he created (known as “9”) wakes up and ventures out into the devastated landscape.
9 ends up connecting with the other stitchpunks, and together they are subjected to multiple horrors before the final hopeful ending of the film. The animation in 9 is rich and dark, and perfectly fits the theme. The stitchpunks in particular are effective, with their burlap bodies, expressive faces and individual personalities.
Mad God is a newer stop-motion animated film. It was released in 2021, but it took creator Phil Tippett 30 years to complete. Believe me, the time spent on this film shows. I won’t lie, the plot is hard to put into words…in fact, I am not even sure I understand everything that was going on, but Mad God is such an engrossing watch that it doesn’t even matter.
I don’t even know how Tippett and his team managed to create all of the creatures and sets contained in the story, but I loved every second of it. Travel with The Assassin as he descends in a diving bell into a ruined and hellish landscape, populated by strange and frighting creatures. Marvel at the grotesque faces and bodies of said creatures, and recoil at some of the gory events that take place.
Our last animated horror film is Abruptio, which world premiered online as part of the Santa Monica Film Festival in January of this year. It has played at multiple film festivals, and even won Panic Film Fest’s Best Visual Effects award.
I am including Abruptio in this list due to its very unique visual style. It’s not really animation per se, it is fully populated with disturbingly realistic puppets. There is no CGI, no human actors in prosthetic makeup.
The puppets are voiced by the likes of James Marsters (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Hana Mae Lee (The Babysitter), Sid Haig (House of 1000 Corpses), Jordan Peele (of Get Out fame), Robert Englund (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and Christopher McDonald (Requiem for a Dream).
Marsters voices the main character, Les Hackel, who just has the worst possible unlucky streak going on. He lives with his overbearing mother, his girlfriend just broke up with him, he lost his job, and he drinks too much. It gets even worse for poor Les when he discovers a strange device implanted in his neck. It tuns out his best buddy Danny has one of these devices implanted as well, and he gives Les the lowdown: the device is a bomb, and failure to do as they are ordered will result in the bombs detonating, which will obviously be fatal.
The tasks the two are given are absolutely awful, and even include murder. There is plenty of blood and gore in Abruptio, and I found one scene in particular to be extra-disturbing. The plot moves along at a quick pace as Les starts to unravel the mystery behind what is going on with him.
So, there you go, fans of animation, now you have five animated horror films to keep you entertained. Abruptio is not yet available to stream, but you should have no problem finding the other four movies. And, I highly recommend keeping your eyes open for Abruptio’s digital release. After all, it’s not every day you get to see puppet horror!