or most of us, it’s easy to forget that our love of horror began with animation. If you search as far back as possible — before Uncle Mick snuck you those Freddy and Jason movies — you will find some latent memory you either boxed up or forgot about entirely. The same can be said for the scarce examples of animated horror that often remain dead and buried. Once we recall their horrific moments — whether it is kids turning into donkeys or rabbits and tearing each other apart — the mere notion (and motion) of bringing things to life with 24 drawings per second adds all the more to the surreal nature of these nightmares and dreamscapes.
Embracing this phantasmagoria through fully-fledged animated horror is a rare beast. If the horror genre wasn't maligned enough, animation of the genre is hard to find outside of Japan and its best examples of anime. But, when you unearth the best of animated horror, my God, are they something to behold — like precious black gems screaming for attention — whether online or hidden among well-known studio archives.
Say what you like about Uncle Walt… but Disney, during those early studio days, was a true visionary. It is easy to be sniffy about his films but let us not forget that, despite some of the sentimentality displayed in some of the best animated movies of all time, there was always a dark and disturbing moment that went on to traumatize generations. He never pandered to children because his intention was not to make films aimed directly at them but rather the child in all of us — reminding us of the complexities of the world: “Life is composed of lights and shadows, and we would be untruthful, insincere and saccharine if we tried to pretend there were no shadows.”
Shadows are where the imagination has always taken hold. As a precursor to the more traditional techniques of flipbooks, zoetropes and frame-by-frame animation, it was in the worlds of the phantasmagoria horror shows, where light and shadow were exploited. Having grown in popularity across Europe toward the end of the 18th century, these horror theaters customized magic lanterns that would project ghosts, skeletons and demons onto walls accompanied by smoke or semi-transparencies. The technique remained popular right up to the mid-19th century — shadow play taking full advantage of the darkness and flickering flames —with shows inspired by Dutch inventor Christiaan Huygens drawings (1659) that depicted several phases of Death removing his skull... and putting it back on again.
Huygens sketches were meant for a projection with what would become known as the magic lantern. It was here where audiences first began to lose their heads over animated horror, tapped into perfectly by Disney in 1929.
All the iconography is there. An owl framed by the moon is taunted by the shadow of a bony hand; a clock chimes midnight as bats fly from the belfry; a dangling spider followed by a proto-Pluto in silhouette howling at the moon. Two hissing cats sit on tombstones before a skeleton suddenly appears, scaring the felines out of their fur — it hunches over and reveals its crossbones before swallowing the audience whole.
Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies was a groundbreaking series that set out to explore the techniques of animation and sound, building a strong foundation for what would follow. The Skeleton Dance (1929) is Uncle Walt's magic lantern — his phantasmagoria show — and very much a nod to the early origins of both animation and horror as he pays a direct nod to Huygens drawings. The animation is as charming as it is surreal, as terrifying (trust me, it all goes a bit human centipede) as it is ironic in its humor — the first skeleton, just as scared of his own surroundings, throws his skull at the owl — and things start to go... well, a little Evil Dead, Too, with stretching slapstick spines. The result is a wonderful piece of perfectly timed animation, both in terms of musical experimentation and where it stands in the history of film and animation.
Disney never sought to resurrect skeletons and the Gothic so much as to reinvent them. The same could be said for how he tapped into classic fairy tales, recognizing their nightmarish qualities and the horror that lay under the surface of these universal stories. But he was also fearless in tapping into some of the devilish imagery that had gone before, such as F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece, Faust (1926), where Satan's malevolent visage was framed similarly for his next musical experiment, Fantasia (1940). Although the film was a commercial disaster, for Disney it pushed the potent imagery of animation and the use of sound to the next level.
In Britain, Halas and Batchelor recognized Disney’s fearless attitude — albeit, replacing fairy tales with politics — when they produced their adaptation of George Orwell's novella Animal Farm (1945). Released in 1954, the film's climax is reminiscent of Disney's Pinocchio (1940), replacing the threat of child abduction and the infamous donkey transformation with another donkey witnessing a pig morphing into a human being. Halas and Batchelor's film is horrific on many levels, most notably through its traumatic story and what happens to the innocent characters. When it comes to horror, do what you like with us grownups... but leave the children and animals alone!
