Film's Last Taboo

by Bill Gibron

29 January 2008

Social hype has given your basic brats a media Teflon coating. Has the time finally come to make them pay?
Patty McCormack posing for The Bad Seed (1956) promo 

Rumor has it that, during a press junket for his Spring splatterfest, Hostel: Part 2, writer/director Eli Roth was asked if there was anything left to be exploited. It was a rather loaded question, considering that this is the man that many point to as the driving force behind the lamentable (at least among mainstream pundits) “torture porn” or “gorno” genre of fright films. Never one to back down from controversy, Roth uttered the unthinkable. “I can’t wait until we can kill kids onscreen”, he said, “That’s the only taboo that’s left”. 

He was probably referencing a scene in his gore drenched sequel where a murderous businessman shoots a child (off screen) to warn others of his power. It was a jaw dropper, no doubt, but the bigger question was, did he have a point? Is there an implied or direct rejection of murdering children in film?

The answer seems pretty obvious, at least on the surface. As an audience, we don’t like to see wee ones buy it in film. We shudder to think about the innocent being smitten for the sake of shock value. When Stephen King wrote his horrifying bestseller Pet Sematary, he shelved the book at first, believing the story (about a zombie child that comes back from the grave and torments his parents) was too intense.

Even the eventual movie adaptation had psychiatrists and therapists working overtime. When angelic little Gage turned into a literal spawn of Hell, tiny under-formed hand grasping a scalpel, ready to kill, parents (and potential procreators) were beside themselves with dismay. How could someone corrupt the purity and blamelessness of a child, turning it into a menacing, murderous monstrosity?

The ‘why’ is actually not that hard to get a handle on. Frankly, it’s what everyone secretly thinks about their offspring, anyway. Certainly, there is the cliché which has the doting potential Mom and Dad suddenly learning that biology can be a horrible bitch goddess, but as they say with most stereotyping, there’s usually some proof inside the pigeonholing. They don’t call them the “terrible twos” for nothing, and when was the last time you saw a drool-drenched toddler doing anything angelic, huh? Social hype has given your basic brat a media Teflon coating, and now the time has come to make them pay. After all, we’ve had the opposite end of the psycho spectrum—actual evil children—in movies long enough to demand a metaphysical recount.

Perhaps the best known killer kid flick is The Bad Seed. Starring a remarkable Patty McCormick and a cast of classic scenery chewers, this talky former stage play had little Rhoda Penmark hiding a hideous homicidal streak behind an everpresent smile and a bunch of pro-parent platitudes. The distress of both the novel and the eventual adaptation was that our little pigtailed princess was actually a soulless, heartless fiend, capable of acts so atrocious that, even by today’s standards, audiences would be appalled.

Yet oddly enough, when it came time to give our cupie doll Dahmer a little moralizing payback, the studio system wouldn’t let Rhoda get away with her crimes. The original ending had her surviving, but under the Hayes Code, no crime went unpunished. A bolt of lightning from above, and our girlish Gacy was pushing up the petunias.

Children were also seen as monsters, literally, in the horror classic Village of the Damned. Fair haired and evil eyed, these clipped talking tykes drive a small English town batty with their powers of mind control and well-mannered behavior. As they exert their will on the unsuspecting residents, one man tries to stop them. His weapon of choice: a hidden atomic bomb. Yes, these knee biters are so bad ass that a regulation nuclear weapon is needed. Of course, given their impeccable grooming and standards of etiquette, the finalé is left ambiguous. The trademark glowing peepers of the kids are viewed, vaguely, through the veil of mushroom clouding fall out.

Recent examples of the diabolic demon youngster include The Omen (where the tyke in question it actually Satan’s spawn), The Good Son (Macauly Culkin tries to be wicked and fails), and a Sundance fave from 2007, Joshua (super smart child manipulates his family in strikingly malevolent ways).  All of these films follow a similar strategy: maniacal bratling goes about his or her sinful business, usually within the purview of an innocent member of the clan. Warnings are given and unheeded, unexplained accidents happen, and no one asks the important questions.

The inherent benefit of the doubt given to all minors is magnified dozens of times, allowing for the so-called suspense derived from having said expectation undermined. Of course, all we really fear is that these baby Bundys go unpunished.

Sadly, they almost always do. Joshua manages to get his mother committed to a loony bin, his father arrested on child molestation/abuse charges. He even pushes his Bible thumping granny down some museum stairs. What does he get for his efforts? A new set up with his showtune writing Uncle.

