There are two things you never do in Hollywood, unless it’s integral to the plot. First, never kill a pet. Unless said pet has turned evil (Cujo, Monkey Shines) or its death causes a significant character arc (John Wick), that beloved animal is going to survive the film. Even if it defies logic, such as the heroic jump from a fireball Boomer makes in Independence Day, studios shy away from hurting animals.
The second, more common rule involves the death of children. While teens – cognizant of sin and vice – are fair game, preteens and adolescents just can’t die. The studio will buck up against any hint of brutality toward a minor. A filmmaker has to go a long way to justify murdering a kid, particularly if the death is onscreen. A prestige picture or a wartime drama like Sophie’s Choice can get away with it, as it illustrates the atrocities of its subject matter.
Horror films tend to shy away from killing youngsters. Even the Friday the 13th franchise, full of young campers ripe for death, only kills the teen counsellors and adults, giving the kids a pass. Stephen King‘s coked-out directorial debut Maximum Overdrive has no problem steamrolling over a little league player until his head pops like a balloon full of cherry Kool Aid, but it did the film no favours at the box office (neither did the fact that the movie is truly terrible).
The MPAA used to threaten an immediate X rating if a child was killed. Today, it’s an NC-17. We live in a society where children as old as the ones onscreen are brutally shooting each other after helping themselves to their father’s arsenal. It seems a little more than hypocritical not to reflect that kind of hideous violence onscreen, as Gus Van Sant bravely did in Elephant.
Nevertheless, a child’s death can be a bit gratuitous. But some films were courageous, or brutal and morally reprehensible, enough to knock off a few little’uns. On occasion, their deaths are even fairly arbitrary. Here’s just a small sampling. Fair warning: Spoilers abound.
15. Pet Sematary (1989)
We’ve mentioned Stephen King earlier, and he’s a name that you’ll hear a lot when talking about child murder. The author doesn’t mind going there. For the May Lambert’s adaptation of his novel about an ancient Indian burial ground that brings the dead back to life (just down that “rowaaad” as Fred Gwynne says repeatedly throughout the film in his thick, laughable Maine accent).
The death in question is the impetus for the horrific events that occur in the film’s last two thirds, as the lead character’s son, Gage, wanders away from a family picnic. As he’s crossing the rowaaad, a large truck hits him dead-on, leaving only a child’s shoe. In fairness to the truck’s driver, he was distracted by The Ramones’ ridiculous song written specifically for the film.
14. The Blob (1988)
Chuck Russell’s update of the 1958 cult classic, co-scripted by a young Frank Darabont, is a pretty gruesome affair. The villain, a sentient goop from space, digests its victims through it’s translucent pink covering in great, gory detail. A subplot involves heroine Shawnee Smith’s younger brother Kevin and his friend sneaking in to a fictitious slasher film entitled Garden Tool Massacre. During the screening, the Blob attacks, recreating the panicked run from a theatre at the climax of the original. Smith, her brother and his friend are chased by the creature through the sewers. As they reach a way out, Kevin’s friend is suddenly pulled underwater, only to arise a half-digested mess.
13. Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)
Other countries seem to have different rules about child murder. This lesser known (but excellent) Spanish horror film finds a young couple trapped on an island inhabited by inexplicably psychopathic, murderous children. There’s some allusion to the cause of their madness being related to the effects war has had on youth, but its never clarified. At first reluctant to open fire on the youngsters, our hero Tom is soon gunning them down with a sub-machine gun.
As the police arrive, all they see is a grown man mass murdering children on the dock. Our hero, naturally, is shot down by police, who are then ironically murdered. The film closes on a group of the children, heading for the mainland, looking forward to finding new playmates.
12. Children of the Corn and its sequels (1984)
The problem with many Stephen King adaptations is the fact that many are based on stories no more than five or six pages, expanded to feature length. His worst adaptation to date, The Mangler, is 14 pages hardcover, yet Tobe Hooper’s film is nearly two hours long (and you feel those two hours).
