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Thursday, August 3, 2017

August 3, 2017: Troubled Children: Horror Films

[August 4th marks the 125th anniversary of the day that Lizzie Borden may or may not have taken an axe and given her mother forty whacks and her father forty-one (more on that crucial ambiguity in Friday’s post). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five histories or stories of deeply troubled children, leading up to a special weekend post on two children who are anything but!]
On how three horror movies about demonic children reflect their respective eras.
1)      Rosemary’s Baby (1968): Roman Polanski’s Hollywood debut, based on Ira Levin’s 1967 novel, is one of the most beloved horror films of all time, featuring a career-making performance from Mia Farrow and a number of iconic scares (particularly the infamous Satanic rape scene). But I think it’s also an incredibly complicated representation of late 1960s cultural fears, especially about the dangers posed to “ordinary people” (Farrow’s Rosemary and her husband, played by filmmaker John Cassevetes, are a purposefully average middle-class couple who encounter the horrors of 1960s New York) by the extremes of the counter-culture (in the form of the Satanic cult who plan to steal the titular baby for their nefarious aims). Obviously the fear that there could be something wrong with our children is a universal one that cuts across any particular time period, as the other films in this post will illustrate; but I think Rosemary’s story is still tellingly linked to the nation’s 60s divisions and concerns.
2)      Children of the Corn (1984): Adapted from a 1976 Steven King short story, Fritz Kiersch’s 1984 film is far less beloved or critically acclaimed than Polanski’s classic, although it has still spawned seven sequels and one SyFy remake over the subsequent three decades. What really differentiates Children from Rosemary’s, though, is the difference between 1980s horror excess and the kinds of slow-burn scares that earlier iterations of the genre such as Rosemary’s and Psycho offered. Just check out the theatrical poster for Children—the blood-red background, the menacing scythe, the catchphrase “An adult nightmare.” While the murdering mob of Nebraska kids in Children are ostensibly regular children gone bad (sucked into an adult-killing cult by the frightening but charismatic child leaders Isaac and Malachai), the film plays much more like the slasher film that that poster intimates. Like most of the era’s slasher films, you can’t probe the cultural meanings very far without losing the thread—for example, the children supposedly began their murdering ways to ensure a bountiful harvest, but I defy any viewer to analyze Children as a commentary on the decade’s threats to the farming industry. This is an 80s horror film through and through.
3)      The Good Son (1993): And then there’s the Macaulay Culkin serial killer kid flick. Based on a screenplay by acclaimed English novelist Ian McEwan, The Good Son has at least as impressive an artistic pedigree as Polanski’s film. But as that last hyperlinked story indicates, something happened between McEwan’s words and the resulting film, and that something was Kit Culkin, Macaulay’s dad and one of the most extreme stage parents in Hollywood history. Kit not only demanded that Macaulay star as the film’s psychopathic title character (as a trade-off for his making Home Alone 2), but also insisted that his daughter Quinn Culkin receive a role in the film as well, along with having a say in the director and production process. The resulting film, which pits Macaulay’s villainous Henry against his cousin Mark (played a young Elijah Wood), is quite awful, and not in the cheesy over-the-top way that Children of the Corn is; Culkin simply isn’t able to make Henry either truly menacing or believably three-dimensional, neither demonic nor disturbed. Of course Hollywood deal-making and compromises had been part of the film industry since its inception, but the fact that it was an overbearing father who was the true villain of The Good Son nonetheless links it to its 90s moment quite clearly.
Last problem child(ren) tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other histories or stories you’d highlight?

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