June 11, 2010

Too horrible for horror films – children as victims

Would you kill a child… character?

The new Icons of Suspense DVD set of Hammer films includes the previously rare Never Take Candy From A Stranger (1960). An extraordinary thriller that tackles taboo subject matter realistically, while also milking it for suspenseful entertainment. A daring balancing act, that still packs a punch fifty years later.

A British family moves into a quiet Canadian logging town, the father (Patrick Allen) taking over as principal of the local high school. Shortly after arriving, he discovers that his young daughter has been lured into a stranger’s house and persuaded to strip naked. When he tries to get the police involved, legal barriers (Janina Faye and Niall MacGinnis pictured in the courtroom, below) and community ties prevent the family from finding justice, leaving a monster free to roam the community...

Besides Hammer’s period costume horror films (usually in unspecified historical settings), the studio made many contemporary psychological thrillers, usually variations on the themes of split-personality and madness, largely influenced by Psycho (1960). Never Take Candy From A Stranger was different, with themes of unwelcome strangers and internal corruption usually found in the paranoid villages near Dracula’s castle. The ageing paedophile chases his prey like a lumbering mummy or a creation of Frankenstein.

This collision of genres, the classic monster movie blended with the modern horror of child sex abuse, was rare but a potent source of suspense. Too potent and controversial perhaps - the film has rarely been seen since its release, on TV or video.

It struck me as a very unusual film, leading me to wonder where else child characters were victims in horror movies. My research hasn’t been exhaustive, I’m working from memory, and I’m sure you can think of exceptions and further examples. But all the films mentioned here are recommended, intelligent thrillers, though obviously challenging for their content.

The rule...

'Thou shalt not kill a child' is the general rule. In hundreds of films we see young characters in peril, but they remain indestructible. In family action films, children may be under constant threat, but they’ll escape. Jurassic Park notably put it’s two youngest characters through extended hell for half the movie, including the incredibly intense scene where a plastic roof is the only thing between them and the mouth of the T Rex. But even disaster movies are predictable whenever a child is in the scene – we know they’re going to be safe.

Horror movies aimed at adults also follow this unwritten rule. The Devil could get away with murder if he looked like a cute toddler, in The Omen (1976). The character of Newt faced dozens of killer Aliens and survived against all odds. Horror films put children in peril, but rarely puts them to death. Rarely, but not never…

Breaking the rule…

While horror films aren't afraid to show us every variation of murder weapon and torture, it's teenagers that are normally the victims. This makes the rare exceptions even more shocking. Hitchcock learned that the golden rule shouldn't be broken when he dared to kill off a child character (in Saboteur, 1936). He outwitted audience expectations, but realised that he'd 'lost' their participation – and didn’t make the same mistake again. Steven Spielberg spectacularly broke the rule in Jaws (1975), possibly because it wasn't a premeditated murder, but a shark as a 'force of nature'. The scene is probably the most explicit and bloody scene of a child being killed.

Almost at the dawn of horror films, The Golem (1920) included an influential confrontation between child and monster (pictured). But it wasn’t long before children tangled with the monster and lost. In the original silent The Unholy Three (1925) and in Frankenstein (1931) there were censorship problems and the death scenes of children were cut out (Frankenstein has since been restored). There was also supposedly a scene filmed for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931) - a horrifying photo remains of Fredric March as Hyde stamping on a child in the street - the scene was later echoed in Son of Frankenstein (1939), when the monster holds down the Baron’s son with his foot. As rules of conduct were laid down for Hollywood in the mid-1930s, violent scenes like these were then weeded out at the script stage. The censors kept the children safe… for a few decades at least.

John Carpenter relearned Hitchcock's lesson when he showed a little girl getting shot in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). For the sake of a throwaway shock moment to establish how very bad the bad guys were, he was chastised by reviewers for going too far. George Romero also had child zombies cut down by an automatic rifle, but that was just one of many censorship problems he had with Dawn of the Dead (1978). Soon after, Italian horror had children fighting zombies... and losing (in City of the Living Dead) and being melted by acid (in The Beyond). Again these scenes would be censored in some countries.

The accidental death of the daughter at the start of Don’t Look Now (1973) showed the traumatic emotional effect on the parents. A devastating event from which they never fully recover. The red coat that the daughter used to wear still haunting the father. Toddler tragedies also triggered the stories of Pumpkinhead and Pet Sematary (both in 1989). In horror films, dead children more usually appear as ghosts, especially in Japanese horror, like the little boy of The Grudge movies.

To me, Freddy Krueger should have been the ultimate incarnation of a monstrous child murderer, but his original crimes (which got him tortured and killed) were unseen and only hinted at in flashbacks (meaning that his hideous origin is actually forgotten by casual viewers). For the many Nightmare on Elm Streets, Freddy’s attentions were always on older teenagers, and his status as horror’s ghastliest monster warped into a wise-cracking anti-hero. A figure of fun who I thought should be depicted as the worst monster of all.

