It is my belief that all children have the capacity to be evil. For most, these tendencies are straightened out in early developmental years as they begin to understand what acceptable behavior is in society. For others, they just learn to hide it. In this edition of Instant Watch, I will present to you the three most compelling cases to support my theory currently streaming on Netflix Instant.
The Bad Seed (1956)
The Bad Seed features one of cinema's most deplorable children of all time. Rhoda Penmark is evil. There is no explanation for it. There is no possession or witchcraft or symptoms of abuse. This is a child who, for whatever reason, never adapted to society. Everything she does is a selfish act designed to make her look better and everyone else look worse. She will lie, cheat, steal, and murder to get her way.
Based on the explosive play of the same name, The Bad Seed featured an original ending so horrifying that those Hollywood movie codes forced it to be rewritten. Apparently letting the bad guy not only survive but win was unacceptable. You know you're dealing with something terrible when a child has to...well, you should see the film to see how they handle that moral necessity.
Featuring an incredible performance from child actor Patty McCormack (that sweet little girl on Little House on the Prairie), The Bad Seed is the kind of horror film you have to laugh at to stop yourself from screaming and crying. The entire ensemble cast plays the film straight. The melodrama is manufactured by the camerawork and sweeping score, not uncalled for histrionics and scene chewing. The scariest part about this film is that a child like Rhoda Penmark could easily exist. She behaves like a child even when committing heinous crimes against her peers and elders.
Sadly, that tacked on ending really pulls away from the power of the film. It goes from being an explosive piece of horror cinema to an all too comforting and familiar horror finale. Thankfully, director Mervyn Leroy turns a sorry excuse for a finale into solid movie magic. The environmental effects, staging, and sound design at least making the climax memorable, if a bit weak in storytelling.
Special recognition has to go to cinematographer Harold Rosson. The man behind such classic feel-good films as The Wizard of Oz, Singin' in the Rain , and On the Town returned to his black and white roots to draw out every ounce of suspense from the screenplay. While Mervyn Leroy coaxed the performances out of the actors, it is Harold Rosson who didn't miss a single opportunity to build suspense in this picture.
The Bad Seed is the kind of horror film you watch with a bunch of friends after the sun has gone down. It's made to bond an audience against that wicked child and shock you with how far she's able to go in her schemes to be in control of everything.
The Omen (1976)
From a normal child of pure evil to the epitome of evil himself, The Omen offers a different flavor of terrible child to fear. Damian Thorn is the antichrist. He is the son of the devil himself. He has the ability to force people to kill themselves and the nerve to take matters into his own hands if those powers fail. Damian is a child without remorse and nothing will stop him from fulfilling his wicked destiny.
The Omen is an over the top shock fest designed to jump on the Catholic horror bandwagon of the late 60s/early 70s in the US. It is not a film without style, but it is a film that struggles with subtlety. The scares are never a surprise because they are always announced beforehand. Shoot, the most shocking scene in the film, the birthday party suicide, is blatantly announced by the woman screaming "Look at me, Damian! It's all for you."
With that said, this is one of the rare incidents where telegraphing the scares actually benefits the film. It becomes the substance of the picture. The audience knows when Damian is going to strike; they just don't know how. Even when they figure it out, writer David Seltzer and director Richard Donner push it much further than you expect. It's not enough for someone to die from falling out the window--they have to make it hurt.
The performances are all over the map. Harvey Stephens, as Damian, is barely asked to do anything other than pout, brood, and scream throughout the film. While this adds a nice animalistic touch to his wickedness, it leaves much to be desired. Gregory Peck and Lee Reminick are in over the top melodrama mode as his tortured parents. It's not enough to frown; they have to grimace and shake because they're sad. The rest of the ensemble bounces between doing nothing or chewing the scenery the whole way through.
What sells the film is its Academy Award winning score from Jerry Goldsmith. The quasi-religious music is haunting and mournful, casting even the brightest day in a darker tone. It is one of the best horror scores of all time as far as I'm concerned.
The Omen is the kind of film that needs to be seen to be believed. In many ways, it holds up very well. But there are all those strange choices (like the horribly exaggerated emotions) that are creakier than the front door of a haunted house. Still, it's a good watch on a Saturday night with no one around to protect you from monstrous little ankle-biters like Damian.
Interview with the Vampire (1994)
Some children are born evil, like Rhoda and Damian. Others are turned that way, like Claudia in Interview with the Vampire. She had no say in her vampiric transformation and becomes trapped as an eternal child. As the years pass and she can't grow older, she begins to rebel in vicious and vindictive ways.
If there is a flaw in Interview with the Vampire, it is that it tries to be everything for everyone. The screenplay tries to incorporate as much of Anne Rice's novel as it can to the point of not fully developing some of the more interesting plot lines. The cast is filled with hot stars of the time, but some never seem comfortable with their characters. There is one performance that has always stood out for me, though, and that is Kirsten Dunst as Claudia.
Kirsten Dunst manages to mature the character well beyond her years to sell the transformation from innocent child to evil eternal child. This is not a young girl who doesn't know what she is doing. This is a fully developed woman trapped inside the body of a child. Her every action is calculated to draw sympathy or trust before turning the screw and taking her revenge. It is a surprisingly nuanced performance from such a young actress.
The make-up, costuming, and set design/dressing in this film are beautiful. The vampires are coated in a believable ghoulish hue that doesn't try to disguise their emotions or appearances. The fangs are not exaggerated until they feast upon the plentiful blood coursing through the screen. The film spans hundreds of years, allowing many regional variations of aristocratic clothing, furniture, architecture, and design to shine through in gorgeous design work. All of this adds a layer of believably to the film that makes me want to enjoy it more than I do.
When used, the visual effects in the film are shocking in the best way possible. The execution by sunlight is one of the most gut-wrenching scenes I've encountered in a horror film. The murder by blood poisoning is visually striking (if completely overacted) and the vampire theater sequence is startling without being over the top. If the story and characters weren't exactly as developed as they could be, at least the scenes were executed with style and believability.
If you like vampire films, you could do a lot worse for a more modern spin on the mythology. Otherwise, this hit or miss picture is best enjoyed by jumping to Claudia's scenes and ignoring the rest. It suddenly turns into a very effective short film rather than a meandering film with little point beyond fan service for the Rice devotees.
What do you think? Have I missed a more wicked child on Netflix Instant? Let me know.