We have such deeply-set assumptions about children and childhood — innocence, powerlessness, fundamental “goodness” — that any challenge to those notions is often met with incredulity or defensiveness. So the idea of the child endowed with unnatural powers that render him or her less than innocent, good, or obedient is fundamentally unsettling. It’s a concept that Hollywood has exploited time and again, sometimes for comic but more often for dramatic or horrific purposes. This theme crops up again in this week’s “Midnight Special” from director Jeff Nichols (our review here), in which the boy in question, the son of Kirsten Dunst and Michael Shannon‘s characters, has immense resources of potentially destructive, potentially Messianic powers that he is barely able to control. This puts his parents and their collaborators in the terrifying position of having to protect something they do not understand: they cannot even know if he is a force for good or evil, only that he is a force, he is in danger and he is their son.
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Anticipating the release of “Midnight Special,” we’ve taken a moment to highlight 15 other examples of supernaturally powered children from the better films on the subject. Aside from keeping it to younger, prepubescent kids (so no “Carrie“) and excluding comic-book or young adult-based movies in which the child may develop his/her superpowers at a young age (like “Superman,” or “Harry Potter,” for example), our only guideline is that the films should be at least watchable (a surprising number are not) and should in some way hinge on the contradiction that is a child with distinctly un-childlike abilities and skills.
Perhaps the closest recent analog to “Midnight Special,” “Looper” not only boasts a similar melding of independent and genre film sensibilities, but it also places at its center a somewhat ambivalent, super-powered child, whose parents will do anything to protect him. But Rian Johnson‘s time-travel thriller is more twistily plotted than Nichols’ somber, lower-key drama, and is slightly less involved in ineffable existential and metaphysical questions. But only slightly: set in a world where one of the chief uses for black-market time travel is for gangsters to send back victims into the past for execution so no bodies exist to incriminate them, “Looper” really finds its feet (and its heart) in its second, more philosophical half. It’s then that hitman Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), having failed to kill his future self (Bruce Willis) as ordered, meets little Cid (Pierce Gagnon), whose extraordinary telekinetic abilities mark him out as the fabled Rainmaker of the future — a malevolent all-powerful entity that Old Joe has vowed to eradicate. The convolutions of its plot and premise aside, the intelligent humanism of the approach is marked out by the characterization of Cid as neither good nor evil yet, just a huge mass of potential to become either.
“The Omen” (1976)
A sort of “Citizen Kane” of evil children movies, leading directly to a whole sub-genre of horror films including the likes of “Joshua” and “Orphan,” Richard Donner’s “The Omen” is a tremendously entertaining piece of pulp that walks the line neatly between being genuinely unnerving and deeply silly. The film sees Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck, bringing an invaluable degree of dignity to proceedings), the U.S. Ambassador to the U.K., beginning to suspect that something is wrong with his son, Damien, and that his child may have actually been swapped at birth with the Antichrist, the child of Satan. The exact nature of Damien’s powers are never quite spelled out, beyond an obvious malevolence, but that actually helps the film’s metaphorical power to a degree: the film becomes a sort of prototypical “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” examining the greatest fears of a parent, that their beloved child could turn out to be, well, evil. Amid a distinguished cast (Billie Whitelaw as demented nanny Mrs. Baylock being the highlight), young Harvey Spencer Stephens does a fine job, his pageboy haircut only briefly concealing the child’s demonic nature. Steer clear of the 2006 remake though, an unimaginative Xerox of the original with nothing to recommend it.
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“Twilight Zone: The Movie” (1983)
There are technically two supernatural-kid segments in the 1983 anthology film based on the beloved TV show. Steven Spielberg‘s “Kick The Can” features a “Cocoon”-esque story of OAPs being transformed into their younger selves by “magical Negro” Scatman Crothers (and is as sickly as that sounds). But Joe Dante‘s “It’s a Good Life” is much better and more grotesque, even if it could have benefited from a less cheerful ending (perhaps one more akin to the TV episode on which it was based, which is widely cited as one of the best “Twilight Zones ever). Kathleen Quinlan plays a schoolteacher hoping for a fresh start, when she accidentally (she thinks) backs into Anthony, a kid who has taken a shine to her. She drives him home but once there is pressured into staying by the child and his ghoulish “family.” Anthony is essentially omnipotent but being a child his wishes, fantasies and punishments are mostly inspired by cartoons and cartoon logic, leading to some very Dante-esque puppetry and set design. (We should also mention in passing — considering the film that spawned this feature — the prologue and epilogue, both of which feature vehicles driving at night in which Creedence Clearwater Revival‘s “Midnight Special” plays.)