Personally, it's the whole animal thing that primed me for animated horror when, in 1979, the music video for Art Garfunkel's song, “Bright Eyes,” was released. Unless you're dead inside, the trauma of Watership Down (1978) — accompanied by Garfunkel's melancholia — rips your heart out. I was almost 3 years old and although the music video holds back on the true horror of the film, the sense of anxiety I felt remains a crucial memory. When I finally watched the film five years later, nothing could have prepared me for how terrifying it was and there have been few examples since that capture such dread and brutality. We witness Fiver's nightmare firsthand — not only are rabbits buried alive and torn apart throughout — these rabbits are the most human of characters. Perfectly adapted from Richard Adams’ classic novel, director Martin Rosen's next Adams adaptation, The Plague Dogs (1982), is equally depressing. Both animated films feel like a dark and twisted adventure tale (or tail), rather than a traditional horror, but they both deliver the shocks in spades.
Short of Horror
It is safe to say that horror in animation has been woefully unfulfilled. With the majority of examples found only within animated shorts, music videos, anime TV series and original video animation (OVA), this suggests there is a genuine fear to embrace the medium fully. While avoiding the resurrection of rare and forgotten work, there is a failure to be inspired and lend a fresh direction to horror. Yet there is also the notion that audiences have never been ready to take animated horror seriously, remaining too comfortable with what they consider an optimistic style. Based on the origins of animation on film, it is easy to see why.
Animation has traveled a long way since the pioneering work of J. Stuart Blackton and Winsor McCay. Although Blackton had dabbled with the technique with The Enchanted Drawing in 1900, his Humorous Phases of Funny Faces six years later, paved the way for the genius of McCay with his animated short Little Nemo (1911) — based on his renowned comic strip character — and then took the medium to the next level with the animated milestone, Gertie the Dinosaur (1914).
Born out of the funny pages, animation grew too comfortable until Disney began to push the envelope, and as highlighted so far, animated horror was about as rare as a Mickey Mouse massacre. Despite the horror genre not embracing animation fully until the latter half of the 20th century, a prime example of the art form telling a classic American horror story can be found in an Oscar-nominated short from 1953.
Ted Parmelee's seven-minute version of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart from UPA animation studio is a magnificent example of animated horror. Not only does it perfectly capture the spirit of Poe’s work, but it manages to create a revolutionary piece of animation — showcasing an early example of the abstract and surreal art that had begun to influence the works of the time. This modern aesthetic cast the bouncy style of early Disney and Warner Bros. aside in an attempt to separate itself from more humorous origins. It also enabled animators to strip back unnecessary movement that would ultimately save on cost — however, this was ultimately prompted by the ban on violent cartoons with the likes of Hanna-Barbera having to rethink how they could create animation more cost-effectively. Yabba dabba do.
Parmelee’s The Tell-Tale Heart worked on many levels. The camera was allowed to move around painted backgrounds and figures as the animation employed dissolves and editing. All the while, an angular shadow moves through the scenery accompanied by James Mason’s narration as the tale builds and builds on the psychological terror. It is the Saul Bass of animated horror — as though Brando’s Colonel Kurtz couldn’t summarize it any better: “Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure.”
The horror… the horror… presented once again in splendid phantasmagoria. It is truly a work of genius and no surprise that it was the first “cartoon” to be rated X by the British Board of Film Censors and, in 2001, it was considered “culturally significant” by the United States Library of Congress, who selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. Now, with Guillermo del Toro championing UPA and the likes of YouTube and streaming services, we not only have instant access to these classics but a wealth of innovative short films with zero restrictions.
While we are in the good company of del Toro, imagine if he worked with Pixar and you would have more of La Noria (The Ferris Wheel, 2018) — a stunning passion project from ILM and Pixar animator Carlos Baena that shows off all the hallmarks of Spanish horror — grief, traumatized children and monsters, oh my!
This short film alone signals, “Where the HELL is all the animated horror?!” Its imposing atmosphere, emotion and phenomenal creature design place it right alongside the best in any horror film and will have you crying ... like a baby. Along with the harrowing Midnight Story (2016) and the heart-breaking Geist (2015), La Noria is easily one of the strongest examples of animated horror films. It is a touching story that is as much about horror as it is the history of animation as both the monsters and Ferris wheel's true premises are revealed.
From the sublime to the unsavory shorts of David Firth: Here is an animator who has shown the unfettered mindset of how an independent creative — free from the constraints of studios and naysayers — can deliver horror by the bucketload. In his web series Salad Fingers (2004-present), Firth’s unique sense of black humor has continued to both disturb and entertain us. What started off as crude animation has, over the years, developed its own cringe-worthy style with episodes 9, “Letter”; 10, “Birthday”; and 11, “Glass Brother,” reaching new levels of depravity. Firth truly is the bastard child of David Lynch and Chris Morris — just check out the horror of Cream (2017), which will have you howling with laughter and feeling all shades of dirty at the same time.
