Short Reviews: “Bad Seeds and Holy Terrors: The Child Villains of Horror Film” by Dominic Lennard

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I opened my review of The Bad Seed with the following words: “So if further evidence was needed that all children everywhere are evil, enter Rhoda Penmark and The Bad Seed”. I’d intended the quip as a pithy little one, relying more on my curmudgeonly ways than any reflection of actual children, but it was still an easy one to make – do we in fact find children a bit creepy and evil?

It’s a subject that’s considered, addressed, refuted, supported, reinterpreted and discussed all throughout Dominic Lennard’s Bad Seeds and Holy Terrors: The Child Villains of Horror Film. Charting the depictions of delinquent all the way through to monstrous children in film from (roughly) the post-war era to the modern day, Lennard’s work doesn’t so much say “yes” or “no” to the question, but considers all ways of considering it.

He puts forward multiple readings and interpretations of a wide array of iconic child-focussed horror films (The Bad Seed, The Exorcist, The Village of the Damned to name but a few) but also asks the reader to put them in their broader context. Do we actually find children creepy, or is it a reflection of our own assumptions of childhood and societal discourses of innocence that are so easily corrupted and turned against us? Is innocence even a realistic concept, or do we rely on it to channel our own suppositions about childhood into something more meaningful? What is it about a child villain that’s so uniquely unsettling?

Over 9 separate chapters, each with its own focus, Bad Seeds and Holy Terrors presents a multitude of cogent arguments and theories on how we can read child villainy in film, and what our continued fascination with these films might say about us. Lennard takes into account the social context of each film’s creation and release and manages to chart a journey through the last near-century of cinema that not only provides a fascinating insight into the discussed films, but (for me at least) suggests that the social paranoias society has had around its children repeat and take the same form over time.

Of particular note is that this is a piece of academic writing that is incredibly accessible. Although familiarity with the films helps, Lennard is kind enough to provide enough context and synopsis of the films he discusses for the unfamiliar reader. Most importantly though, is that there’s not a wasted word and no needless adjectives to impress. This is not a piece of film writing to prove a point of how good the author is at writing about film – it’s instead a particularly well-written piece about a topic that is normally left to assumptions – either children are creepy or completely innocent. It’s well worth a read for anyone who has even a mild interest in horror cinema, and having waded through impenetrable academia for years, its light touch while still providing a wealth of insight and engaging material is very much welcomed.

 

Bad Seeds and Holy Terrors is available through Amazon and published by SUNY PRESS

 

Now for some full disclosure: Dominic Lennard is a friend of mine and former lecturer at UTAS. He generously provided me with a copy of his book knowing my interest in the subject matter, but didn’t request a review and certainly hasn’t commissioned anything from me (and I don’t have a wide enough readership for that to be worth anything). If my bias is up for question, know that I simply wouldn’t have written anything at all if I wasn’t genuinely impressed with it. Also, it’s really weird referring to someone you know by their surname to indicate authorship. That is all.

Babycall (a.k.a. The Monitor) (2011)

It’s not uncommon for a film to leave me a bit ambiguous in my feelings towards it. There are many movies out there that I have strong feelings about in opposition to each other (I genuinely think Funny Games is a masterpiece of satire while at the same time being an arrogant and hypocritical film). It’s not unusual for me to see a film and get all Schrödinger on it, thinking two completely different things about it at the same time. This is the first film in a long time however, where I actually can’t tell either way.

Babycall (or The Monitor, in its official English title, though I see little wrong with calling it Babycall) tells the story of Anna, an emotionally frail woman who moves into a new apartment as part of a witness-protection program to escape her abusive husband, who also tried to kill their son, Anders. Anna has become an incredibly overbearing mother, and the social workers managing her and Anders tell her quite firmly that Anders needs to sleep in his own room, away from Anna. To ease her mind while she sleeps, Anna buys a baby monitor (the titular babycall) so she can hear if anything goes wrong.

Then, one night, Anna wakens to hear the sounds of a boy screaming, seemingly pleading for his life. She rushes into Anders’ room, only to find him peacefully asleep, and it becomes clear that the babycall has had its signal crossed with another one somewhere in the rather large apartment building.

At this point, this type of movie would ordinarily become an investigative thriller, as Anna tries to hunt down the truth behind what was happening, as well as dealing with the problem of her abusive ex-husband trying to get custody of Anders once more, and the arrival of Anders’ mysterious (and sinister) new friend.

