So often kids in movies are insufferably nice, or else no-neck monsters with no real awakened soul power, just dumb glazed-eyed obnoxiousness. The fact is, until they are socialized, most children are monsters. Pregnant women are often kept away from the crops and gambling tables in small villages because children are considered to be demonic (bad luck) until old enough to be initiated into the tribe and thus recognized as actual people. The only equivalent we have today to those initiations is christening and that which goes beyond the symbolic, circumcision, but they guarantee nothing, and even if empathy is developed it can often be stunted, intentionally or otherwise. There are those who only care about themselves and their family, and 'God,' and every other living organism is either food or an enemy. At the other extreme is me, crying in the meat aisle at the carnage no one else seems to see.
The list below rounds up an array of 'wild' children, the ones who either refuse to be inducted into any society which attacks them or casual drug users whose word is never believed if it conflicts with even the shadiest of parental authority's second-hand opinions. Or maybe there is no adult society to offer this induction, or the adult supervising them is her or himself an outcast (The Piano, Paper Moon).
No matter what the root of it, we secretly thrill to see amok children; we harbor lingering childhood resentments against the adults who symbolically castrated us--teachers, cops, parents, neighbors, bullies--we have a secret stash of inner savagery just waiting to come out, as evinced by the amount of young men who harbor big stashes of automatic weapons on the off chance civilization crumbles. Until then we're expected to lay down our arms and surrender to a system that, in the end, expects us to follow rules it itself doesn't follow, to be truthful even though it isn't, and would never believe us anyway, and to make no fuss or argument when our basic human rights are stripped away in the name of our own 'safety.'
But these archetypal children embody much more than balls. We exorcise and exercise our repressed inner child vicariously through them, and the result is both cautionary and exhilarating. Like our previous entry, the Outlaw Couple, we go along for the ride like nervous virgins in the back seat of some older kid's Trans Am. These children are not all vicious or violent, but all are 'free' more or less of the confines of the social order. They either openly attack, exploit, or avoid the adult world. They live out our secret wish to blow things up before guilt, empathy, and responsibility for their own actions sours up their very sense of being alive.
1. Student body of New Grenada - Over the Edge (1979)
It's important to note that OVER THE EDGE changes the usual math of the parent-kid divide by siding itself with the kids... all the way, and allowing us to exult in the little moments of true rebellion, even if they are ultimately pointless: Richie (Matt Dillon) standing on the hood of Doberman's car as he tries to haul off Claude (Tom Fergus) for a gram of hash on a pointless bust; the retribution against the Leif-y narc who sold Claude the hash in the first place; the kids locking the parents in the PTA meeting, etc. --it's all cathartic as hell, but then as the cars in the parking lot erupt in flames and the kids rage Lord of the Flies-like we start to become afraid of ourselves for the primal inner wild child joy of seeing the school--the kid equivalent of a soul-deadening prison-- destroyed in an ultimately pointless orgy. We fantasize about blowing up the school, but when we actually blow it up, we see the ugly core that drives that fantasy. We devolve along the Hawksian axis all the way out of ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS and find ourselves in MONKEY BUSINESS, with the drugged Cary Grant as the painted savage preparing to roast his rival. By then it's too late to save the baby in the boiling bathwater, the wild chaos of death and anarchy tails childhood idealism like a dogged detective and the reactionary rabble roll over everything like a tide, shedding the old skin of the country as they come ripping through the amber waves like a sloppy zipper. (See: Vandal in the Wind -2011)
2. Tatum O'Neal as Addie (1973) - Paper Moon (1973)
Anna Paquin as Flora - The Piano (1993)
Con artist Addie hooks up with her dimwit father and moves through the landscape with similar ease while he struggles and flails. It's great to see her smoking in bed and listening avidly to Jack Benny on the radio (O'Neal played a similar character, a few years older / later to drunk dad Walter Matthau in our next choice...
3. Full team - The Bad News Bears (1976)
4. Harvey Stephens as Damien - The Omen (1976)
Damien, on the other hand, is never assimilated, and remains an evil blank slate. We only see him when either of his parents are present, and then they're half the time rushed out of the nursery by his big black dog or servant of Satan maid. Everywhere he goes his lack of socialization causes a row. He can't even get near a church, or a baboon.
5a. Emil Minty as the Feral Kid - The Road Warrior (1982)
Carrie Henn as Newt - Aliens (1986)
Unlike the Feral Kid, Newt starts out (in the Extended Cut), a normal girl, part of a fortune hunter mining family sent by Burke to investigate Ripley's alleged downed craft. Next time we see her she's resorted to a Feral Kid-style savagery, though fortunately Ripley is able to pull her out of it with her patience and mother instincts. Still it shows how quickly an only recently initiated into the social order-style child can revert when separated from all other human contact and forced to stay in hiding from the creatures who killed her parents.