Horror stories have always lent themselves to shorter formats — bite-size tales told around the campfire — showing the full potential of how animated horror can deliver the goods. Whether they are polished with CGI or employ more traditional means, they should never detract from the story(s). French animated horror, Fear(s) of the Dark (2007) is one of the few examples so far this century, outside of Japan, that pulls the short format together into an anthology of black and white stories showcasing a mix of CGI and traditional animation from a number of well-known animators, graphic designers and comic book artists. As with most horror anthologies and portmanteau, Fear(s) has some weaker stories but should absolutely be on anyone’s list of animated horror. It is a film that dares to explore not just a fear of the dark but also has the balls to explore horror through animation.
But none of these come close to one of the most nightmarish and infamous animated short films out there. Robert Morgan’s mesmerizing The Cat with Hands (2009) is imbued with familiar qualities as a cat thieves the different body parts of people. The suffocating atmosphere is reminiscent of David Lynch, the Quay Brothers and Jan Švankmajer’s hypnotic works, all served with a side order of Francis Bacon and Dave McKean. It’s a perfect piece of twisted stop-motion horror if ever there was one.
Stop the Horror
Surprisingly, CGI animation rarely embraces horror, with Gil Kenan’s Monster House (2006) one of the few examples. Kenan utilizes motion-capture perfectly as he balances both cartoonish and ghoulish characteristics — Monster House is a genuinely scary little Halloween tale that also provides a wonderful homage to kids’ adventure films and horror of the 1980s. But far stranger things are found within the idiosyncrasies of stop-motion animation — a technique that lends itself perfectly to the horror genre.
Although Tim Burton and Henry Selick delivered the definitive piece of festive horror with The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), it is in the works of Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer that we find some of our darkest nightmares brought to life. His films lack plot but make up for it with unforgettable imagery, melding live action with some of the most surreal and perverse animation put to screen. With Alice (1988), he doesn’t so much reimagine Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland than smash it to pieces — literally chewing it up with a pair of dentures and all kinds of horrendous, animated curiosities.
In Little Otik (2000), he delivers the perfect companion piece to David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) that presents another weird family drama of horrific proportions as a couple raise a hungry tree root that devours everything in sight. The film harkens back to the twisted folklore and fairy tales that Disney explored and, although very much told through the eyes of a young girl, we are subjected to the blackest of black humor. It’s an uncomfortable watch as the roaming eye of the camera presents a leering old man — his groin animated with a shuffle of material and a groping hand presented... instead of his penis. Yeah… you’ll need a shower afterward and some spare time to scrape the dead bodies off the wall.
The grimy world and disturbing atmosphere of Dave Borthwick’s Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993) has Švankmajer’s suffocating tone all over it. This is a great little film that, once again, is centered around a couple who raise what is essentially a miscarriage, hence Tom’s size. It is a deeply sinister tale but what makes the film so unique is that even the real people onscreen are animated through stop-motion that perfectly marries the real and the unreal. Tom is abducted and wakes up in a laboratory full of horrific creatures, one of which helps him escape — imagine David Lynch animating Wallace and Gromit and you’re a step closer to Borthwick’s world.
Despite ownership of the surreal and the Gothic, stop-motion still manages to balance the right tone of horror with a fun and macabre sense of humor. Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005) and Frankenweenie (2012) saw a return to familiar nightmare territory — the latter showing that even a dead dog could be reanimated. Henry Selick brought Laika to prominence with the Oscar-nominated Coraline (2009), which still manages to both captivate and terrify kids. Alas, Laika’s output often treads water despite its flawless work, struggling to find its audience immediately — whether it’s a zombie movie, ParaNorman (2012) or Travis Knight’s epic ode to Japan with the masterpiece Kubo and the Two Strings (2016).
Stop-motion is not just lumps of plasticine — although Pingu’s The Thing is a class act — it’s about the thumbprints left behind and the tactile quality that reminds us of a found object brought to life. We can either laugh at the in-jokes and Hammer homages of Aardman’s Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) or we can creep ourselves out with more acquired tastes that quietly explode our tiny little minds. It’s all just chalk and cheese, Gromit.