Here’s the trailer, and if it intrigues you, don’t read the rest of this review, as spoils a great deal of the mystery in the film.

 

The frustrating thing about the film is that, for focussing so much on the babycall and the crossed wires, it turns out to have little to do with the outcome of the film. And by that, I also mean that the film spends very little time bothering with the mystery of who was screaming.

The real meat of the story is actually centred on Anna, and her inability to let Anders go. She very, very reluctantly lets him sleep in a different room, and even locks him in the house once he’s home from school – but clearly as a response to the abuse the two have suffered – she’s not creepy and domineering, she’s overprotective and reactive.

When she hears the crossed lines on the babycall, it’s not a catalyst for her to get out more, nor does it begin an investigation into the mystery á la Rachel’s investigation of the videotape in The Ring. Instead, it just makes her backslide from the small steps towards progress she’d been making with Anders (once she hears the screams, she moves him into her bed again).

There are a few other plot threads of varying significance about the film.

First and foremost is the character of Helge, a nice man who seems steeped in misery. His mother is in palliative care at the hospital, and it is Helge who sells Anna the babycall, and instantly takes a liking to her. There’s an awkward sort of courtship between the two, hindered by Anna’s lack of concern for appearing sociable, and Helge’s reminiscences that Anna reminds him a lot of his mother.

However, the two do manage a certain amount of chemistry, and it means that the awkwardness of their scenes is endearing – you hope they’ll sort each other out, rather than making you cringe.

In addition, Anders brings home a friend who is very odd; he’s quiet and withdrawn like Anders, but there’s a definite cold and sinister quality about him. He very quickly establishes himself as an obstacle between Anders and Anna, even shutting her out of Anders’ room.

There’s also the social workers, Ole and Grete, who sympathise with Anna and her plight, but make it clear that their priority is Anders and his wellbeing, which adds to the stress Anna suffers.

And then there’s Anna herself – it’s clear from very early on that she is not a well woman. She’s scared and frightened at all times, not least of all when the safety of Anders might even remotely be called into question. It also becomes apparent as the film goes on that Anna is not entirely there in her mind, that she’s clearly got some things hidden away from the rest of the world, and this works well to make her an unreliable protagonist.

So how does the film play out? Who was screaming on the babycall? Well, let me sum up:

We never know!

Like I said before, the film focuses much more on Anna and Anders, and ignores its actual premise. Whether or not this is a good thing, I can’t decide. As the film goes along, and it seems more and more to the people in the film like Anna is abusing Anders (we know she isn’t) it becomes a sort of “rage-against-The-Man” story – the babycall plotline is forgotten in favour of a story that focuses on Anna keeping custody of Anders.

This storyline becomes complicated by the arrival of Anders’ friend who is creepy and off-putting, as well as the interference of Ole the social worker. Grete quits, and Ole quickly becomes a predatory presence, implying that if Anna doesn’t become his to shag whenever he wants, he’ll arrange for Anders to end up with the abusive ex-husband instead of her.

Also in the mix is Helge, the guy who sells Anna the babycall. He takes an instant liking to her, and sees a lot of parallels between his own relationship with his mother in Anna and Anders. This becomes problematic, though, when Anders’ friend meets Helge, pretending to be Anders (Anna is in the kitchen at the time) showing a whole bunch of bruises all over his body, saying that Anna “does to me what your mother did to you.” This freaks Helge out, and casts even more doubt on Anna’s credibility.

It all comes to a head when Ole arrives one night, and tells Anna that her ex-husband is on his way to collect Anders from her. Anna, panicking, stabs him – first in the chest, then in the neck.

Then, in a frenzy of fear, she gathers Anders up in her arms, and jumps out a window, falling to the ground far, far below.

We then find out (through the film briefly switching to Helge as the protagonist) that Anders had died two years previously, in a murder-suicide committed by the husband. Anna had never been able to cope with this loss and believed that he was still alive, and misinterpreted a janitor as a threatening social worker.

And after a brief suggestion of Anna and Anders being reunited in death (although the film doesn’t make it clear whether or not she’s died, so maybe it’s a visual representation of her being able to move on with her life), the film ends, leaving a million questions.

REVIEW

I honestly can’t tell on this one!

The one thing I can safely say is that Noomi Rapace is excellent as Anna – but I wouldn’t have expected anything less, as she’s an excellent actress. She conveys the skittishness, fear, concern and instability of Anna perfectly, letting the character become more and more vulnerable/unreliable as the film needs with perfect control. One feels that in the hands of a less capable actress, Anna would seem like the villain of the film, but that’s not the case here.

