Evil Children are a staple of horror (in literature, especially in the Gothic sort). In fact, what is probably my favorite short-horror story of all-time is Nigel Kneale's “Jeremy in the Wind,” deals with an evil child. But what is particularly interesting is what the evil-child tells about ourselves...
The fairy tales which serve as the primordial backdrop to all modern horror tales, best demonstrated in Night of the Hunter, involves children in peril. The best of humanity, at its must innocent, vulnerable and weakest confronted by the dark, strengths of the primordial evils civilization was supposed to cure of us.
The most pertinent case for this in US history is the evil triumvirate of Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and the Omen (The Other is always unfairly overlooked, but perhaps its because it prefigures the psychological bend that the genre would take in later decades). The first really has little to do with the later; the anxieties of motherhood are as old as the genre itself (cf. Frankenstein and the fear of the mortality of the mother in giving birth to a creature that may kill her in the process) and the transplanting of that into a specific time and very specific place and set of socio-political ideologies was a marvelous little bit of horror-satire that really hadn't been seen since the 30's. In the UK Village of the Damned showed us this fear of (what am I giving birth to?) in mass. The children were evil, but weren't really their children...which made the always tricky decision in this genre, if its appropriate to kill a child on screen (and its interesting to note that one of the hypocrisies in Heneke's Funny Games (both of them) is that while a child is killed, it is done in a way in which we see the cause and effect, but are spared having to watch the horror in-between), a bit easier. Orphan uses a like-minded twist way to get around this as well, but the implications that its ok if its not yours, may be more troubling. An issue discussed in length in the brilliant new Torchwood series, which plays off of Village... which I'll review later on.
The Exorcist and the Omen are linked not only by an evil child, but by the presence of the devil in both films. While both studio pictures, The Exorcist was as wild and dangerous as any mainstream film ever made and the Omen was about as formulated as post-paramount decision as studio's got. That said, the Exorcist is the most subversive Christian devotional that side of Abel Ferrara. It is also about the fear of the innocent child made unwieldy portal for the uncivilized and carnal acts of a demon; ie. A horror film about the anxieties of the baby boomers and the free love and drug use that came with the residual effects which remained of the failed counter-culture. The other scandalous horror-classic from a year prior, The Last House on the Left, is the angry liberal view of that same counter-culture also gone to self-indulgent excess, and interestingly enough the children don't last half the movie, and its the adults who act as, to refer to the fairy tales, as the big-bad wolves and also the woodsmen. While The Exorcist is an unpleasant film, its an uplifting one; the child is freed, the faith of the all involved is restored. The Omen, on the other hand, while not as patently offensive, is far more devious, and darker. It may be one of the darkest endings in film history. It's a more “safe” film in terms of content, but in The Omen, the child is not an unwitting surrogate for a demon, but the anti-Christ himself. The Exorcist affirms that there is a God and he can conquer or at least contain evil, the Omen only tells us there's a hell and we're all going there.
Movies about evil-children became far less-supernatural and more psychological in the later half of he 70's until now, essentially, though perhaps that's partly the shift of the genre itself, at least until Asian horror emerged, with; the evil supernatural child again J-horror in Ju-on, Ringu, and Dark Water, or in the Taiwanese film Silk. But in those films the evil children were product of the “sins of the fathers,” disturbed supernatural beings which had to get their revenge on. What is important is that in Asian horror, the films are, for the most part, centrally based around a family in crisis, perhaps best exhibited by the outstanding Korean monster film, The Host. Guillermo Del Torro's films bring back the child-in-peril fairy tales, complete with a more European view where the family often just as dangerous as the evil creatures, in films such as Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone. In the new French extreme horror, children are used quite often as metaphors for arrested development at the hands of an abusive family head (standing in for the government). The best example of a US film to do this is the overlooked Wes Craven film The People Under the Stairs (reacting to both Bush the first and reflecting the tense racial landscape between the summer of 1989 and the LA Riots). Yet, still in America, the Evil Child is still a psychological creature, perhaps seen at its nadir in last year's plain nasty Home Movie. What's more, the psychologist is always inept, though rarely punished for their ineptitude, as the Utopian scientist was in the 1950's sci-fi horror film.
Del Torro also presented us with a very unique take on the vampire film in Cronos. The film takes me to what could be a new wrinkle in the genre in the near-future. No other genre other than the horror film is as sensitive to societal changes, especially large shifts. While the evil-child films from the 60's and 70's were responding to the counter-culture at some level, the fear of the 5-1 ratio and large congregating mobs of anxious youth, what will the baby-boomers in old age bring? The elderly? Cronos features a grandfather turned vampire in a quest for immortality gone bad. But he's a kindly old man. Evil elderly in films are quite rare. The obscure film Homebodies (1974) and the filmic adaptation of Ghost Story are two rare instances of horror films that deal nearly specifically with the aged (on the flip side the moving Bubba-Ho Tep has two heroic old-folks in a horror film; in what is a sort of rejection to the sci-fi fountain of youth in Cocoon, the very mortal and aging attempt to take down the immortal creature). Perhaps the most maniacal presentation of old-folks is the limousine couple from Lynch's Mulholland Dr., or the sanctimonious madman Kane in very underrated Poltergeist II (a film, in retrospect, that seems more similar with the Asian horror films of today, than the American horror films of its own time). But with more and more of the population reaching their golden years (oh, yes, there was that miniseries by that name also ), and the younger parts of our society having to shoulder the load of taking care of them (or suffer from guilt for ignoring them, which likewise would manifest itself in aged villains) we may start to see more and more elderly villains.