5b. Jean-Pierre Cargol as The Wild Child (1970)
"Taking The 400 Blows to another level, François Truffaut's 1970 feature considers a child who is literally wild, with the filmmaker himself starring as an 18th-century country scientist molding his charge in civilization's image. Shot in neat black-and-white by Néstor Almendros, the historically based movie is measured out by Dr. Itard's orderly account of the experiment, even as his momentous study finds an opaque mirror in the near-mute boy, never truly knowable. Shaggy Victor (Jean-Pierre Cargol) starts off not fierce but blindly wriggly, like a penned-up puppy, before assuming more control and becoming a piece of silent cinema under the reserved scientist's direction. (His solitary learned word is emitted in an unforgettable squeak.) He's both pure—communing with rainfall, unexpectedly showing affection—and something incomplete, a tension echoed in the film's regimented path of discovery. All is fodder for Itard's journal transcriptions (a remove later tweaked for comedy in Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me). Rather than present a clichéd fall from grace, Truffaut elicits ambivalence by closely tracking the Enlightened scientist's optimism; after the fascination, our inchoate sadness seeps in." - Nicolas Rapold - Village Voice
6. Patty McCormack as Rhoda Penmark - The Bad Seed (1956)
"..How we love to hate little Rhoda. And for some of us (myself included), how we love to love her…she’s just too damn full of vicious personality. I even go so far as to nearly (I say nearly) champion her actions and wish she would invoke more harm (film wise) before her inevitable demise.
Living with her mother Christine (an understandably neurotic Nancy Kelly) and mostly absent father (William Hopper -- Hedda Hopper's son) Rhoda's life is one of privilege and attention. When kissing her father goodbye he asks “What would you give me for a basket of kisses?” Rhoda coos back: “A basket of hugs!” Landlady and supposed expert in psychology, Monica Breedlove (Evelyn Varden) dotes on Rhoda, applauding her out-moded manners and showering her with presents -- one being rhinestone movie star glasses that Rhoda, of course, loves. As she prattles on about Freud and abnormal psychology, the rather ridiculous Breedlove cannot see the freakish behavior in front of her. She's blinded by all that bright, beauteous blonde." (Kim Morgan - Sunset Gun)
7. Macaulay Culkin as Henry - The Good Son (1993)
Henry: I feel sorry for you, Mark. You just don't know how to have fun.
Henry: It's because you're scared all the time. I know. I used to be scared too. But that was before I found out.
Mark: Found out what?
Henry: That once you realize that you can do anything... you're free. You can fly. Nobody can touch you... nobody. Mark... don't be afraid to fly.
Mark: You're sick...
Henry: Hey, I promise you something amazing, something you'll never forget. Where's the gratitude?
8.a. Leo Fitzpatrick and Justin Pierce as Tully and Casper - Kids (1995)
"Virgins, I love 'em!" Tully narrates, with a mouth gone to mush from endless deep tongue kissing and cunnilingus. The film follows him and his buddy Caspar over the course of a long summer day and night and they're a terrifying duo - one a half-asleep alcoholic rapist, the other HIV positive, anti-condoms smoov-tawka who's always fixin' to deflower yet another 14 year-old virgin. He'll never run out of them, because these kids are always recruiting new kids to their clique; all the parents in New York are never around so the kids raise themselves; the old teach the young how to roll blunts and boost 40s from the city's countless bodegas.
By buddy Max. I really connected to this film as we were very similar in our dynamic to Tully and Caspar. We still talk in some of Tully and Casper's comedic rhythms. Max was the driven seducer (though avoided virgins, wisely) and I was the Caspar (though feminist and with a hatred of frat boys, if you know what I mean), more concerned with getting fucked up. I often woke up at big keg party like the one in this film, and like Caspar I'd wake up wherever I passed out -- the couch, the floor, the sump pump areas -- and immediately start seeking more booze and a cigarette, and if that meant fishing half-smoked butts out of the ashtrays and finishing half-full beers, no shame in that. After seeing Kids I even did this once while singing Caspar's song:
|that's a foamy 40, not milk, playa|
8.b. Evan Rachel Wood and NIkki Reed in Thirteen (2003)
The merits of Kids can really only be gauged by another film in its class, and the only one besides Larry Clark's other masterpiece, Bully, is this film written by Nikki Reed, in which she co-stars as a bad influence friend on the impressionable young Even Rachel Wood. Director Catherine Hardwicke shows why she was the perfect choice to direct the first Twilight, and why that series suffered from her later absence; she gives teenage girl angst the rare combination of operatic emotion and escape velocity it deserves. Thirteen received an even more alarmed outcry from parents than Kids did; worried moms demanded someone tell them that Reed had made it all up, that she hadn't actually done any of those things in real life. That it was all a dream. Their concern said more about the modern see-no-evil approach to parenting than any genuine compassion for the kids. Absentee parents don't want their guilty conscience attacked, rather than step up their game they'd just prefer you lie to them so they can sleep at night.
