Bad Seeds: Creepy Kids on Film

08/05/2009 4:00 AM |

A transcript for Nicolas Rapold and Matt Zoller Seitz’s creepy kids video essay.

Orphan is another in a long line of movies about terrible tots who bring ruin to their trusting families. Creepy kids are a staple subgenre of both horror and psychological thrillers, but where did they come from, and is there more to them than the cheap shock of watching sadistic brats?

The accepted ground zero, at least at the movies, is The Bad Seed, released in 1956. Pig-tailed Rhoda set the mold for enfants terribles: a little too poised and a little too perfect, she commits secret acts of mayhem and murder until she is slowly found out by surrounding adults after various stages of denial. The innocence of children is the sacred cow that the movie takes on for our titillation, and since Rhoda and her mother live downstairs from an amateur psychologist, the new postwar obsession with childrearing and the question of nature versus nurture are very much in the air.

Perhaps the cultural landscape was ripe for Rhoda and her ilk to import their evil into stable suburban environs. In addition to the ever-increasing permutations of B-movie shock premises in the 50’s, the image of the child also received unforgettable reevaluations in places ranging from The Lord of the Flies to Neorealist films that placed children in ravaged postwar settings to movies about the great domestic scourge of 1950s America, juvenile delinquency. All that might seem a far cry from Rhoda’s stage-set home, but her ingratiating manner and contorted expressions invite us to scrutinize the iconographic cuteness of childhood.

The nature/nurture conundrum would allow later movies to broach the subject of both evil and identity. One of the best and subtlest explorations came much later with Robert Mulligan’s beguiling The Other in 1972, one year before The Exorcist‘s vomitous excesses. Set on a Depression-era farm, the movie introduces playful twins Niles and Holland in an indelible prologue with the eerie foreboding and sylvan beauty of a fairy tale. A supernatural element emerges with Niles’s burgeoning ability to see through the eyes of other people, yet the uncanniest aspect of the movie creeps up more subtly: the twins never seem to appear together in the same frame. The technique turns their kids’ contrasting adventures into a narrative of identity development. The tricky process of identification evokes the shock of maturation.

The supernatural also appears in The Innocents (1960), which adapts Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw into a full-fledged Gothic phantasy about a governess, her two unnerving charges, and their ghostly associates. But in the spiritual realm, the excesses of The Exorcist hold sway in the popular imagination, locating the rot firmly in the Catholic bogeyman of Satanic evil. The Exorcist‘s close relative The Omen (1976) displaces Linda Blair’s graphic transgressions to a wider playing field: as Gregory Peck searches for the truth about his adopted child, Damien causes mayhem more than he commits it, and the film exults in the spectacle of violence that The Bad Seed and other films often withheld.

Central to The Omen is the horrific prospect of having to harm our own children. The title of a 1976 Spanish horror film puts it more succinctly: Who Can Kill a Child? Two British tourists visit a seemingly deserted island village and encounter the sub-subgenre to the creepy kid film: the murderous independent collective. The film is self-consciously postwar: an opening montage suggests the children are taking vengeance against war-making adults, and the story unfolds in surroundings that are as depopulated as a war zone. Writer-director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador phases in nerve-wracking glimpses of individual children and then unveils mobs that resemble sinister group photos-in both cases, animalistically saying little.

In Volker Schlöndorff’s adaptation of The Tin Drum (1979), social condemnation is also implicit: a child born in the Nazi era wills himself never to grow up in an internalized protest against and reflection of the distorted world around him. More recent films exploit intra-family anxieties. They zero in on upper-middle-class codes and cant about being a responsible parent and respecting a child’s individuality, with varying degrees of reactionary subtext. The blazered, banged terror of 2007’s Joshua exists mainly to realize a nightmarish vision of postpartum depression and alienation from one’s child, as experienced by Vera Farmiga’s city-dwelling yuppie mother. Jacob Kogan, who plays Joshua with Vulcan placidity, is also merely the latest example of child actors chosen for a disorientingly adult-like control of expression.

Orphan, which sees Farmiga again playing unstable, as the adoptive mother of a precocious Slavic orphan, continues in Joshua’s footsteps, though its sexual undertones ultimately hearken to Fatal Attraction. It’s a virtual catalogue of creepy kid tropes: little Esther spies on her victims from a window and between banisters, and articulates her emotions and motivations with ridiculous clarity. The prevalence of household dangers like a rickety tree house and a frozen pond suggest that creepy kid flicks are like driver’s-ed reels for anxious parents.

The Bad Seed ended unambiguously with nature correcting itself and the movie playfully reminding us it’s all pretend. Fifty years later, Orphan has its own twist to sidestep the tangled question of what goes on in a child’s mind. Which leaves the unlikely candidate of 2007’s Let the Right One In as perhaps the most meaningful recent use of the creepy kid on screen. For Oskar, newly friend of an androgynous vampire tween, the biggest challenge is understanding friendship and picking one’s way through the fascinating but merciless world of growing up. Which can be scary with or without Satan, as anyone can attest.