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This weekend’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (which I saw at a film festival last fall and didn’t enjoy, much to my chagrin) is the latest in a series of flicks Guillermo Del Toro has executively produced. Del Toro has his fingers in movies all across the spectrum – but it seems his favorite genre is spooky, psychological horror that deals with children. Pan’s Labyrinth, The Orphanage, and The Devil’s Backbone focus on the way children see the world and the methods they employ to escape their ugly circumstances. In the original 1973 TV version of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, the horrid creatures that live in the shadows want an adult to join them…but Del Toro finds children ever so much more interesting.
When you were nine years old there were no bills to pay, no mouths to feed (except your own, and that probably wasn’t your responsibility anyway), no big scary exams, and no complex relationship quandaries to distract you. Sounds like heaven! Until you really think about the fact that children are our most powerless demographic. They’re under the influence and power of adults – and adults, you realize as you get older, are not always right. And grownups sure can do a bang-up job of messing up their kids’ lives. Horror movies that feature kids and teenagers almost always have, on the other end of the spectrum, adults who can’t or won’t see what’s happening right under their mature, obstinate noses. These movies are less about “kids versus evil” than they are about childhood versus growing up.
Stephen King posits in much of his fiction that children and babies are simply more aware of the world around them; that as we grow up, we lose touch with our ability to see and communicate with the spiritual world. Having played more than my share of Bloody Mary, seen some inexplicable things, and watched a lot of babies and cats stare raptly into empty corners for lengths of time, I can pretty much buy this theory. As I wrote in my Fright Night review, horror film has plucked the strings of this topic for years. Fright Night is an adventurous, fun horror movie about a kid who sees what most adults refuse to (the eighties brought us a bunch of films besides the original FN that focus on that).
So in honor of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (which I hope you enjoy, even though I didn’t – and look for Dan’s review on Saturday!), join Brett Davinger, Dan Fields, and me (Julia Rhodes!) as we chronicle some of the best flicks that deal with kids who see spooks (and Santa Claus) and fight baddies, and the grownups who refuse to see what’s right in front of them.
“IT” (dir. Tommy Lee Wallace, 1991)
We’d be hard-pressed to write this article without mentioning some of Stephen King’s material. The man once said, “I have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar in my room.” His affection for kids and their struggles/abilities is evident in a lot of his work, but particularly in the epic tome IT. (I should mention that when I was 10, my best friend and I went through months on end of watching Dirty Dancing and “IT” on repeat. I’ve seen this four-hour-long movie enough times to quote nearly word for word. Don’t hate!)
When the kids of Derry, Maine start disappearing one by one, a cluster of misfits who grow to call themselves the Losers Club leap into the fray – not that they have a choice, since some horrible creature is stalking them. The Losers include Stuttering Bill (Jonathan Brandis/Richard Thomas); fragile, oppressed Eddie Spaghetti (Adam Faraizl/Dennis Christopher); fat Ben “Haystack” Hanscom (Brandon Crane/John Ritter); beautiful, poor, tough love interest Beverly Marsh (Emily Perkins/Annette O’Toole); good boy Stan Uris (Ben Heller/Richard Masur); loudmouth Richie Tozier (Seth Green/Harry Anderson); and finally, the only black kid in town, Mike Hanlon (Marlon Taylor/Tim Reid). All seven of the Losers encounter It, and all approach their parents for help. Not a single adult can see the blood, the werewolf, the clown, the spider, the mummy…or any other form the evil takes.
The only way for the kids to survive is to believe – adults refuse to see the evil and thus cannot defeat it – and aside from the Losers, children let their fear overwhelm them. The Losers stand up to the thing (which is far, far better explained in the book than the movie) and drive it to ground. When It returns to Derry 27 years later, the Losers come back to fight once more…as adults. And with disastrous results.
I’ll never be able to defend the quality of “IT,” because it was a TV movie made in the very early 90s with a very low budget. But I can say that, despite that awful spider thing, the movie’s a brilliant example of flicks in which kids can see the things adults cannot. And that’s it’s up for a theatrical remake sometime soon (about which I’m both skeptical and excited).
The Sixth Sense (dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 1999)
M. Night Shyamalan and his ego are now renowned for truly horrible movies (did you see The Happening? If not, don’t…but here’s a spoiler: it’s plants). Twelve years ago, though, he burst onto the scene with the truly spooky ghost flick The Sixth Sense. The movie has become a pop culture joke in the wake of the same “What a twist!” crap Shyamalan has put out in the last five years. In it, child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) strives to treat little Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), who thinks he can see dead people. Cole’s mother Lynn (Toni Collette, who also played the initially-reticent parent in the Fright Night remake) has no idea what to do with Cole. Meanwhile, Malcolm loses touch with his wife (Olivia Williams) and, well, the rest of the world.
Of course, Cole can see and communicate with the dead. And of course (sorry for anyone who hasn’t gathered this from its myriad iterations in pop culture) Malcolm himself is a ghost. The movie’s a great example of the obduracy of adults – everyone assumes Cole just has a vivid imagination, including the ghost himself. And poor Cole, helpless in the hands of unaware adults, endures years of torment at the discorporeal hands of the angry dead, who just want someone to talk to. He also suffers the years of torture from his “normal” peers, who think he’s a total weirdo. In The Sixth Sense, not all kids can see beyond the veil, but (as in “IT”) the one who can is widely accepted to be a loser and a freak.
As far as kids vs. evil, this one’s at the low end of the scare spectrum. But when it comes to children vs. grownups, it’s a damned good example of the way parents (and adults in general) so often dismiss their kids’ fears and assertions – and the coping strategies kids take on to deal with it.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (dir. Wes Craven, 1984)
The Nightmare on Elm Street series is perhaps the best, goriest, and silliest group of films to pit teenagers against some unspeakable evil and their parents. The first in the series features pretty young thing Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), whose friends start dropping like flies at the hands of a malevolent force that haunts their dreams. Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), a child-rapist, was brutally murdered by the parents of Elm Street, and returns to take his vengeance on their kids. In point of fact, the kids of Elm Street are facing the evil solely because of their parents’ actions. (Adults can be so dumb, right?)
When Nancy’s sexually active (they’re always the first to die) best friend Tina dies in her sleep from multiple slash wounds, Tina’s boyfriend Rod ends up in the slammer for the crime. Nancy and her boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp in his first movie role!) take it upon themselves to investigate the strange occurrences of sleep-deaths in their little town. Nancy’s parents (John Saxon and Ronee Blakley) think she’s crazy, and Glen jumps on that bandwagon too…until he bites it. When the parents finally come clean, it’s too late; they’ve already barred up Nancy’s windows and tricked her into sleeping. Freddy has free reign within dreams – and belief in him, and faith that you can defeat him, is the only way to make it happen. (“IT” takes a similar approach.)
In all seriousness, Freddy Krueger’s burned visage and knives-for-fingers, and the fact that his victims have done nothing but fall asleep – something we all have to do – makes him one of horror’s scariest villains. Krueger has become one of horror’s most famous figures. He was so popular after the first few movies that he had a TV show, action figures, and guest appearances on talk shows.The series had its ups and downs, and the remake was awful. One, three (Dream Warriors), and New Nightmare are my favorites. Feel free to defend others in the comments!
Poltergeist (dir. Tobe Hooper, 1982)
Like Freddy, little Carol Anne of Poltergeist became one of horror’s prominent figures in the 80s. “They’re here,” said with all the sweetness and innocence of a tiny, adorably towheaded child, became a goosebump-inducing phrase in 1982. The film, ostensibly directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) but really steered by Steven Spielberg, follows the Freeling family as they fend off a host of malevolent ghosts from their suburban home.
Steven (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane (JoBeth Williams) and their children Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robins), and Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) live in a spanking new development. All is calm and quaint, and an in-ground pool will only make the house more homey. What they don’t know is that the contractors built atop a cemetary – and didn’t remove the bodies from the ground. When Carol Anne begins to sleepwalk and talk to the white noise in the TV, they think, “Oh, how funny!” Then things begin to move about on their own, and they think, “Wow! Let’s experiment!” And then the ish really hits the fan.
The “TV people” trap Carol Anne in another dimension, and the Freelings bring in a host of paranormal experts (including the wonderfully strange Zelda Rubinstein as Tangina Barrons) to rid their home of its evil. Ms. Barrons assures the Freelings that the ghosts want Carol Anne’s “life force.” Children in most of the movies in this subgenre are more open, more willing to believe, than adults. And they’re also appealing to supernatural evil because of their youthful energy.