Japanese animation is absolutely at the forefront of animated horror. Having experienced the apocalypse firsthand, it doesn’t take much to understand how the nation has been influenced by real-life horror and destruction on such a large scale. Japanese horror, in general, is unique to its time and place, whether utilizing J-horror tropes — folklore and hauntings through technology — or finally embracing their tragic and often gruesome history.
A-Bomb anime Barefoot Gen (1983) from director Mori Masaki is an incredibly moving adaptation of Keiji Nakazawa’s original manga. As an account of the bombing of Hiroshima, it is made more unbearable by its tender use of characterization before we see children and animals catch fire and melt before our eyes. Masaki’s film is loaded with harrowing imagery of atomic horror and nuclear fallout, unrivaled until the release of Jimmy T. Murakami’s adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows (1986).
With all of this in mind, Japan’s own film history is laced with familiar imagery often retooled and reshaped in the guise of giant megaton lizards and moths rampaging through cities. Set in the aftermath of a nuclear war, Katsuhiro Otomo’s game-changer Akira (1988) explodes on-screen with neon backdrops, cool motorbikes and just the right amount of inspired body horror. When antagonist Tetsuo loses control of his newfound power, his mechanical arm is the least of his problems as his body begins to mutate and consume everything around him. The animation is remarkable — Otomo streamlines his original manga but manages to still create a cyberpunk masterpiece that paved the way for the anime boom that took hold of the West throughout the 1990s. It has stood the test of time because of its originality, displaying just the right dosage of horror and sci-fi influences.
Although not the most original of concepts, Lily C.A.T. (1987) shamelessly lifts the backdrop of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) as a shape-shifting creature absorbs the crew in some genuinely gruesome moments. Although the design and direction remain unoriginal, the animated gore is a genuine treat for fans of sci-fi horror.
Around this time, Yoshiaki Kawajiri began to pioneer animated horror with a quick succession of films. Although Ninja Scroll (1993) is arguably his definitive work, it is Wicked City (1987) and Demon City Shinjuku (1988) that show off his skills of genre filmmaking. Having worked as an animator on Barefoot Gen, Kawajiri had already explored the realities of horror and now had the opportunity to build his own grotesque worlds, perfectly balanced with action set pieces you would often associate with Kurosawa and Hong Kong action movies. Although fast-paced, it is his skill as a storyteller to shock his audience at just the right moment.
Perhaps the best introduction to his work is the spider woman’s vagina dentata scene. Displaying some of the more juvenile and lewd content often associated with anime — along with the weirdly infantilized nature of the character designs — the scene, and many others like it, are more than reminiscent of Hokusai’s woodblock print, "Dream of the Fisherman's Wife" (1814) that depicts a woman copulating with an octopus. It is a hugely influential image, the DNA of which can be seen in everything from Lovecraft to Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981) — part drama, Lovecraftian horror and ultra-violent espionage thriller. We have all seen one of those, right?
Ultraviolence and horror have rarely been rivaled when looking at the anime series Berserk (1997-1998) in which the original manga (1989-present) from Kentaro Miura must have had a direct influence on George R. R. Martin’s novel A Game of Thrones (1996) and certainly continued to permeate the HBO series. The original Berserk anime is one of the best examples of rich character development and story arcs and although it remains brutally violent throughout, it isn’t until the unresolved finale that the horror comes into its own.
In The Golden Age Arc remakes (2012-2013), the final arc of the trilogy The Advent literally reanimates Berserk’s climax as the Band of the Hawk is sacrificed within the bowels of a surreal and hellish landscape. It is intensified by the journey these characters have taken with a level of animation that brings to life the unbearable atmosphere and unique creature designs wrapped up in a primal and unforgettable nightmare. It is relentless, as though everything in the series and even the history of animated horror has led to this moment.
From Satoshi Kon’s giallo-inspired Perfect Blue (1997) to his beautiful and sickening butterfly scene in Paprika (2006) — where a man opens a woman with his bare hand, revealing another version underneath — the anime genre has continued to deliver concepts that have grown alongside technique. Japanese animation has grown because it hasn’t shied away from embracing taboos and therefore has always pushed the work toward areas that the West often sees as unacceptable or unable to market.
However, anime can still disappoint. Take the original manga works of Junji Ito, one of the most unique horror visionaries of all time. Ito’s work has been adapted into live-action and animation, where his stories, unfortunately, lose the intricacy and detail he takes so much pride over. Although it has its moments, the Junji Ito Collection (2018) — a 12-part series adapting 24 of his stories — lifts the frames and imagery like a poor tracing. Something is clearly lost in translation where crucial panels from the original manga take their time to build on the subtlety of interaction. Ito’s work is considered and methodical — right down to the terrifying page turn. Until a studio and director understands his work, rudimentary animation and poor direction will simply remain a soulless exercise that lacks the evil spirit of some of the most important horror material out there.
