Kids say the darndest things — we all knew it even before Art Linkletter and Bill Cosby turned wisdom from the mouths of babes into TV comedy gold. But some of Hollywood’s most memorable tots have also done the darndest things, and by “darndest” we mean “illegal, immoral, and downright terrifying.” This week’s Orphan — starring the undoubtedly sweet-in-real-life Isabelle Fuhrman as an adoptee lacking in the sugar, spice, and/or everything nice department — adds to the rich cinematic legacy of kids behaving badly, so we thought now would be an excellent time to take a look back at 15 of the creepiest youngsters in film.
With such a deep pool of junior misanthropists to draw from, we’ve undoubtedly left some of your favorites off the list — such as the pants-wettingly menacing twins from The Shining, whose awful, awful chorus of “come play with us forever” would have been enough to vault them near the head of the class if they hadn’t been, you know, dead when they uttered it. But even sticking solely with the realm of the living, we’ve been able to assemble quite the rogue’s gallery for you, encompassing tiny terrors both well-remembered (Samara from The Ring) and not (the bloodthirsty infant immortalized in Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive). They come from films with wildly divergent Tomatometers, but they all have one thing in common: You wouldn’t want to babysit them. Time for Total Recall!
Compared to a lot of other kids on this list, Role Models‘ Ronnie Shields (Bobb’e J. Thompson) is relatively benign — rather than a genuine troublemaker, he’s really just a kid who desperately needs a father figure, and who has the misfortune of being saddled with an unrepentant skirt-chaser like Anson Wheeler (Seann William Scott) instead. Still, Ronnie deserves inclusion here, if for no other reason than the times he hauls off and slaps Wheeler in his smug face. Every actor worth his salt has a unique specialty, and Scott’s is playing characters who really need to get what’s coming to them; Thompson’s on the other hand, is apparently playing pint-sized, foul-mouthed terrors who are only too happy to deliver said comeuppances. Let’s dance, Ben Affleck!
Spoiling a child, while it may make you feel like a better parent in the short term, rarely produces desirable results in the long run. Case in point: “Master” Eric Bates, the unbelievably obnoxious young heir of multi-mega magnate U.S. Bates (Jackie Gleason). Played memorably by cinematic 1980s wonder brat Scott Schwartz, little Eric is so accustomed to getting everything he wants from his father that he actually demands to have — and gets — ownership of a person (played by a perfectly incredulous Richard Pryor). Of course, his plans for his new toy aren’t completely benign; he plays a series of pranks on his poor houseguest (including tricking him into getting nibbled by piranhas) before recruiting him to help expose the elder Bates’ unsavory business practices. See, parents? Give your kids whatever they want, and eventually they might just end up coming after you.
A girl whose bad behavior was so legendary that her name was taken by a female-fronted, punk-pop-playing alternative rock band in the 1990s, Veruca Salt has made her way to the big screen twice — and both times, her epic selfishness and greed have sent her plummeting to her apparent doom at the bottom of a garbage incinerator, although not before she wreaked havoc on the lives of everyone in her immediate vicinity. She may not have had the homicidal urges indulged by many of her peers on this list, but with virtually unlimited wealth and astonishingly indulgent parents on her side, there’s no telling how Veruca might have ended up had she not made the mistake of angering a room full of Oompa Loompas.
Any baby who speaks with Tone-Loc’s voice has got to be trouble, and Pee-Wee — the diaper-wearing youngest of Bébé’s Kids — is no exception. In fact, the closing moments of this animated cult classic capture the incorrigible toddler as he sends the entire city of Las Vegas plummeting into a blackout. (It’s sort of the city’s fault, relying on a single plug for all of its power, but still — naughty Pee-Wee.) The two elder Kids aren’t any better; in fact, over the course of the film, the clan manages to essentially destroy an entire amusement park as they repeatedly foil the efforts of their unwilling temporary guardian (a character inspired, like the rest, by the late comedian Robin Harris) to find someone who doesn’t scream “Run! It’s Bébé’s Kids!” when they come into view.