Side note: almost more interesting than the film itself is the “Poltergeist curse.” The crew used real skeletons and cadavers in the production. In the six years that the three Poltergeist films were released, many cast members died untimely deaths. The two most prominent are the daughters of the Freeling family: Heather O’Rourke (Carol Anne) died suddenly at the age of 12 in 1988. Dominique Dunne (Dana) was murdered by an ex-boyfriend in November 1982, at the age of 22. Note to Steven Spielberg: don’t mess with the dead, and the dead won’t mess with you. (This is especially entertaining considering the film’s subject.)
El Orfanato (The Orphanage, dir. J. A. Bayona, 2007)
As with the Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark remake, Guillermo del Toro worked as a producer for this film. His attraction to the project is clear, as it deals in the scary and the achingly sad in similar proportions as his own Pan’s Labyrinth. Laura (Belén Rueda) is a mother much troubled about her relationship with her adopted son, Simón. The two of them, along with Laura’s husband, are moving to the run-down Spanish orphanage of her childhood, with plans to open it again as an institution for infirm children. The stress of the situation is wearing on her, and about this time Simón seems to be withdrawing from her. The lonely boy acquires an imaginary (or so it seems) friend named Tomás, with whom he goes running off into dangerous beachfront caves.
The intrusion of a persistent social worker reveals to Simón that he is not only adopted, but terminally ill. As Laura agonizes over his angry reaction, he suddenly goes missing under eerie circumstances. He runs away during a party at the orphanage, and Laura is waylaid in her search for him by a mysterious masked child, who seems to be Simón’s ghost friend Tomás. The subsequent disappearance of Simón sets the rest of the story in motion.
Too much hangs on the final revelations to go into great detail. Laura follows a trail of clues to the dark history of the orphanage, along with clear signs that its walls house restless spirits. Fans of The Haunting, Session 9, and The Ring will find plot elements reminiscent of each along the way. The story flows from relentless spookiness to heartbreaking tragedy with surprising smoothness, and everything ties together in quite the horrifying twist.
El Orfanato is, in part, about a mother’s worst nightmares coming true in rapid succession. Also, though, it is a cautionary tale about children and the importance of their capacity for intuition and spirituality. It is not revealing too much to say that Simón is truly in contact with ghosts, and that he earnestly tries to share these secrets with Laura. However, she is far too preoccupied with deciding what is best for him to see anything except a silly child’s game. So much could have been saved and set right had she only opened her mind and her heart to the secrets her son offered her.
Children Of The Corn (dir. Fritz Kiersch, 1984)
Children Of The Corn belongs in the middle stratum of Stephen King adaptations, neither scraping the depths of failures like Pet Sematary and The Mangler, nor achieving the classic status of The Shining or Stand By Me. It belongs in the decently executed, pretty darned scary category next stories like Cujo. In fact, Cujo in its original form would be a good yarn for this list, but unfortunately the film adaptation dropped most of the “closet monster personified as rabid dog” story in favor of a plain old “rabid dog” plot.
So, to digress further. Children Of The Corn begins with the youngsters of a small farming community conducting a ritual mass slaughter of every adult they can lay hands upon. All this is in the service of a boy prophet named Isaac, himself in the service of a demonic entity called “He Who Walks Behind The Rows.” Isaac holds services for his cult in nearby cornfields, where the remains of adults are offered up to “He.”
All this comes to light when a couple passing through town (Linda Hamilton of Terminator fame, and Peter Horton of Children Of The Corn Fame) happen on something rather bizarre on the highway, very near where the children worship. Since it is the first major shock of the film, I will say no more, but this event allows them to enter the abandoned town and discover its ghastly secrets. Soon the murderous children are after them. Adulthood is the chief cardinal sin in their religion, and meanwhile they are up to some serious survivalist measures in the cornfield which the outside world simply would not understand.
The predictable course of the story is that Issac is as crazy as he is charismatic, and that the children have blindly followed him down the path of his own sickness. Nothing walks behind the rows, and what these children actually worship is the same liberated savagery that the kids in Lord Of The Flies prized so highly.
But… warning! plot details things are not so simple. Almost the entire film operates under this assumption on the part of the characters and the audience. However, during a climactic showdown, we learn that there is indeed a supernatural presence in the field. It goes without saying that children should not be sacrificing their parents to it. However, the really scary part about this story is that the kids are right about there being a god, or a demon, or what have you, dwelling in the cornfield. Did He Who Walks Behind The Rows make the rules about murdering grown-ups and praying to crops? Perhaps. Or did Isaac pervert the prospect of more peaceful and benign nature-worship to his own vile ends? We never find out, but the fact that he was inspired by something beyond mere delusion, which none of the town’s elder folk ever witnessed, is a chilling thought indeed.
Halloween (dir. John Carpenter, 1978)
This film fits into the theme of the week, but only with a little squeezing. At no point does Halloween deal explicitly with the supernatural. On the other hand, Michael Myers is the most eerily ambiguous of all the big movie slashers. Killers like this tend to fall strongly into the flesh and blood category, or enjoy purely supernatural status. At the beginning of John Carpenter’s film, Michael Myers seems to be a perfectly normal eight year old psychopath. However, his doctor (Donald Pleasance) speaks of his pure evil nature with awed horror, as though he were some monster yet unseen by science.
Once grown, he manages to escape his mental hospital and conduct a reign of terror in his hometown one Halloween night. His ability to pursue and survive under extreme hindrance verges on the superhuman, and the sinister mythology of the spooky holiday weaves itself around his every movement.
What makes Halloween so clever – and other movies like it so un-clever – is the brilliant touch of actually setting it on Halloween, where even the most rational of people might be prone to an easy scare. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis in her debut) is kind-hearted and gullible, and struggles with popularity issues despite the advice of her freewheeling, promiscuous friends. She and her gal pals all have babysitting jobs this Halloween, though each would rather be meeting up with a boyfriend. Laurie dutifully tends to her young charge, Tommy, who is full of the Halloween spirit. Never mind that she has been seeing and feeling strange things all day, including a mysterious stranger who may or may not be following her around.
In due course, the Jack o’ Lanterns are carved, the popcorn is popped, and the late night horror show is on. Laurie banishes her fears and tries to have a nice night. Trouble is, little Tommy and his friend Lindsey start yelling about “the boogeyman” outside. Laurie reproaches him, because he is scaring her too, but part of her wants to believe that her uneasiness is grounded in real danger. Then, of course, murders begin happening across the street. A shape moves in the dark, and strange voices call up on the telephone. Laurie forces herself to believe until the last possible moment that her friends are pulling stupid pranks, but before she knows it she is on the run from a crazed killer, without a live friend or an armed cop to her name.
In declining to explain Michael Myers to any satisfactory degree, the movie preserves his mystery in perhaps the best and most classic horror movie ending ever to end a horror movie. The only sensible conclusion to be drawn? “It was the boogeyman.” In this case, paying a little more attention to the terrified children would have been a wise move. Something about their highly tuned senses, on the scariest night of the year, lends them a prescience as useful as the actual ability to sense supernatural evil.
The Shining (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s visually outstanding 1980 horror masterpiece The Shining features the Torrance family, consisting of Jack (Jack Nicholson), Danny (Danny Lloyd), and Wendy (Shelly Duvall), spending a long winter at the Overlook Hotel in Colorado. An aspiring writer, Jack, a former alcoholic, took a teaching job before accepting the isolated position that he believes will allow him to write his novel in peace, even though the previous caretaker slaughtered his whole family. His son, Danny, is a boy prone to seizures and talking to Tony, the little boy who lives in his mouth. And Wendy is the nervous and doting wife desperate not to upset her husband or drive him back to the bottle.
When they reach the Overlook, Danny meets head chef Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) who informs him about his special power, a form of ESP called “the shine” that allows him to communicate telepathically. Like many films in this genre, Danny does not merely see what isn’t there, he sees what is there, but cannot be seen by adults. He understands more than his parents; he sees the ghosts of the hotel, the pain of years past. From early on, Danny understands the horrors of the hotel after meeting the two dead girls who ask him to “play with us, Danny. Forever and ever and ever” and being attacked in room 237.
While King might complain that The Shining ignored the alcoholism element of his novel, it is most certainly present in Kubrick’s superior film. The hotel itself can certainly be seen as partly allegorical, as, taking into account the hereditary factors of the disease, both Jack and Danny “see” the dark side of the hotel (the woman in 237 is a classic example of beer goggles). Danny wants to avoid falling into the traps while Jack dives head first into the “glass.” Even after Jack learns from predecessor Grady and bartender Lloyd about the destruction he must cause, he continues down the path while Danny keeps trying to escape its grasp. Meanwhile, it takes until the very end for the non-Torrance DNA’ed Wendy to finally open her eyes to the truth around her. And seeing a furry blowing a guy is one weird wake-up call.
Like all of Kubrick’s films, The Shining requires multiple and careful viewings. It contains more than just the iconic images of “Here’s Johnny” and the Elevator of Blood. Jack is greater than a raving maniac, and Nicholson actually does bring a lot of subtlety to his performance. His “what the hell is going on?” look after Wendy accuses him of hurting Danny, the glares of disgust he gives to his wife and son, his sheer enjoyment at being back at a bar and chatting up a bartender account for one of Nicholson’s most memorable roles.
Time Bandits (dir. Terry Gilliam, 1980)
Known for creating some of the most imaginative universes in film, Terry Gilliam infuses his penchant for surrealistic childlike wonder into Time Bandits, one of his few movies actually starring a child. Kevin (Craig Warnock) is your typical kid- intelligent, curious without being precocious, fascinated by history. His parents, on the other hand, are typical adults: television/game show addicts and gadget obsessed drones who barely pay attention to their son.
One night while going to bed, Kevin notices a knight ride through his room and into a forest that once was his bedroom wall, but the forest (and the horseman) disappear. His father runs into Kevin’s room and yells at him about making too much noise. The next night, six dwarves (Randall, Fidgit, Strutter, Og, Wally, and Vermin) emerge from Kevin’s wardrobe and threaten him. They run into his bedroom and “push” the wall outward, creating a long hallway. After a giant floating head threatens them about returning a map, the hallway stops, and the six, plus Kevin, fall into darkness.
From there, they run throughout time meeting such figures as Napoleon (who especially loves the sextet) and King Agamemnon, and they even end up on the Titanic. While Kevin loves the adventures, the dwarves are thieves and constantly rob treasures from the people who they meet, even tying up John Cleese’s Robin Hood. They even stole the map that allows them to travel throughout time from the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson, more or less God) after being demoted to fixing holes the space-time continuum.
As they go on their trips, Evil (David Warner) wants the map for his own nefarious purposes. He accomplishes this by trapping Kevin and the time bandits in his Fortress consisting of labyrinths and giant cages. After escaping, the seven draft a bunch of soldiers from a variety of time periods and go to war against Evil, who defeats them all easily. Then, Supreme Being appears to put an end to Evil and send Kevin back home, with a piece of the defeated villain. Defeating any “just a dream” theories by allowing Kevin to have pictures of his adventures, Time Bandits ends with an unexpectedly dark spin when his parents touch Evil.
Miracle on 34th Street (dir. George Seaton, 1947)
But children don’t always see horrible things. Sometimes they see nice things, like Santa Claus as in Miracle on 34th Street. In this 1947 film (remade in the 1990s), a man named Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn in an Oscar-winning performance) complains to Macy’s about the drunk they chose to play Santa (not Billy Bob Thornton) in the annual parade. The event’s director (Doris Walker, played by Maureen O’Hara) selects Kringle to be the store’s Santa for the coming season, and he agrees. Doris’ daughter Susan (a really young Natalie Wood) meets Kris Kringle and believes he’s the real thing. The grown-ups don’t buy into it, but Susan is steadfast that Kris really is Santa.
Kringle himself also claims to really be Santa Claus, and he is institutionalized as a result. His attorney seeks a sanity trial where Kringle will prove in a court of law that he is, in fact, Santa. As the story garners attention, more and more children proclaim their belief that Kris is, in fact, Santa. The judge of the case is torn, as his own grandchildren believe in the man. The district attorney is similarly conflicted because of the political ramifications for taking on this increasingly unpopular case.
At the trial, mailmen arrive at the courthouse with thousands of letters from its dead letter office addressed to Kringle/Santa. The post office “legally” recognizes him as Santa, and thus the judge dismisses the case.
The year is 1947. World War II has been over for two years, but we already knew about the encroaching problems with the heathen Communist Menace. The message of Miracle on 34th Street isn’t to believe in Santa Claus, return to a sense of childlike wonder, or adopt feelings of goodness or kindness; it’s to believe in capitalism. There is no figure in history more pro-materialism than Santa Claus, and, by legally acknowledging his existence, the courts and the federal government get in on the conspiracy to convince us that buying is not just important, but magical. Masquerading as a sweet Christmas tale, Miracle on 34th Street is nothing but classic pro-American propaganda meant to indoctrinate sheeple from a young age. This movie makes me sick.