Children of the Corn is a rather simple, fast paced story that unfolds over the course of a few hours. It involves a cult of murderous children who, at the age of 18, sacrifice themselves or older visitors to a mysterious God known only as He Who Walks Behind The Rows. The film, and story, open with a bitter couple driving on a desolate highway. A child wanders into the road and they seemingly strike him dead.
Upon further investigation, they learn his throat had been slit prior to the accident. The story ends with the children’s leader, Isaac, lowering the age of sacrifice to 17 as punishment. A few more incidents like this, they’ll be down to preteen years.
11. Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
Michael Dougherty’s excellent anthology film, inspired by the likes of old EC comic books and Tales From The Crypt, should be a Halloween staple if it’s not already. It’s a funny, breezy, scary ride. In the second story, principal Dylan Baker (known only for his disturbing characters, from his child molester in Happiness to his serial killer on The Good Wife) notices a young, overweight student knocking over pumpkins. He invites the young man to sit on his porch, discuss Halloween tradition and ritual, and have some candy. Soon, the young boy begins to choke, then cough up blood. After the boy falls down dead, Baker tries to dispose of the body, all the while putting off his own young son who is begging to decorate the pumpkin.
The pumpkin in question, we learn in the final twist, turns out to be the late kid’s head, Baker’s son eager to “do the eyes.” It sounds much more gruesome than it is and, like all the stories in this underrated film, plays out more blackly comic than horrific.
10. Jaws (1975)
The film that gave birth to the blockbuster broke one of its key rules within the first half hour, as young Alex Kintner pleads with his mother to allow him just five more minutes in the waters off Amity beach. He paddles out on a yellow float, kicking his legs to propel him further.
Then the film’s second shark attack occurs, as a fountain of red water shoots around the struggling child and his float until he is pulled completely under, never to be seen again. It was a bold move for a young Steven Spielberg and, as noted by critic Pauline Kael, he seems to revel in sadistic glee throughout the film’s runtime.
9. A History of Violence (2005)
David Cronenberg’s thoughtful meditation on violence in middle America also serves as a breathtaking action-thriller, but the director never lets you forget just how depraved American society can be. To prove it, he opens the film on a quiet, desolate motel, as two criminals prepare to check out. The younger of the two enters the lobby to refill a jug of water, revealing that his partner had already dispatched the manager and the maid.
A young girl opens a door behind the desk, squirming, clinging to her teddy bear and choking back tears. The criminal kneels to her level and puts his finger to his lips, quieting her as he pulls out a large revolver and fires a solitary shot.
8. It (1990)
Though Stephen King’s Loser’s Club all survive being terrorized by the being known only as It (or Tim Curry, if you like) until middle age, the same can’t be said for their relatives. As young, chronically ill Bill Denbrough lies in his bed, he gives a present to his younger brother Georgie: a boat made of folded newspaper, sealed with paraffin. Georgie immediately takes it out in the rain, sailing it down the street until it falls through a storm drain. While reaching for it, he meets Pennywise the Clown, who promises the young boy a balloon.
In the novel, Georgie’s death is much more gruesome than the three hour TV movie would allow – with his arm being torn clean off by Pennywise. As a result of the limits of TV at the time, all we see is Pennywise’s gaping, fanged maw pulling Georgie closer and closer. The scene, and many others in the film, is still effectively terrifying.
7. Dinocroc (2004)
Direct-to-DVD, Roger Corman schlock like this doesn’t really have standards that apply to Hollywood. So long as the film has nudity and violence – two things that always sell – Corman doesn’t really care about the film’s quality (despite mentoring Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante and Martin Scorsese). This particular mess of a film features the death of a 12-year-old Jake Thomas (of Lizzie McGuire fame), who is engulfed from below by the monster, leaving only his head.
6. Battle Royale (2000)
This Japanese film is a bleakly comedic violent romp set in a dystopian future in which young children are forced by the government to fight to the death on a remote island. The sole survivor is the only member of the class to be allowed to continue living. As one can imagine, there’s plenty of child-on-child killing, involving poison, shootouts and stabbings. It’s essentially Lord of the Flies on steroids.
Critics of The Hunger Games franchise have often accused author Suzanne Collins of blatantly ripping off the novel on which Royale was based. Collins claims she’d never heard of the novel, and her editor encouraged her not to read it while working on her series.
