With Joshua opening this weekend, I got to thinking (yet again) about one of my favorite sub-genres of cinema -- creepy kids. For many, few things are scarier than believing children -- those unspoiled symbols of purity and innocence -- are really out to get you, perhaps even kill you. There are psychological reasons for such thoughts, that deep down, many of these movies reveal a fear of parenting (I know a few older women who were terrified about having kids after watching Rosemary's Baby).
And there's the twisted storytelling logic wherein kids make the best, creepiest villains. It's just so perverse to see, say, little Samara Morgan (no relation) crawling across the floor, or the emotionless look on Damien's face in The Omen after his nanny jumps out of a window, or those creepy little brats freaking out poor Deborah Kerr in The Innocents. So, to bless the child, and to prepare myself for Joshua ("I'll give you $5 if I can throw a rock at you") I'm listing ten of my favorite creepy kids in cinema. Some are quite young, some are teens and some are just plain sad. But all are crazy, evil and, in my world, cute as hell. And yes, I was so creeped out by The Innocents that I forgot to mention those scary little kids.
Battle Royale (2000)
What if we encouraged the kids to not be alright? That's the situation in Kinji Fukasaku's masterpiece Battle Royale -- a terrifying, bloody and morbidly satiric film in which kids are instructed to kill other kids (starring one of my favorites, Takeshi "Beat" Kitano). Here is the deal: In the not-so-distant future, an economically depressed Japan is having serious problems with lawless teenagers. The government passes a violent law -- the Millennial Reform School Act -- they believe will safeguard against further mayhem. The law is essentially a sick, twisted, Darwin-inspired game, in which a class of young teens are put on an island, given various weapons and forced to take each other out within three days. The last kid standing wins. Yay! Or... no, wait, this isn't really any fun at all. Watching the kid's diverse personalities (some get back at others, some want to topple the system, some still really want that certain boy to like them) is frightening, perversely funny and extraordinarily poignant within this violent milieu. It's a potent parable. And, come to think about it, these kids aren't so creepy. I just love them too much.
The Brood (1979)
Are these freaky things even kids? Well, yes... sorta. After watching Samantha Eggar birth them (licking the newborns and all, a scene every libidinous teen should watch to prevent pregnancy) in David Cronenberg's classic (and one of his greatest movies), they definitely come from her womb. But what are they exactly? That's what Eggar's husband (Art Hindle) wants to find out after mysterious, deformed blonde kids in ski jackets show up unannounced to kill people. Worse, they take away his daughter. And things become even more complicated when he realizes his wife's psychiatrist (a fantastic Oliver Reed) has something to do with it. So let me re-phrase this: they aren't really children but, when referring to the shrink's eccentric methods they are "shapes of rage." Shapes of rage that do your bidding. Damn. I want some. This might make me re-think my desire to never bear children.
The Shining (1980)
Now, adorable Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) wasn't a bad kid; he just had, as hotel cook Scatman Crothers so eloquently put it, "The Shine." He could read thoughts and see into the past and future. But then, he also had that imaginary friend on his index finger, Tony. Tony spoke in that little kid creepy voice ("Redrum! Redrum!"), which freaked out his mother (Shelly Duvall) and clearly made his psychotic father (Jack Nicholson) a little on the far side of grumpy. I felt terrible for that kid--he endure far too much stress in that hotel. For example, whilst in the middle of simply trying to enjoy his Big Wheel, two of the scariest kids I've ever seen in cinema, those Diane Arbus-inspired ghosts of the Grady Sisters have to come out to taunt him ("Play with us, Danny..."). Or worse, his homicidal father chases him with an ax. Still, sympathy aside, the urchin is scary, charmingly so. Director Stanley Kubrick chose Lloyd out of a talent search based on his ability to concentrate -- which is vaguely disturbing in itself. How did he find those twins I wonder?
The Village of the Damned (1960)
The picture hasn't worn as scary throughout the years, but there is something iconic about these blonde, mod-looking children with their blank, penetrating glow-eyes. And disturbing, too, since they can make people do things they didn't intend to do (like, oh, drive their car into a wall). Taking a cue from the blonde psycho from The Bad Seed, this cult classic decided to flood an entire English village with flaxen freaks, unleashing a horror that's tough to fight -- who wants to attack the kids? After women become pregnant under bizarre conditions (let's just say their husbands have nothing to do with it), out pop scores of Vidal Sassoon-haired babies who grow up freakishly fast and claim superior brains, but are seriously lacking in the social skills department. They also appear to be in on some secret, which is truly the film's scariest conceit. If you just think about it and transfer it to real life, the idea of a bunch of grimly serious little blonde kids, dressed in matching clothes, glaring at you, would be terrifying. Or it could be the Olsen Twins but again, they are creepy cute.
The Omen (1976)
Here's the lesson learned from The Omen -- don't ever take a kid and pretend it's yours. You never know, he could be the Antichrist. And don't name him Damien; it just seems like, I don't know, setting the kid off on the wrong foot. He could, as in Richard Donner's film, cause the nanny to hang herself (the picture's scariest scene), or make visits to the zoo highly unpleasant (especially when driving by the baboons). And even if the father is as solid as Gregory Peck and the mother is as perfect as Lee Remick, no matter: He's still trouble. Yes he's cheek-pinching cute (he reminds me of my beloved Angus Young... awww), but when he can only be destroyed with the seven daggers of Meggado, well, maybe one should consider adopting through the proper channels next time around.
