Today, the Criterion Collection releases The Innocents , Jack Clayton’s magnificently moody and psychologically complex adaptation of Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw. Aside from the crisp, deep-focus black-and-white cinematography, the elegant scares, the edgy abstract imagery, and Deborah Kerr’s terrific leading performance, the film is made particularly memorable by the two truly disturbing children at its center — and thus, with Halloween sneaking up like a well-dressed child with a knowing smirk, we take a look at some of cinema’s creepiest kids.
Miles and Flora, The Innocents
New governess Miss Giddens (Kerr) first encounters Flora (Pamela Franklin), who seems like a sweet enough kid — yet the more time she spends with her, the more she (and we!) are troubled by her glassy eyes and vacant smile. But she’s positively comforting next to little brother Miles (Martin Stephens), who makes his true nature known fairly early on by choking his governess and announcing, “Now you’re my prisoner!” But that’s just a warm-up for his most unnerving moment, when he commands her, “Kiss me goodnight, Miss Giddens,” and the intensity of the smooch is topped only by the disturbing smugness of his satisfied little smile afterwards.
Rhoda Penmark, The Bad Seed
Blonde-haired, pigtailed, and seemingly sweet, little Rhonda (played by Patty McCormack, who got an Oscar nomination for the role) was one of cinema’s first pint-sized psychopaths in this 1956 adaptation of Maxwell Anderson’s play and William March’s novel. The character itself is chilling enough — adopted Rhonda, biological daughter of a serial killer, bumps off a classmate, a babysitter, and a handyman — but the look and style of the character would become a standard for such roles, reanimated as recently as 2009’s Orphan.
The children of Midwich, Village of the Damned
The sinister children of Wolf Rilla’s 1960 classic have a lot in common: all born on the same day, all topped with hair so blonde it’s almost white, with oddly narrow fingernails and coldly glowing eyes. Most importantly, they’re psychically connected to each other and capable of controlling the minds of the weak adults of the village — and prodding them to mysterious “accidents” and suicide. This sharp black-and-white chiller maintains its power to haunt, all these years later; even a 1995 remake by horror master John Carpenter couldn’t recreate its deadpan simplicity.
The children of Gatlin, Children of the Corn
Stephen King’s 1977 short story inspired this 1984 tale of a Nebraska farming town whose children are driven to ritual murder by a mysterious force known only as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows.” The ringleader is horrifying child preacher Isaac Chroner (John Franklin), who convinces his fellow youngsters to stone-cold murder any adults who show up in Gatlin during harvest season; even death can’t keep this kid down, as his possessed body murders his chief lieutenant in the film’s horrific high point. Children inspired a seemingly endless stream of straight-to-video and made-for-TV sequels and remakes, but this initial outing remains, far and away, the finest.
The Carveth children, The Brood
David Cronenberg’s 1979 scarefest concerns a pack of horrifying dwarf children spawned by the psychoplasmic therapy sessions of disturbed mother Nola Carveth. They settle her scores and redress her grievances, attacking and killing anyone who dares do her wrong, including her grandparents and her daughter’s teacher. But they’re not just vindictive little monsters; in true Cronenberg fashion, they’re also grotesque nightmare fuel.
The Grady daughters, The Shining
Little Danny Torrance, the eventual protagonist of Stanley Kubrick’s Stephen King adaptation, isn’t exactly a charmer himself, what with all the talking to himself and “redrum”-ing and so on. But he’s Rudy Huxtable compared to the stunningly creepy twin girls that Danny bumps into on his Big Wheel ride, who purr at him to “come play with us” before he flashes on their bloodied bodies, murdered by their father, the hotel’s previous caretaker. There’s nothing inherently creepy about two little British girls in matching party dresses, but as framed and presented by Stanley Kubrick, they’re among the most disturbing images in modern horror.
Regan McNeil, The Exorcist
You have to feel a little bad for poor Regan McNeil — after all, unlike most of the evil little bastards on this list, she can’t help that the devil himself decided to posses her. (As Richard Pryor noted at the time, “Devil’s a low motherfucker, jack!”) But, y’know, let’s also not hurt ourselves making excuses for a vomit-spewing, crucifix-masturbating, bed-levitating, spider-walking, foul-mouthed killer demon child.
Damien, The Omen
Creepy smiles and blonde hair are one thing, but Damian Thorne is quite literally the devil’s spawn — the son of Satan himself, with the 666 birthmark to prove it. But he also can’t be bothered to do his own dirty work; he summons up his black dog, his scary music, and the Rube Goldberg-ian forces of the universe to mercilessly take out anyone who gets in his way, all the while barely lifting the brow above his cold, dead eyes.
Henry Evans, The Good Son
Without question, the most subversive element of Joseph Ruben’s nasty little 1993 movie was the casting. Sure, this story of a death-obsessed pre-teen scaring the shit out of his cousin and ultimately terrorizing his entire family might’ve packed a punch no matter who was playing the role of scary little Henry. But casting Macaulay Culkin gave the picture an extra jolt of electricity — after all, Culkin was still, in the eyes of most, the precocious little charmer of the Home Alone movies. They were in for quite a shock here, while those of us who always found something a tad unnerving about little Macaulay were finally vindicated.
Like Henry in The Good Son, the title character of George Ratliff’s wildly underrated 2007 thriller isn’t possessed or even born into his badness — there’s no supernatural element at play. It all takes place in the real world, which makes it exponentially more disturbing; Joshua (wickedly well-played by Jacob Kogan) is just a mean, nasty little shit with a gift for mind games, and the insidiousness of what he does to his parents is all the more troubling (and unbelievable for anyone outside of the family) because it comes from the mind of a child.