Back in 2007 I came across a provocative posting on a popular online message board. Said posting consisted of a withering critique of the just-released movie THE MIST, which apparently contained a “despicable” element that also occurred in the PLANET TERROR portion of GRINDHOUSE. That element wasn’t described in the posting, the implication being that a). it was too awful to go into, and b). we’d all know immediately what it was. I’ll confess I had no luck figuring it out, and had to ask the poster directly.
The answer: kids are killed. Never mind that in both THE MIST and PLANET TERROR the kid killings in question occur off-screen, and that quite a few grown-ups are offed in far more graphic fashion (in THE MIST, in fact, several adults are actually killed along with the unfortunate kid). No matter: the mere fact that kids were killed apparently rendered both movies beyond the pale.
That same year saw the publication of a similarly-minded L.A. WEEKLY essay by critic John Anderson, subtitled “At today’s multiplex, kiddie kills are all the rage.” PLANET TERROR was again invoked because “a boy of about 9 gets his head blown off” (not quite!). The article further alleged that movie audiences are becoming “immune to the spiritual horror of a child’s death,” as represented by the kid kills in PAN’S LABYRINTH, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, 1408, LONELY HEARTS and FIDO. Never mind that the kid death in 1408 was (as Anderson grudgingly concedes) via disease rather than murder, and that LONELY HEARTS and FIDO were low budget indies seen by very few people.
I didn’t respond directly to Anderson’s article, although I did reply to the abovementioned message board posting, opining that the poster was overreacting. The response: “You don’t have any children do you?”
No, I don’t in fact have any children. Nor, for that matter, do I much like kids (a view I’ve held since I was a kid myself). So yes, I will concede that my views on cinematic kid kills might be a bit more liberal than those of you with children.
Nonetheless, I will concede that the depiction of a murdered child on screen has a definite transcendent power. Not only is that child killed, after all, but an entire realm of potential–both the kid’s and, conceivably, ours–is wiped out. I’ll confess that even I was offended by the protracted death of a little girl in the anime drama GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES, which made me flash back to a widely publicized claim by George Lucas that all a filmmaker need do to gain audience sympathy is strangle a kitten to death; slowly killing off a little girl isn’t too far removed from that analogy. Likewise, the sight of a baby stabbed to death in the opening scene of the 1971 trash fest SUCCUBUS has stayed with me, even though I can’t recall much of anything about the rest of the movie.
Conversely, I’ll acknowledge that in today’s relentlessly kid-centered culture, in which politicians cynically invoke children to pass laws and the entertainment media insists upon forcing a ridiculously sanitized depiction of childhood on us, there is a perverse pleasure to be had in the sight of kids offed onscreen. We as a society place an inordinately high value on innocence, perceived or otherwise (note that the depiction of teenagers killed onscreen doesn’t inspire nearly the same amount of ire as that of child murders, as innocent is something most teens emphatically aren’t), to which a backlash is inevitable.
Be honest: can you really say you didn’t at least partially enjoy the sight of boy scouts getting crushed by the Washington Monument in MARS ATTACKS, or that of former “Disney Girl” (and future Beverly Hills Housewife) Kim Richards gunned down in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, or even the baby being run over by a truck in PET SEMATARY (a scene the mean kids in my high school were known to applaud)?
Furthermore, I contend that dismissing an entire movie on the basis of a single off-screen killing is plain wrong. Nor do I agree with Mr. Anderson’s claim that kid kills were “all the rage” at the box office in ‘07.
Onscreen kid killings, after all, are nothing new. If dead kids are indeed cinema’s “last taboo,” as Eli Roth has opined, then it’s a taboo that has already been breached many times over. Just check out mainstream releases like GONE WITH THE WIND, which still elicits gasps during revival screenings when that little girl falls off the horse, or KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, which makes comedy out of dead kids, or MY GIRL, which was notorious in its day for killing off the beloved Macaulay Culkin. Further depictions of kid kills can be found in LORD OF THE FLIES, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, THE DEADLY TRACKERS, 1900, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, THE UNTOUCHABLES, SHORT CUTS, SCHINDLER’S LIST, THE PROFESSIONAL, FRESH, TRAINSPOTTING, CITY OF GOD, LES MISERABLES and numerous episodes of LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE–and that’s only a partial list!
In the horror movie-sphere, of course, kid kills have been equally prevalent. Who can forget the sight of that little girl thrown into the water in FRANKENSTEIN, or the young boy getting chomped in JAWS? There even exist entire horror movies, including the Spanish import WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? and the Troma release BEWARE! CHILDREN AT PLAY, that pivot on kid killing–unsurprisingly, those films remain little seen in the U.S.
Other horror/exploitation movies featuring kid kills include HOUR OF THE WOLF, MACBETH (any version), TARGETS, GOODBYE UNCLE TOM, DON’T LOOK NOW, SUBURBIA, IN A GLASS CAGE, COMBAT SHOCK, DEAD CALM, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, BASIC INSTINCT, THE GOOD SON, THE BABY OF MACON, RUN AND KILL, BATTLE ROYALE, DAWN OF THE DEAD, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, PAN’S LABYRINTH and ANTICHRIST. Again, that’s only a partial listing.
So to sum up: kid killing in movies is hardly novel. Nor, clearly, is the (over)reaction it tends to inspire in viewers. It’s a powerful thing, showing children being killed, and something that, contrary to what John Anderson alleges, probably won’t ever lose its ability to startle, being a rare example of shock value that truly shocks.