Adopting a child is inarguably one of the most noble things a person can do, and there are never enough prospective parents to match the number of kids who need a loving home — which is why 1990’s Problem Child was doubtless greeted with gasps of horror and revulsion at orphanages all over the world when it arrived in theaters. Despite giving the appearance of an innocent redheaded boy with an adorably grown-up fashion sense, little Junior (Michael Oliver) quickly revealed himself to be a pint-sized psychopath whose penchant for bowties is actually a sartorial tribute to a notorious serial killer. In the end, the movie’s biggest lesson may have been that you should never hire an adoption agent who sounds like Gilbert Gottfried — or it might simply have been that audiences like watching parents suffer on the big screen, because Problem Child did well enough to justify a pair of sequels. (Bonus fun fact: Oliver’s mom-slash-manager was sued by Universal after Problem Child 2 wrapped, in a lawsuit — which the studio eventually won — alleging she extorted a raise for her son. Life imitates art!)
Distrust the psychiatric profession? You’ll get a bloody kick out of David Cronenberg’s The Brood, in which a nutball psychotherapist (played to the hilt by Oliver Reed) invents a technique, called “psychoplasmics,” which allows patients to turn their negative emotions into fun stuff like bruises, cancer, or — in the case of one particularly troubled young woman — a pack of fast-growing, bloodthirsty mutants with a bizarre psychic connection to their mother. It may not have been quite the “film so terrifying it will devastate you totally” that the filmmakers advertised, but as with any Cronenberg joint worth its salt, it still contains plenty of hands-over-eyes moments (or, in the case of the infamous afterbirth scene, hand-over-mouth). Released 30 years ago, The Brood had an ending that would have led beautifully into a sequel. Perhaps it’s time, Mr. Cronenberg?
If, at any point in the late 1980s or early 1990s, you ever looked at Macaulay Culkin and thought, “That kid seriously weirds me out,” then 1993’s The Good Son was pretty much made for you. Culkin stars here as Henry, the innocent-seeming 12-year-old who helps his cousin Mark (Elijah Wood) cope with the grief of his mother’s death by introducing him to a wide variety of sociopathic activities, including using a crossbow to murder the neighbor’s dog and tossing a dummy over a freeway overpass to cause a huge accident. Though the adults in their lives initially dismiss Mark’s panicked warnings as delusional, the creepy depths of Henry’s personality are eventually discovered by Henry’s mom — who narrowly avoids taking a son-assisted plunge off a cliff for her trouble. If you’ve been under the mistaken impression that The Nutcracker was the most messed-up thing Culkin had done onscreen, you need to see him in action here.
Like most parents, Stephen King has suffered moments when he thought his children’s lives were in danger; unlike most of them, however, he used that fear as the inspiration for Pet Sematary, the story of an Indian burial ground with the power to resurrect dead loved ones…sort of, anyway. Being brought back to life has a tendency to disagree with people, as grieving father Louis Creed discovers after he digs up the corpse of his young son Gage and moves it to the burial ground: Gage comes back with a nasty sense of humor and a thirst for blood that forces Louis to employ some rather strict disciplinary measures. Not that the kid didn’t have it coming, given that he’d just murdered his mother and the kindly old next-door neighbor. Toddlers are adorable, even when they’re getting into trouble…but undead toddlers who reek of dirt, practice matricide, and mutilate the elderly? They’re just plain scary.
Thinking of taking fertility drugs, ladies? You might want to check in with producer/director/writer Larry Cohen first. Cohen, the mastermind behind the 1974 cult classic It’s Alive, wondered what might happen if a mother went from taking the pill to using baby-makin’ medicine — and the result was the seemingly indestructible little maniac that inspired the tagline “There’s only one thing wrong with the Davis baby…IT’S ALIVE.” Though initially a flop, Cohen’s tale of a shrieking, sewer-crawling infant that kicks off its killing spree immediately after being born became a surprise hit three years later. Cohen, no dummy, went on to release a pair of sequels: 1978’s It Lives Again (“The It’s Alive baby is back…only now there are three of them”) and 1987’s too-good-to-be-true It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (“They do something worse than kill. They multiply”). Sadly, the new Bijou Phillips-led remake is bypassing theaters and going directly to video, but that can’t take away from the original’s delightfully cheesy legacy.
