Murderous child subgenre in horror films

By Paul Bagnall

(Courtesy of Angeles Entertainment Group)
(Courtesy of Angeles Entertainment Group)

The murderous children subgenre saw the rise of a major cult classic when Stephen King published his horror short story titled “Children of the Corn” for the March 1977 issues of Penthouse magazine. The short story was later adapted by director Fritz Kiersch in the 1984 film of the same name..

“Children of the Corn” is about a couple that embarks on a cross-country road trip to save their marriage. While driving through Nebraska, the couple passes through a small town called Gatlin where most of the parents have been slain by the town’s murderous band of children. The couple ends up stranded in the small American town, hunted by the children who sacrificed their parents to a pagan demon called “He Who Walks Behind The Rows” and have chosen the couple as their next victims.

A year before Stephen King’s short story was published, the Spanish made movie “Who Can Kill A Child?” was released. Written and directed by Narciso Ibanez Serrador, the film is an adaption of Juan Jose Plans’ novel “El Juego de Los Ninos.” The film had a limited release, appearing in drive-in movie theaters in 1976. Unfortunately, “Who Can Kill A Child?” faded into film obscurity due to its limited release and can only be found in the DVD collections of die-hard horror movie fans.

The plot of the film involves a married couple vacationing in Spain for their honeymoon, where they decide to visit an island off the southern coast. The couple discovers the island’s village is abandoned with packs of giggling kids prowling the streets. Eventually, the couple figures out that some form of madness is influencing the children, which is an unnamed evil that’s passed on through eye contact.

There’s one scene that shows a phenomenon when the couple escapes the village and finds a hut on the other side of the island inhabited by one adult and three kids. A murderous kid walks up to an uninfected kid and simply locks eyes with him. The camera lingers on their intimate stare and the creepy soundtrack signifies the uninfected kid has joined the ranks of the other madness-influenced kids.

“Who Can Kill A Child?” and “Children of the Corn” share parallel story lines and highlight the tropes of the murderous children movies. These tropes included children being influenced by an evil force to commit heinous acts of murder, brutal and creative kills and dark atmospheres that can be used to poke fun at the little murderers’ feigned innocence.

In 1981, two killer kid movies came out with different takes on the murderous children subgenre. Despite being released in the same year, “Bloody Birthday” and “The Pit” take divergent and experimental paths in the subgenre. Additionally, the actors and actresses who play the evil kids are absolutely brilliant in both features.

“Bloody Birthday“ is about triplets who were born on an astrological alignment and are inherently evil. “The Pit” is about a mentally disturbed child who’s bullied and feeds his tormentors to the trolls located in a hole behind his house.

The cinematic styles of each film function differently from one another. Both films use three-key lighting effects to add to the troubled atmosphere the films create from the opening to final deaths. The differences in the two films is that “Bloody Birthday” has more suspenseful build-ups to the kids murdering adults, while “The Pit” is shrouded in a thick creepy atmosphere. It centers on the twelve-year-old’s psychosis by talking to his teddy bear.

“Children of the Corn” and “Who Can Kill A Child?” are a little brighter in their lighting and incorporate day shots to create natural lighting to elevate the horrors taking place on screen. The films also have tracking shots that follow the children as they stalk the adults as they move about in the background. Look closely at each film to see if you can spot the evil little demons that prey upon the unsuspecting adults.

It’s also worth noting none of these murderous children movies end the same. The twist endings for each of these four films are widely different, concluding with dark gusto and creepy laughter echoing in the background.

These are the more common tropes found in the killer kid movies with the exception of “Children of the Corn” blooming into a franchise. It’s a sub genre that pits adults against psychotic children and even plays around with the notion of normal kids matching wits with the crazy kids, like in “Bloody Birthday.”

All make for enjoyable Halloween flicks to watch with friends. Indulge in the depravity of watching kids murdering adults followed by a suspenseful build up to a climactic ending. It’s a sub genre that dominates the realms of forgotten cult classics in cinema history. Once you see them, you’ll be wary the next time you walk by a playground.

Paul Bagnall can be reached at [email protected]