I'm not always a fan of child actors; they're usually too precocious for my taste. But every once in a while, there is a kid who stands out and makes you take notice. For example, I really love Tatum O'Neal's performance in Peter Bogdanovich's hilarious grifter comedy Paper Moon. She's spot on as a young orphan who may or may not be the biological daughter of Ryan O'Neal's conman Bible salesman. She won an Oscar for the role (and deserved it).
But I'm always a sucker for kids in peril or kids who survive the horrors to which their adult co-stars always seem to fall prey. And since I love Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy movies more than most other genres, this blog is about The Best Performances by a Child Actor in a Horror/Sci-Fi/Fantasy Movie. So, without further ado, here are my choices, in no particular order:
Patty McCormack for The Bad Seed:
In the 1950's, genetics was a relatively new science, and the debate bewteen Nature vs. Nurture was truly in its infancy. In his then terrifying play, Maxwell Anderson explored the concept in a sordid little tale about a seemingly perfect little girl who was actaully a sociopathic killer who would stop at nothing to get what she wanted. Reprising her stage role for director Mervin LeRoy's (The Wizard of Oz) 1956 adaptation, Patty McCormack is absolutely chilling as Rhoda Penmark, the bilogical granddaughter of serial killer Bessie Denker. After she kills a classmate for his penmanship medal, Rhoda's mother begins to suspect her daughter may well be a "Bad Seed" and as events unfold, soon becomes sure of it. In the original stage version, Rhoda's mom succumbs to a self-inflicted gunshot wound, while murderous Rhoda survives her mother's murder attempt. In the film, restricted by the still enforced Hayes Code, Rhoda gets her just desserts.
Henry Thomas for E.T.:
I had a film teacher who said he hated Steven Spielberg's work because it was "emotionally manipulative." I thought, 'Well, isn't that the point?' And of course, it is. A good artist is always able to manipulate an emotional response to his work, regardless of his medium. In his 1982 fantasy E.T., Spielberg found the perfect kid to push our emotional buttons in young Henry Thomas, a lonely boy befriended by a lonely alien. We laughed; we cried and our hearts leapt for joy when Elliot and ET soared across the moon. Reportedly, Spielberg used all kinds of off-screen tricks to get his young actors (including very young star-in-bloom, Drew Barrymore) to react the way he wanted. But who cares how he got those amazing performances? The fact is, he did and they remain indeliably etched into movie fans' psyches.
Carrie Henn for Aliens:
James Cameron (Titanic; The Terminator) made this uber-exciting sequel to Alien a filmic rollercoaster ride and turned actress Sigourney Weaver into a household name with his action-packed tale of futuristic Marines battling a horde of acid-blooded beasties on a far-away planet. Ms Henn, as the only survivor of a human colony decimated by the chest-bursting creatures, gives one hell of a performance in her one and only film. She even has the movie's best and most chilling line: "They mostly come out at night... mostly." Who didn't choke up when she wrapped herself around Ripley and cried "Mommy!"? And how sad were we that director David Fincher killed her off in Alien3?
Fairuza Balk for Return to Oz:
Often derided as "dark" and "frightening," (though you'll never hear me complain about those adjectives when it comes to film), Disney's Wizard of Oz sequel is sadly given short-shrift by those who love the Judy Garland classic. Director Walter Murch's 1985 film is far more faithful to the L. Frank Baum originals than it's musical predecessor and features an astonishing performance from young Fairuza Balk, who is probably best known for the underrated horror film The Craft. Fearing young Dorothy is suffering from a psychological disorder, Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) takes her to see a psychiatrist (Nicol Williams) who is about to apply shock therapy when a sudden storm knocks out the electrcity and allows Dorothy to return to the land of Oz, where she must free Princess Ozma from the witch Mombi's (Jean Marsh) prison. Young Ms Balk is the perfect antithesis to Garland's Dorothy, and her performance is nearly flawless in this much under-appreciated film.
