Sunday, October 4, 2009

Evil Child Syndrome

Poor bunny! Looks like he was owned by an Evil Child. You know the ones I'm talking about - they're either sociopathic killers, children of the Devil, possessed by the Devil or the Devil, himself.

In movies, evil children are usually portrayed as attractive, innocent-looking tykes who don't look like they could so much as hurt a fly. They are often children of powerful folks like senators or ambassadors, but just as often their parents are everyday folks who don't have a clue that something is wrong until it's much too late to do anything about it.

Such is the case with one of the earliest Evil Children in film, Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed. Rhoda is a perfect child - her manners are impeccable and she can charm the pants off almost everyone she meets. her dresses are always crisp and spotless; her hair is always in perfectly symmetrical braids; her disposition is always sunny and bright and she'll kill anyone who gets in the way of her having what she wants.
When Claude Daigle wins the penmanship medal she thought she deserved, Rhoda drowns him while on the school picnic. And when lazy handyman Leroy suspects she may have had something to with Claude's death, she sets him on fire while he sleeps on a bed of excelsior in the shed. Eventually we come to learn that Rhoda's mother, Christine, is actually the child of infamous murderess Bessie Denker, and Christine may well have passed the murder gene onto her daughter. Reprising her role from the Broadway play of the same name, Patty McCormick plays Rhoda so that even while she has almost everyone fooled, the audience immediately recognizes her for what she is. In the play, Rhoda survives her mother's attempt to kill her with sleeping pills, but in 1956, the Hayes Code made sure that evil got its comeuppance in movies.

As the cold war progressed, Evil Children became symbols for Communism. In 1960's Village of the Damned, the entire village of Midwich falls asleep at the same time, and when they awaken, most of the fertile women are pregnant. Nine months later, a group of nearly identical children are born, with strange powers that allow them to compel people to hurt or even kill themselves. Are they aliens or something much more insidious? Based on the novel "The Midwich Cuckoos" by John Wyndham, Village of the Damned was remade in 1995 by John Carpenter. Special effects had progressed quite a bit, but sadly, Carpenter's version is just silly.

By 1968, novelist Ira Levin and director Roman Polanski had turned the Evil Child into something far worse than just evil. In Rosemary's Baby, the Evil child was the Antichrist, himself. Struggling actor Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) and his wife, Rosemary (Mia Farrow) move in to the Dakota, where Rosemary finds her nosy neighbor Minnie Castavet (the incomparable Ruth Gordon in her Oscar-winning role) a bit of a noodge. A sweet and caring noodge, but a noodge, nonetheless. Of course, it turns out that Guy has sold his soul for his career and Rosemary's womb for the Devils' baby. Even kindly OBGYN Ralph Bellamy is on it. What chance does a fashionably skinny young wife stand against such odds?

In the 1970's, the Antichrist was resurrected as the son of Gregory Peck and Lee Remick in The Omen. Damien (spelled differently than my dear D spells it) is the son of US Ambassador Robert Thorn (Peck) and his wife, Katherine (Remick). After the nanny commits suicide, claiming "Damien, it's all for you!" a photojournalist (David Warner) becomes suspicious and starts seeing images of people's deaths in his photographs, before they actually happen. After some investigating (and a new nanny in the form of Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Baylock), Thorn discovers the truth behind his son's birth, and even though he is triumphant against some Satanic Rottweilers, Evil wins out in the end. I remember seeing this film in high school and it being the first movie I ever saw someone (Warner) get decapitated in a movie. A 2006 remake starring Liev Schreiber was less than scary.

By the 90's, the Evil Child had gone back to being a sociopath, and McCaulay Culkin was The Good Son, an orphan taken in my his aunt and uncle, to wreak havoc on his cousin (future Hobbit, Elijah Wood).

Lately, orphans have taken the blame for evil. In the Spanish horror flick The Orphanage, a woman returns to the orphanage where she was raised, hoping to take in troubled children and give them the love they so rightly deserve. But something is not right:

And most recently, a vicious 9 year-old took the Evil Child to a whole new level in Orphan, a film I have yet to see, but which many have said is exceptionally twisted and dark.

Hmmm... What comes around, goes around, I guess. Of course, we all know that children aren't exactly evil. Nasty, vicious and self-serving, but not actually evil, with a capital E. Though you'd have a hard time convincing my sister and my dear friend Tracy of that.

More terrors, anon.


Anonymous said...

Orphan was very good. Dark with several, "I can't believe what's about to happen and have to cover my eyes it's so bad!" moments. You'll like it but I think at this point you'll have to see it on DVD.

Prospero said...

Yes, but that's okay. I heard it's really over the top.