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Murderous little children—we never have to wait long for a new one to tricycle into the multiplex, butcher’s knife in hand. The latest pint-size sociopath arrives in this summer’s Orphan, in which Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga adopt Esther, a little girl whose dainty smile and perfect posture soon give way to malicious car-brake-meddling and playground homicide. Orphan belongs to a cinematic tradition as long as its villains are wee. In 1956, The Bad Seed’s Rhoda Penmark turned her tap shoes into deadly weapons, and ever since, the appeal of the evil-kiddie movie has proven inexhaustible. The biggest reason for this is the most obvious: What’s creepier than a 4-foot-tall killer in Spongebob pajamas? But the genre’s resilience runs deeper, expertly mining deep-seated fears and anxieties: In evil-kiddie movies, we get wild explorations—sometimes unsettling, sometimes hokey, often both—of what it means to raise a child and build a family.
The Bad Seed is the first evil-kiddie movie to speak of, and many of its elements have become staples of the genre. Like most movie parents unlucky enough to discover that their children are maniacs, the Penmarks are well-to-do: Their social standing puts them at a marked remove from their unkempt, leering cleaning man and tacky working-class neighbor (who suspect before anyone else that Little Rhoda is up to no good). Partly, the Penmarks’ affluence adds to the sense of a “perfect” home, making the backdrop for Rhoda’s crimes that much more pristine, her aberrance that much more shocking. But it also suggests that Rhoda’s biggest problem is that she’s too perfect—that to desire a perfect child is, in fact, to desire something other than human. Rhoda curtseys compulsively, keeps her clothes unsullied and unrumpled, and practices the piano constantly. But all this good behavior quickly grows unnerving, as we realize there’s a dark void behind it. There’s a whiff of class satire here, the sort Monty Python or Luis Buñuel might enjoy. When Rhoda’s mother, Christine, eventually becomes an accomplice in covering up her daughter’s killings, she seems motivated as much by the need to keep up appearances as by love for her daughter.
Rhoda’s mother, we learn, was adopted—the revelation is part of the film’s tussle with whether evil is an environmental symptom or a genetic fact—and adoptees figure into many evil-kiddie movies. There’s Esther in Orphan, Damien Thorn in The Omen(his biological father is Satan), Junior in Problem Child, the titular psycho in Mikey, and Samara Morgan in The Ring. The plot device of the adoption-gone-wrong plays on a fear that the family will be infiltrated and torn apart by a malevolent outsider it’s foolishly welcomed in. (The Good Son, an Ian McEwan-penned Macaulay Culkin vehicle from 1993, flips the structure inside-out, so that the adopted son is the hero nobody believes, while Culkin plays the coddled family demon.)
In these movies, the eruption of evil often comes hand in hand with the disruption of traditional family order. Single moms don’t have it easy in the evil-kiddie universe: Rhoda starts acting out after her father has left home on a long business trip, and normality reasserts itself only when he returns. In 1973’s The Exorcist, Regan’s transformations come in the wake of her mother’s divorce. In The Ring, the murderous Samara can be read as a manifestation of little Aidan Keller’s anger and confusion at growing up fatherless—the film’s one (brief) untroubled moment comes when Aidan’s dad finally commits to being part of his life. Time and again in the evil-kiddie canon, it’s driven home that Mom and Dad can survive (if not prevent) their child’s attack only by sticking together.
The family dynamic doesn’t always play out so literally. In 1984’s Children of the Corn, Mom and Dad are Vicky and Burt, who stumble on a town where the children have systematically slaughtered anyone older than 18. Ditto the 1976 Spanish cult film ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? (Who Can Kill a Child?), which tells a similar story from the perspective of two British tourists. Who Can Kill a Child? adds an ambiguous abortion debate to the mix—the father broaches the subject with his six-months-pregnant wife early on, and the conversation has a grisly thematic echo at the movie’s off-putting climax, when he machine-guns a horde of kids. Unwanted children are a motif never far off in the evil-kiddie movie. Rosemary’s Baby from 1968 and Demon Seed from 1977 both feature expectant mothers frightened by the unborn.
Sometimes the evil-kiddie movie seeks to make a big point about the world we’re leaving our kids. In Who Can Kill a Child? this takes the form of high-flown, not entirely coherent moralizing: The film starts with eight minutes of footage of children killed in the Holocaust, Vietnam, and African famines. Children of the Corn is partially a treatise on the deforming effects of religious fundamentalism—the evil kids take the Bible as their guiding text and claim direct communication with a bloodthirsty God. And Cold War-era anxieties about nuclear annihilation reverberate through The Omen, with its mixture of politics and the apocalyptic.
The evil-kiddie movie has been around long enough that new specimens must work hard to distinguish themselves from what’s come before. In Orphan, there is an outlandish plot twist in which it’s revealed that Esther isn’t at all what she seems. (Skip this parenthetical to avoid the spoiler: She is, according to online reports, a midget ex-prostitute masquerading as an adolescent.) Far subtler are the variations that writer-director George Ratliff brings to the genre in 2007’s Joshua. Ratliff, who made the fantastic documentary Hell House, knows about disturbing adolescents. Like Rhoda in The Bad Seed, Joshua Cairn is a wealthy, permanent-pressed overachiever who plays the piano constantly, a hobby that telegraphs both his precocity and creepy inward absorption. Joshua’s means of destruction, unlike Rhoda’s, are largely passive-aggressive: He exploits his parents’ insecurities and weaknesses of character with virtuoso finesse, growing so expert at pushing their buttons that he drives them to behavior more unhinged than any of his own. In one of the most frightening scenes, he sends his mother into a nervous breakdown just by playing hide-and-seek very, very well.
While the moral calibration of other evil-kiddie movies puts a premium on the wholeness of the family, Joshua narrates a family’s disintegration with a cold, merciless eye. “You don’t have to love me,” Joshua tells his dad early on. “It’s not a rule.” First he calls into question the basic premise of a family—because of blood, we love one another unconditionally—and then he goes about dismantling it, term by term, until his mother is in a mental home and his father’s just some paranoid guy he shares an apartment with. Here is a villain more readily imaginable, and therefore much scarier, than any Armageddon-prophesying hell spawn, backwoods scythe wielder, or pigtailed death merchant: a 9-year-old deconstructionist.