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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The malevolent kids sweepstakes

For the past couple of months, I've been tormented by posters for the upcoming movie "Orphan" everywhere. When I drive down Sunset Boulevard, it seems to be at every bus stop. On Olive in Burbank, ditto. And on the side of one of the Warner Bros. buildings, there's a nice big one with the sinister kid's mug glowering down at passersby.

What's with the outfit? Why is she dressed like a creepy 19th-century doll in a film that's set in contemporary times? And why would a nice young couple find themselves "drawn" to such an anachronistic child with such terrible fashion sense? What orphanage did they get her from? Miss Hannigan's?

Of course, the PC brigade has already been up in arms about the film due to a line in the trailer: "It must be hard to love an adopted child as much as your own." Hell, to that I'd add, "Especially one who dresses like that!" And did I mention the adoptive parents' names are John and Kate?

I don' t know about this movie. The previews look kind of stoopid, but at least the kid's consistent, wearing a variety of snappy Victorian outfits throughout.



Thanks to the wonders of the Web, I uncovered the spoiler for the film, which answers the question in the tagline, "Can you keep a secret?" I won't reveal it here, but if it turns out to be true, chins will be crashing to the floor in theaters all across the country on July 24th.

This movie brings to mind other sinister children of cinema. Some notable entries, in no particular ranking order:

1. Devil Times Five. In this obscurity from 1974, a band of disturbed kids escape from a psychiatric hospital and descend upon a cabin in the woods to make life hell for the adults inside. Soon-to-be teen idol Leif Garrett plays one of the psychos, a prepubescent cross-dresser. It's available on DVD.

2. It's Alive. Also from 1974, Larry Cohen's budget-conscious thriller features a murderous mutant baby whose mother seeks to protect it while daddy wants it dead. An unusual commentary on the abortion debate and reproductive rights, it had a great tagline: "There's only one thing wrong with the Davis baby...it's alive."

3. Who Can Kill A Child? 1976's Spanish killer kid entry, directed by Narcisco Ibañez Serrador, follows the tribulations of a vacationing couple who arrive on an island that seems to be inhabited only by children, only to discover that said kids have systematically bumped off all the adults. They are confronted with a moral dilemma: should they defend themselves by killing their attackers or allow themselves to be victimized by children? Subversive stuff, now restored on DVD.

4. The Omen and Damien: Omen II. The son of Satan arrives on earth, but his malevolence was eclipsed by Billie Whitelaw's truly terrifying portrayal of Mrs. Blaylock in the original, and the teenaged Damien didn't stand a chance against Lee Grant's unbelievably hammy performance in the sequel. The 2006 remake, of course, falls into the "What the hell were they thinking?" category.

5. The Shining. Though they're only in the movie for an instant, the Grady Twins provide one of the most memorable shocks in Kubrick's classic adaptation of the Steven King novel. And even though they don't kill anybody, they deserve recognition for freaking a lot of people out.

6. Village of the Damned (1960). When I watched this on television as a youngster, the scenes of those damned kids' eyes lighting up freaked me out. John Carpenter's largely ignored remake actually wasn't too bad, providing Christopher Reeve with his final role before the tragic accident. The 1964 sequel, Children of the Damned, was a cheesy cash-in on the first, more serious, film.

7. The Exorcist. In keeping with the directive of this blog, which is to mention the name Linda Blair as frequently as possible, we have to salute Regan Teresa McNeil. Not directly a malevolent child, since she is being controlled by Satan, she still gets up to all sorts of mayhem: murder, sacrilege, parental abuse. Wait a minute—is this an "E! True Hollywood Story"?

8. The Bad Seed. For sheer camp entertainment value, the winner of the malevolent kid sweepstakes has got to be Patty McCormack as Rhoda Penmark, the goody two-shoes who killed a classmate for his penmanship medal. Along with Nancy Kelly as her mother, McCormack was in the original 1954 Broadway production and reprised her role for the movie. Due to film censorship strictures of the time, the producers were forced to add a cheesy curtain call to the ending. After Rhoda is struck by lightning, there is a second ending in which the two actresses reappear and Kelly administers a spanking to the naughty girl!

Hopelessly dated now, the play was hilariously revived by Buzzworks Theatre Company in Los Angeles with director Danny Schmitz as a beer-swilling Rhoda and Mo Collins ("MadTV") as Mrs. Daigle, the grieving—and extremely intoxicated—mother of the boy Rhoda allegedly killed. McCormack herself was in the audience for a performance and has portrayed a character who could be Rhoda all grown up in the films "Mommy" and "Mommy's Day."

Of course, there are other malevolent moppets in the history of film, from the sublime ("The Innocents") to the ridiculous (any of the "Children of the Corn" movies). I can't help but think that "Orphan" will fall into the latter category. And I think Rhoda Penmark could easily bash her brains in and steal her penmanship medal.

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