Heather O'Roarke for Poltergeist:
Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) directed this Spielberg-produced ghost story about a typical surbaban family's encounter with the supernatural. When their daughetr Carol-Ann is snatched into the otherword, Steven and Diane Freeling (Craig T. Nelson and Jobeth Wiliams) will go to any lengths to bring her back. Fraught with urban legends surrounding the deaths of several of its stars (including Ms. O'Rourke and co-star Dominique Dunne), Poltergiest remains one of the few films I can see over and over and never get sick of. In fact, we've seen it so many times that both my sister and I can tell you exactly what's happening just by listening to the film's score. But it is O'Rourke's plaintiff cry of "No more" towards the end of the movie that gets me every time. A terrific performance by an actress whose young life was cut much too short.
Dakota Fanning for War of the Worlds:
Ms Fanning is one of those children whose performances belie her young age. From her first appearance as young Ellen Degeneres on "Ellen" to her recent turn in the controversial Hounddog, Ms Fanning is always at the top of her game. In Steven Spielberg's (funny how he keeps showing up here) version of the H.G. Wells classic, the audience never doubts her terror for a moment. As Tom Cruise's estranged daughter (no, not Suri). Fanning manages to convey the terror of a child in the midst of horror without once coming across as false and her perfomance is the one that grounds this often ridiculous Sci-Fi invasion movie in reality.
Haley Joel Osment for A.I.: Artificial Intelligence:
As David, a robot boy programmed to imprint himself on his "mother," Osment is a wonder to behold. KNown previously as the boy who could "see dead people" in The Sixth Sense, Osment gives a truly astonishing performance in Steven Spielberg's version of Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of the short story "Super Toys Last All Summer Long" by Brian Aldriss. Derided by many critics as too long and too obtuse, A.I. is perhaps Spielberg's best and most emotionally devastating film. And Osment shines as the electronic version of Pinnocchio. I dare anyone to watch the abondonment scene without welling up with tears. Simply devastating.
Kirsten Dunst for Interview with the Vampire:
Anne Rice has since moved on from her Gothic vampire romances to writing about the life of Jesus, but her fans will always remember her for her stories of the vampires Lestat de Lioncourt, Louis de Pont du Lac and their adopted "daughter," Claudia. Neil Jordan's (The Crying Game) adaptation of Rice's first novel was initially derided by the author for his casting of Tom Cruise as Lestat, but it is Dunst's performance that make sthis movie for me. Claudia, an adult trapped in a child's bosy (and based on Rice's own deceased daughter) is simply the most tortured charcter in the vampire pantheon and Dunst's performance is nothing less than stunning, especially in the scene where she realizes she can't even cut her hair. I still wonder how Jordan managed to get this astounding performance out of such a young actor.
Ivana Vasquero for Pan's Labyrinth:
Wow! Genius Guillrmo del Toro created the 21st Century's true first film masterpiece with is fantacy about a young girl (Vasquero) caught up in the horrors of Franco's post-war Spain. Convinced that she is the secret daughter of the Underworld's King, young Ofelia escapes to a fantasy realm populated by fauns, fairies and demonic creatures while her truly monstrous step-father commits atrocities against the locals in the name of a despot. Ms Vasquero is the picture of innocence surrounded by corruption and her performance is nothing short of breathtaking.
And my choice for Best Performance by a Child Actor in a Horro/Sci-Fi/Fanatsy Film is:
Kirsten Dunst for Interview with the Vampire.
This was a hard category to call, but when it came down to it, I chose the performance that elicited the most visceral response. Dunsts is simply astounding in Interview. Seeing Claudia's frustration as she realizes that she will never know the true pleasures of the flesh that her 'adult' counterparts ahev known, is amazing and I have to wonder what Jordan did to get her convey that. Surely, one as young as Dunst was when the film was made (1994) could never understand the desires and frustrations that Claudia experiences and how Jordan got her there remains a mystery. Just superb.
As always, more of this, anon.