Child characters in movies can be evil rather than innocent

Macaulay Culkin plays the evil Henry in The Good Son. Picture: 20th Century Fox

Macaulay Culkin plays the evil Henry in The Good Son. Picture: 20th Century Fox

The interior world of children is a mysterious one. Most of us, when we've grown up, can only sometimes and fleetingly recall the way we thought and felt when we were younger. My memories of childhood - scattered and not 100 per cent reliable - go back to about three. And some of the memories I have from my younger days aren't ones of which I am proud. Kids can be selfish, capricious, bad-tempered, all those bad things, and while that's true of anyone at any age, it can be hard for us to get back into the mindset of our younger days (try it with your own kids, or some you know).

I was, however, seldom viciously cruel, unlike, say the two boys who murdered young James Bulger. This was a shocking crime, in part because it shook our sense of what children are, or should be, like. Though perhaps it's surprising that we don't hear about more intentional or accidental deaths caused by children.

Films have, of course, capitalised on that capacity of children to be cruel, even deadly.

A post-World War II Agatha Christie novel that has been adapted for the screen - unnamed so there are no spoilers - had a minor as murderer. The child's motives might be considered a little weak but other behaviour throughout suggested a twisted little mind.

A scene from The Bad Seed. Picture: Warner Bros

A scene from The Bad Seed. Picture: Warner Bros

Even younger was eight-year-old Rhoda in William Maxwell's 1954 novel The Bad Seed. The bookwas adapted for the stage and in 1956 became a movie with some of the original stage cast including the cute but chilling Patty McCormack as Rhoda, a kid who will kill to get what she wants. Her mother discovers what's going on and also finds out her own mother was a serial killer - did the "bad seed" skip a generation? While the film seems a bit theatrical and overacted at times, and the psychology might be questionable, there are some genuinely disturbing moments and a censor-mandated ending in the film that actually works quite well.

Mikey (1992) is about an adopted kid who turns out to be - surprise! - a vicious murderer and in Orphan (2009), an adopted girl is the culprit. Another killer kid - who wasn't adopted - was played by Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son (1993). The gimmick of having Culkin in such a role was remarked on at the time, but even in the much lighter Home Alone his character seems gleefully malicious. In The Good Son, he is the psycho offspring whose cousin (Elijah Wood) discovers his evil ways and it ends, literally, with a cliffhanger.

These films play on parents' fears - that they don't really know their child's past and background in the case of adopted kids and, in the case of their own kids, that they do but aren't sure of the nature/nurture divide. Good parents can have bad kids and vice versa. And if the kids are bad - really bad - what's a parent to do?

The true story of two teenage girls in 1950s New Zealand who murdered the mother of one of them inspired Heavenly Creatures (1994). Co-writer and director Peter Jackson includes surreal sequences mirroring the fantasy world the intensely close friends create together, contrasting sharply with their real-life problems. Teenagers might not count as kids, but they're still young enough that such actions give us pause.

Lord of the Flies is a pessimistic vision, adapted from William Golding's novel, of what might happen if kids are left unsupervised for an extended period (here, they are stuck on an island, the survivors of a plane crash).

Then there are the supernatural stories. In Village of the Damned (1960), based on John Wyndham's novel The Midwich Cuckoos, part of the fear might be a father's - that his wife's child is not his. In this case, though, there is some sort of alien or supernatural cause. Shortly after a mysterious fog descends, the entire eligible female population of a town becomes pregnant and nine months later give birth to what becomes a group of subtly strange children with strange powers. They're deadly, they can read minds - what to do?

Another supernatural child is, of course, Damien, the child born of Satan who gets adopted by an ambassadorial couple in The Omen and its remake. Finding out the truth about this little devil is very, very bad for your health.

A scene from The Children's Hour. Picture: United Artists

A scene from The Children's Hour. Picture: United Artists

Not all nasty kids are killers, of course. In The Children's Hour (1961), adapted from Lillian Hellman's play that was itself inspired by a true story, words have devastating consequences. Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine play two women who run a girls' boarding school. When one of the girls - a nasty piece of work - is punished, she tells her grandmother that the teachers are more than friends (the "L" word is not mentioned) and things escalate from there.

While the film treads a little gingerly around its subject matter, at least by this time it was able to deal with it fairly openly: an earlier version, These Three (1936) had the lie made about heterosexual infidelity in deference to the standards of the time.

A scene from The Omen (2006). Picture: 20th Century Fox

A scene from The Omen (2006). Picture: 20th Century Fox

Childhood innocence seems to be getting shorter: for some kids, real or fictional, it might barely exist at all. Not showing kids films like these might help, a little.

This story Movie minors from bad to worst first appeared on The Canberra Times.