Sunday, November 22, 2009

Twinkle Twinkle Little Sociopath

The surprisingly fertile sub-genre that is Evil Children Unleashed could inspire any horror fan to pump out a few kids of his or her own. It’s not that we long to suffer death or insanity at the pudgy little fingers of adorably twisted spawn; we just really like watching them work.
The beauty of Joshua, aside from it being an eerie little thriller, is that it’s ready made for a double bill. Play it before the more recent evil child-mothered-by-a-slowly-slipping-into-madness-Vera Farmiga and you’ve got a good four hour block of cheerily twisted tube tying/vasectomy-getting inspiration (unless, of course, you agree that Rhoda Penmark earned that penmanship medal).
Quick Plot: New money New Yorkers Abby (Farminga) and Brad Cairn (Sam Rockwell) welcome the birth of their angelic daughter while their 9 year old son, Joshua, slowly starts to reveal subtle signs of sociopathy. School hamsters die. Baby Lily goes from sweet to colicky. A stuffed panda bear is gutted and yuppie parents suffer through a talent show more painful than the early rounds of American Idol. Something is indeed rotten in the state of the Upper East Side.

As if Joshua’s blossoming bloodthirstiness and Lily’s increasing volume wasn’t enough, there’s also Mom’s manic depression to deal with, an illness that seemed to have been under control for some time before the actions of the film. Nana doesn’t help matters by using her babysitting as an opportunity to convert Joshua to Born Again Christianity, while Brad struggles to hold his big bucks executive investment job under the surprisingly humorless tutelage of Michael McKean. The only stable presence is Abby’s fantastically wonderful brother Ned, the kind of guy who buys you Broadway tickets, gives your kid free piano lessons, and sips a homemade martini while talking you down from psychosis. 
A side note: everybody should have an Uncle Ned in their life.

Ever so slowly, the Cairn family descends into dysfunction. It’s an oddly paced fall made even more unsettling by the cold sterility that seems to follow them in their expensive NY high-rise. Clearly, director George Ratliff (he of the fine documentary Hell House) found some inspiration in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, adding minor homages with a modern feel in images like Lily’s baby stroller (updated with a pink fleece canopy). It helps that Joshua remains restrained, both as a character and film. There are no supernatural explanations or even feats of unbelievable strength committed by the titular bad seed. He’s simply too smart, too misunderstood, and too far over the line to come back.
High Points
As a film, Joshua is as much about its New York setting as it is a twisted little boy. Ratliff does an excellent job utilizing actual landmarks, like Central Park’s Alice In Wonderland statue, and stepping inside common city institutions like elite private school parent conferences

The film’s final song, provided by the Dave Matthews Band, is as haunting in the last scene as it is when replayed immediately over the end credits
Rockwell does a fine job as not the brightest dad on the high tax bracket block, a man trying in vein to click with a son so completely different from his own relaxed persona
Low Points
Much like The Omen remake, Joshua’s biggest misfire comes in the all-too-obviously evil of its banged villain. There’s never any real mystery to Joshua’s intentions, in part because young actor Jacob Kogan (who is delightful in the behind-the-scenes extras) never gets the chance to play believably nice. A little more ambiguity would have added a good deal more suspense.

Lessons Learned
A bad lullaby can literally be sickening
There’s really no reason to save a home movie of your firstborn screaming his head off and his mother going, quite literally, crazy. Isn’t there a baseball game worth recording on this spare VHS?
Ancient Egyptians had a groovily hungry god named Apep who may have been related to the Sarlac Pit
Any character that refers to public bathrooms as “the little girl’s room” have and deserve very bad things coming their way
Child abuse can be instantly diagnosed with one crayon drawing
Joshua is simultaneously familiar and unique. On one hand, we’ve seen countless incarnations of cute little psychos dining off the kids’ menu, but Ratliff’s style and some nifty characterizations of the Cairns makes for an effective little film. The DVD is loaded with extras, including a commentary and interviews. If you enjoy these kind of creeping horrific dramas, then Joshua isn’t a bad investment if found at a decent price. I wasn’t completely overwhelmed by the film, but I was absolutely taken in by its slow unfolding and truly haunted by its final scene. Give it a try when you’re in the mood for something slow, then crank up the trash with an Orphan followup.

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