Monsters in the movies: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Horrors

The new Hogwarts saga, which opens in the UK next week, has been criticised for being too frightening. Robert Hanks compares scares in ten classic children's favourites

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937)

Supposedly, the Wicked Queen was modelled on Gale Sondergaard - the actress who was also first choice for the Wicked Witch of the West. Her obvious beauty is one of the most disturbing elements in the film: you know you're supposed to be on Snow White's side, but honestly, isn't her stepmother more alluring? For some young boys, her pallid hauteur was an early introduction to the dark side of sexuality, a hint that it might not be all clean and nice between those sheets, and you might not want it to be. And the spell that turns her into a hag, with its screams and lurid bubbles, is one of the great mad-scientist scenes in cinema.

Wicked Witch of the West

THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

Film villains had been ugly before, but Margaret Hamilton's green complexion and prosthetic nose inaugurated a new era of extreme physical nastiness. She starts out as Dorothy's dog-hating neighbour Miss Gulch, shrieking and pedalling on her bike through the air after the cyclone hits.

As the hideously ugly witch, she can really let rip, and does, screaming: "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too."

For poor, lost Dorothy, the cackling witch is too much to handle: but in the end, how scared can you be of somebody who melts in water? It's those damn flying monkeys who really add the element of horror.

Cruella de Vil

101 DALMATIONS (1996)

In the live-action version, Glenn Close was menacing in an upmarket, camp and terrifyingly intelligent way as the fearsome inhabitant of Hell Hall. But the grown-ups among us just can't forget the cartoon Cruella - a jagged streak of pure egotism, topped by that inexplicable black and white hair. (In the Dodie Smith book, it was turned that way by drinking a bottle of ink). Her sheer malice is summed up in one terrible fact: she wants to use puppies - puppies! - to make a fur coat and she will trick good, honest dog-lovers without turning a hair. Like so many of the scariest films, this is a nightmare about being orphaned - the fact that these children have white fur with black spots only makes them more lovable, their plight more pathetic. Older girls may come to appreciate that the fashion-mad, road-hogging Cruella is an independent woman living in a man's world.

The Merpeople

HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE (2005)

Given the huge choice of terrifying characters - from fire-breathing dragons to You-Know-Who - peopling the latest Harry Potter film, it is surprising that the Merpeople have turned out so - well - scary.

These xenophobic moat dwellers - they live in the waters lapping at the walls of Hogwarts - are apparently scaring the living daylights out of cinema-goers, including, it seems, grown-up film critics.

The consensus seems to be that the Merpeople - depicted in the book with grey skin, green hair, yellow eyes and broken teeth - are the most frightening bit in the new movie. They are shown with mouths open, facing the camera with their ghastly hair swirling around them. Harry encounters them during the Triwizard Tournament, a kind of magical triathlon. In one round, he has to swim to the bottom of the lake to rescue a friend from their chilly clutches.

The scary make-up will no doubt come as a rude awakening for children fed a diet of beautiful mermaids reclining on rocks. In fact, it's totally superficial and the Merpeople actually turn out to be quite friendly; they even put in a good word for Harry with Dumbledore. But not friendly enough to avoid the wrath of the Daily Mail, which yesterday labelled the movie Scary Potter and warned: "In rare cases, children can develop phobias as a result of seeing a film and those can persist into adulthood".

The question arises: can Merpeople be half as scary as a regular diet of Daily Mail stories about asylum-seekers and working mothers?

The Child Catcher

CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG (1968)

This was the strange man your parents and those public information films they showed at school warned you about - the one who offers you sweets if you'll go along with him...

With his cooing cry of "Ice cream! Chocolate!" and his cage on wheels, the Child Catcher is clearly related to the witch in the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel (and his pointed nose marks him out as kin to the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz). But this is a post-Nazi witch: children, for him, are a kind of Untermenschen, for whom he feels a loathing that borders on hysteria. The great dancer Robert Helpmann gave him a spidery grace and took what seems to me now, watching through adult eyes, an almost perverse pleasure in locking children up. His catchphrase was suitably alarming: "There are children here: I can smell them."

Bill Sykes

OLIVER! (1968)

In most versions of Oliver Twist, Fagin is the scary one. But in the musical, Ron Moody's Fagin is far too full of energy and mischief to be unlikeable: it's Oliver Reed's low-voiced, sneering Sykes who makes the running. Reed's pale blue eyes were well-adapted to cruelty; in hindsight, perhaps it was his drinking that gave them that blankness. Every time Oliver thinks he's found a family Sykes finishes the dream off - snatching him away from kind Mr Brownlow, murdering motherly Nancy. His nastiness is proven when he even kills the dog, Bullseye.

The Oogey Boogey Man

THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)

Tim Burton's Halloween fantasy is the most creepy animated film ever made. Most of the ghouls and spooks are, at bottom, decent folks; only the Oogy-boogey man is wedded to unpleasantness and fear. The film has many queasy visual pleasures to offer; but the disintegration of the Oogey Boogey Man into a wodge of bugs and crawling things seems to hint at something genuinely perverse, dredged up from bits of the subconscious that most of us don't have, and certainly don't want to visit.

Voldemort

HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE (2001)

Even before The Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter was pushing the envelope on what was acceptable in films that young children might see. Giant serpents and Dementors were disturbing; but they don't match up to the moment in The Philosopher's Stone when Voldemort turns up, snake-eyed and malevolent, on the back of Professor Quirrell's head. How will Ralph Fiennes, seen here as Voldemort in the new movie, beat that?

The Grand High Witch

THE WITCHES (1990)

Witches divide into the glamorous and the repulsive: Anjelica Houston can do both at once. In Nicolas Roeg's version of Dahl's story, in which a small boy stumbles across a witches' convention at a seaside hotel, she has help from some superb prosthetics.

Within the limits her menacing beauty permits, Huston looks quite normal to begin with. Then she unmasks and unwigs, to reveal a bald, scythe-nosed crone. Absolutely terrifying.

Agatha Trunchbull

MATILDA (1996)

Roald Dahl had an acute sense of how irrational adults look to children, and how unfair it seems that their size allows them to dominate. Agatha Trunchbull, the bully of a headmistress in Matilda, embodies this injustice: snaggle-toothed, broken veined, gargantuan (she is a former champion hammer-thrower), her staring eyes have - in Pam Ferris's brilliant performance - a gleam of real insanity. There is no false psychologising here: Miss Trunchbull threatens and hurts children because she can, and because she doesn't like them. The scene in which she hunts Matilda through her house - sniffing like a guard-dog, her huge hams bearing down like thunder as she runs - is utterly paralysing, and brings home the awful truth that children, however brave and resourceful fiction makes them, can never really fight back. Of Roald Dahl's many horrific characters (see the Grand High Witch, above), she is the most believably evil.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence