Horror and exploitation filmmakers have always found inspiration in taking something innocent (chidren, animals) and doing something twisted with it. From that nasty Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed (1956) to the freaky Orphan (2009), kids have been terrorizing adults and moviegoers alike for ages. Here's a look at a few of my favorites that haven't been discussed to death.
1. Who Can Kill a Child?
Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's 1976 shocker is surely one of the bleakest films ever made. It's about a young English couple, Tom and Evelyn, who arrive on a secluded island for a vacation, only to be confronted by a mob of murderous kids.
All the adults have been killed, so they have no one to turn to for help. And Evelyn, who is pregnant, succumbs when her unborn baby, under the influence of the other children on the island, attacks her from inside!
The story, written by Juan José Plans and Luis Peñafie, posits that all the violence perpetrated by adults on kids has resulted in these little demons taking murderous matters into their own hands. And, at the end, when the kids prepare to journey to mainland Spain, one girl asks, "Do you think the other children will start playing
the way we do?", the boss kid smiles and says, "Oh, yes...there are
lots of children in the world. Lots of them." Bwa ha haaaa....
The film opens with a horrifying montage of children maimed, killed or starving as a result of wars throughout history, accompanied by the death toll of each war and how many were young. The film pulls no punches with the violence. For example, one of their victims, an old man, is hung up inside a barn and used as a human piñata. And the filmmakers don't skimp on the irony — the island is actually quite beautiful, and most of the action takes place out in the bright sunlight. It's one of those movies that, once you've seen it, leaves its mark on you.
Seven years earlier, Serrador made another killer kid movie, La Residencia (The House that Screamed), with John Moulder-Brown as the sicko son of Lilli Palmer, the headmistress of a boarding school for troubled girls. Seems Mom won't let him get close to any of them because they're all "trash," so he starts knocking them off one by one and building his own perfect bride from their body parts!
2. It's Alive
When I saw this in the theater during its original 1974 release, I was amazed at how sick it was for its mild PG rating. Frank and Lenore (John Ryan and Sharon Farrell) are delighted to be having a second child years after the birth of their first. But when the baby arrives, it's literally a monster with claws and fangs and an uncontrollable urge to kill. Its first victims are the medical staff in the delivery room who try to kill it before going off on a rampage.
Prescription drugs are blamed for the mutation, and nervous pharmaceutical company executives want the kid destroyed before it can be confirmed and released to the general public. Man, the more things change, the more they stay the same, eh?
This is one of maverick filmmaker Larry Cohen's best flicks, and he's made quite a few Village favorites. One unforgettable scene has the kid killing a milkman in the back of his delivery truck. As the guy's legs thrash about in agony, bottles of milk are knocked over and broken, and the bright white liquid, mixed with crimson red, pours out.
Cohen made sequels — It Lives Again (1978), with Ryan having become a crusader for the rights of the mutant babies (!) and Island of the Alive (1987), with Michael Moriarty and Karen Black. The third one is pretty whack — Cohen loads it with social commentary and some comedy that's actually funny. Plus this one's rated R, so the gore ante is upped.
3. Baby Blood
This gritty 1990 French film directed and co-written by Alain Robak is about Yanka (Emmanuelle Escourrou), a pregnant circus performer with a miserable life whose womb is invaded by a parasite that transforms her infant into a bloodthirsty monster. It doesn't do the killing, though — it telepathically orders her to.
She sets off on a cross-country spree punctuated by bloody murders and jet-black humor. The baby chastises Yanka for smoking while pregnant, for example, and its big plans to crush humanity are so absurd that even she starts laughing. And there are throat slittings aplenty, a decapitation and an exploding leopard.
Though Yanka is horrified by what the baby is driving her to do, she also gets off taking revenge on men who stand in for the guys who've abused her all of her life, so it's got kind of an I Spit on Your Grave angle. And the monster is a talkative little bastard — the gray market version I saw years ago him growling orders (in French, of course) to Mom. Evidently the English-language version has Gary Oldman doing the voice of the baby! I'm going to have to check that one out.
4. Bad Ronald
Ah, for the glory days of made-for-television movies that were actually good. This 1974 suspenser stars Scott Jacoby (also in the landmark 1972 TV film That Certain Summer) as a geeky high school kid with an overprotective mother (Kim Hunter). When he accidentally kills the sister of the girl who'd just spurned his advances, he buries the body and runs for Mom. To protect him from the police, they create an elaborate passageway throughout the house where he can live in secret.
Thinking it will only be for a month or so, Mom tells neighbors that Ronald had run away. But something unexpected happens — she goes into the hospital for an emergency gallbladder operation and dies. The house is sold to a new family and Ronald, still hidden away, starts to go bonkers. He retreats into a fantasy world ruled by a happy prince and princess and even takes up painting, but the lack of human companionship begins to wear on him. As he prowls the house at night and peeps through holes he's drilled into various walls, the family is mystified by odd noises they hear and the disappearance of food.
Directed by TV vet Buzz Kulik, the film takes full advantage of the premise of being spied upon in your own house by someone you don't know is there. And, of course, there are the sounds. Along with such classics as Trilogy of Terror (1975), Duel (1972) and The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975), Bad Ronald is a happy childhood memory from a time when TV movies were events and not just time-fillers.
5. Damien: Omen II
Satan causes a bunch of performers to overact in this follow-up to the 1976 smash hit about the Reagans...er, I mean an American diplomat whose child is switched at birth with the Antichrist. After offing his parents in the first one, Damien goes to live with his well-to-do uncle (William Holden), aunt (Lee Grant) and cousin (Lucas Donat) and attends a snooty military academy. Fortunately there are lots of devil worshipppers around to help Damien come of age, including his commander, Neff (Lance Henriksen). At first horrified at learning what he is, he eventually settles into the role and even has some fun with it.
Take the hockey death scene. The general manager (Lew Ayres) of Thorn Industries, the family business, frustrates the ambitions of his devilish manager (Robert Foxworth) to move into agriculture. He falls through the ice of a frozen lake and everyone frantically races around trying to break through the ice to save him as the undercurrents carry him to and fro. It's a memorably agonizing sequence.
And when a doctor (Meschach Taylor) who analyzes Damien's blood realizes it has the same cell structure as a jackal, he's neatly sliced in half by an elevator cable while on the way to tell someone about it. A journalist (Elizabeth Shepherd) has her eyes pecked out by an annoying raven before being run down by a truck, and poor old Bugenhagen (Leo McKern), a leftover from the first film, drowns in a sea of sand.
Boy, there are some hammy performances in this movie. Holden stays relatively restrained, but Grant, an actress not known for her subtlety, roars through every scene she's in, especially during the climax. Shepherd is all bulging-eyed hysteria, and Donat's death is pretty over-the-top. That said, Jonathan Scott-Taylor is actually pretty good as the 13-year-old Damien, especially when confronting his inner demons. But how come he's so veddy veddy English? If he went to the States when still four or five years old, wouldn't he lose the accent?
I certainly don't consider the first film to be any kind of classic. It's actually pretty slow. Jerry Goldsmith's Academy Award-winning score is terrific, though. He returns for the sequel and reprises his original cues with tinges of jazz and rock, which is appropriate for a film that doesn't pretend to be anything but a rather campy shockfest.