11 family films that should come with a nightmare warning

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Family films can contain nasty surprises. Most of us can remember a time when a popcorn movie turned into a settee nightmare without any warning, so how can you make sure you’re not going to inflict the same thing on your children? You might think children’s TV is too violent, but even U certificate movies can have shocks and tearjerking moments.

Certificates give only general clues as to what you might expect in a film, though you can visit the BBFC site for a clearer idea – there’s an “insight” feature into a lot of movies for parents. The aptly named Does The Dog Die website also offers a way of checking if any cute animals or main characters suffer an early demise.

If you don’t fancy trawling through those sites for every film you want to watch, here are some that deserve a little bit of caution before you watch them at home. (Needless to say, this list contains massive spoilers about the films in question, so enter at your own risk.)

Watership Down (U)

Aww, it’s a cartoon about lovely fwuffy bunny rabbits, look at them merrily hopping around the OH GOD NO DEATH BLOOD CARNAGE GORE DEATH BLOOD AAAAARGH OH THIS IS HORRIBLE.

Richard Adams’s story of rabbits running free is, to put it mildly, a tale of nature red in tooth and claw. Yet somehow it manages to survive in a Sunday teatime slot on TV, despite some horrific scenes.

Contains: blood, gore, death, sudden death, shocking death, animals dying, prolonged death, distressing scenes, suffering (seriously just don’t watch it ever).

Dumbo (U)

Long before Pixar were making children and adults cry, Disney were perfecting the art. We could have chosen pretty much any Disney cartoon from the classic canon – the carnivorous whale in Pinocchio, for example, or Bambi’s mum being shot by a hunter – but there’s one moment in Dumbo that will have you blubbing more than any other in Disney. Separated from his mother, who is only trying to protect him, Dumbo the elephant has to say goodbye – he thinks, forever.

Contains: separation, violence against animals, distressing scenes.

ET – The Extra Terrestrial (U)

This charming film about a boy who befriends an alien takes a very dark twist. Young Elliott’s cute extraterrestrial buddy is captured, gets sicker and sicker and then… dies. He comes back (director Stephen Spielberg, who’s Jewish, once said he didn’t realise the Jesus parallel) but by then you’ll be in a river of salty tears. Not only that, but he leaves again at the end.

Contains: imprisonment, separation, kidnapping, suffering, death.

Labyrinth (U)

David Bowie’s trousers are one of the most problematic areas in this U certificate film, but there’s plenty besides the Goblin King’s crown jewels to surprise and shock. (A baby is kidnapped, for goodness’ sake!) Some children could find some of the creepier scenes and scary monsters a little disturbing.

Contains: kidnap, separation, imprisonment, scary monsters, David Bowie in very tight trousers.

Up (U)

Your children might not quite get just how sad the opening few minutes are, but it might trigger you if you’ve ever had a traumatic pregnancy or lost a child. It’s among the finest sequences in movie history – just don’t expect to be able to survive emotionally, as the hero’s wife loses a child, ages, gets sicker and then dies.

Contains: miscarriage, suffering, terminal illness, death.

Ghostbusters (PG) (original film)

When this one came out, it was treated like a children’s film, despite the smoking, swearing and deeply graphic sex references. That’s part of the reason why it was so attractive to me as an eight-year-old boy, I think. You’ll be squirming at the “Dan Aykroyd having his trousers unzipped by a ghost” sequence.

Contains: sex, smoking, swearing, cute marshmallow ghost melting and exploding.

The Neverending Story (U)

Like Labyrinth, this fantasy tale is exciting, gripping and empowering for youngsters – but it has more than enough moments to terrify and, in one particular case, traumatise. There’s no reason why a beloved horse should sink into a swamp and drown but… that’s just what happens, so be warned.

Contains: kidnap, imprisonment, violence, animal death.

Ring of Bright Water (U)

There’s nothing that really prepares you for this one, and it’s a massive spoiler to say what does happen, but suffice it to say, don’t let your little ones get too attached to the cute-looking otters. I think you can guess.

Contains: an otter being pummelled to death with a spade. (Ah, that’s probably spoiled it now.)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (PG)

It’s hard to know which Indiana Jones film to go for, given they all have their share of grim scenes. But the climactic moments in this classic are astonishingly graphic for a family movie – harrowing, distressing and rather unpleasant, even if you think the Nazis deserved it.

Contains: death, blood, gore, melting faces, exploding heads, heads chopped up with propellers, the wrath of god.

Licence To Kill (15)

Most Bond films are watchable enough in the afternoon for older (maybe 8+) kids, despite the cartoon violence and sexual innuendo. Not so this one, which has repeated bloody violence, gore and some of the most icky deaths in the whole Bond canon. It got a 15 certificate on release, deservedly so, and is either cut to ribbons or left uncut as a harrowing surprise for younger viewers.

Contains: death, blood, gore, exploding heads, men being chopped up in rotating knives.

What films would be in your list? Should Bambi be on ours? Is there anything you saw at the cinema or on TV that traumatised you as a child? Let us know in the comments. 

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  1. Isaac

    They never told Drew Barrymore in ET that he was a puppet or what was going to happen to him. Her reactions were real and must have scarred her for life.

    The Bridge to Terabithia must be included. It’s exemption can only mean you haven’t watched it. I won’t spoil it…the director does a good enough job. #traumatised for life.

  2. Tina

    We love Studio Ghibli films. They are all pretty scary for kids the first few times! But they are the BEST films.
    Spirited away, Laputa, princess monoke. I haven’t let my boys watch grave of the fire flies…

  3. missdv

    DOT AND THE KANGAROO was one of the scariest things I ever watched, I can still remember how scared I was about the ghost that came out of the caves. Contains racial profiling, child getting lost in a forest, super emotional attachment and loss and some scarey characters. Bizarrely, no-one I ever met from Australia has watched it, they just exported their horror movies.

  4. Genevieve

    Return to oz, first film I saw at cinema and had to be taken out of, the wheelers were and still are terrifying!

  5. NickyP

    The only film to ever give me nightmares…. and I have watched every horror film including R rated….. is Arachnophobia (PG) and it still does. ? ?

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