“Who Can Kill a Child?” (1976)
An effective, unsettling Spanish-language b-movie from Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, “Who Can Kill a Child?” remained largely unavailable for 30 years until a small DVD release in 2007 prompted a cultish reappraisal. And it merits one more than most — with an almost mondo vibe to its no-star, low-budget, on-location shooting, it’s the story of a biologist and his wife, six months pregnant with their third child, who go on vacation to a tiny Mediterranean island. Once there, they discover that the children of the island have, as one, risen up and slaughtered the adults, largely unopposed because, as the title asks rhetorically: who can kill a child? But what elevates it above the likes of Stephen King‘s similarly premised “Children of the Corn” is an extended prologue which suggests that the rebellion is prompted by a juvenile collective unconscious drive (which they can transmit to one another telepathically) for retaliation against an adult world that continually victimizes children. The desperately upsetting documentary footage of humanitarian disasters, from the Holocaust to the Vietnam napalm bombings to famines and wars elsewhere that have claimed millions of children’s lives, provides grim social context for the fable, and ensures that this well-shot, eerie film cuts deep.
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“It’s Alive” (1974)
This is one of the better titles from “b-movie auteur” Larry Cohen. In contrast to the usual complaint, this monster-baby horror can’t really be accused of showing too much, making it a refreshing change in a genre that more often reduces the uncanniness by too quickly, and too fully revealing the Big Bad as just a guy in a rubber suit. Perhaps Cohen knew that fundamentally the idea of a bloodsucking, malevolent newborn crawling through vents and flinging itself at people’s necks might, if shown clearly, be too close to comedy for the horror to really take hold (indeed the “Basket Case” series mines that silliness for all it’s worth). So instead we get a surprisingly subtle and relatively slow-paced horror in which the glimpses at Rick Baker‘s creation are few (and mostly partial), Bernard Herrmann‘s score is strong, but more muted than his Hitchcock work, and the violence is more often suggested than shown. It also has a relatively serious subtext in which the pharmaceutical company reps and fertility doctors who plied the mother (Sharon Farrell) with pills most of her adult life are shown to have been responsible for the horrible mutation, while the dynamic between her and husband John Ryan is also fascinating, albeit unavoidably colored by the sexism of the time.
“Let The Right One In” (2008)
The annals of cinema history have presented us with a few child vampires, from “Salem’s Lot” and “The Lost Boys” to “The Little Vampire” to Kirsten Dunst‘s Claudia in “Interview with the Vampire.” But to represent all those bloodsucking siblings, and indeed her own reincarnation as Chloe Moretz in Matt Reeves’ remake “Let Me In,” we’re going with our favorite-ever underage Ancient, Eli in Tomas Alfredson‘s wonderful “Let The Right One In.” Adapted from the great book by Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist , the film follows Eli (a brilliantly melancholic yet ruthless Line Leandersson) a centuries-old vampire trapped in the body of a (seemingly) prepubescent girl, whose colossal loneliness (she is provided for, only ineffectually, by an older man who is part lover, part slave) finds some relief when she befriends her bullied, isolated 12-year-old neighbor Oskar ( Kåre Hedebrant ). There are elements in the book that Alfredson’s films plays down or avoids — such as the issue of paedophilia in Eli’s relationship with her “minder,” as well as the question of her gender — but mostly it’s a masterful work of adaptation featuring Alfredson’s exceptionally meticulous visual control, and a beautifully sad little horror film to boot, with a perfectly crooked little turn from Leandersson at its cold, unbeating heart.
“The Shining” (1980)
Famously, Stephen King doesn’t like Stanley Kubrick’s film of his book “The Shining,” preferring instead a three-part miniseries version that he scripted that starred Steven Weber and Rebecca De Mornay. Stephen King is right on many things, but he is utterly wrong about Stanley Kubrick’s film of “The Shining,” because it’s one of the greatest horror movies ever made, and probably the best film on this list. Though the images we think of when we remember the film probably involve Jack Nicholson axing his way through the door, the film’s title refers to the special telepathic power possessed by young Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd), whose parents are looking after a snowy hotel in Colorado for the winter. From early on, Danny has horrifying visions or premonitions before they even get there, the source of some of the film’s most notable imagery, and things only get worse as the film goes on. King often risked over-mythologizing the titular shining (not least in the difficult-to-comprehend belated sequel “Doctor Sleep“) but Kubrick keeps things just on the right side of ambiguity, with Lloyd (who gave up acting and is now a community college professor) proving to be a powerful conduit for it, not least when he terrifyingly brings imaginary friend ‘Tony’ to life.
