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Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep: A Brief History of Child Murder in Cinema

True to the films he appeared in, serial child killer Freddy Krueger has inspired the nightmares of millions of young children around the world since his debut in Wes Craven’s 1984 classic A Nightmare on Elm Street. In honor of the Platinum Dunes remake (oh I’m sorry, “reimagining”), being released by Warner Bros. on April 30th, Chris Eggertsen takes a trip back through time to revisit some of the other, lesser-known films featuring serial child murderers that have graced movie and television screens through the years. Hold your kiddies tight.

Child murder and pedophilia are queasy subjects, and when broached in a film they can prove a tough sell to audiences. Just look at last year’s The Lovely Bones — even a commercial-minded Peter Jackson wasn’t able to make the issue palatable for mainstream consumption, despite the massive success of the book. Indeed, the taboo nature of the topic, even when handled sensitively, usually spells box-office failure. An exception is Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (and its succession of sequels), which featured serial child murderer Freddy Krueger, burned to death by vengeful parents before coming back as a razor-clawed dream phantom slaughtering teenagers in their sleep. That film managed to be a success for a couple of reasons: 1) It sidestepped controversy by only mentioning the child murders instead of dramatizing them; and 2) It wrapped the film in the more innocuous guise of a teen slasher film. It was for those reasons (along with the excising of the pedophilia element present in Craven’s original script) that allowed the movie to become a monster hit. Indeed, Krueger became more known for the murder of promiscuous teenagers than the rape and butchering of innocent children.

Nevertheless, there have been a number of other films dealing with the topic over the years that never managed to reach the heights of the Elm Street series. The most notable early instance is Fritz Lang’s M, released in 1931, which focuses on the hunt for a pedophiliac child murderer stalking the streets of Berlin. The film is widely considered a classic, featuring a sympathetic portrayal of the killer by baby-faced Peter Lorre and a sharp script by Lang and wife Thea von Harbou, which used the child-killings merely as a jumping-off point for a broader indictment of society at large. This being 1931, the murders all occurred off screen – although they were artfully indicated by imagery such as the catching up of a victimized child’s helium balloon in a telephone line.

‘M’ (1931) Full Movie:

Much less well-known is M‘s 1951 American remake, directed by Joseph Losey and starring David Wayne as the child killer. The location was updated to Los Angeles, although it pretty closely follows the original’s storyline. The American version is also notable for being produced during the “Red Scare” days of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy, and has been seen by some as an indictment of the “witch-hunt” mentality of the day. In fact, Losey himself was a subject of the investigations into Communism right around the time of the film’s release, and he subsequently left the country for Great Britain in protest. The film itself proved unsuccessful with audiences and was quickly forgotten.

1958 saw the release of It Happened in Broad Daylight, from Hungarian director Ladislao Vajda. Considered by some a lost classic, the film involves an ex-detective’s obsessive search for a serial child murderer targeting young girls in Germany. To ensnare the killer, he befriends a local young girl and her mother, hoping to use the daughter – who fits the profile of the other victims – as bait. The black-and-white film wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1960, and even then only to an arthouse audience in New York City. This was likely due to the sexual aspect of the crimes being more explicitly implied than had been seen before, and the film came and went with little to no fanfare. Interestingly, the movie’s screenwriter, Friedrich Durrenmatt, was unhappy with the film’s happy ending and went on to write a novella using the same story, but with a far bleaker conclusion. What resulted was The Pledge: Requiem for the Detective Novel, which became the source material for Sean Penn’s 2001 directorial effort The Pledge starring Jack Nicholson.

‘It Happened in Broad Daylight’ Fan-Made Trailer:

Two more films centering on serial child murders both came over 20 years later in 1972, in the form of two giallos: Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling and Aldo Lado’s Who Saw her Die?. Fulci’s film is the better – and better-known – of the two, in its story of an enterprising reporter’s attempts to identify the culprit in a series of murders committed against young delinquent boys in a Sicilian village. In the spirit of M, Duckling also cast a critical eye on society by focusing on the witch-hunt mentality that arises among the villagers in their search for the killer. The violence – particularly in a graphic scene depicting the “chaining” death of an innocent local witch – is quite gory, but Fulci nevertheless restrained from showing the graphic details of the child murders. Lado’s less-successful Who Saw Her Die? focuses on the search for a killer of two redheaded young girls, seemingly by a female culprit whose face remains hidden behind a black veil up until the final reveal. Likewise, it shows a good amount of restraint in dramatizing the child murders, indicative of the public’s squeamishness regarding the subject matter. It’s also notable for featuring a creepy score by Ennio Morricone. Neither film was released in the United States until much later.

