When I was a young boy (probably two or three), Pinocchio was my favorite movie. I loved it! I would watch it constantly. Recently, as a 34-year-old, avid horror movie fan, I re-watched it. Midway through, I realized why I loved it so much: It’s basically a horror movie!
Disney usually tames their stories from the often darker original source material to make their movies a bit more family-friendly. 1940’s Pinocchio, however, was left full of terrifying situations and dark, frightening visuals.
Hear me out.
Pinocchio is created by Geppetto, who wishes upon a star that his newly created puppet could become a real boy. While Geppetto sleeps, the Blue Fairy grants the wish by bringing Pinocchio to life, but explains that to become a real boy, he must prove himself brave, truthful, and unselfish. She then appoints Jiminy Cricket as Pinocchio’s conscience. AN INSECT! She gave an insect the sole responsibility of guiding a newly self-aware being through his first days of life! Anyway. Rather than taking the time to get to know him and teach him the ways of the world, Geppetto just sends Pinocchio off to figure it out on his own. And so Pinocchio is sent off to school. With an insect conscience as his guide.
Here’s where the horror really begins.
Pinocchio is abducted by two strangers: Honest John the Fox and his companion, Gideon the Cat. They trick Pinocchio into ditching school, and sell him to a giant, abusive, crazy, Italian Puppet Master called Stromboli. After a killer first performance for Stromboli, Jiminy figures Pinocchio doesn’t need him, and just leaves him in the night with the crazy slave master. Pinocchio is locked in a tiny bird cage, trapped in a life of servitude where he must perform lest he be chopped into firewood. We aren’t even halfway through the movie, and we already have child abduction, human trafficking, and a serious threat of dismemberment!
Jiminy comes back, but can’t do anything, so the Blue Fairy bails them out, helping Pinocchio to escape. Pinocchio lies to the Blue Fairy against Jiminy’s advice, and then the two set off only to fall back into the clutches of Pinocchio’s original abductors, Honest John and Gideon. Once again, Jiminy can’t do a damn thing to help. This time, Pinocchio is headed to Pleasure Island – a land of sin and debauchery! Jiminy, being a useless insect, has no effect as a conscience as Pinocchio gets drunk, smokes cigars, gambles, and breaks stuff along with all the other wild kids just running around causing havoc. But their fun, it turns out, comes at a price. You thought those naughty kids at Crystal Lake had it rough when Jason punished them? Well these kids got it much worse: they all turn into donkeys, and are sold to work in the salt mines!
Not only that, but we actually get a pretty frightening transformation sequence on-screen, as one of Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island pals, Lampwick, turns into a donkey right before Pinocchio’s eyes. Yes, there’s a dark, painful, therianthropic transformation scene in a kids’ movie in 1940! That’s a year before The Wolf Man! We also see other donkey-children in crates being whipped and rounded-up by glowing-eyed, black shadow figures. Yeah. Creepy.
Pinocchio escapes yet again, but only after he had been half-transformed into a donkey-boy. He finally returns home, only to find that his father had been swallowed alive by a terrifying giant whale named Monstro. How is this NOT a horror movie?!
Pinocchio and Jiminy set out to rescue Geppetto. They deliberately get swallowed by Monstro, and escape by setting a fire inside the whale’s belly, causing him to sneeze them all out. This leads to our final chase scene: A hungry and pissed-off whale chases after our heroes and nearly slams them all into the jagged rocks that litter the shoreline. Luckily the gang squeezes through a tiny hole in the rocks, just barely threading the needle to safety… except Pinocchio. Pinocchio is dead! Yes, straight-up dead, face-down in a shallow pool of sea water on the beach. The main character died! Dead as a doornail!
Everyone is devastated. They take his lifeless body back to the shop and mourn him. Finally the Blue Fairy shows up (probably feeling guilty for appointing an insect as Pinocchio’s conscience and guide), and not only brings him back to life, but turns Pinocchio into a real boy.
In the end, we DO get a happy ending, but all that stuff in the middle…
• slavery, child abduction and human trafficking
• a concept reminiscent of Saw or Seven where one pays for sins with physical pain and suffering
• a painful transformation sequence followed by a partial transformation sequence
• shadow people
• a giant sea monster
• a super intense final chase scene where the main character dies
… that’s a horror movie if I’ve ever seen one!