5. The Untouchables (1987)
Brian De Palma‘s ultra-stylized adaptation of the TV show relates a highly fictionalized account of Elliot Ness’ efforts to take down Chicago kingpin Al Capone. It’s often unapologetically violent, such as when Capone (Robert De Niro), beats an employee to death with a baseball bat at a large dinner table for insubordination. To display just how rife with crime the streets of Chicago were during prohibition, screenwriter David Mamet opens the film with a shopkeeper refusing to buy bootlegged beer from one of Capone’s associates. The associate leaves, seemingly forgetting a large suitcase. A young girl – replete in adorable pigtails – runs after the man, shouting he forgot his case. The child, and along with the rest of the shop is suddenly ripped by a large explosion.
4. Robocop 2 (1990)
Writer Frank Miller is nothing if not nihilistic. His script for Robocop 2, as well as his work in the Batman universe, display Miller as his most antagonistic, cruel and slightly insane. As a new drug known as Nuke floods the streets of Detroit, its distributor Cain (Tom Noonan) works to consolidate crime along with his shockingly young apprentice, Hob.
After Cain is killed in a car chase/shootout with Robocop, his brain is transplanted into what the evil company OCP hopes to be a new and upgraded crime stopper more powerful than our hero. This is entirely logical, as putting an evil mind in a killer robot couldn’t possibly go wrong.
As Hob meets with Detroit’s mayor to pay him off so that Nuke can be sold without police interruption, Robocop 2/Cain is sent in to intervene. The robot kills everyone in sight, including young Hob, who is brutally shot down.
Miller continued to work on Robocop 3, which caused him to retire from film until his equally nihilistic work was faithfully adapted by Robert Rodriguez.
3. Frankenstein (1931)
James Whale’s unfaithful adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel was made shortly before Hollywood enforced the Hays code, which restricted villains prevailing over heroes, the police shown as corrupt and cruelty to children or animals. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Frankenstein’s monster (Boris Karloff) attempts to play with a rosy cheeked young girl by the lake.
He misunderstands the idea of playing, and throws the little girl in the water, who drowns due to her inability to swim. Were the film made just three years later, this scene would have most certainly been excised.
2. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
John Carpenter‘s first major film didn’t fare well with American audiences, but was wildly praised overseas. Like many Carpenter films, it’s a loose remake of the Howard Hawks classic Rio Bravo. Even in his horror, Carpenter manages to work in at least a scene involving Bravo‘s siege scenario. The scene in question is now infamous for its brutality. A little girl buys an ice cream cone from a truck. The driver lives up to modern Ice Cream Truck men’s reputation, speaks with a gang warlord. Their conversation gets heated and the warlord kills the driver, just as the little girl approaches the truck to complain about receiving the wrong flavour. The warlord, without hesitation, raises his weapon and shoots the young girl in the chest.
The MPAA was outraged, threatening the film with an X rating if the scene was not taken out. Carpenter presented the film to the ratings board without the scene, seemingly satisfying them enough to grant the film an R. Upon the film’s release, however, he had the scene was re-inserted.
1. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)
For the third entry in the Halloween franchise, Carpenter intended to move away from his trademark killer Michael Meyers (who he had definitively killed off in Halloween 2). He wanted the franchise to continue as an anthology, with a fresh, new Halloween story every time. For the first attempt, he hired science fiction screenwriter Nigel Kneale to create this macabre tale of Halloween mask company Silver Shamrock, run by the maniacal Conal Cochran.
Cochran plans to murder the world’s children (for unspecific reasons other than he’s evil) with a piece of technology he got from Stonehenge (because…Stonehenge is evil?), activating a chip set to go off on Halloween at midnight in every mask across the country. Any child wearing a mask will be gruesomely killed, their heads melted, pouring out cockroaches (again, this is a very confusing film).
The film climaxes with our hero, a womanizing doctor who has uncovered the plot, begging TV stations to pull the ad that will activate the murder masks. Though some stations do pull the ad, it one station still runs it, ensuring a gruesome mini-genocide.