‘Who Saw Her Die?’ Trailer:

Also in 1972 came Hammer Films’ Vampire Circus, about a child-killing vampire Count who curses a 19th Century village after being murdered by the vengeful townspeople, a curse that comes true 15 years later when a terrible plague begins ravaging the village. When a travelling circus then comes to town, it serves as an extension of the Count’s curse when the circus performers begin murdering the new generation of children. The film is rather unusual offering from Hammer’s House of Horror, in that it features quite a bit of nudity and some rather bloody violence. It’s also not to be taken too seriously, being more fun than truly disturbing.

‘Vampire Circus’ Trailer:

A year later audiences would be “treated” to possibly the most cringe-inducing example of a child-killing film yet with Ulli Lommell’s Tenderness of the Wolves, a fictional account of real-life serial child killer Fritz Harmaan, a gay German man who by his own admission murdered up to 70 adolescent boys (although he could only be connected with 27). In a macabre twist, Haarmann not only engaged in vampirism (he admitted to killing many of his victims by biting them through the throat) but by some accounts sold the remains of the boys as canned pork on the black market. Kurt Raab, who also scripted the film, gives a deeply disturbing performance as Haarmann, a man who was given even greater license to carry out his horrific crimes by becoming an informant for the local police. Although there’s not an overt amount of gore and violence here, the film is queasy in its unsettlingly frank depiction of pedophilia. And – shock of all shocks, considering it was helmed by Z-grade direct-to-DVD director Lommell – it’s actually a pretty decent and artful flick, with nods to German Expressionist cinema of the `20s and `30s.

Sequence From `Tenderness of the Wolves’:

Another film in the early-`70s string of serial child killer cinema is Sweet Movie, a decidedly more avant-garde take on the subgenre helmed by Yugoslav director Dusan Makavejev. Pedophilia and child murder are only one aspect of a film crammed with shocking and subversive imagery, including coprophilia, emetophilia, and other various -ilias. In one portion of the film the focus is on Anna Planeta, a female boat captain who lures young boys onto her skiff with candy before proceeding to seduce and murder them. It’s all in the name of satire, so don’t expect a traditional narrative here; indeed, the child killings depicted in the movie are just one part of Makavejev’s grand metaphoric scheme. In fact, at the end of the movie the dead boys are seen being “reborn” from the plastic sacks they’ve been sealed in.

It’s no surprise that a majority of the films dealing with the subject were European given that continent’s significantly more liberal attitudes (an exception being Great Britain), and 1987 brought another disturbing European take on the subject, with the uber-realistic and horrifying In a Glass Cage from Spanish director Agusti Villaronga. When an ex-Nazi doctor who sexually abused, tortured and murdered young boys during and after the war is confined to an iron lung after a failed suicide attempt, one of the doctor’s former victims, now an adolescent, breaks into his home and blackmails him into taking him on as a caretaker. The boy then begins to succumb to his own darkest urges, revealing himself to be every bit as monstrous as his captive. This is possibly the most unflinching portrait of pedophilia ever put on film, and on its release it proved so controversial it was even banned in Australia. In fact, the scenes of sexual torture are so realistic Villaronga included a disclaimer during the closing credits assuring the audience that none of his child actors were exposed to anything emotionally damaging during filming.

‘In a Glass Cage’ Trailer:

From the U.S. the same year, and much less controversial, came director John Schlesinger’s The Believers, starring Martin Sheen as a psychiatrist who moves to New York City following his wife’s death, only to be caught up in a string of ritualistic child murders afflicting the city. Soon the killers, a cult of voodoo-worshippers who practice child sacrifice in religious ceremonies, begin showing a keen interest in Sheen’s son. The film, based on the novel The Religion by Nicholas Conde, has largely been forgotten, but in an interesting footnote it apparently influenced real-life Mexican serial murderers/drug dealers Adolfo Constanzo and Sara Aldrete, who along with their Santeria-based cult practiced grisly human sacrifices in the late `80s. In turn, the 2007 Zev Berman film Borderland was loosely based on their crimes.

‘The Believers’ Trailer:

The following couple of years saw two more entries in the subgenre, with 1988’s Lady in White, and later the 1989 made-for-TV movie The Woman in Black. Lady in White, directed by Frank LaLoggia, is a relatively mild ghost story using an extended flashback structure to tell the tale of a young boy (Lukas Haas) who, after witnessing an eerie vision of a girl being murdered, sets out on a mission to find out who was responsible after her ghost begins haunting him. It turns out that the girl was only one victim in a series of child murders that began ten years before. In the process he discovers that a mysterious “Lady in White” haunting his small town is connected to the killings. The film isn’t explicit, relying more on mood and atmosphere (and some really poor special effects) to produce scares, falling into the mode of “classy” PG-13 fare like The Others and The Sixth Sense.

