With adults, you have to put in a lot of effort to make them creepy – layering on makeup and blood and involving them in increasingly horrific acts to impact increasingly apathetic audiences. With children, however, you often need little more than a cherubic face juxtaposed with an evil act to make an impact. Mixing evil into childhood innocence is often the perfect horror concoction for movies, whether it’s a horror movie teasing at the fear of the unknown or a drama exploring the world of a truly terrible child.
Of course, sometimes it’s nothing more than the result of really bad parenting. In the premiere of The Affair, Dominic West’s son fakes a suicide to get a rise out of his dad. But when West’s Noah quickly gets over his anger and shrugs off the stunt, it’s perfectly obvious why his kid is acting out – dad is an ineffectual parent.
But sometimes it’s about much more than slightly atypical adolescent rebellion.
Nothing compares to the chills that a child can evoke, whether they’re the perpetrators of evil or the seemingly innocent guardians of it with their redrum warnings. Many of our most chilling cinematic moments come at the hands of children, whether it’s little Gage bringing Mommy knives in Pet Semetary, twins wanting to play in The Shining, or some of the most truly terrifying images, like Linda Blair’s young Regan in The Exorcist – a film whose frights transcend the tarnish of age.
Here are some of cinema’s most terrible and evil children – some are plagued with supernatural evil, and others just busy themselves in terrible acts, reminding us that evil isn’t relegated just to fantasy horror worlds.
The Children’s Hour
Bullying isn’t just among children in the convention-defying 1961 drama The Children’s Hour. Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine play women who run a private school for girls in New England. When spoiled student Mary (Karen Balkin) is caught lying, she rebels in every way, faking a heart attack, throwing a temper tantrum, and when nothing else gets her what she wants, she bullies and blackmails a fellow student and concocts a detailed story that the women are involved in a lesbian relationship.
The lie destroys the school, the women’s reputations and one of their lives. There is no horror, and by today’s standards, relatively minor drama, but Balkin’s expressions and fierce determination to lie at any cost remain chilling over 50 years later.
Larry Clarke and Harmony Korine’s controversial 1995 film was one of the few where critics actually defended a strict NC-17 rating by the MPAA. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review, the film “is so raw, bleak and unfiltered that such a policy is appropriate.” Rather than having obviously mature adults playing teens in horrific circumstances, the film uses actual kids, including Rosario Dawson and Chloe Sevigny in their first roles.
The horror of seeing unvarnished manifestations of aimless and troubled kids was compounded by the twists of plot, including the trail of kids infected with HIV, savage violence and rape. The evilness in the narrative wasn’t about outside forces or youthful impetuousness, but the darkness that can boil in ignorant children.
Village of the Damned
A must-have for this list. Before literal domes would descend upon towns and provoke horrors, the 1960 original and John Carpenter’s generally faithful 1995 version of Village of the Damned explored a town that suffered an invisible “time out” – everyone in a very specific radius fell unconscious, and just as authorities were starting to explore the phenomenon, everyone woke up. The women were impregnated and had blonde, glowing-eyed alien children wreaking havoc on the town piece by piece, inciting violence through their minds until the adults had enough. In Carpenter’s version, however, their evilness seems to have its roots in the inability to understand other’s people’s pain, except for oddball David who offers a sense of hope … or franchise menace.
We Need to Talk About Kevin
Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin isn’t focused on the act of violence, but on the mother of the killer, whose memories are painted with the nagging suspicion that her child – from his earliest days – is inherently evil. This evil is not the stuff of monsters, but of a manipulative child that takes Mary from The Children’s Hour and turns her into a son out of sync with the world and eager to destroy it. But even then, evilness isn’t merely some genetic aberration, but a lingering question: was Kevin always evil, or was his mother’s treatment of him the cause for his dark fate?
There is much horror in Carrie, perpetrated by the sheltered teen with a talent for telekinesis, but it’s horror battling horror – her bloody, fantastical revenge juxtaposed with real-life menace, the bullying from her classmates. “Plug it up” they scream as Carrie gets her first period and naively thinks she’s dying because no one ever taught her about menstruation. It is childhood cruelty turned to eleven as they mock her and throw things at her as she crouches in the shower crying. By the time she’s doused in pig’s blood and turns into the telekinetic murderer, it’s an act of cathartic vengeance. She brings sweet horror, but it’s her classmates who are truly evil.
The Bad Seed
Before the damned villages, Poltergeist icon, and other blonde horrors, there was Mervyn LeRoy’s The Bad Seed, the bridge between the more realistic horrors of The Children’s Hour and the horror films to come. The towheaded Rhoda, the seemingly pristine daughter in perfect braids and girly dresses who thinks the death of a classmate is “exciting” and kills those that stand between her and her desires, whether it be for a penmanship medal, or a trifle she’s impatient for.
She is evil, but perfectly mannered and poised, the film being a great play on the divide between performed manners and real actions, evil being more than the so-cute-they’re-creepy kids partaking in otherworldly horror. The film also boasts one of the strangest endings, where each actor takes a bow, and then Mom spanks Rhoda as she screams no.
Naturally, the king of evil children would be Damien Thorn, the Antichrist of The Omen. Born to a jackal and adopted by an American diplomat played by the one and only Gregory Peck, Damien is responsible for much mayhem – and his evilness isn’t just a method for delivering death and decapitation, it’s something that guides him through the halls of politics and financial power as he ages into Sam Neill for the third film.
And of course, like any proper horror film, the lingering stories of real bad luck that plagued the production challenged the horror seen on-screen, from IRA bombings and suicide to multiple lightning strikes. Producer Harvey Bernhard later said: “The devil was at work and he didn’t want that film made.”
Related Topics: Evil