Using children in horror tales always helps boost the proportion of peril. By placing an innocent child in danger’s way, the tension is elevated tenfold, but what happens when kids are the danger? Everything in our human programming begs us to protect children, even at the cost of our own lives. So, what happens when adults are placed in the unthinkable scenario of trying to survive violence caused by children? Horror fans win, that’s what.
Horror enthusiasts are more than aware of the big titles in the killer kids subgenre. The Omen’s antichrist incarnate, The Bad Seed’s privileged Rhoda, Gage returning from the Pet Semetary only to kill Judd Crandell, Isacc’s sermons in the cornfields, psychopath Henry Evans in The Good Son, among countless others. Bracing for last week’s release of Changeling horror film There’s Something Wrong with the Children, about two kids that returned changed after spending a night in the woods. I started watching some deep cuts featuring killer kids and thought I’d share a few that don’t always get the attention they deserve.
Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice
Everyone knows the original 1984 film based on the Stephen King novel, but fewer have seen its over-the-top sequel. Unavailable in the United States for many years, Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice is a trashy straight-to-video midnight film that is thoroughly nonsensical and mystifyingly satisfying because of the abundant laughter that typically ensues. The story sees a reporter and his son come to a small Nebraskan town where the population has begun adopting the murderous children from their neighboring town, Gatlin.
Whoever came up with the idea for Children of the Corn II must have watched Return to Salem’s Lot and said, “Let’s do that, but without Larry Cohen’s sardonic wit,” then walked away laughing. The reason this makes the list is that it wildly ignores the signatures of what makes the original film a classic and just goes off the rails. If you can find it, Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice is the perfect roastable film to share beers with friends and laugh at the silliness. Hell, even the title is a joke because it wasn’t even close to being the final anything in the series. It’s so bad, it’s good.
The Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice is only available in SD quality on VOD.
Who Can Kill a Child? (aka Trapped! and Island of the Damned)
This 1976 horror/thriller starts off strangely as if you’ve accidentally pressed play on a documentary about the horror of war, especially in terms of our duty toward keeping the next generation safe. The film soon fades in on a beachside Spanish tourist town, where English tourists Tom and his pregnant wife Evelyn take in a crowded festival before setting off to a small island in the morning. When they arrive, however, the island is deserted except for the children.
Utilizing a zombie-like approach that is heavily Romero-inspired, recalling scenes from Night of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead while alluding toward the idea of children as weaponized agents of war, Who Can Kill A Child? is truly a remarkably taut piece of filmmaking with superb sound design and soundtrack cues that keep intensity high, even when the air is unsettlingly quiet.
You’ll question some moments in the dialogue, like how Evelyn doesn’t know what gracias means or what a piñata is. While the reason becomes more apparent over time, meant to show you how little she can decipher the language and infer the customs to further the plot, it is a little lazy. Regardless, this cult film has otherwise left an impression, and people will notice moments that have influenced scenes in The Children of the Corn, Phantoms, the recent Offseason, and even some films that appear on this list. A remake of the film was also made in 2012 called Come Out and Play, featuring Hocus Pocus’ Vinessa Shaw in the role of Evelyn. The new version isn’t bad, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the harrowing aspects captured in the original.
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane
This early Jodie Foster led horror picture is anything but what you’d expect in the subgenre. Foster stars as Rynn, an extraordinarily smart teenage girl who loves having her oceanside home all to herself. After a run-in with a privileged pervert (Martin Sheen) and his snobbish mother (Alexis Smith) threatens Rynn’s life in the home she loves, she takes matters into her hands to ensure it won’t happen again.
Foster is excellent, and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane proves that, even at a young age, she was a force to be reckoned with. The film’s plot is mostly cat and mouse, with themes of knowledge being a commodity and the underestimation and condescension young people, especially girls, often receive from adults.
Devil Times Five (aka People Toys and The Horrible House on the Hill)
After a bus crash kills their doctor and strands a handful of disturbed children in the wintery woods, they band together to find shelter and arrive at the mansion of a wealthy businessman throwing a company retreat. Not wanting to leave children out in the cold, the group offers them shelter and food. However, the wrong turn of phrase and winning a board game cause the children to act out, becoming malicious psychopaths hellbent on murdering their hosts.
Devil Times Five is wild, with a portion of the film playing like a half-written exploitation film that was rewritten into a horror picture. An introduction to one of the characters sees her trying to take advantage of a differently abled individual before the scene devolves into a catfight between her and another woman, vowing to get the other woman’s husband to jump her bones at sometime during the weekend. Despite how it sounds, the acting is better than you’d expect, but the movie’s real draw is the bloody carnage inflicted by the kids. Bear traps, harpoons, and piranhas are just a few of the weapons used in this seldom-remembered 1974 film.
Beware! Children at Play
When I watched Beware! Children at Play the first time, I admired the gloss and the pretty even keel that director Mik Cribben used to make this low-budget production fit right in with the rest of the genre films being made at the time. The production cost about $30,000, and besides some uneven acting and a bumpy pace, this one looks and feels like it could have come from a big Hollywood studio.
The film concerns John DeWolfe (Michael Robertson), arriving in a town with his wife and daughter and learning that children are disappearing. Eager to help his old marine buddy turned Sheriff (Rich Hamilton), John tries some unorthodox methods, like hiring a psychic, to try and help. When the body count starts to rise, and more children begin to disappear, the speculation begins to rest on the town’s origins and the cult that used to live there.