More effective is ITV television movie The Woman in Black, based on the book by Susan Hill and directed by Herbert Wise. The film is scarier than you might expect as it tells the story of a ghostly “Woman in Black”, the spirit of an unwed mother who had her young son taken from her years ago before losing him in a terrible accident. Now, her angry spirit has come back to cause the deaths of other children in revenge for being forced to give up her son. This is, again, a “classy” production, but it’s so unexpectedly chilling (with a terrifying performance by Pauline Moran as the title character) that you just might forget it’s a made-for-TV movie. Notably, Hammer Films is planning a theatrical version for release sometime in 2011.

Scene from `The Woman in Black’:

As the `90s began, TV watchers were treated to the highly-anticipated miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s It, a book focusing on a child-murdering supernatural entity taking the form of a terrifying clown named Pennywise. While the book was quite explicit, this being network television the gory details of the murders were mostly left to the viewers’ imagination. Alas, while the It miniseries did well in the ratings, the second half proved lackluster (remember that lame giant spider?), and it’s now mostly remembered for Tim Curry’s over-the-top performance as the killer clown.

Pennywise Montage from `It’:

Martin Sheen made another appearance in the subgenre (after 1987’s The Believers) in 1994’s When the Bough Breaks, a straight-to-video film about a young police detective (Ally Walker) who discovers a link between an autistic teenager and a series of ritualistic (are there any other kind?) child killings plaguing the area. Every year, the killer abducts a child, cuts off his/her hands and tattoos a number on the palms, puzzling the local authorities. Meanwhile, the autistic boy (actually played by female actress Tara Subkoff), has every year been drawing a pair of similarly-numbered hands on the walls of his room. The film is notable for starring genre fave Ron Perlman, and for being directed by Michael Cohn, who also made the ’97 horror film Snow White: A Tale of Terror, starring Sigourney Weaver.

Television would be the format five years later with director Chris Gerolmo’s Citizen X, a made-for-HBO production based on real-life serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, who murdered 53 people (mostly young girls) between 1978 and 1990 in the Soviet Union. Like M, the telefilm painted with a broad thematic brush to make a larger point, focusing not just on the child murders but on the government bureaucracy that would allow such a killer to flourish for so long. More crime thriller than horror film, the murders themselves are brutal but not overly gory or exploitative. And as is so important in these films, the actor portraying the serial killer (Chikatilo), Jeffrey DeMunn, gives a great, eerie performance.

Real-life Footage of Andrei Chikatilo:

Four years later we had Neil Jordan’s In Dreams (1999), about a woman who realizes she shares a mind link with her young daughter’s murderer when she begins dreaming about his crimes before they happen. The film has an intentionally disjointed, dreamlike “arthouse” quality that precluded it from gaining mainstream or critical acceptance on its release, but it features a stellar performance by Annette Bening as the grieving mother, who is thrown into a mental institution when her frightening visions drive her to insanity. Robert Downey, Jr. also stars as the cross-dressing serial child killer (Silence of the Lambs, anyone?). The movie is a cross between Lambs, Psycho and A Nightmare on Elm Street, but while the visuals are stunning, it’s not nearly as good as any of them.

The following year brought an even-worse entry with Bless the Child, a hokey religious horror/thriller starring Kim Basinger as a mother trying to save her young daughter from being sacrificed by a Satanic cult. The movie is interesting in that it taps into the “ritual abuse” phenomenon of the `80s, during which time a fervor over the alleged abuse and murder of children by Satanic cults became mainstream news. Like these alleged real-life crimes (which have since been debunked), the child victims in the film are found gruesomely murdered with Satanic symbols burnt into their bodies. Also in 2000 came The Spreading Ground, a film in the realm of M in that it features both an above-board hunt for a child murderer by two detectives (Dennis Hopper and Fredric Forrest) and a subterranean one when the Mayor hires gangsters to track him down and execute him (all in the name of avoiding a lengthy trial that would be harmful publicity for the city…because that makes total sense).

