Saturday, June 5, 2010

Evil Kids in FIlm

Sometimes I like watching a few thematically linked movies in a short period of time. That way, even if one isn't particularly interesting, I can at least think about it in the context of the others. I've made it through some pretty terrible movies this way. I did a super-long marathon of French horror films back in the Fall, in which I might have lost my sanity (or at least a properly functioning frontal lobe) had I not been thinking slightly more critically about them. My Lucio Fulci series in the Winter was less traumatizing, and I am currently tracking down a series of some forgotten 80's cold-war nuclear apocalypse films.

A few months ago I unintentionally happened to see a few films that all ended up being linked through the theme of evil kids. (For the uninitiated, this is a recurring theme in horror.) I approach kids with apprehension as it is - mostly due to their small size and unpredictability, but also due to the fact that they are largely irrational semi-human things. So imagining them as imbued with some sort of supernatural malice doesn't seem that far off for me.

The first movie that got me thinking was Grace. This film got a lot of buzz before it was released, so maybe I went into it expecting more than I should have. The premise is this: an expecting mother is in a car crash that kills her late-term unborn baby and also her husband. Stricken with grief, she carries the baby to term, and finds ... it's alive... or is it? The somewhat ashen-skinned baby attracts flies and drinks blood - congratulations lady, you gave birth to a zombie. Still grieving for her husband, she refuses to see that her child has, er, special needs, and grows slowly more insane trying to give it the blood that it requires for sustenance.

For me, this film was unsettling in all the wrong ways. This isn't a light-hearted zombie baby movie - it's a pretty depressing study of grief and the destruction of traditional family values. There are some obligatory scares and blood, but what really disturbed me is the way the film focuses on the repressive nature of the traditional nuclear family. There's an overbearing mother-in-law who, after losing her son in the car crash, becomes obsessed with finding a new child to nurture, and tries to gain custody of the dead baby. She's obsessed with nursing in a way that's not just a little creepy and leads to a few scenes that I'm trying really hard to excise from my memory.

While the mother of the zombie baby goes to escalating means to provide for her child, there's also a subplot/subtext about her breaking the shackles of the traditional family. By the end of the movie, she has completely demolished (literally and figuratively) her old family structure, and flees with her (female) birth counsellor to start a new life.

The thing is, Grace sounds more interesting than it actually is. Even at under 90 minutes, it drags in places - a sign that the short film it's based on didn't quite have enough ideas to fill out a feature film. Also, there's really no character you find yourself eager to relate to. The mother is a little too crazy and volatile to really empathize with, the baby is more a plot device than a character, and the birth counsellor appears too intermittently for us to really get to know her. It's interesting enough in retrospect, and has some pretty unsettling scenes, but doesn't maintain enough tension for it to be a really memorable film.

Next up was the Spanish cult horror film Who Can Kill A Child? which would probably have disappeared entirely had it not been for Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth lauding its virtues in the recent past. The title's rhetorical question is largely for show - you know what's going to go down at the end of this movie. What the question is really asking is: what would it take for you to kill a child, and how much remorse would you feel afterwards?

In case we weren't already thinking about this, the credits roll over stock war footage as statistics about child casualties of war are printed on the screen. This really adds nothing to the movie, and could be skipped without a second thought. I thought it bordered on tasteless, and didn't serve to make the film any more relevant. If anything, it should have been pushed to the end credits.

The film is pretty straightforward. Think "Children of the Corn" (which this film predates by a year or so) set on an isolated island, minus the crazy religious sect. A young couple sets off for a vacation on the island, only to find a distinct lack of adults, and a distinct abundance of creepy dead-eyed children. Eventually, they realise that the children have taken out the adults in what seems like a sort of game. Trapped without a ferry to the mainland until the next day, the couple struggles with the realisation that sooner or later, they're going to be overwhelmed by these evil kids and have to step up to the plate.

This film, like Grace, seems to take a little too long to get to the point. I would have enjoyed it a lot more had it been missing, oh, half an hour or so. But while it does a poor job of building suspense, the final act is what makes this movie worth it. This film doesn't shy away from the question it asks, and shows real guts in following it through to the end. Who Can Kill A Child? is a unique sort of film that takes the 70s Eurotrash aesthetic (with all of its flaws) and applies it to a slightly unorthodox idea. It's worth seeing just for something different, although I'd hesitate to label this as a classic. It's more an unusual relic of the exploitation era.

Finally, The White Ribbon, directed by Michael Haneke, takes a slower (non-horror) look at childhood innocence and how it's really a construction of society. The film is set in rural pre-World War I Germany and focuses on a young schoolteacher, who also narrates the film. The town feels almost intentionally storybookish in the way that most characters are identified and divided into social classes primarily by their occupation. In this way, they also come to represent society as a whole, and it's clear as the story opens that the somewhat tyrannical pastor, the aloof mayor, and the abusive doctor are the ones running the show in this town.

So when the doctor is injured after his horse is tripped in a clearly deliberate attempt on his life, there's no lack of suspects, but an abundance of them. Violent acts continue in the months ahead, and grow increasingly disturbing. Still, it's hard to narrow down just who is responsible. The characters in this film are anything but caricatures, and we see even the most obviously 'evil' characters in a variety of situations that humanize them. Every time you think you've got it figured out, you're shown a new piece of evidence that only serves to complicate things.

The title of the film seems to me to point out what this film is really about. When the mayor's children are out past their curfew, they're punished and forced to wear a white ribbon on their arm as a reminder of the innocence they've abandoned. When the mayor's son confesses to "self-abuse", his arms are tied to his bed at night with the same ribbons. The ribbon itself is an obvious symbol of innocence, but it's the way in which it's imposed upon the children that's really interesting to me. It's not an innate thing, but a label forced upon the kids by the adults in defiance of their true nature. It's also a way for the adults of the town to turn a blind eye to the fact that the children are the common denominator in the increasingly violent occurrances in the town.

The White Ribbon, like all of Haneke's films, isn't easy to digest. It's (ironically) filmed in black and white, but the moral issues in the film are anything but. Haneke isn't fond of giving clear answers to the questions he asks in his films (or even any answers at all, as in Cache), but instead chooses to lay out a number of possibilities that each illuminate the question in a different way. I'm sure that I'm reading this film differently than a lot of people would, but that's what I really like about Haneke - he offers you a problem and lets you come up with your own solution. Regardless of how you view it, one thing is clear in this film: whatever darkness has arisen in this town has been birthed by the town itself, and only upon accepting responsibility for this fact can it be eliminated.

In reality, kids aren't born evil, as in Grace, nor do they rise en masse to punish adults for their cruelty, as in Who Can Kill a Child? They are capable of evil things, as is anyone, and it's the way in which they're raised that determines exactly what kind of adults they'll become. In that sense, the White Ribbon offers the most nuanced and perhaps accurate view of innocence itself: as a brief and fleeting ideal that can never be fully recaptured, but is nonetheless worth striving for.

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