Kristoffer Joner as Helge is also praiseworthy, creating a very deep character who’s obviously steeped in misery, but still trying to get on with his life as best he can.

The two resident creepy children of the film are a bit of a misfire to me – Vetle Qvenild Werring as Anders is an okay performance, but the character is rather dull; yes certain plot twists might explain why, but I’d still like a bit more to engage with.

Torkil Johannes Swensen Høeg as Anders’ friend (literally the character’s name) is a further misfire, creating a tedious presence on screen. Every time he turned up I wanted the film to delete his scenes – harsh on a child actor, perhaps, but it’s true. Both characters suffer from being underwritten to a fault.

Which is a fair comment to apply to the film overall. It’s underwritten. It’s not a film that enigmatically leaves some things ambiguous, it’s not trying to let the audience piece some things together themselves, it’s sorely, sorely underwritten.

Firstly, as I mentioned before, the whole “baby monitor picking up odd transmissions” is barely followed up on – the most we see is Anna trying to figure out what apartment the noise came from, as well as two giant red herrings, wherein we see a random neighbour in a carpark putting a corpse-sized plastic bag into a van, and a brief scene where a rough-looking man goes into the store Helge works at, also with the same problem of the babycall picking things up from other monitors – he adds a line at the end of this scene that suggests he’ll be hunting down any potential witnesses, only this is never followed up on.

Furthermore, the big twist that Anders has been dead all along doesn’t make a world of sense. It’s easy to see that this was where they were heading – I’d already taken note of a few shots where Anna was seen sitting across from Anders, then another character would see Anna, but Anders would be conveniently blocked from view; also that every time another character came over to their house, Anders would be asleep in his room – but then I thought I was jumping to conclusions when there was a scene at his school, with the principal and teachers thinking that Anna was abusing him. But no, turns out he was dead all along, apparently, though the film doesn’t explain what was happening to Anna while she was in the school, but also doesn’t provide much of an alternative (Ole turned out to be a janitor – what did the school turn out to be?)

There’s a vague suggestion through the film that Anna is being haunted by Anders, and that Anders’ friend is another ghost who wants to move on. The significant parts here involve a drawing and a lake. Anders draws a picture of the apartment building, and Anna suggests he also draw the nearby lake, which Anders is unaware of. When she takes him through the woods and to the lake, it turns out to be nothing more than a parking lot. Later on, Anna is in the woods again, and sees the lake, only this time she sees a man walking down with Anders’ friend, and drowning him. She dives in to find the body, only to have the film cut to Anna in a hospital, being told by a nurse that she was found in a parking lot, but with wet clothes. No explanation is given as to how her clothes got wet, and it’s never entirely confirmed whether or not there is an actual lake.

At the films end, once we switch to Helge’s perspective, we see the drawing again, only with a body included in the woods, which leads to him finding the body of Anders’ friend, and possibly explains why he was able to see Anders’ friend at all. Furthermore, it’s entirely likely that it was his murder Anna heard on the Babycall – which would make sense, but again the film doesn’t let us know either way.

The film clearly takes a lot of its cues from the J-Horror genre of films, but the payoff is a bit muddled – J-Horror films tend to leave a lot of questions, and also tend to be slightly mind-screwwy, but there’s also a certain logic to the madness that helps you piece together a resolution. In Babycall, the resolution is that the credits roll, and little more than that is made clear to the audience.

It’s as equally possible that the film is actually about a conspiracy of child murderers and that Anders is entirely real, but that Anna’s powerful ex-husband was determined to completely ruin her reputation or credibility and merely created a quick coverup once Helge arrives on the scene.

It’s a truly odd film, and an unusual experience to watch, but I honestly can’t deliver an opinion of its quality.

Despite pointing out its logical flaws, it does create this atmosphere of tension and intrigue, and you really do want to know what’s going on. The scene where Anna hears the babycall interference is truly startling, and I really liked the oddly-muted courtship between Anna and Helge – there’s a lot to like about the movie, but I don’t know if I do.

It’s a good film that needed a lot more attention to its script before going into production. Probably. Or it’s a bad film that’s saved by two strong performances and decent character work. Maybe.

I think I lean towards it being a mediocre film with good performances, because I have to assume that if I can’t tell if a film is good or bad, than it hasn’t created a strong enough impression, which is a bad thing in the end.

But really, this is one, more than usual, that might just have to be left up to the viewer. At the very least, see it for Rapace’s excellent work.