'Killer kids' has been a popular horror genre, taunting adult characters into breaking the 'golden rule'. Children became a menace because they were evil, like in The Bad Seed (1956), or possessed, as in Village of the Damned (1960) and The Innocents (1960). The Spanish chiller Who Can Kill A Child? (Would You Kill a Child?) placed the quandary in the title. If children were roaming the streets killing adults, could anyone bring themselves to stop them?

The dilemma remained in The Good Son (1993), with Macaulay Culkin as an evil brat with the face of an angel (it could almost be the further exploits of sadistic little Kevin from Home Alone).

Younger still, were killer babies. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) was obviously going to be a handful. Then the It’s Alive trilogy started (in 1974) with a grotesque and powerful newborn monster clawing its way out of the womb, killing the doctors and nurses, and roaming the streets in a relentless search for… milk and cuddly toys. This mini-genre could be read as pushing the agenda for abortion - do you really want that THING on the loose?

There’s recently been a new wave of killer kids with The Children,
Them, Orphan and The Strangers, perhaps a violent reaction to the perceived rise in child criminality - adult fears being exploited that children are now more likely to torture, murder and even molest other children.

A film that tackles the reality of child-on-child crime is Boy A (2007), a drama where a teenage child-killer tries to rejoin society (loosely based on one of the murderers of James Bulger). Having served time, Boy A is at risk from vigilante revenge. He gets a new identity and a strict set of rules to prevent him being found, though the tabloid press are keen to trace him and blow his cover...

There have always been actual cases of child murder, but the details are so shocking and tragic that we don’t want to be reminded in the cinema. Fiction only has to hint that children are in danger, for us to fear that we are actually going to see something horrible.

The Moors Murders, for instance, raised such deep public emotions that for decades the killers have only just recently appeared in dramatic recreations, and only on TV, not for cinema. While many movies, and much money, has been made from the crimes of serial killers, (enough to form another horror genre, ‘true crime’), public outcry has prevented the exploitation of Britain’s worst tragedies.

Worse things than death...

Never Take Candy From A Stranger hinted that the little girls are threatened not only by physical harm, but sexual. This extra element of suffering is almost too horrible for horror films, and usually only addressed in police thrillers and drama. In the story, the paedophile remains at large because he’s related to someone who unofficially ‘runs the town’. A similar scenario is the backbone of the later Canadian thriller The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976, pictured below).

Shortly after the limited release of Never Take Candy From a Stranger, Cape Fear (1962) had Nancy running from psychotic Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), who assaults her in order to punish her father, (an echo of Night of the Hunter, where the two children run for their lives from their stepfather, played by Mitchum).

I’m guessing Fritz Lang's ‘M’ (1931) was the first film to portray a child molester, a character based on several German serial killers. Peter Lorre played the murderer who abducts children, but the story turns him from hunter to hunted as he is captured by the local underworld and subjected to a vigilante trial.

One of the cases that inspired ‘M’ was dramatised in The Tenderness of Wolves (1973), which pushed further into taboo territory by adding back the vampirism and cannibalism from the original case, of serial killer Fritz Haarman. His victims were all male, but mostly teenagers. The queasy recreations of blood-lettings predate the low-budget dramatisations that cashed in on the famous recent serial killers.

The same year, there was great public concern for a young actress playing Regan in The Exorcist – where a demon tortures and abuses her character through most of the story. But Linda Blair grew up happily unaffected by the experiences of filming, while audiences didn’t recover quite as easily.

Sean Connery broke the James Bond mould when he tackled The Offence (1973), as a detective who’ll stop at nothing to extract a confession from a suspect (Ian Bannen) for a string of child murders. Citizen X (1995) was another police thriller - the true story of a serial killer who went undetected for years in a remote area of Russian countryside. Most of America’s worst serial killers have had movies made about them, but none have been as sensitively and effectively made as this story.

The Woodsman (2004) and Little Children (2006) both centre on convicted paedophiles returning to suburbia after prison. Their crimes present an acid test for the legal system – is prison time punishment enough? Is it an effective solution? Can modern psychiatry successfully rehabilitate them?

The possibility that child characters in these films might be abused adds a terrifying amount of suspense. In this sense, they are a kind of horror film. It's hardly a coincidence that Jackie Earle Haley has been promoted from the role of child molester in Little Children (pictured), to child murderer Freddy Krueger, in this year’s relaunch of A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Never Take Candy From a Stranger tackled a taboo issue intelligently, then added almost a monster movie ending – with the paedophile literally presented as a lumbering monster. In the same location where Disney's Jim Hawkins was attacked by murderous pirates (in Treasure Island, 1950) and Hammer's Dracula stalked for virgins, a modern monster crept around the forest of West London's Black Park. As in Frankenstein, he’s portrayed as mentally abnormal, with the real problem being the people who allow him to roam free. I was impressed how the film made as logical points as emotional ones - a recurring theme of humanism in these dramas. Monster movies usually end with hordes of angry villagers, burning torches and rough justice.