2003 brought Jonathan Liebesman’s Darkness Falls, released by Columbia to dismal reviews but decent box-office, about a small town plagued by the ghost of Matilda Dixon, an old widow wrongly accused and executed for the kidnapping of two local boys over 150 years previously. The town, in which an inordinate amount of young children have gone missing over the years, is said to be cursed by Dixon’s spirit in the form of the Tooth Fairy, appearing to children on the night they lose their final baby tooth and murdering them if they spot her. The movie is essentially a dressed-up slasher film, notable mostly for functioning as a less-intelligent version of The Woman in Black.

Short Film That Inspired `Darkness Falls’:

2004 saw a slew of minor entries in the subgenre, the most notable of which was Suspect Zero, a film concerning a detective (Aaron Eckhart) hunting for a serial killer of serial killers (Ben Kingsley), whose latest target is child-murderer “Suspect Zero”. Kingsley’s character, having previously participated in government experiments in telepathy, is now tormented by visions of serial killers committing murders, and it just so happens that Eckhart himself is also a telepath (cue groan). The film, in the vein of Seven, shows a few disturbing flashes of dead children, along with the implication that they were raped and tortured before dying, but it’s so ridden with clichés that it all ends up feeling rather ho-hum. Even the subject of child murder, it seems, can induce yawns when utilized in service of a subpar film.

Interestingly, another movie dealing with a psychic man hunting for a serial killer, Doctor Sleep (aka Close Your Eyes), was also released in 2004. The London-set film stars Goran Visnjic as a hypnotherapist who becomes caught up in a series of child murders (dubbed the “Tattoo Murders”) when he has a psychic vision of the lone surviving victim. Like Bless the Child and The Believers, it turns out that a Satanic cult is using the children for gruesome rituals, in a convoluted plot I won’t bother going into here. Other similarly-themed films released in ’04 include exploitation movie Murder-Set-Pieces from director Nick Palumbo (featuring, in the uncut version, the graphic murder of at least one child); Malcolm McDowell as Evilenko, in the second film after Citizen X to be based on real-life Soviet serial child killer Andrei Chikatilo; and Hellbreeder, a supernatural horror film in the vein of It focusing on a child-murdering killer clown.

In 2005, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City was released, featuring Nick Stahl as Roark Junior, the son of a powerful senator who just so happens to enjoy murdering children. After being mutilated by Bruce Willis’ character earlier in the film, he returns later on as the deformed “Yellow Bastard” to complete his attempted rape and murder of Jessica Alba’s character years before. While still disturbing, the violence in the film is extremely stylized, and therefore the subplot doesn’t have the same effect it would have had in a more realistically-rendered film.

Clip from `Sin City’:

Also that year came German film Antibodies, helmed by Pandorum director Christian Alvart. The story involves a detective attempting to solve the case of a murdered young girl, which has been attributed to Gabriel Engel, a serial child murder currently sitting in prison. The plot thickens when Engel, a pedophile convicted of killing 13 young boys and painting several works of “art” with their blood, tells the detective he’s not the culprit. The film isn’t exploitative, but there’s a lot of disturbing talk of child rape as Engel details his crimes.

Another film “based on a true story” was The Gray Man, released in 2007, which focused on real-life child murderer Albert Fish (Patrick Bauchau), who in `20s and `30s New York kidnapped, murdered and ate the remains of three children, and possibly more. The film is part police procedural and part character study of the insane killer, who told authorities he had heard the voice of God ordering him to commit the awful deeds. Luckily, none of the child murders are shown onscreen, although just knowing the horrible facts of the real case is enough to make you queasy. Fish was executed by electric chair in 1936, a controversial sentence considering there was an enormous amount of psychiatric evidence pointing to his insanity.

Segment from A&E Biography of Albert Fish:

A similar “based on a true story” film was Rob Schmidt-directed The Alphabet Killer, starring Eliza Dushku and released to poor reviews and box-office in 2008. The movie, based on the “Alphabet Murders” that occurred in Rochester, NY in the early 1970s, concerns the hunt for the murderer of three children, although it focuses more on the mental disintegration of a female detective on the case (played by Dushku). As in the film, the real-life killings were never solved. Also in ’08 came Spanish film Before the Fall, a twist on the end-of-the-world film that focuses on a man trying to protect his nieces and nephews from an escaped child murderer, even though a meteor is on a collision course with Earth and will wipe out the entire human race in a matter of days.

At the end of the day, the murder of children in film still holds the same queasy allure that it once did for those interested in plumbing the darkest depths of the human psyche. While not for all tastes, the above-mentioned titles should serve as a good jumping-off point for those who feel the need to quell their morbid fascination. Those less adventurous are advised to stick to the Elm Street remake being released April 30th.

In association with MySpace Horror



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