Of all the things that have ever led human cultures to freak out about outsiders, “They’re after our women” is at or near the top of the list — a fear adroitly exploited by 1960’s Village of the Damned, in which every post-pubescent woman in the quaint British burg of Midwich is mysteriously impregnated by an unseen alien force. That’s freaky enough, but to make matters worse, the immaculately conceived progeny turn out to be a bunch of glowing-eyed freaks whose slightly bulbous heads house brains capable of reading minds, bending wills, and — according to the film’s haunting final shot — surviving an explosion strong enough to demolish a building. So great was the children’s power that they were able to force John Carpenter to direct a remake in 1995 that, despite the combined star power of Christopher Reeve, Kirstie Alley, and Mark Hammill, was unable to gross more than $9.5 million during its brief theatrical run. Terrifying!
One of cinema’s original junior sociopaths, little Rhoda Penmark delivered a resounding, pigtailed blow against the “nurture” side of the nature vs. nurture debate by using her peaceful, well-adjusted home life as a cover for cheerfully offing anyone unfortunate enough to get in her way — whether it’s the classmate who won the penmanship medal Rhoda wanted or the janitor who threatens to rat her out, no one was safe from her adorable blonde wrath. Eventually revealed as the granddaughter of a serial killer, Rhoda was allowed to survive in William March’s 1954 novel — an ending that wouldn’t have flown in the Hollywood of 1956, where the Hays Code convinced filmmakers it would be more appropriate to electrocute her with a lightning strike (and then haul her out for a spanking over the closing credits). Eli Roth briefly toyed with the idea of helming a Bad Seed remake, which surely would have dispensed with such prudish morality; alas, that idea seems to have gone the way of Rhoda’s poor victims.
We’ve all heard the expression “kids are animals” countless times, but few children have had the opportunity to prove it as spectacularly as the gang of plane crash survivors who turn from civilized British schoolboys (or, in the case of the 1990 remake, American military school students) into murderous, pig-decapitating goons who reward kindness with violence, prey on the weak, and basically pull off every rotten stunt you tried to get away with while the yard duty was distracted during recess in grade school. Though they aren’t as much fun as some of their counterparts on this list — swapping out sensationalistic violence for sociological subtext is such a buzzkill — they’re arguably the most important, as their id-feeding actions have reverberated in countless books, films, and television series.
With all the movies his books have inspired, it’s somewhat surprising that the Stephen King story that’s spawned the most sequels (so far, anyway) is Children of the Corn. Culled from a 1978 short story, this 1984 feature, starring Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton, was critically derided and only a modest box office success — and yet it’s gone on to launch no fewer than six sequels, with a reboot reportedly on the way. Why, you ask? Simple: Few things in life are more horrifying than a town whose residents are all 18 or younger, especially if they happen to fancy using scythes and pray to a hulking demonic entity known only as He Who Walks Behind the Rows. It’s almost enough to make you want to check yourself into a retirement community, isn’t it?
So evil she started driving her mother insane while she was still in the womb, The Ring‘s Samara Morgan (or Sadako Yamamura, if you prefer the original Japanese films) makes up for her generally quiet demeanor with a battery of supernatural gifts that include the ability to murder via VHS, the ability to embark on a murderous rampage despite being entombed in a well, and the power to scare the bejeesus out of scores of American filmgoers simply by covering her face with her hair, lurching out of said well, and whispering “everyone will suffer.” Though apparently locked in her watery tomb for good at the end of 2005’s The Ring Two, Samara is set to reappear in The Ring Three in 2011. Throw out your VCRs!
We have a lot of rotten kids on this list, but The Omen‘s Damien Thorn takes the cake, for two reasons: First, his cinematic reign of terror extended through two sequels and a 2006 remake; Second — and here’s the kicker — he’s the Antichrist. It bears mentioning that little Damien wasn’t really aware of his dark destiny as a child; many of the grisly deaths that befell his enemies in the first two installments of the trilogy were carried out on his behalf, either by unseen means (such as the nanny who rapturously hangs herself on Damien’s fifth birthday) or through various proxies (steel spikes, plates of glass, foul-tempered crows, et cetera). In fact, it isn’t until he’s 13 that Damien discovers he’s been branded by the Mark of the Beast — at which point, following a little soul-searching, he cheerfully assumes his birthright and grows up into Sam Neill (which sort of explains 1997’s Event Horizon). The franchise took an unfortunate detour into made-for-TV territory after its third chapter, but the remake’s $100 million-plus worldwide gross would seem to indicate that young Mr. Thorn may yet have a few filmic prophecies left to fulfill.
Finally, for those who don’t want their kids to be little psychopaths, we leave you with some musical advice from Crosby, Stills & Nash: