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A Little List of Killer Kids in Film and Literature

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( From David Cronenberg’s The Brood)

Introduction:

It seems you can’t walk out your own door these days without running into some child or other: they’re in strollers or tied to each other with ropes in wagons so they don’t run off into the streets.  They’re walking in packs with mittens hanging from their sleeves.  I’m also assuming they’re in school.  What’s more, everyone is having them – so it’s not a passing fad.  For no good reason I decided to compile a short list of some of the best examples of the Killer Kid sub-genre.

Some will point out serious omissions: the kid from Steven King’s Pet Cemetery; Thomas Tryon’s The Other, or James’ The Turn of the Screw and it’s beautiful film adaptation The Innocents.  Most of these I don’t feel like re-reading (or re-watching) and so cannot write about with authority.  An incomplete list to say the least, so please post any glaring omissions in the comments.

The Godsend (directed by Gabrielle Beaumont, 1980)

Based on a book by Bernard Taylor and all but forgotten, The Godsend is a little film that capitalized on the contemporary trend of killer kids on the heels of The Omen and The Exorcist.  But while those novels-turned-films dealt with children who were possessed by (or literally) the Devil, this story presents a child that is wholly alien and unfathomable.  (As a disclaimer I should say I have only seen the film.)

At a lake near their rural home, an English couple meet a strange pregnant woman and invite her to spend the night.  In the morning she is gone, but has left behind her newborn daughter.  The couple adopt the girl and care for her along with their three other children.  Bonnie, the “Godsend”, develops into a strange looking albino with dead eyes that underscore an other-worldliness.  With her few speaking lines and pale poker face, she is a mystery, and soon the couple’s baby is found dead in his crib. A few years later their son drowns in the lake by their house.  Gradually Alan (the father) suspects that these tragedies were caused by Bonnie, but his wife refuses to even consider his suspicions,  protecting Bonnie with fierce maternal instincts, even as Alan arrives too late to see Bonnie push his third and final child from a window to her death.

We leave Alan, bereft and apparently alone, sitting on a bench by a large fountain.  Through the spray of water he notices the very woman who visited them so many years ago – Bonnie’s biological mother.  Pregnant once again, she is speaking with a young couple.  As they get up to leave together, Alan runs frantically toward the trio, yelling warnings, but the group vanishes amidst the crowd and spray of the fountain.  So the cycle of the poisonous seed will continue.

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Bonnie: Bizarre, Blond, Bad Seed.

The Good Son (Directed by Joseph Rubin, 1993)

First he is left alone in his house at Christmas to deal with bumbling crooks while his family goes to France.  A year later he is abandoned  again, this time in New York.  Is it any wonder Macaulay Culkin, the prepubescent moppet and early nineties heartthrob to the 11 year-old set tried to murder his family by the time he was thirteen?  Written by Ian McEwan (!), this beautifully-shot yarn with its gorgeous locations is a kind of unintentional retelling of Bad Influence, the 1990 film starring James Spader and Rob Lowe, but with children, and some dark family drama.

Mark (Ellija Wood) has lost his mother to illness, and in order to close a deal that will provide for his son, Mark’s father ships the boy off to live with his sister’s family.  The family seems perfect: a stable marriage and two cute kids, the oldest being Henry, the little Culkin Boy. But the family suffered tragedy when the third child died in infancy under mysterious circumstances in the bathtub.  Now how did that happen?  Henry, with his floppy mop of hair and dark bags under bored, tired eyes is, at thirteen, a calculating psychopath who nevertheless comes across as a good boy to all but Mark.  After witnessing (and unwittingly participating in) some of his cousin’s cruel and appalling mischief, Mark gets wise to Henry’s schemes, like his plan to kill his remaining sibling.

Our little man all grown up and ready to take on the role of bad influence.

Our little man all grown up and ready to take on the role of bad influence.

Refreshingly, the finale isn’t as overblown as one might expect from a wide-release film, focusing instead on maternal conflict. When the mother discovers her dead baby’s rubber ducky in the evil little mite’s clubhouse, she finally gets wise to the fact that Henry is a bad, bad seed.  This becomes particularly apparent when he tries to push her off a cliff, leading to an effective Sophie’s Choice between bad son and good nephew.

While the film is in absolutely no way a masterpiece, and might weigh in at 3 stars at best, it is tense and effective, with the Culkin boy making a bold a shift away from the lovable little shit Hollywood was molding him to be.

The Bad Seed by William March (1954); film adaptation directed by Mervyn LeRoy (1956)

The Bad Seed is better known for the film adaptation than the novel on which it was based.  Written by William March, it was nominated for the National Book Award in 1955, attaining critical and commercial success only after March’s death one month after publication.  The novel vanished into obscurity for years, resurfacing in the late nineties.  It has become the genre’s gold standard, largely due to Patty McCormack’s performance – by turns sweet and chilling – and the quintessential story of a murderous child concealed behind an exterior of dutiful sweetness.

Eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark is an only child.  With father absent for most of the story, she lives with her mother Christine. When, to Rhoda’s dismay and wrath, she loses the “perfect penmanship” medal to one of her classmates, the boy drowns at a school picnic.  Her mother learns that a quarrel took place between the two children, and quickly gets wise to the possibility that Rhoda killed the boy (those crescent-shaped marks on his forehead that no one seems able to explain do rather coincide with Rhoda’s heels).

Christine recalls incidents from the past, like when Rhoda became bored with her pet dog and the animal met with an accident, or when the elderly neighbor who’d promised Rhoda a necklace upon her death died quicker than expected.  Deeper investigation on Christine’s part reveals that she herself was adopted as a young child and that her birth mother was a notorious serial killer.  So the tough question must be asked: has Christine passed on the murderous “bad seed” to her daughter?  Worried, she writes harried letters to her husband but never mails them.  The male seed in this story is absent, ineffectual and impotent.  It is a woman thing.

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Patti McCormack as Rhoda Penmark.

When a handyman begins taunting Rhoda, telling her he knows how the boy was drowned, she lights his mattress on fire while he sleeps.  Christine witnesses the murder and confronts Rhoda, who confesses her crimes, but shows no remorse, explaining that her victims had it coming.  Terrified and with no stable family unit to fall back on (i.e. a husband who is present), Christine feeds Rhoda a bottle of sleeping pills, then shoots herself.  Rhoda survives, however, and will continue the family’s murderous legacy.

A perfect ending to a wonderful tale – but not as far as the motion picture industry was concerned when making the film version.  According to The Hayes Code, no crime went unpunished, and the film ends with little Rhoda struck by lightning.  Having successfully killed the bad guy, the studio added a lamentable coda in which Patty McCormack is gigglingly spanked on screen by her mother for being such a bad girl, reminding the audience that it’s only a movie, and while little girls may be naughty, this was just pretend.  On the whole they’re really quite innocent and lovable.  For the most part.

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Patti mugging for the camera, and an image I cannot un-see.

The Curse of Millhaven by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds (1996)

Nick Cave

Nick Cave

In a fading trajectory of murder and execution songs that developed out of blues and country (“I-shot-my-woman-down” or “I’m-gonna-hang-in-the-morning” laments), Nick Cave ‘s 1996 album Murder Ballads deals with exactly what the title suggests.  Amidst the narrative songs of slain maidens and bloody barroom killings, The Curse of Millhaven stands out for it’s unusual protagonist, the little 14 year-old Loretta.

Cave can appropriate public domain songs (e.g. Froggy Went a’Courtin and Down in the Willow Garden) and turn them into violent picaresque stories wherein, for example, Froggy arrives at Miss Mousey’s house to lay waste to her suitors with his sword and pistol.  Sometimes employing recognizable folk refrains, The Curse of Millhaven‘s chorus includes no less than fourteen variations on “All God’s children, they all gotta die.”

Through Cave’s swinging, gleefully sinister vocals, we learn about the “small, mean and… cold” town of Millhaven, where people have disappeared only to be found drowned, stabbed, or as a head found in a fountain.  When the killer, 14 year-old Loretta, is finally captured, she is amused and insouciant: “Yes it is I, Lottie the Curse of Millhaven, I’ve struck horror in the hearts of this town/ like my eyes ain’t green and my hair ain’t yellow, it’s more like the other way around.”

In a sort of confession she sings “Since I’m no bigger than a weevil they been sayin’ I was evil, that if bad was a boot than I’d fit it/ that I’m a wicked young lady but I’ve been tryin’ hard lately – aw, fuck it I’m a monster I admit it.”  Convicted for the above-mentioned deaths, she cheerfully recounts several other episodes formerly assumed to be accidents, like drowning twenty children under an icy lake and torching a block of slums.  We leave her happy as a clam in an institution, having a blast, unrepentant to the end:  “They ask me if I feel remorse, and I answer why of course/ there’s so much more I could have done if they’d let me.”

Children of the Corn by Stephen King (1978)

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To be clear: I am referring to King’s short story and not the 1984 film, which – aside from a few effective moments I will always hold dear – offers up far too many cute kids and a happy ending.  The original, published in Penthouse in 1977 and from King’s first short story collection Night Shift, follows a bickering, miserable couple on the brink of divorce as they drive through Nebraska.   When they run over a child whose throat’s been slit, they go to the nearest town of Gatlin.  It is an unfortunate move on their part: Gatlin is deserted, adorned with corn, and time seems to have stopped twelve years ago when the adults were murdered by the children, who form of a puritanical religious cult and dress sort of Amish.  They’re led by the young charismatic preacher Issac and serve the corn god He Who Walks Behind the Rows.

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Issac as portrayed in the film.

After leaving their car in the center of town, Burt and Vickie become separated and children materialize with scythes and farming tools. Burt escapes into a cornfield to find every stalk perfect: free of blemish, with no weeds or insects molest it.  He stumbles into a circle of empty ground, a place of worship, to find Vickie tied to a cross with barbed wire, her eyes and mouth stuffed with corn husks.  Gatlin’s long-dead, former minister and police chief, now skeletons, have also been crucified. As Burt flees, the rows of the cornfield close, and something is coming for him.  A Harvest Moon appears in the sky.  “The corn was pleased.”

ˆWe’re all aware of old, white, bat-shit crazy evangelists, but spartan, strange-god-worshiping child-fanatics who engage in ritual sacrifice when they reach the age of nineteen is still unimaginable and terrifying.

The Brood (Directed by David Cronenberg, 1979)

Emotions manifesting themselves as offspring.

Emotions manifesting themselves as offspring.

David Cronenberg’s third film, The Brood stands out as a masterpiece among his many (Scanners, The Fly, Videodrome, et al).  Here his trademarked “venereal horror” genre gives way to different bodily terror, wherein extreme emotional states: mental, emotional, neurotic and psychotic, manifest themselves as physical afflictions, or something worse, in a therapeutic treatment known as Psychoplasmics.  Under the care of Dr. Raglan (played by the redoubtable Oliver Reed), symptoms of psychoanalytic sessions appear as extra nipples, bizarre, secondary lymphatic systems, or in the case of Nola (Samantha Eggar), as a brood of semi-human offspring.

Cut off from all outside contact, including her husband and daughter, her sessions bring out repressed rage and jealousy directed at her parents and perceived lover of her husband.  This rage takes the form of a brood of toddler-size children with beaks and no teeth, fingerprints or bellybuttons. As her husband attempts to take her from the institute, her brood (of which there is no short supply) exact her revenge, making her the absent, but controlling center of her family unit.

The juxtaposition of innocent and frightened children with the monstrous toddlers of The Brood (both groups wear children’s snow suits in primary colors, sometimes making them hard to distinguish as children or monsters) is unnerving, though making for effective imagery.  It may be argued that these are not technically killer kids: they were not produced through natural, vaginal birth and do not act on their own volition.  However, they are still born of their mother from a bloody external womb where she lovingly licks the newborns and their placentas clean.  I think that merits it a spot on the list.

The Fruit of the Womb

The Fruit of the Womb

The Midwich Cuckoos by Johnathan Wyndham (1957); film adaptation directed by Wolf Rilla (1960)

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Johnathan Wyndham was a Brit who wrote clever horror/sf novels in the 1950s and 60s.  Little-known and mostly forgotten in the U.S., his novels were popular in his day.  One of his best (along with The Day of the Triffids), is The Midwich Cockoos, which was made into the great English film Village of the Damned (1960) which stands alongside the book as a kind of masterpiece, as does its only slightly inferior sequel, Children of the Damned (1964).

The plot centers around the small English town of Midwich, where one day all the residents within the town perimeters fall unconscious. Upon waking, several women (including some virgins) are found to be pregnant.  The gestation period is brief, and a brood of 31 boys and 30 girls (less in the film) is born.  They grow at an alarming rate, able to solve confounding puzzles in seconds as toddlers as well as (more alarmingly) control the minds of their parents and those around them, confining them within the town’s borders.

Blond, golden eyed, cold and Aryan to all appearances, the children are a vindictive bunch, causing people they view as threats to shoot one another; forcing hostile cars to drive into walls; even sending a bull that bothered them into a pond to drown.  Areal photographs of the day of the arrival shows a silvery ship hovering in the sky, placing the book and the film somewhere in that wonderful limbo between horror and science fiction.