What really bugged them, of course, was that Hardwicke neither demonizes nor celebrates the girls' 'bad' choices -- she merely tries to film the exhilarating feeling of going from outcast to insider in one giddy methamphetamine headlong rush; what it's like to be suffering from depression that's so bad you cut yourself just to feel something, then a few hours later you're off on an extended manic spree. If there was no giddy thrill then there would be no emotional investment at all and the film would be little more than an after-school special. But Hardwicke never judges, even as Wood proceeds to burn down every last trace of good will, rushing into sex and drugs at a dizzy-from-anorexic-hunger speed.
9. Daniel and Joshua Shalikar as Adam -
Honey I Blew Up the Kid (1992)
" Credibility is strained by the safe bet that no one will get killed, even though the near deaths are so plentiful that the plot comes to resemble a tricked-up theme park ride. Still, the allegorical possibilities of infantile innocence run amok (particularly as a view of this country in relation to the remainder of the globe) are amusing and potent,"And this from EW's Ty Burr:
"Judging from the reactions of the kids in the screening theater, it's clear that they see what happens to Adam as a power trip of primal proportions: He plays when he wants, he sleeps when he wants, he goes where he wants — and if mom and dad don't like it, he puts them in his pocket and toddles on. By the time he rips the 85-foot-tall neon guitar off the facade of the Las Vegas Hard Rock Cafe and starts playing it, they're with him completely, screaming in anarchic delight."
10. Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)
Children of the Corn (series)
Suddenly Last Summer (1959)
The unease created by movies such as Who Can Kill a Child?, the Children of the Corn series, the wild-running orphans in Logan's Run and that gang that shouts "bop! bop!' on that one Star Trek episode hinges on two elements: 1) we're hard-wired to not kill children; 2) as adults we're expected to bring them around through strong leadership and mature nurturing. If we fail, it makes us look bad. Who can kill a child? Only a monster, like us. Kids are, at heart, sociopathic, until they learn empathy. If we can't teach them that empathy, what good are we?
I learned empathy while torturing Japanese beetles. They were a genuine plague in the 70s, and if not for DDT, they still would be. I used to get paid $1 for every jar of them in soapy water-we'd pull them off of trees and bushes that they would just devour otherwise. When bored, my friend and I would torture them. And I still remember seeing this poor Japanese beetle dragging itself along the driveway on its last leg, leaking black blood, I suddenly felt sick to my stomach, ashamed, sad, and confused. I stopped playing with the other kid immediately, and never hurt a beetle again, except to kill them swiftly and mercifully. Yeesh, kids are nightmares. But there are levels of developmental empathy, that beetle moment was the turning point for me. But if you doubt lack of empathy exists, just go to your local supermarket some time and hang out in the meat section; none of those shoppers give a shit about the organic beings that were butchered; there are no sad cow faces hanging above the steaks. Kudos to stores like Whole Foods for buying only from free range sources, but the bulk of our meat still comes from places where to say the animals are tortured, overcrowded and deprived for the entirety of their lives, is putting it mildly. Out of sight, out of mind, okay - but then to judge the kids who kill animals in the neighborhood seems awfully hypocritical.
My offhand diagnosis is that empathy is a 'luxury' in brain chemistry, a sophisticated neural upgrade the mind takes when it feels it can relax and trust the people around it, to operate as a tribe rather than a single entity. Once the empathy kicks in it can never go away (except on cocaine) so the brain doesn't want to bust it out too soon if it might be a hindrance, as in war, or survival (ala Newt in Aliens). But sociopaths tend to be loners, so what you have with a gang of unsupervised kids is fascism, mass hysteria, the desperation to connect and strengthen your tribal bonds leading you to kill all outsiders without conscience lest you be branded outsider next.
The rhythm of this phenomenon is apparent in all group human interaction. I've witnessed and been caught in three different riots over the course of my life. I never could catch the insane spirit of it all - I hurried away as the opposing ranks were drawn, embarrassed. The cops and the rioters had more in common with each other than with me; it was like I was intruding on their very private meeting.
The most highbrow of the above-listed films in this list entry isn't really a horror movie, the events are mostly described by a progressively more hysterical Elizabeth Taylor; we don't see any gore. It's pretty clear just the same that these crazy kids have eaten their cruising tourist sugar daddy in a fit of mass hysteria, hunger, and anger over being sexually abused by this older millionaire.
