A horror film is not “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Yes, a large portion of the story centres around an eccentric recluse who recruits children and their guardians to undergo possibly fatal tests in his chocolate factory in order to establish an heir. And yes, the factory is run by slave labour from musically talented orange small people, but despite this, the film is nevertheless a beloved family favourite that has held viewers’ attention for 50 years since its original debut in 1971.
It goes without saying that the film’s reputation as a classic family movie does not excuse some of its darker themes. This brings me to one of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’s” most famed and arguably creepiest moments: the tunnel sequence. I’m sure you recognise the one if you’ve seen the movie at least once.
I think viewers can all agree that the scene is at least objectively startling, and as it turns out, viewers weren’t the only ones who felt uneasy or outright terrified by the scene even the actors found themselves uneasy on set that day. The scene has been regarded by many as one of the most terrifying scenes in a non-horror movie.
Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka personally leads everyone onboard his boat and then begins to read a weird poem, at first quietly and then with growing volume and fervour until it becomes a terrifying exhibition of insanity. Even more ominous than that is the quick flashing of lights that accompany the horrific images that appear on the screen, such as the millipede crawling across a man’s face. To refresh your memory, here is the scene in question:
It makes sense for spectators to be terrified because it is some seriously disturbing material, but why would this worry the actors? They must have known what to anticipate, right?
They failed to. The actors in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” were aware of what would happen during the boat sequence, but they weren’t ready for Wilder’s delivery’s intensity. An over-the-top performance from an incredibly committed performer, whose costars weren’t entirely aware of how things would play out, leads to a sensory nightmare.
So Here’s The Thing…
The other actors present reacted in an authentic way as a result of the dizzying visual effects and the terror of wondering if they were really watching their skilled costar go insane in real time.
“Gene wasn’t a method actor and did take direction, but he was always creating his own thing. We never quite knew what we were going to get from him, particularly the boat scene in the film, when he went slightly loopy whether that was improvisation or not I’ll never know, but we certainly didn’t see it coming!
There was no indication, according to Julie Dawn Cole, who played Veruca Salt, that he’d be going completely bonkers with his performance that day:
Due to the lack of warning, both children and adults who played the roles of the performers were genuinely as horrified, surprised, and agitated as spectators are still being 50 years later.
Knowing this makes the moment even more intriguing and unnerving in hindsight, but it doesn’t change the fact that “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” is still a delightful family movie, even if some of the visuals has caused viewers to experience a visceral reaction.
Personally, I thought Veruca Salt’s juicy swelling was far scarier than the tunnel scene. My childish dread that she might explode and saturate everything and everyone around her with organs, tissue, and blueberry juice is something I can still remember to this day. Another tense scenario is the one with the “fizzy lifting drink,” in which Charlie and Grandpa Joe narrowly escape being mercilessly cut in half by huge metal fan blades. In addition, considering that nobody left the area after witnessing Augustus Gloop’s near drowning and Wonka’s callous response to a child almost dying in his care, everyone appeared to be in good spirits. Never mind the impromptu musical pieces performed by a chorus of small slaves about each child’s near-death experience.