With a remake of the iconic and controversial ‘80s slasher Child’s Play now in cinemas, what better time to take a look at some of the best kid-centric horror movies out there? After all, killing kids is one of the big taboos, so no wonder that so many horror directors are drawn to crossing that line.
Or, perhaps more disturbingly, makings the moppets the murderers. Is there anything more unsettling than some tow-headed tyke, their normally bright eyes dull and staring, creeping up with a butcher’s knife in their pudgy little fist? It’s a theme we return to again and again, most notably in…
The Exorcist (1973)
The ultimate creepy kid movie. Directed by William Friedkin and based on William Peter Blatty’s hugely popular potboiler novel, The Exorcist sees apple-cheeked tween Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) possessed by an honest-to-Hades demon. When her staunchly secular mother (Ellen Burstyn) finally twigs what’s going on, the stage is set for a battle between the trespassing fiend and Catholic priests Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Damien Karras (Jason Miller). A masterpiece of rising tension that culminates in a no-holds-barred cavalcade of gross-out effects and existential horror, The Exorcist is one of the most highly-regarded horror films in history for a reason.
The Omen (1976)
Directed by Richard Donner (Superman, Lethal Weapon), The Omen one-ups The Exorcist by having the villain be the actual Antichrist himself. After the death of his own infant son in childbirth, American politician Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) swaps out the deceased baby for a live orphan, little realising that the new kid’s parentage is decidedly demonic. The rest of the movie is spent waiting for poor Robert to catch up with what we already know, with a sterling cast of character actors (including Lee Remick, David Warner and Patrick Troughton) contributing to the steadily rising body count. Avoid the 2006 remake like the plague, though.
Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)
This cheap Spanish schlocker eschews class for craziness as a young couple find themselves on an island where the resident kids have slaughtered the adult population and are more than happy to continue with their new hobby. The cause of the carnage is deliberately murky – its implied its payback for the horrors the adult world blithely visits on children, but the mechanics are left unexplored. However, the violence is some four-star, in-your-face stuff. If you ever wanted to see hordes of evil children machine-gunned down, or a woman killed by her own rebelling fetus, this film is one for you.
Pet Sematary (2019)
Making a play for New Classic status is this year’s fresh take on Stephen King’s bleak 1983 tale of cats and kids who won’t stay dead. While the 1989 film adaptation by Mary Lambert has its charms (and they’re all contained in the looming body of MVP Fred Gwynne), this version from the Starry Eyes team of Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer eclipses it by focusing on both literal death and the death of innocence, plus by having an undead child even more unsettling than the one that stalked through its cinematic forebear. Aussie Jason Clarke gives a top-notch performance as the devoted dad driven by grief to do the unspeakable, and the whole thing builds to a stunningly bleak climax.
Village of the Damned (1960)
Based on John Wyndham’s quietly terrifying novel The Midwich Cuckoos, this stately chiller posits a small British town in which every fertile woman falls pregnant on the same day, eventually giving birth to nigh-identical children. The blonde-haired, blank-eyed kids exhibit more and more unsettling behaviour, as well as psychic abilities. It soon becomes apparent that the eerie moppets aren’t human at all, but effectively the advance scouting party of an alien invasion against which we are defenseless. This story was famously lampooned as ‘The Bloodening’ in an episode of The Simpsons. Horror maestro John Carpenter’s 1995 remake was critically savaged on release but is worth reappraisal.
Let the Right One In (2008)
Director Tomas Alfredson breathes new life into the cadaver of the vampire subgenre with this adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s haunting 2004 novel. Eli (Lina Leandersson) isn’t cinema’s first child vampire – there’s also Claudia in Interview with the Vampire and Laddie in The Lost Boys to name just two – but she’s one of the most disturbing, mainly because her relationship with lonely 12-year-old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is so ambivalent. Is she protecting him from the various hurts of the world or grooming him to be her human servant? Or does the truth lie somewhere in the middle? Director Matt Reeves’ 2010 English language remake, Let Me In, which stars Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Grace Moretz, is almost as chilling, but the original is still the best.
The Brood (1979)
Trust Canadian auteur David Cronenberg (Videodrome, Dead Ringers) to delve into the psychological and physiological horrors of motherhood – a typically taboo take on that most sacred of relationships. The Brood is a weird one even by Cronenbergian standards. While it’s essentially a satire of the alternative psychiatric therapies that were in vogue at the time it was made, for our purposes the key detail is the fact that, under the care of maverick shrink Dr. Raglan (Oliver Reed), mentally ill mother Nola Carleth’s (Samantha Eggar) trauma about her abusive childhood manifests as a brood of cancerous, mutant children who brutally murder anyone who might be a threat to her wellbeing. Visceral and provocative in equal measure, this is classic Cronenberg.
Spider Baby (1968)
A deep cut that attracted a devoted fan base long after its first release, director Jack Hill’s 1967 cheapie shocker is such a surreal and hypnotic ride that it’s almost as though it was designed to be a cult classic. The children at hand are the adult but degenerate Merrye siblings, who are under the care of the family chauffeur, Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr). When distant relatives roll up on their decaying mansion intending to wrest away control of the family fortune, madness and murder are inevitable. The big attraction here is the eponymous Virginia (Jill Banner), whose nickname comes from both her arachnid obsession and her tendency to snare her victims in web-like ropes before slicing them up with kitchen knives.
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Preeminent fantasist Guillermo del Toro really found his authorial voice with this thoughtful ghost story. In an eerie and remote orphanage populated by refugees from the Spanish Civil War, a young boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), must contend with both the menacing groundskeeper Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) and the mysterious spectre that haunts the place at night. As per usual in a del Toro joint, human evil is more of a threat than any supernatural phenomenon. The Mexican director’s visual panache and humanist sympathies together create a singularly resonant haunted house fable.
Before director Scott Derrickson and C. Thomas Cargill brought Marvel’s Doctor Strange to the big screen, they gave us this spectacularly bleak slice of horror in the home. Ethan Hawke is the true crime writer who discovers a cache of grisly home movies in his new house, but it soon becomes apparent that the real threat is the demonic force behind the filmed atrocities, which targets children. Gleefully gory and delightfully dark, this is known to fans as “The one with lawnmower.” When you see it, you’ll understand why.