In the brand new supernatural horror film “The Innocents,” that monster is a preteen named Ben (Sam Ashraf), and his gasp-inducing act early within the film is a touch of the sins to come back by his, and other, little hands.
“We still prefer to think that children are pure angels,” Eskil Vogt, the film’s writer-director, said in a recent interview over video. “I feel we’d like to face that the alternative is true.”
Ben, who lives in a towering Oslo apartment complex, isn’t the one kid there with psychic powers. When young Ida (Rakel Lenora Flottum), her autistic older sister, Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), and their mother and father move into the constructing, Anna miraculously regains her ability to talk. Anna and a neighbor girl named Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), who can hear thoughts, team as much as call on their powers for (mostly) peaceful ends, flying under the radar of their clueless parents.
But Ben, a bullied boy raised by a distant mom, struggles with a much more sinister power he’s not equipped to handle, and the implications are deadly and heartbreaking.
A movie of icy dread, “The Innocents” unnervingly explores how children could be each uncorrupted and cruel, a paradox that may have deep emotional repercussions that linger well past the playground years. The young characters don’t query their otherworldly powers, nor do they fully comprehend the responsibility that comes with them. But they know enough not to inform their parents.
Vogt was no different. On vacation as a child, he remembers using an air gun to shoot a sea gull in flight; he saw the bullet make impact, however the bird didn’t fall. He kept it from his parents.
“I remember walking around that day and going to bed that night considering that this sea gull was dying slowly in agony somewhere due to me,” he said.
Vogt said he drew on that and other fraught childhood decisions as he made “The Innocents.” The film (in theaters and on demand) arrives just months after he and his friend and longtime collaborator, the director Joachim Trier, shared an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay for his or her humanist dramedy “The Worst Person within the World.”
In a separate video interview, Trier said if there’s a through line between each movies, it’s how Vogt uses “form and visuality to make something that’s value showing on an enormous screen.” If the terrors in “The Innocents” are more pernicious than sensational, Trier said it’s the product of Vogt’s deep affection for the movies of Alain Resnais (“Hiroshima Mon Amour”) and other formalist cinema of the ’60s. “He’s hard core about that,” Trier said.
Slow-burn horror, too. In 2014, Vogt wrote and directed the moody thriller “Blind,” a couple of paranoid sightless woman. Three years later he and Trier co-wrote Trier’s film “Thelma,” about a school student with telekinetic powers.
A horror movie fan, Vogt said he was drawn to the movies of David Cronenberg, especially the devilish man-child movie “The Brood” (1979), but in addition to Wolf Rilla’s “Village of the Damned” (1960), with what he called its “weird and special” kids.
Vogt said he also looked no further than his lounge and his two children, ages 9 and 11, who “could be the perfect kids on the earth and right away they’ll turn into raging lunatics.” He said it was due to open casting, not an intentional selection, that the youngsters in “The Innocents” are outsiders beyond their powers: Anna has autism, Aisha has vitiligo and Ben is a boy of color (Ashraf was born in Norway and is of Persian and Pakistani descent).
“It wasn’t like they’re magical because they’re special,” he added.
What Vogt hasn’t made, he stressed, is an evil-kids movie.
“It’s a story about basic humanity,” he said.
“The Innocents” joins other recent projects about children on the dark side, including the brand new film adaptation of Stephen King’s “Firestarter” and the HBO dark comedy series “The Baby.”
T.S. Kord, the writer of “Little Horrors: How Cinema’s Evil Children Play on Our Guilt” (2016), said in an email that diabolic kids have featured in horror with increasing frequency in recent many years as horror “desires to indicate all of the ways during which the human race is screwing up.”
“We’ve devastated children and childhood for practically ever, now they’re striking back,” said Kord, who teaches German, film studies and comparative literature at University College London. Yet we’ve a societal stake in claiming that children are innocent, she added, “because their innocence defines us as a humane society.”
What may unsettle viewers most about “The Innocents” is Vogt’s daring selection to assign villainy to tweens with at the least some agency of their actions. In horror, kids are often bad due to external forces (“The Exorcist”), or they’re teenagers who’ve already been tousled (“Eden Lake”). In fact, there are also fiendish fetuses (“The Unborn”) and blackhearted babies (“Grace”), but their consciousness continues to be unshaped and subsequently particularly liable to outside diabolical forces.
“The Innocents” is closer in spirit to “The Bad Seed” and other horror movies within the much more frightening middle, where kids do bad things because they haven’t totally found out that other people have feelings.
“During childhood we’ve to create our own set of values and morals and never depend on what our parents told us,” Vogt said. Eventually, he continued, “you might have to do a number of the stuff your mother said you shouldn’t do, and determine if she was right or not.”
It stays to be seen how kids behaving deadly in “The Innocents” will land with audiences. One critic wished that Vogt had focused “more on the harmless side of the kids’s powers,” a sign of how strong the will is to affirm childhood as a time of incorruptible purity.
But “kids with powers have consequences,” Vogt said. So does just being a child.
“I remember lying in bed and hearing sounds and imagining the worst thing and the way that might turn into a part of my reality because I had no way of distinguishing between what’s real and never,” he said. “I can be completely and totally scared out of my mind. I don’t think I’ve been as scared as an adult as I used to be as a child.”