Mushi-Shi (2005-2006), on the other hand, is a work of art. This is a series that is everything that Ito’s adaptations should be, softened by a Miyazaki influence. Organisms known as Mushi alter the world around them — they are neither plants nor animals, perhaps bordering on the supernatural — as a traveler by the name of Ginko wanders the land investigating the strange occurrences left behind by the strange phenomena. The horror remains subtle but utterly compelling as we see individuals absorbed by water, grow horns or lose their hearing to the microscopic organisms.
Borrowing characters from classic literature, Ryôtarô’s Makihara’s The Empire of Corpses (2015) delivers an inventive opening scene of John Watson going all Victor Frankenstein as he reanimates his dead friend using technology known as “Necroware.” We are in steampunk territory built around Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, all of which serves as a stunning backdrop for everything we love about Gothic horror. Although flawed, there is enough high concept and exploding zombies to make your ears ring and your eyes bleed.
While we're on the undead, South Korea director Yeon Sang-ho puts his animation background to good use, building on his live-action debut Train to Busan (2016) with his prequel Seoul Station (2016). This animated zombie horror easily lives up to the train journey and, along with The Empire of Corpses, is one of few zombie animated horrors this side of Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island (1998).
The reanimated continue to flock towards Castlevania (2017-present) — a current Netflix series that has one of the best platforms to lend new life to animated horror. Reminiscent in style to Yukio Nagasaki’s original Blood: The Last Vampire (2000), the tone and character interaction feels closer to Berserk and Thrones territory — set within a dark, medieval fantasy world — its video game origins influencing the frenetic pace and balletic action and horror. It’s glorious at its goriest and should be a prime example of the resurrection or renaissance of animated horror.
Resurrection and Beyond
Skeletons still dance in Disney/Pixar’s 2018 Oscar winner, Coco. It’s no horror show, that’s for sure, but a touching fantasy adventure that celebrates life beyond death. Sometimes that's all we need as a respite from the horror shows and some of the weird shit out there...
This brings us to our conclusion with one of the weirdest as Japanese animator Ujicha takes horror to another level — both in terms of story and technique — presenting a horrific coming-of-age tale where David Cronenberg meets Michael Crichton. In Violence Voyager (2018), dinosaurs are replaced by mutilated, cyborg kids with Ujicha pushing beyond what we perceive as animation, dismantling it through a technique known as “Gekimation.” If Violence Voyager was a live-action, it would be buried immediately but the puppetry of the cut-out style distracts just enough. Reverting back to the phantasmagoria shows that the Geki style resembles something more akin to storyboards or previs of an unfinished film. Keep an eye out for the home release this winter from Third Window Films — it’s... insane... on so many levels — makes Adult Swim look like Nickelodeon by comparison.
But Adult Swim never shirks from pushing boundaries further with its own warped sense of humor. A current stand-out is the horror anthology The Shivering Truth (2018-present) — another foray into the surreal via a stop-motion horror anthology — very much in the same vein as the often-overlooked Monkey Dust (2003-2005). Both of these series are outstanding and feel like Roald Dahl's unpublished nightmares. But it's the first five episodes of Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal (2019) that takes Adult Swim into another stratosphere. Already standing as one of the greatest pieces of animation this century, Primal not only tells a revisionist story of man and dinosaur but also animates the origins of violence and horror. It is a moving and tragic tale that manages to enthrall us with its bloodshed, tearing your heart out and stomping on it with a mammoth size foot.
Animated horror screams for more attention. It isn’t so much about its resurrection because it still needs the chance to fully exist instead of lost among short films and obscurities. The best examples that have remained buried will be restored among the boutiques — resuscitated and given a newfound appreciation among filmmakers and collectors, true reanimations given fresh vigor that will inevitably influence a renewed activity and movement within horror. If no one steps up, then FANGO will draw it in blood, 24 frames per second.
Rich Johnson has written for Little White Lies, Hotdog, Network, Shots, REBELLER and Diabolique Magazine. With upcoming film commentary and material for a number of home releases, he also hosts @filmandpodcast and is one half of @mondomoviehouse. His Devil's Advocates book on Bone Tomahawk is due out late 2020. www.richpieces.com