To try and conclude, scenes where children are harmed are likely to be rejected or censored unless sensitively handled by scriptwriters and directors, and the situations are kept rooted in reality. Horror films rarely show children getting killed, the genre having enough trouble with controversy and censorship, except when children are portrayed as a threat.

Phew, all I started off wanting to say was that Never Take Candy From a Stranger was a very good thriller for its age…


  1. Nice article. Thanks. And, yes, "Never Take Sweets/Candy" really is a little gem of a film.

  2. Good article! There is a movie released by Troma called Beware! children at play which shows quite a few children killed, I am told. I own the dvd but havent watched it yet...

    Btw, in Assault on precinct 13, the girl is shot in the chest, not in the face. ;)

  3. Ah thank you. I just remember her flying out of frame! The kid shot in the face was actually in the Thailand Ultraman movie...

  4. Excellent article, Mark! Very informative and extremely broad in scope...well done. :)

    One of my favorite killer kids movies was 1980's THE CHILDREN (not the recent eponymous but unrelated flick), aka THE CHILDREN OF RAVENSBACK. It plays like an extremely poverty-stricken reimagining of WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? but with an added explanation (of sorts) featuring a radioactive cloud. The movie is not good, but any means, but traumatized me as a child b/c of the idea of kids murdering their own parents, and conversely the parents having to kill their children (or those of others) in order to survive. Heady stuff for a 9-year-old to take in!

    BLOODY BIRTHDAY is another good one, though it's so far over the top as to undercut the discomfort of the kids-as-killers idea. Which is not to say it's not a hoot--because it is. :)

  5. An interesting blog on what is clearly a tricky cinematic taboo. There's also REVENGE OF THE SITH, where the 'new' Darth Vader kills child Jedi apprentices.

  6. that bloke in farm CTA16 June, 2010 02:24

    The Host has an unexpected child death in the end, and it is a surprise. There was also a bad thriller with Scott Glenn in which he tracks a child killer with his son, and Audrey-Rose with Anthony Hopkins. Horror films often portray their villains as sexual monsters, such as Buffalo Bill and Michael Myers in the remake of Halloween; this could be a reason for children being safe in them. They are the embodiment of innocence. Freddy was an exception in that he was totally asexual in the original Elm Streets ( a possible reason for his anti-hero status) but in the remake he has been explicitly turned into a pedophile.

    Often child like but not child characters are treated with the same reverence, an example being the autistic survivor in Cube.

  7. Remember that I was attempting not to spoil any of the films, particularly the endings!

    THE HOST is a very good example though, and I doubt a western film-maker would dare end a movie like that!

    Child-like characters, like children, are also seen as innocent. Animals also (though that's a whole new subject - there's a long debate in the Facebook Horror Movies group about that).

    In movie logic, teenagers are no longer innocent, and are usually evil and have to die.

    Movie logic also dictates that wrong-doers have to die. This is fine in a movie as a fantasy release, but I really think that it's used so often as a resolution to a story, that it too often springs to mind as a real-life solution.

  8. Joe Dante's Piranha had quite a long scene of children being attacked and killed, the funny thing is on the commentary track, they talk about the scene and say something along the lines of violence against children that's illegal now (not sure when the commentary was made). I don't expect to see a scene like that in the new one.

  9. The Untold Story. Enough said. ;)

  10. Yeah, I couldn't mention them all. THE UNTOLD STORY is certainly up there. I'm still scared of actor Anthony Wong, even when he's doing comedy!

  11. Children in fiction are generally presented as the epitome of innocence. As such, they are often protrayed as uncorrupted and often wiser then the adults. The phrase "child-like faith" comes to mind. Children are often thought to be more "in touch" spiritually then grownups, who have been disillusioned by experience. Theodore Trenton in Stephen King's Cujo is a good example of a child who is wiser then self-obsessed parents who are near divorcing each other. It is all the more shocking becuase Tad DOES die in the end, in part because his parents foolishly dismiss his fears. Newt, BTW, dies as well in the much-reviled sequel to ALiens, though an alternate version of her lives on in the comics.

    I recently read a Christian novel by one Travis Thrasher, called Isolation, about a mischianarry family living in a huge haunted manshion, much like King's the Shining. The child is much more connected to God then his parents, whose faith has begun to waver. In the end, God comes the rescue, and actually brings the kid back to life!

    But suppose we have a kid who's been raised been atheist parents, and has soaked up his parents' beleifs like a little sponge. THEN would the audience care if the kid died? Such a child would lack the characteristic child-like faith grownups associate with child characters. Would they care what befell such a child? Or would he be considered "spoiled goods" and unworthy of saving? Would you care?

  12. I know it's not a horror movie but there is a film by Andy Warhol called "Bad" in which a baby was thrown out of a window by its mother and lands in a splash of blood. And a mother passing by says to her kid something to the effect of, "I'm gonna do the same to you if you don't shut-up!" Horrified me...but admittedly, I was pregnant at the time I saw the scene.