These Are The Damned (1963)
Directed by the great Joseph Losey, the masterful These Are the Damned was made in 1961, hacked up by producers and not released in England until 1963. It finally found its way to America in 1965, thank God (or Satan, whomever). Macdonald Carey plays an American tourist who while vacationing the English seaside, falls for Shirley Anne Field, a young woman who just happens to be the sister of Oliver Reed, a bad-ass motorcycle gang leader to a bunch of Teddy Boys. Reed hates Carey and exhibits some decidedly incestuous feelings for sis, but that's just part of the problem. Reed is such a violent hoodlum, the new couple run off to a cave under a nearby military base which is where (surprise) the weird kid action starts. In this case, a group of children, who've suffered experiments conducted by a scientist intent on developing a race of humans who can survive an atomic blast. As a result, the poor kids have all become radioactive and can now kill anyone who dares to get near them. What's sad is that rather than recoil from these children, the couple wants to save them. But alas, life isn't so easy (you can't just adopt a brood of radioactive children) and the picture remains hauntingly grim.
The Exorcist (1973)
Obvious, but for a reason--it doesn't get much worse than this. Sure, that little Osment kid saw dead people and Danny Torrance watched waves of blood pour out of a hotel elevator... but little Regan's (Linda Blair) head does a 360 and she pukes pea soup. She also says really, really (and I mean really) inappropriate things. There's no way her brave, patient mother (Ellen Burstyn) could take her to a birthday party or you know, church (things would be flying out of every window). And then there's that risk of vulgar actions with sacred objects ("Fuck me Jesus" in Sunday school? How embarrassing). All of this makes William Friedkin's The Exorcist the gold standard in the annals of creepy kids in cinema, with demonic possession topping the list of "things we don't want our kids to catch." For most of the film, the little girl is locked in her room and tied to the bed where she flails, screams obscenities, laughs manically and sprouts boils on her face (maybe that Ritalin didn't help). Can you imagine this film being made today? Not a chance...in hell.
Don't Deliver Us From Evil (1971)
Never released in the United States and "banned" for blasphemy, the masterful movie presents a wonderfully deceiving package. The story of two teenage convent girls who "dedicate ourselves to Satan" could have been some dippy horror movie--a T&A fest with demons and multiple slayings and loads of sex (I know, you've probably lost interest...just stick with me). It could have been one of those '70s horror films that make you run for the shower directly upon watching because even your soul feels soiled. Which isn't a terrible thing. But that's not what Don't Deliver Us From Evil is going for. It's really about the obsessive nature of female friendship, of living in a boring world filled with hypocrisy, of becoming fueled by literature and the forbidden and all the stuff that's so intense when you're 15. Here it's gorgeous raven-haired Anne (Jeanne Goupi) and her best friend Lore (Catherine Wagener), two beautiful but curious (yes, curious) girls marking their time at Catholic School by sneaking into bed with each other and reading erotic literature under the sheets.
They're especially fascinated by evil, which, isn't that strange considering their Catholic environment. But when they renounce Jesus Christ and all his works to become baby brides of Satan, they one-up the typical Catholic schoolgirl naughtiness. They kill animals, torture men and...I don't want to spoil the, uh, fun. I love movies that are able to crawl under your skin and almost make you feel guilty--complicit even--with the character's intentions. With loads of sacreligious imagery and the director clearly giving the Church a big, fat middle finger, the general ambiance of the movie is unsettling and cheeky, but in an intoxicating, magical way. You really fall in love with these girls. And that, quite simply (and subversively), makes you feel evil. And you'll never, ever forget their recitation of Baudelaire's "Les Morts des Amants" (Death of the Lovers). If only all poetry readings were this insanely brilliant.
Pretty Poison (1968)
I will never, ever stop talking about Tuesday Weld. I love her so much, that as I've said numerous times, it almost hurts. Lord Love a Duck, Wild in the Country, The Cincinnati Kid, Play it as it Lays, Thief and on and on... But my favorite Weld performance? As Sue Ann Stepanek in Pretty Poison. Pretty Poison is the definitive Tuesday Weld movie. Playing the beautiful but deadly high-school majorette to Anthony Perkins twitchy, creepy fire-starter, she is the deliciously deviant underbelly of America's heartland. Where blondes are supposed to be good girls but, in her case, are most definitely not. Made in 1968 and directed by Noel Black, the picture was something of a dud upon release (too sexually disturbing? too strange?) and has achieved cult status ever since. And deservedly so. With it's violence, pitch black comedy and sexy viciousness (watch Tuesday commit murder and immediately want to have sex after) the picture is wonderfully subversive and deeply strange. And Weld...she is charming, scary, beautiful and sickly erotic. Need I explain the plot? The manipulation of Perkins (who thought he was doing the manipulating)? The killing of her mother? The crazy, beautiful, psycho intensity of Weld? No. You really should watch it for yourself. Again, Tuesday, Tuesday. As Tiny Tim sang, "If only Tuesday Weld would be my wife."
The Bad Seed (1956)
Though The Omen or The Good Son tried, nothing compares to The Bad Seed -- and no child actor has entirely out-seeded Patty McCormack as blonde, pigtailed Rhoda Penmark, the sociopath who clobbers a schoolmate to death with her shoes. Calm and cool, she can also rip into fits of rage that are both terrifying and hilarious. Perfectly balancing a disarmingly adult demeanor (her scenes with handyman Leroy are wonderfully subversive and weirdly sexually provocative) with the tantrums of a little girl, her performance begs the question: where did McCormack learn to act like this? A classic and the first of its kind, the then-shocking The Bad Seed holds up, albeit with a tad more camp, but with just as much psychotic gusto. As the all-knowing Leroy spits out: "I thought I saw some mean little gals in my time, but you're the meanest!" Yes indeed, and also the greatest. If the crown could exist, Rhoda is my Creepy Queen. She's also, I'm just going to admit it, one of my heroes.