Little Damien, fruit of the mangoat’s underworld loins, is spared a rather nasty ritualistic death (medieval daggers through his body parts—ew!) thanks to a hail of bullets from police. He winds up smirking sadistically while holding onto the hand…of the Vice President of the United States! Only Henry, Son‘s so called decent progeny pays the ultimate price. Of course, it all comes down to a question of self-sacrifice and unavoidable consequences (basically, mom lets crazy kid fall off a cliff and die).

Perhaps the best example of something a little less metaphoric is the classic Lifetime Channel space saver, Child of Rage. Originally a CBS TV movie, this wonderfully whacked-out melodrama saw good adults Rob and Jill Tyler adopt two special orphans, passive little Eric and totally unhinged nutcase Catherine (or “Baby Cat”, for short). The little darling has a tendency to fly completely and utterly off the handle, doing such abnormal acts of antisocial aggression as smashing her brother’s head against the floor, stabbing her dad in his sleep, and chasing a classmate with a shard of glass. Of course, instead of putting the proto-Lizzie Borden out of her misery, a therapist uncovers the truth. Baby Cat was formerly Abused Cat, and regular treatments (and a mandatory TV running time) had our hacked off heroine toning down the tantrums.

Yet in all these cases, misdeed is not met by its karmic sibling, reprimand. Instead, the old taboo remains secure, Moms and Dads happy in the fantasy that such redolent rug rats are just a manifestation of Hollywood hackdom, not a reflection of their own DNA. Yet without actually seeing these babes bludgeoned onscreen, without witnessing the random spree slaughter that comes when appalling kids get their much deserved comeuppance, the aura of infallibility remains. Finding a movie brave enough to take on such calculated accountability is almost impossible. Thankfully, there is one glowing example within the horror genre that may just help open the edges of the envelope’s barriers.

Created by Mik Cribben and distributed by Troma Entertainment, Beware! Children at Play remains one of the most notorious titles the Manhattan purveyor of terror ever trotted out. Rumor has it that audiences actually left the theater in protest during a screening of the trailer at the Cannes Film Festival. Made in 1989, the narrative is rather straightforward. The kids of a rural town are disappearing at an alarming rate. To make matters worse, the adults are dying in unspeakably heinous manners. Turns out, the wee ones have been transformed into cannibalistic zombies, feeding on the flesh of the local yokels. Naturally, when the living dead darken your door, a little en mass vivisection is called for. Armed with almost every weapon known to man, the residents head into the woods were the kiddies are holed up.

What happens next has made this movie one of the most notorious fright films ever. Over the course of tem agonizing minutes, sloppy special effects follow the citizenry as they stab, slice, split, skewer, and splay every minor in sight—and instead of turning the camera away on each kill, we get to see the children die! It’s both liberating and nauseating, in part because the very sight of a six foot adult placing an axe in a five-year-old’s head seems rather…extreme? And yet it goes on: minute after minute of mindless violence, prepubescent creatures getting carved up by bumpkins with an overinflated sense of bloodlust. By the time the last little nipper has bitten the dust, fake blood gushing from an equally impressive wound, we sense we’ve seen Dr. Spock’s own personal snuff film. It feels oh so wrong, but looks oh so right.

Indeed, it’s about time the wicked, no matter their bedtime, pay for their onscreen sins. Naturally, we’re not looking to draw and quarter a child for wetting the bed (failing to clean their room, on the other hand…), but it would be nice to have a killer kid, responsible for many senseless deaths, get their just desserts. It’s only fair. If you’re going to commit an adult crime, shouldn’t you suffer the adult chastisement, even if it’s just part of some stupid movie? No one is suggesting a real life reconfiguration of the rules. The US justice system is screwy, but it’s not quite at the place of putting children to death for even the most horrible capital offenses …at least, not yet (right, Texas?).

Maybe this is why Roth and others will never get their way. If we see life imitating art, then do we really want to see SWAT teams taking out packs of unruly third graders? Should total carnage really take the place of a time out? Do we really want to observe one of those ‘infinite possibilities’ (purportedly) carved up with a cleaver? Horror seems to suggest that anyone, even those unable to properly defend themselves, deserve death, and yet aside from a momentary bad taste giggle (the exploding infant of a film like Bloodletting, for example), it’s hard to support the purposeful murder of children. It could be that old biological brainwashing all over again, but unless we’re dealing with the underage version of Charles Manson here, this is one inviolable act that should probably remain restricted.

Little Harvey Stephens in The Omen (1976)

Little Harvey Stephens in The Omen (1976)

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