I am delighted to host Screen Readings’ first guest blogger: the wonderfully talented film critic Jordan Brooks – GC
As a general rule, old people hate the young, and young people hate the old. Struggling for control over laws, culture and morality, battles waged between (generally speaking) progressive children and their more conservative parents have shaped modern society – and have, in many cases, provided us with fuel for the ongoing stereotypical images that likely formed in your head while reading these opening sentences.
Parents have been tasked with the most important role in any society—moulding their children into functioning members and inheritors of that society. As experienced bipeds who have managed to stay alive long enough to reproduce, parents must share the “secrets” of life with their children, and protect them from any immediate danger present within the extremely small bubble in which modern, first-world children exist. Why then, do so many narratives subvert that instinctual protectiveness into fear?
Countless films make powerful cases that our children are our own biggest threat. From creepy modern gore-fests like Sinister, Goodnight Mommy and We Need to Talk About Kevin, all the way back to black and white atmospheric thrillers like The Innocents, filmmakers seem to feed on one of humanity’s darkest, most unspoken fears. An enduring source of terror, turning something which brings a supposedly indescribable amount of joy into a menacing, and oftentimes frightening reflection of one’s own worst psychological deviances has continued to pop up in cinematic narratives. Beyond their unlimited access to our homes, technology, and (in America) our guns, it is the reflection of ourselves projected onto our children that scares us the most.
“Above anything else, I love the children.” Miss Giddens’ infamous last (despite them opening the film) words from Jack Clayton’s chilling 1961 psychological thriller The Innocents, are at once both a haunting precursor of things to come and the general basis from which most societies view the very young. Aside from their obvious physical disadvantages (why it is, indeed, very easy to take candy from a baby), children are usually viewed through a lens of purity—the ugliness of the adult world has not yet had its chance to crush dreams, unjustly punish and sew the seeds of discontent. When the young and beautiful Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is charged with looking after two aristocratic siblings, she is immediately enraptured by their good manners and affectations. Eaten away by her loosening grip on sanity, Gideon becomes convinced that her devolving relationship with these angelic youngsters must have to do with ghostly, and very adult, possessions.
How else would young Miles be capable of unleashing such a tirade of ribaldry upon her virgin ears if not because the boarding-schooled pre-teen were possessed by the spirit of an angry, grown-up malcontent? Incapable of seeing viciousness of any kind in her angelic charges, Miss Gideon is driven mad by visions of ghosts and plots of murderous violence—not once does she ever stop to question the motives of these wealthy orphans, bored and cooped up in a country estate. Then again, director Clayton relies on her ignorance as much as he does that of his audience to paint his story with the dark and alarming shades of horror. Leaving his narrative relatively ambiguous, if we do not align ourselves with Gideon’s point-of-view, The Innocents quickly becomes a straightforward story detailing the progression of a psychiatric disorder. It is only because we, at some point, believe that children are incapable of such adult-oriented macabre-ry that her visions of lake-walking and window-peering ghosts gain any lasting legitimacy.
Breaking from the hinted-at and assumed psychosis of the children in The Innocents, filmmakers Lynne Ramsay, Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz have taken cues from cinema’s long history with demonically possessed offspring and brought them more in line with modern fears of lone gunman and mental illness. Whereas films like The Omen presuppose that its central child is the offspring of the devil himself, Ramsay and Fiala/Franz’s films view their subjects through an entirely human framework.
In Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, it is never a question of whether Kevin is his mother’s child, or whether he is the embodiment of a nameless demon. Instead, it is his overt coldness that provides the greatest source of fearful unease. Learning manipulation and mastering an ability to gauge human frailty at an incredibly young age, Kevin’s ominous talents seem pointed towards an inevitable, and absolutely devastating outcome. Here it is the boy’s obvious intelligence and wry charm that protect his secret from everyone but his mother and the audience that has seen him almost entirely through her ever-widening eyes. Thus Kevin’s particular sociopathy strikes terror into our hearts not simply because of his prowess for manipulation, and the looming outcome of his fractured mind, but because we are forced to come to grips with the possibility that our own children, or the children of our close friends and family, could possibly (regardless of statistical probability) face the same. To identify with Eva Khatchadourian’s (Tilda Swinton) predicament is to acknowledge the helplessness and fear that accompanies it—in a society without safety nets and proper access to treatment, children like Kevin, and the acts he commits, will be allowed to be forgotten and repeated.
Moving away from the overt malice of We Need to Talk About Kevin to a more subdued and twisted form of psychological torture, Goodnight Mommy chooses grief as the field upon which it does battle. Twins Lukas and Elias (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) are an inseparable duo who use each other as an escape from their growing isolation. Their aloof, and recently facially-reconstructed mother, is the force against which they choose to ally themselves—if she even is their mother. Using their infinite access to the house and grounds, Lukas and Elias are free to rampage and exact revenge on the proxy they have found heading their large and empty household. Able to come up with a torturous solution to their doppelganger problem, these two boys display an imaginative talent for pain of which horror film-numbed adults could only even begin to conceive. Betrayed by their cute youthfulness and soft-spoken innocence, not even the unsettling aura of Goodnight Mommy is enough to prepare a cautiously curious audience for the eventualities of the progressing narrative.
Perhaps most startling of all is Scott Derrickson’s take on the killer kid. Blending (a presumably) ancient fable with Giallo and modern horror gore, Sinister seeks to turn good kids bad, and to make sure parents lock their doors at night. Taking the concepts of access, innocence and mental instability to their unlikely maximums, Derrickson’s film seeks to be the culmination of a nagging fear of children. Haunted by an ancient evil that has plagued man since her beginnings, these children have been lured to the ever-present dark side of humanity. Combing an instinctual lust for violence mixed with a fear of our kids learning and growing up too quickly, Sinister plays on the psychological stresses of raising children while also remarking upon the terror of growing up and becoming more independent (in quite a spectacular, bloody, fashion). If growing up means finally being able to be angry with and even hating one’s parents, Derrickson’s film has taken this a step further into gory madness.
The young and old will likely never see eye to eye, and therefore our kids will always provide folly for horror-makers and fear-mongers to weave their webs of terror. Our kids are our legacy and it is up to them to lead us into the future, but with the future that is their birth right, they will also inherit all of the evil deeds man has committed in the past. The young are nothing more than the progression of us, more alike than different—perhaps that is where all of this horror lies. Maybe we are all just scared of each other because we know exactly what we are capable of. Kids are everywhere, and there always seem to be more of them. There might even be one behind you right now.
Jordan Brooks is a freelance writer who scrapes together a living working as bartender/barista in Crouch End. At some point deciding that style > substance, he can usually be found salivating alongside his enormous dog to the likes of Buñuel, Varda, Lynch, Argento and Cheh Chang.
Follow Jordan @ViewtoaQueue