Are little Miles and Flora (Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin) actually pursuing a grotesque incestuous affair because they’re possessed by the evil souls of two deceased servants, or is it all in the repressed and increasingly hysterical mind of their governess Miss Giddens (a brilliant Deborah Kerr)? Jack Clayton‘s classic psychological horror, based on Henry James‘ “The Turn of the Screw” achieves such a brilliant balance and maintains it with such chillingly evocative filmmaking that it’s impossible to say if these two children even belong on this list. One way or another though, whether because they are actually communing with the dead or because the disintegrating mind of Miss Giddens has conjured them into demons, Miles and Flora are among the creepiest children cinema has ever brought us, especially since the most unnatural thing about them is actually the most natural — their bond as siblings. With a screenplay co-written by Truman Capote, who reportedly added many of the film’s Southern Gothic flourishes, like the decaying vegetation of the mansion’s overgrown garden, as well as its brilliantly suffocating Freudian overtones, it’s little less than a masterpiece of twisted necro-paedo-hysterio horror, and reportedly prompted Francois Truffaut to dub it “the best English film after Hitchcock goes to America.”
As you might expect for someone who writes at the volume that he does in the genres that he does, Stephen King went to the kids-with-powers well more than once. “Firestarter” is done much less successfully than the other example (see below), but it’s an interesting little curio that fans of the writer will probably have a good time with. Based on his 1980s novel, the film sees father and daughter Andy (David Keith) and Charlie (a post “E.T.” Drew Barrymore) on the run from the government agency that gave them their special powers — he can control people’s wills, she can, as the title might suggest, start fires. As with many King adaptations, it’s a story that feels more familiar once the texture and oddities have been removed in translation, but it’s moderately absorbing as a story, thanks in part to the effortless performance by Barrymore. She’s backed up by a terrific supporting cast, with George C. Scott and Martin Sheen doing fine work as the villains, and Art Carney and Louise Fletcher as more sympathetic figures, but they’re in a different, rather classier film than the one B-movie helmer Mark L. Lester is directing. Still, the push-pull between shlock and something more interesting is sort of interesting to watch.
“The Sixth Sense” (1999)
Yes, it swiftly became known for the secret nature of Bruce Willis’ character, one of cinema’s all-time great sleight-of-hand moments, but ahead of release, “The Sixth Sense” did appear to be another entry in the creepy-kid-with-special-powers sub-genre. In the case of M. Night Shyamalan’s breakthrough sleeper smash, that kid is 9-year-old Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), who claims to see dead people who want him to help them with unfinished business. The troubled boy crosses paths with Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), who hopes to atone for a previous mistake by helping the boy with his ‘gift.’ Part of the genius of Shyamalan’s film (and it is genius, however bad some of his subsequent work got) is the way that it misdirects you: you’re so focused on Cole’s plight, and his interactions with the deceased, that you don’t really consider that his psychiatrist might have a secret of his own. And while the director deserves much of the credit for milking every drop of tension and terror out of the scenario, it’s Haley Joel Osment who dominates: his utterly haunted performance isn’t precocious in the way that many child actors are, but he feels like a young man who’s been aged by his proximity to death.
“The Other” (1972)
We’re not quite sure what the statute of limitations is on spoiler warnings, but since this 1972 horror from Robert Mulligan, the undersung director of “To Kill A Mockingbird” and Reese Witherspoon debut “The Man in the Moon,” came with the tagline “Please Don’t Reveal the Secret of ‘The Other’,” but if you’re squeamish about such things, stop reading. That said, the film’s biggest twist is hardly surprising to the more seasoned cinemagoer, even if you do guess it, “The Other” is a great ride. With shades of recent arthouse hit “Goodnight Mommy,” it revolves around twins Holland and Niles (played by the uncannily identical Chris and Martin Udvarnoky). Living on a farm, their father has recently died and mother has retreated to her room, so they are left to their own devices, under the doting tutelage of grandmother Ada (Uta Hagen) who has taught them “The Great Game”: they’re able to psychically inhabit other creatures, such a birds. It’s more intelligent and layered than the average supernatural thriller, with references to the Lindbergh baby and a certain thwarted religiosity underpinning its more ludicrous aspects, and Mulligan shoots with a richness and texture that makes the film a lot more than just its central gimmick.
“Escape To Witch Mountain” (1975)
One of the stranger live-action kids movies made by Disney, “Escape To Witch Mountain” unites psychic powers, aliens, a telepathic shark, and a widower in a motor home. It never quite coheres or satisfies, but there’s enough here to explain why the studio has repeatedly gone back to this particular well, with a sequel, a TV pilot and two remakes, most recently Dwayne Johnson vehicle “Race To Witch Mountain.” Based on Alexander Key’s 1968 novel, the film centers on two twin orphans, Tony (Ike Eisenmann) and Tia (Kim Richards) with special powers, who go on the run from a sinister millionaire obsessed with the paranormal (Ray Milland), and team with a widower (Eddie Albert) to head to Witch Mountain, where they’re being drawn to. The film’s an interesting case study in that it anticipates some of the sci-fi trappings of films like “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” a few years before they became on trend, and it’s a surprising attempt from 70s-era Disney to make something to appeal to older kids, and even teens. That said, it’s rather caught in the middle of several stools — too goofy to scare, too scary to be goofy, and not really good enough for anyone, except in retrospect where it became enough of a nostalgia pick to warrant the aforementioned cottage industry of sequels and spin-offs.
