On February 12, 1993, two 10-year-olds, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, abducted, tortured, and murdered two-year-old James Bulger in Liverpool. They took him from a shopping mall when his mom wasn’t looking and two days later, his body was found near some train tracks. Thompson and Venables were charged with the murder of Bulger and sentenced to separate detention facilities. When they turned 18, they were given new identities and released under the condition of lifelong parole.
The murder of Bulger was certainly one of the most horrible crimes in recent history. It’s just fucking heinous. The case did open up a massive debate concerning how young offenders should be handled, which is depressingly relevant in our age of rampage killings and school shootings.
Just to briefly connect this all to the world of horror, at one point during the media circus surrounding the case, a UK tabloid tried to blame the killing on Child’s Play 3, which Venables’ father had rented months prior to the killing. Child’s. Play. Three. Oy vey.
2 Little Monsters, the new psychological drama from David Schmoeller, uses the Bulger killing as the basis for its own story that focuses on the boys after their release. Schmoeller’s best known for horror classics like Tourist Trap and Puppetmaster, so 2 Little Monsters is a big departure in many ways for him. It was a successful risk though and he seems just as comfortable with an intimate character study as he does with balls-to-the-wall horror.
The film follows Carl Withers (Charles Cantrell) and James Landers (Ryan LeBoeuf) who eight years previously kidnapped and killed a three-year-old. Now they’re both 18 and released from their separate detention facilities. With the aid of the U.S. marshals, they’re given new identities, put into foster homes, and basically treated like they’re in the witness protection program. They’re legally forbidden to contact their families or each other. Simply put, they’ve gotta keep their traps shut about they’re old lives. But that doesn’t stop a whole buncha people itching to get the boys in their crosshairs: schlock journalists, tabloids, even a bounty hunter.
While the hunt to expose the boys’ new identities brings some tension to the film, the real substance boils during the scenes in which Withers and Landers are coping with their newfound freedom. They’ve been locked up since they were 10, I mean, imagine being locked up during puberty? Fuck. Landers is much more thoughtful and introverted than Withers, who carries himself in a disturbingly assured manner for someone who spent his formative years behind bars. They’re complete opposites, both physically and in how they handle their freedom. But what the meatiest conflict of the movie comes down to is: who’s the real demon? Withers, Landers, or the stinkin’ media vultures?
The two leads Cantrell and LeBoeuf are fantastic and effectively creepy in a detached from reality sorta way (like I assume someone who murdered a toddler in their youth would be). Cantrell tackles some heavy scenes, particularly the encounter with his mother. Both are solid young actors who play engaging, repulsive characters without ever going over the top.
Schmoeller’s film is a fascinating one that tastefully handles some truly disturbing material. He doesn’t serve up any simple solutions or closure either. Sprinkled throughout the film are news interview style moments in which those involved in the case speak directly to the camera. These moments work well as bookends, but cause an abrupt disconnect with the narrative at times. There are some pacing issues as well during Withers’ road trip that I felt could’ve been trimmed. Other than those minor hiccups, 2 Little Monsters is a well-crafted, thoughtful film about a nauseating, but relevant issue.
It’s available now on DVD. Originally it went by the name Little Monsters, but a 2 was added so it wouldn’t be confused about the Fred Savage/Howie Mandel joint from ’89, I guess.
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