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A local doctor decides to get to know the children by giving them lessons, the better to occupy  them and prevent them from turning the frightened and angry residents against each other (which never ends well).  He finds that the children have the power of collective learning: when one child is shown something, the rest of them absorb it too.  As reports surface of other groups of these children appearing on other continents,  their intentions become clear: stay out of the way and no one gets hurt, at least for now.  They calmly explain that they will rid the planet of humanity so they may set up camp permanently.  Their powers for mind control seem to be unlimited – in one scene the leader of the group, berated by a blustering sheriff, seizes him with such a violent and desperately horrifying moment of shock and panic that it leaves him “broken for life”, and the reader thoroughly rattled. But he doctor/teacher may have a plan to destroy them…

The title is a reference to the parasitic bird that lays its eggs in the nests of other birds.  The Cuckoo egg hatches early and the chick grows faster, evicting the eggs or the young of the host.  Just like the children will do to the human race!

It’s a Good Life: short story by Jerome Bixby (1953) , and a Twilight Zone episode written by Rod Serling (1961)

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Little Anthony Fremont as portrayed on The Twilight Zone by little Billy Mummy.

It’s a Good Life was written by the little-published Jerome Bixby, a concert pianist who nevertheless penned what is perhaps the definitive tale of a child’s id run amok.  Anthony Fremont is a six year-old boy who can make anything – anything – happen, just by willing it.  The story finds a bored Anthony luring a rat out of a hole believing it smells cheese, at which point he makes the terrified creature devour itself.  He hears the thoughts of everyone around him – and if they aren’t pleasant and cheerful thoughts, he becomes offended and turns them into some sort of horrid monstrosity, or sends them to The Cornfield, a kind of mass grave and vague sort of hell made all the more scary by its mystery.  The remaining residents of the small town of Peaksville (which has long been removed from its surroundings – with nothing but a vast, empty void at its borders) live in constant fear, straining their minds to the breaking point.  Most of the town residents and animals are dead (he turned the cat into a “cat rug” and when he was berated by his aunt, he snapped at her and she was never quite the same).  It is suggested that he hasn’t played well with the other children, few of whom are left.  The grown-ups must live on ever-diminishing rations and no power – Anthony took it all away when he was a baby.  They frequently lapse into nonsensical counting and mathematical equations in their heads when they don’t trust their thoughts in order that Anthony will become bored an tune out, a method tacitly understood by the others when one of them begins looking down and silently moving his or her lips.  As Anthony lies in the gardens, now overgrown and unkempt as he has long ago destroyed all machinery and farming equipment, he listens to the bizarre thoughts of animals – now of an insect, now of a bird, until he is distracted, leaving the bird to dash out its brains on a tree.  Even his parents fear the boy, showering him with praise as do the rest of the residents, all the while minding their thoughts.

The Twilight Zone episode of the same title features adorable little Billy Mummy (of Lost in Space fame and, as his website – with its cringingly defensive comments section would have it, a rocker too), who brings a chilling admixture of cute and sinister to the character.  Like the short story, the plot centers around an introduction to the boy, the town and its predicament, opening with a scene in which Anthony has made a gopher with three heads.  A delivery man praises Anthony’s cleverness in creating such a thing until the boy becomes bored.  “I’m tired of playing with it.  I’ll make it dead now.”  The writhing tale goes limp, and the hopelessly horrified delivery man is once again full of praise.

That evening a birthday party for one of the residents takes place at the Fremont home.  Things do not go well.  Dan Hollis, the birthday man, gets a bit tight and speaks his mind in a scene of unbearable tension, incurring little Anthony’s wrath.  In the more literal Twilight Zone episode, Anthony points a finger at him and turns him into a grotesque jack-in-the-box.  The short story only tells us that he “thought Dan Hollis into something like nothing anyone would have believed possible, and then he thought the thing into a grave deep, deep in the cornfield”.  The adults, including the dead man’s wife, are then forced to go on with the party keeping their thoughts happy as always.  As an amenity Anthony “makes television” for the group, a “treat” in the absence of electricity.  The Twilight Zone shows a bizarre fight between two triceratops, while in the short story it is a simple, strange show of random lights moving around.  They sit in silence, straining their brains not to stray as the bizarre flashes bounce around the screen.  The story is just a glimpse into an alternate reality of isolation and horror, with no resolution to reassure us.  It ends with the suggestion that nothing will change: “next day it snowed, and killed off half the crops – but it was a good day.”

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Poor Dan Hollis, turned into a jack-in-the-box – on his birthday! – before his final destination in The Cornfield.

 

POSTSCRIPT:  Things I missed:

I was so Anglo-centric here I missed out on the great Japanese flicks Ringu and Battle Royal.

I imagine this list will grow, without my yammering on about the film/book

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Filed under: Reviews, Uncategorized

One Response

  1. EC says:

    For a nifty literary example try the novel “A High Wind in Jamaica” by Richard Hughes — it was also made into a film in the 60s but I can’t vouch for its fidelity to the text.

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