11. The Children (1980), The Children (2008), Emily in Night of the Living Dead (1968), the No-neck monsters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), the kids in The Brood (1979)
I love this post from Brenda Tobias about the changing attitudes towards children and the eternal power of the no-neck monsters to horrify:
Just imagine the shock of the 1950s adult (children did not attend the theatre) audience upon seeing those no-necked monsters. Those grating little characters were hauled out and scattered like confetti on a parade. There they are playing Dixie at the airstrip to greet Big Daddy (who reacts with the same horror/disgust of the audience.) There they are “performing” at Big Daddy’s birthday party to which adult friends have been invited. (Big Daddy voices our wishes and asks for an intermission.) There they are barging into bedrooms and demanding adults engage in play. And there they are repeating hateful remarks to their aunt. It’s enough to evoke a gasp. That it still does that today is remarkable.
Children are not sequestered today. In fact if anything the world has become theirs and adults are seen but not heard. Adults can often not be heard over the din of children in restaurants, theatres, museums and funerals. Babies and children are not so much integrated into adult lives, as adults are integrated into the lives of children’s. We’ve created retail empires for babies and children. Broadway has discovered the steady income stream of children and the white way is dotted with flying people and talking teapots. Infants and children unfamiliar with the term “indoor voices” are dining out at 7:00, 8:00 and even 9:00 PM. They don’t shy from the highest end restaurants either. A simple dress code of: No Pull-Up Pants would put an end to that; but we digress. The point is that the world has changed tremendously since Mr. Williams created those no-neck monsters. Yet they still have the power to horrify. That is partly due to the scenic background of their terrorizing. They are clearly in an adult environment. The house in which they are running rampant is stately; there is no great room, there are no toys. It is clearly adult space. (more)
The Brood (1979)
12 The Lord of the Flies (1963)
The main issue of course is that people gravitate to the figure they're afraid of. Fear is a high, and it makes you feel secure in your mass mind panic / hate contingent as you continually find straw dog enemies to attack - Piggy (and the wild boars on the island) all come to represent the Lord of the Flies by proxy. The trouble is, the enemies have to keep coming to keep up the facade of Jack's despotic power.
The arrival of the adults at the very end brings a presumed end to the madness and it's interesting to note the similarity of the ending with that of Mel Gibson's Apocalypto. I'm sure Mel doesn't mean us to read it as the reverse of his intention - that the Spaniards are there to educate the savage Maya and protect the neighboring tribes from being wantonly sacrificed. What we know is that the Spaniards wiped out hundreds of thousand of Mayas via disease, enslavement, and religious persecution and destroyed most of their books and records. Nice going assholes! The Maya (and Aztecs) were woefully unprepared to deal with things like canons, STDs, and muskets but they could have repelled the initial landings of Spaniards easily had they not been expecting a visit from the 'white' gods and thought these were them. It's a good moral and one that repeats throughout history, never trust the voice in your head! As we huddle by the fire and wonder who we can trust, our urge to be rational and compassionate fighting the urge to blindly lash out, wondering whether to vote for Jack's conservative circle-the-wagons worldview or Ralph's let's go talk to the natives and make friends approach. It just shows you we have not progressed too far from the savage, and maybe never will.
13. The children of The Village of the Damned (1960)
Gordon's brother-in-law is concerned: “What if we can’t put the moral breaks on them?” This is a legitimate worry—if they know you can never spank them, why should they ever listen? And Gordon’s unwillingness to condone their extermination distinctly sets the field of science/eugenics up against humanity’s own survival. The sense of taboo that resulted in the Intuit and Mongolian children being killed at birth doesn’t exist for the civilized man, who has to wait until the children have grown so big powerful only nuclear strikes will do the trick (which becomes the fate of two other damned “civilized” villages). In this context, Gordon becomes his own bad guy, like Dr. Carrington in The Thing (1951) shouting: “You’re wiser than we are, you must understand!” The comic book/movie series X-Men follows a similar tack, with the mutants finding refuge at a school operated by a master of mind control. It’s that misunderstood teen fantasy of letting all the freaks go live together since the adults hate them so much. Like some pint-sized biker gang, the Hitler Youth or a rock band, they “all want to dress alike,” and walk around the streets like they own the place. They are part of a new movement, the dawn of the eugenic-counterculture. At one point Gordon even asks them; “What do you kids want?” The kids reply: “We want you to leave us alone!” This request which would later become immortalized in Pink Floyd’s The Wall, a 1982 rock film chronicling a fascistic rock star’s childhood in post-war England. And as in that film, the adults simply cannot leave their little Nazi progeny alone. When faced with a higher or different intellect than themselves, the parents must try to understand, meddle and control and failing that, destroy them rather than be made irrelevant.
See also: WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (1933)