Thursday, May 14, 2009

Rugrats Worth a Rescue

For many horror audiences, the very presence of a prominent child character spells doom. One less death scene (I mean, with the exception of Who Can Kill a Child?, who CAN kill a child?), plus the more-than-likely chance that we’ll be subjected to an abstinence inspiring performance.

Every now and then however, those underage thespians impress. Sometimes, it’s pure dramatic talent, while other kids are simply likable enough to warrant survivor status. Upon watching the mediocre prequel Amityville II: The Possession, I realized that as much as I was craving the inevitable massacre, I wanted to spare the two youngest moppets, whose only cinematic crime was having an easily possessible older brother and an NRA enthusiast of a father. For that, they didn't deserve to die. Plus, they were cute.

This week’s countdown is devoted to the best kid characters in horror. Note that I'm sticking with those on the “good” side, because it’s far too easy write a linguistic shrine to Rhoda Penmark. In other words, expect a slow and uninspired day of mine to feature a linguistic shrine to Rhoda Penmark.

5) Corey Feldman as Tommy Jarvis, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter

Remember when Corey Feldman was the brother you always wanted? A few years before he became the neighbor with great pot connections you wish would move upstairs and well before his semi-stardom as the slightly less annoying half of an uexceptionally unexceptional reality start couple you’d like to see exiled to a Battle Royale-esque Fox TV contest? Yeah, prior to puberty, Feldman was a unique presence onscreen, particularly when he played  the only memorable (and perhaps likable) character in a Friday the 13th film. As Tommy, Feldman was a resourceful Fangoria fan who knew a thing or two about monster hunting. His subsequent reincarnations--first as a disturbed teen and then as a bland grave-digging idiot--didn’t quite fulfill his alter ego’s destiny, but for once, Jason had a victim worth the chase and a slasher sequel rose above the Dead Teenager Genre. )

4)  Ivana Baquero as Ofelia, Pan’s Labyrinth

Guillermo Del Toro is a man of many talents, but much like a better-known American director soon to appear on this list, one of his most admirable strengths is his unique ability to direct children. The Devil’s Backbone features an entire orphanage of sympathetic pre-teens and Cronos has a perfectly cast (and totally adorable) little girl at its heart, but it’s Baquero‘s Ofelia who takes the mini-Oscar. Many child-starring films brand the main kids as supporting actors, but Ofelia is front and center throughout most of this horrific, historic fantasy. Whether she’s taking instructions from a CGI faun or standing up to her facsist stepfather, Ivana Baquero maintains a worldly dignity that transcends age.

3) Heather O'Rourke as Carol Ann, Poltergeist

Poltergiest is the perfect bargain horror film because there’s something scary for every audience. You may have outgrown your fear of that gumby-armed clown doll under the bed (although admit it: there’s no way you’ve outgrown your fear of that gumby-armed clown doll under the bed) but as an adult, the terror of losing your child suddenly takes on new and more terrifying implications. Cast Heather O’Rourke as the kidnappee in question and you can multiply that fear by a thousand Zelda Rubenstiens (but she’s small, so let's make it one thousand Zeldas standing on top of CraigT. Nelson’s shoulders). O’Rourke doesn’t do a whole lot in the first Spielbergian commandeered Hooper collaboration, but her angelic presence casts a deep and haunting mood over the the entire series. The tragedy of her young death amplifies this sadness so much that I find Part III unbearable to watch (plus, it’s a really bad movie).

2) Alex Vincent as Andy Barkley, Child’s Play

For quite a few years following my initial viewing, I ranked Child’s Play to be the most terrifying film of all time and attributed this declaration to two personal factors: 1) I was petrified of dolls and 2) I was six years old. Over time, I’ve slowly come to face just why Chucky was my boogeyman: his primary prey was Andy Barkley. Watching Child’s Play today, I’m struck by how vital Alex Vincent’s performance truly is. Observe his joy upon hugging that Good Guy the first time and you realize just how lonely a boy this fatherless tike has become, making Chucky’s turn so much more cruel. It’s one thing to crack the limbs of your irresponsible voodoo teacher or to fry the brain of a dubious child psychologist; it’s just pure evil to make a ice little boy cry.

1) Haley Joel Osment as Cole Sear, The Sixth Sense

Say what you want about the degeneration of M. Night Shayamalan as a filmmaker (are we throwing hives of killer bees? Because I should stretch first) but admit one fact: Haley Joel Osment’s performance as Cole Sear is heartbreaking. Playing the role of a dead-people-seeing outcast, Osment moves like a frightened deer and carries himself like an insomniac whose only moments of peace are nightmares Freddy Krueger would be scared to visit. The most terrifying scene comes early, as a cruel party prank places Cole in a locked closet with a raging ghost. When he finaly emerges, the look on 11 year-old Osment’s face is pure terror. Sure, he may have lost our sympathy in Pay It Forward and deserved a good mauling in The Country Bears , but Forrest Gump Jr. created a character that will always be worth a cuddly Bruce Willis's bodyguard defense.

So dear readers, which school-aged horror characters would you like to keep save from spirits, slashers, stranglers, and sadists?

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