Children can be cruel, to animals, classmates and especially siblings. Add superpowers into that mix and you’ve got the makings of an effective horror movie.
Scary children with extraordinary abilities – or just a killer disposition – have been a staple of Hollywood chillers dating back to the 1950s with “The Bad Seed” and moving through the decades in films like “Children of the Damned” and “The Omen.” In fact, two are out this Friday: a new take on Stephen King’s “Firestarter” (in theaters and on Peacock), about an 11-year-old girl who can create deadly flames from her mind, and the Nordic thriller “The Innocents (in theaters and on demand) that centers on kids in an apartment complex who discover both wonder and brutality within their inexplicable abilities.
But films with creepy children resonate differently in an era of social media, a worldwide pandemic and images of war and strife just a flip of the channel or a browser window away.
“A lot of the problems that we’ve been going through as a society have been pushed over to them because they haven’t been allowed to live in a way,” says “Innocents” writer/director Eskil Vogt, a recent Oscar nominee for original screenplay for “The Worst Person in the World.” “They’ve been living on top of their parents, being watched all the time, and haven’t had that safe space of being away from their parents and figuring stuff out and making mistakes.”
“The Innocents” was inspired by Vogt becoming a father and feeling curious about childhood again, yet with his main characters – including a 9-year-old girl (Rakel Lenora Fløttum), her autistic older sister (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) and a neighbor boy (Sam Ashraf) who begins using his telekinetic powers in dark ways – the filmmaker also sought to explore youngsters forming their own moral compass with these gifts.
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“Our first set of values and our morals are just handed down to us from our parents saying ‘Don’t do that’ or ’It’s wrong to do this,’ ” Vogt says. “Part of growing up and being a kid is to do some stuff that your mother said you shouldn’t do and see how it feels.”
Weighing the consequences of deadly actions is something “Firestarter” director Keith Thomas also wanted to focus on with his film: Young Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) enjoys using her growing fire abilities, though after they lead to an accident she regrets, her dad (Zac Efron) uses the situation as a chance for her to understand she needs to bear responsibility for them as well.
“The child doesn’t have some sort of inborn sense of direction in terms of how they live their lives, let alone how you deal with a power like this,” Thomas says. “It was really interesting to explore the sort of different ways parents might try to guide a child like this and make sense of what they’re doing and leave them in a way better than they were when they came into it.”
Both directors wanted to showcase a youthful perspective in their films, as opposed to past horror films that viewed these scary kids from the adults’ point of view. In older blockbusters such as “The Omen” and “The Exorcist,” demonic or possessed youngsters “tend to embody their elders’ sins/evil rather than their own,” says Dawn Keetley, a professor of English and film at Lehigh University and co-founder of the website HorrorHomeroom.com. For example, the devil infant of “Rosemary’s Baby” is “quite directly a result of Rosemary’s husband’s blind professional ambition.”
However, since “The Ring” became a hit in 2002, “creepy children have been ‘evil’ in their own right and in a way that’s grounded in realism, not the supernatural,” Keetley says.
Today’s kids are “kind of unknowable” for those Gen X and older, Thomas says. “Their childhood is so far removed from childhoods before. With technology and social media, they live a very different, much more interconnected life that I think feels somewhat alien and hard to identify with, obviously with all the memes and all the catchphrase-speak. It’s like talking to a wisecracker from the 1940s. They don’t make sense.
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“I think that’s a big fear of it: How do we identify with these people? The Gen Z kids are so far removed from our experience that that’s scary. What’s the world going to become with these guys running it?”
And while grown-ups might always be unnerved by dangerous kiddos with unchecked abilities and a dubious moral code, Thomas has found his children – ages 12, 15 and 18 – and their friends see a sense of empowerment to the “joy of destruction” aspect of “Firestarter.”
“All of us as kids, probably even as adults, daydreamed about what we would do if we had powers,” he says. “There’s an attraction to breaking the rules and getting mad and letting that anger physically manifest.”
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