For years, debate has raged as to who was actually the director of “Poltergeist.” Was it credited helmer Tobe Hooper or producer and co-writer Steven Spielberg, who reports have been, for over thirty years, on set consistently making the decisions. Whoever it was (and the answer is likely to be ‘some kind of combination of the two’), they turned out a belter, a movie with both the white-knuckle terror that Hooper is known for, and a decidedly Spielbergian emotional backbone. The film sees an ordinary suburban California families’ lives turned upside down when youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) begins having terrifying visions around the house. It’s not as centered on a spooky child as some of these movies — in part because Carol Anne is kidnapped into the spirit world early in the film and sits some of it out — but O’Rourke is arguably the best performer in the film when she is on screen, particularly when delivering the iconic “They’re here” line (sadly, O’Rourke passed away during an operation when she was just twelve). Again, there’s a competent but dull remake, released last year, with a classy cast but little else to recommend it.
Not all freakishly endowed children need to be the scary harbingers of some Apocalypse — sometimes they can be goodhearted, lonely kids born into the wrong family, who just need love. Directed by, narrated by and starring Danny DeVito, this beguiling adaptation of Roald Dahl‘s beloved children’s novel is, on the surface, simply a delightful confectionary as child prodigy Matilda (a sweet, sad-faced Mara Wilson) discovers she has telekinetic powers that might enable her to evade the clutches of her horrible family and ex-shot-put-champion headmistress Trunchbull (a gamely grotesque Pam Ferris). But actually, aside from the straightforward wish fulfillment scenario as an inherently powerless child gains powers beyond the ken of her tormentors, there’s also a very dark center here: a really quite scathing distrust of adults (reflecting Dahl’s own famous misanthropy), with the sole exception of the lovely Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz). It’s a tonal balance that DeVito and his villainous chorus manages well, leaving it to Wilson and Davidtz to carry the emotion, which they do in such quiet little moments as bonding over a love of Dickens, finally building the film into a manifesto for the gently subversive idea (for a kids film) that family might not always be best.
“The Exorcist” (1973)
Still the ne plus ultra not just of the demonic possession film but of the horror genre in general, William Friedkin‘s terrifying classic is also a never-bettered example of the freaky child subgenre. Part of what makes Regan’s predicament so horrifying is that she is, pea-soup vomit and seeping facial sores notwithstanding, recognisably still a young girl, and the depravity of her corrupted innocence, especially during some of the more overtly sexualized scenes, is almost unwatchable as a result. Unforgettably portrayed by Linda Blair, Regan is such an iconic horror emblem, that it’s probable that most contemporary filmgoers will have seen a parody or an homage or a reference before they’ve seen the real thing — and by rights that should rob the film of a considerable amount of its power. But “The Exorcist” will freak the living daylights out of you no matter how prepared you are, and that is truly the mark of its genius. Because more than a collection of gross-out highlights, the film boasts an utterly compelling atmosphere of revulsion and dread that means that even the non-spewing, non-screaming, non-spitting, non-stabbing moments exert a relentless chokehold on the very, very darkest reaches of our collective imagination.
A few suggestions for further reading if none of the above have convinced you to think twice before cooing over a friend’s newborn or offering to babysit: the U.S. version of the “The Ring” has a young girl as the vengeful, lank-haired ghost responsible for all those deaths ( and the Japanese original of “The Grudge” has a similarly blackeyed ghost boy); zombie classic “Night of the Living Dead” features a memorable child-zombie character; 1960s “Village of the Damned” is a famous example that even had the honor of the standard-issue inferior remake (in 1995 by John Carpenter); in Cronenberg’s “The Brood” the mutant children are scarcely recognisable as such, but do indeed possess psychic abilities in addition to extreme malevolence; Alejandro Amenabar‘s terrific ghost story “The Others” also just about qualifies, though the children are less the focus than in “The Innocents” (above) to which it is indebted; James Wan‘s “Insidious” has taken the theme and spun it into a franchise; while current arthouse horror hit “The Witch,” and last year’s “The Babadook” also feature children whom we can’t be sure are not somehow haunted or possessed.
And then there’s a huge range of middling-to-awful films featuring the same hook suc as: Eddie Murphy’s “The Golden Child” — lackluster but has its moments; yet more Stephen King adaptations in “Pet Sematary” and the really quite dreadful “Children of the Corn“; unintentionally hilarious Renee Zellweger/Bradley Cooper vehicle “Case 39“; and let’s not forget the more mainstream stuff like Nicolas Cage‘s “Knowing” in which… no wait, let’s totally forget about “Knowing.”
Any other freaky kids using their powers for good or ill occur to you? Shout them out in the comments below.