Beware! Children at Play has some excellent makeup effects and gruesome kills, but its ending, especially given the state of the world, can be seen as extreme and somewhat off-putting. The film definitely borrows from Lord of the Flies, Who Can Kill a Child?, Children of the Corn, and Night of the Living Dead. It’s a strange amalgamation, but it can make you grin with enjoyment and gasp in terror without even missing a beat.
Home Movie is a goddamn nightmare. Told in the found footage style, we watch as a family moves to a remote farmhouse in upstate New York. All seems jovial amongst the adults as they document their holidays on the brand-new camera, but the kids are doing more than just dissociating. As incidents mount over the course of six months, it becomes clear to the adults that their kids may be psychopaths in the making.
Released in 2008, Home Movie may be tough to track down on streaming. There are more than a few moments during the film where the atmosphere and incidents become dark, uncomfortable, and uneasy. Though the film isn’t that old, the tragedies at Sandy Hook and other schools that followed in the years after its release may have caused the film to stay out of the spotlight. However, even fifteen years later, Home Movie remains pulse-pounding as it blurs the psychology of nature vs. nurture with the supernatural, leaving a terrifying amount of ambiguity in its finale. It’s Paranormal Activity meets We Need To Talk About Kevin.
You can still purchase Home Movie on DVD through Amazon.
If Orphan had never utilized its Don’t Look Now twist and played it straight, it might look something like 1992’s Mikey. Mikey is an adopted child who, much like Orphan’s Esther, bounces from home to home in the wake of familial “accidents,” which seemingly occur when the family’s affection for him starts waning once Mikey’s mask of innocence begins slipping. Then, like The Stepfather, Mikey leaves a massacre and sets up shop with another family. Mikey’s crush on the girl next door may be the only thing keeping him grounded with his new family, but when she rejects him, all bets are off.
If you’re into super-cheesy ’90s slashers, complete with hot tub horniness, prank phone calls from see-through corded phones, and the obligatory fall from a staircase, then Mikey may be the child killer aiming an arrow straight for your heart.
The Children (1980) & (2008)
Both versions of The Children, Troma’s 1980 and Ghosthouse’s 2008 chiller, are very similar in that they deal with kids attacking their parents, but very different in how they go about it. In The Children (1980), a chemical spill at a nearby nuclear plant starts a mutation in a group of bus-riding school kids, causing them to give what appear to be acidic hugs to anyone they encounter. Whether they’re absorbing the life force of their victim or merely killing whomever they come into contact with is never fully conveyed. Yet it feels like another film partially inspired by Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child?, utilizing zombie-like children in weaponized scenarios. The initial bus scene seems to be a nod to The Devil Times Five, and a couple of scenes feel vampiric, reminiscent of Salem’s Lot.
The 2008 version of The Children concerns a virus that turns them into bloodthirsty killers in a more gradual sense. Think the epidemiology of 2017 Nic Cage helmed Mom & Dad, where a virus causes parents to attack their offspring, only in reverse. Tom Shankland’s 2008 film has kids manipulating their parents as they commit heinous atrocities. Like all of these movies, The Children (2008) is built on the confounding disbelief that they may have to hurt their kids in order to survive, though in a slightly more dread-soaked sense. That is an aspect The Children (2008) shares with There’s Something Wrong with the Children to a tee, though I wonder if the wintery setting and child count aren’t a reference to The Devil Times Five.
The ’80s version is a ton of fun, but the 2008 tale is more affecting. I constantly think of Scary Stories’ to Tell in the Dark’s Pale-Faced Lady when watching The Children (1980) and often wonder if the story also grew out of some version of the folk horror story. That inescapable hug coming from a seemingly innocent source, wolves appearing in benevolent sheep’s clothing.
Ankle Biters (aka Cherrypicker)
When four young girls see a video of their mom and her new hockey star boyfriend during an S&M sex act, they mistakenly believe she’s stuck in an abusive relationship. Not wanting to see their mother get hurt, the four kids plot to kill him before he can cause her any more harm.
Ankle Biters is an extremely high-concept film employing the comedy of errors approach, but it doesn’t always stick the landing. That isn’t to say that it’s not amusing. It’s undoubtedly off-the-mark and situationally funny, but seeing Whose Line is it Anyway? star Colin Mochrie doing something outside his improv schtick and in a horror-comedy may be the highlight. While it’s far from perfect, Ankle Biters is a rare find that seems like an easy win for a Hollywood producer to rework, reboot, and release.
Talk about being born under a bad sign. Three kids born during the pinnacle moment of an eclipse begin to wreak havoc on their tenth birthday by killing their friends and family members. When a boy and his sister discover the truth about the trio, they become the next potential victims.
A product of a different era, this film features kids bringing guns to school and playing with them throughout the film, one child entombing another in an old refrigerator with door locks, and the shrug off of an entrepreneurial peephole. The pace and plot are a little wonky at the start, but the film has some intense moments and bountiful jump scares that make it a lot of fun, even if it isn’t particularly concise. I mean, the plot is generated from the astrological implication that Saturn controls emotions, and the three kids born at the exact moment Saturn was blocked out by the sun and the moon, the kids were born to be psychopaths. It’s a fun concept, even if the film shortsightedly ignores the possibility that other cities and towns might have problems of this magnitude as well.