Namo amitabha Buddhaya, y'all.
This here's a religious establishment. Act respectable.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Friday Frights Creepy Kid Smackdown! Joshua v Esther

The "creepy kid" subgenre is one of the few non-supernatural horror genres that actually scares me. I don't have any kids, but I imagine that suddenly realizing your cherubic ten-year-old is a homicidal maniac would be pretty horrifying. Pint-sized killers were a lot more fun before children as young as eight were forced into armed militias and eleven-year-olds were arrested for shooting people, but on some level we knew they existed all along. The subgenre still has strength, even if it has to find it in well-to-do suburban homes instead of the real-life horrors in Africa and Myanmar. But that's the point. Creepy kids are everywhere, and we are not safe.

Psychiatrists haven't settled the question for certain, but it seems that sociopaths are born, not made. Hence, the creepy kid not only exists in real life, but he (they're almost always hes) can start being creepy at any time. I grew up in Salt Lake City in the 1970s and believe me, evil children are no stretch. I knew plenty of 'em. But they're still scary because we expect our homicidal maniacs to be like Jeffrey Dahmer or Jason from the Friday the 13th series, not the cute little fourth grader next door. (Or like Eric Harris, the popular, high-achieving student who killed 13 people at Columbine High School with his friend Dylan Klebold. See previous post.)

The "creepy kid" subgenre started out with the unintentionally funny The Bad Seed in 1956, followed in 1960 by an entire town of possible alien babies in Village of the Damned. Anybody who was alive in the 1970s remembers Regan McNeil and Damian Thorn, and an even-younger evil kid started his murder career by killing everybody in the delivery room in It's Alive. Among my favorite creepy kids: The sweet three-year-old at the end of Pet Sematary that kills and, uh, eats his mother. The roller-blading second grader in the Dawn of the Dead remake who attacks the protagonist's husband, tearing his throat out with her teeth and thundering down the hallway for seconds. The stringy-haired girl in The Ring, dead, psychotic and spoiling for revenge. (And she never sleeps.) But by far the scariest kid I can remember is Nellie Olsen from Little House on the Prairie. Yeah, she didn't kill anybody, but that's just because it was a family show.

(Russian accent) "If I find out you're lying, I'll cut off your tiny hairless prick before you know how to use it."
--Esther to Danny, Orphan

Esther is the latest entry in the creepy-kid Olympics. She's an Orphan from Russia who comes to live with a nice well-to-do couple (Vera Farmiga and the ever-patient Peter Sarsgaard) that have Dark Secrets. Well, of course they do; otherwise there wouldn't be any weaknesses for the creepy kid to exploit. And does she ever. In a short time she has deaf sister Max covering up and lying for her, indifferent brother Danny terrified of her, and Mom convince that she has some psychotic personality disorder. Dad, on the other hand, finds her fascinating - partly because she likes to draw (he's an architect) but also because, unlike anyone else in the family, she actually listens to what he has to say.

As creepy kids go, Esther leaves you an out. Leave her alone and let her do what she wants, and you get to live. Piss her off -- and unfortunately, people do -- and the body count starts to rise. There's one hell of a twist along the lines of The Sixth Sense, where you look back over the whole movie and say, "Aha!" but I ain't sayin' another word about that. Go check out Orphan. And don't piss her off.

"I love her more than anything."
Joshua, referring to the baby sister he just almost pushed down the stairs

On the other hand, we have Joshua, an indie flick from last year. Joshua is a hyperintelligent, unemotional nine-year-old who lives with his train-wreck parents and holy-roller grandmother in a luxurious New York apartment. Mom (Vera Farmiga, the same mom from Orphan) just had a new baby, and she waffles between postpartum depression and flat-out psychosis while oblivious Dad dotes on the family dog and spends most of his time at work. Grandma wants to convert Joshua to Pentecostal Christianity over Mom's objections, and all three of them are so thoroughly dislikeable that I started rooting for the creepy kid fairly early on.

The trouble with Joshua, though, is that he's not overtly creepy. Cold, manipulative and obviously good at what he does, but we don't find out why he's actually doing what he's doing until the very end of the movie. I mean, why would a kid set out to destroy his family? Especially when they're doing such a good job of that all by themselves? And the answer, when it comes, is not satisfying - in fact, you sort of wonder if he was maybe doing the right thing. Joshua is interesting as a sociopathic character study, but not as a horror movie. So I'll give it a MEH (two stars).

Really, it's no contest. Esther wins hands down. I don't know what movie Owen Glieberman saw, but I saw Orphan and it was scary as hell. Brrrr.

No comments: