8. Poltergeist (1982)
Carol Anne’s (RIP Heather O’Rourke), “They’re here,” is one of the more memorable moments in horror film history. She really nails this role, which is not something many people can say about a child actor at that age. She gave this film the pacing and performance it needed. This movie is also an example of using a child to tell a ghost story without hyper sexualizing them or using a lot of gore.
Steve Freeling sells real estate while stay at home mom Diane raises their three kids. They appear to be your typical suburban household, only with a friendly/not so friendly little poltergeist in their home. Things start out simple enough with cupboards opening by themselves or furniture sliding across the floor on its own. Soon after, Carol Anne is taken by the poltergeist and the family has to enlist the wonderful Zelda Rubinstein to help retrieve her.
Simply put, this is a classic film and well told ghost story. Heather O’Rourke is a little girl who is able to communicate with the presence in her home. It’s almost refreshing to se her in such innocent form which is what really lifts the film into horrific territory when she disappears. A remake is currently on the agenda but as we all know, never mess with a classic.
7. The Innocents (1961)
Based on The Turn of Screw, by Henry James, this film is regarded as one of the better ghost stories of all time. Directed and produced by Jack Clayton, this chilling tale executes pacing and thrills to near perfection. Shot in black and white, it almost takes on noir quality that only enhances the fear factor in the film.
Michael Redgrave is seeking a new governess for his niece and nephew who were orphaned at an early age. He is not concerned about how much experience she has, as long as she takes full responsibility for them and he does not have to be bothered. Deborah Kerr assumes this responsibility. She is not aware that the house is haunted and that these spirits possess the children.
The film uses few effects to portray a frightening and effective ghost story. The use of minimal lighting and shadows to create fear and dread. There is an aspect of psychological horror in this film, too. The children appear nice and polite but she is a little put off by some of their odd behaviors. Again, it’s the story and the actors that make this a quality horror film and not gore and cheap gimmicks. This is a solid ghost story with two scary little kids.
6. Let the Right One In (2008)
This film is perfect from start to finish. It is one of the rare ones that combine pathos with elements of horror in such a unique way that you find yourself rooting for the vampire. Scandinavian cinema is at the forefront of some of the most creative cinema out there and this gem really exemplifies the level of talent they possess.
Oskar is a 12-year old boy who is tormented by bullies. He dreams of revenge, but lacks the means to stand up for himself. He has few friends so when his neighbor Eli comes to him at night at the playground; he seems to have found a new social outlet. Oskar does not realize that Eli is a vampire at first, but with his new ally, Oskar won’t have to worry about his bullies much longer.
The movie takes place in a lonely little suburb in Stockholm during the winter. The cinematography is beautiful. The compelling thing about this movie is we see so many different aspects of childhood in the movie. We see things from the perspective of the bullied Oscar, the vile bullies, and Eli who has no choice but to be who she is; a 200 year old child vampire. The scenes between Eli and Oskar are precious even though we eventually see the type of brutality Eli is capable of.
5. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
This a wonderful, slow burn of a film. It has a frightening atmosphere but is also quite beautiful. The film moves at a creeping pace and is filled with psychological drama. Viewers will appreciate the story that is told with all of its complexities.
Two sisters return to their home after spending time in a mental institution. Their father and evil stepmother await them. The older sister suspects that the stepmother may be abusing her younger sister so she remains vigilant. To make matters more complicated, the house is haunted by ghosts.
The film is very evenhanded and has several psychological underpinnings. It is lyrical in tone and extremely well scripted. South Korean films, particularly the horror films, deliver chills in addition to solid plots and impeccable direction. This movie sets the bar for how to use children effectively to tell a great horror story.
4. Ringu (1998)
She never sleeps. This Japanese horror classic set a off a string of remakes and other Asian horror films that used elements of the movie to scare the bejesus out of us. Word of mouth really boosted the remake of the film’s popularity in the states, which is a good thing because people deliberately sought out the original version. There is no pretense of innocence or a parable for some social issue here. It is terrifying, period.
Reiko Asakawa’s niece, Tomoko, dies from sudden heart failure with a mask of sheer terror on her face. After looking in to her death, Reiko finds out that Tomoko’s friends who were with her a week before died at the same time in a similar fashion. She goes to a cabin where the teens stayed prior to their deaths and finds a cursed tape that dooms anyone that watches it.
Many subsequent films have used some variation of this plot device (most recently It Follows, but it’s definitely not a tape you have to pass on). None come close to providing the magnitude of terror that the original Ringu provides. When Sadako appears, she is something that will haunt your nightmares from here to eternity. There is no gore, no torture, and no escape, as the visuals in this film will scare you witless.
3. The Exorcist (1973)
William Friedkin is one of the greatest directors of all time. He succeeds in all of his efforts but The Exorcist, is arguably his most frightening film. For 1973, this film was way ahead of its time, as religion had not quite taken center stage in a lot of horror movies, let alone children possessed by evil spirits. It is made all the more disturbing by a young Linda Blair being possessed by a demon. The depravity of some of the scenes in this film is the most memorable in cinema history.
Regan’s mother is an actress who has taken a temporary residence in Washington DC. In the past, she has been a nice, upbeat little girl. Regan is beginning to change in appearance and behavior but her mother is unsure of why. A priest at nearby Georgetown feels he is shaky in his faith as his mother has a terminal illness. An older ailing priest has premonitions of evil after returning from an archaeological dig in Iraq. Regan is increasing in her demonic behavior so they team up with an exorcist to rid young Regan of the demon.
Recently, there was another edit with some additional footage. This is one of the rare moments where another rendering of the film actually enhanced the story. The scene with Regan going down the stairs backwards with her back arched will stick with you for a long time. The print is beautiful despite the scary subject matter of the film. Linda Blair’s performance as the possessed child set the standard for films of this nature for decades to come. The Exorcist is required viewing for all fans of the horror genre.
2. The Shining (1980)
Fans of this movie may have seen Room 237, which speculates the significance of the hotel room in the film. People can debate the significance of this for days, but the fact remains, this movie uses children and the image of children in some of the most gut-wrenching scenes in horror movie history.
Jack Torrance and his wife and son have been invited to stay as care takers at the Overlook Hotel for the winter season. It is isolated and has a disturbing history of driving the former caretaker to gruesome murder of his wife and two young daughters. Jack is a writer who thinks that this will be a unique opportunity to get some peace, quiet, and some writing done.
Danny, his young son, has the ability to have premonitions and communicate with others that can do the same (the shining). He has images of blood, the two terrifying little girls, and other horrors. Jack’s cabin fever, Danny, and his worried wife combine to make one of the scariest horror films of all time.
The girls holding hands give a feeling of dread and serve as an omen of things to come. Danny, while the hero of the film, gives you the chills when he goes into his trance like state. Also, the look of fear on his face is enough to send the hairs up on the back of your neck. It’s simply the perfect horror film from start to finish.
The print looks great, the score is solid, and naturally, Jack Nicholson plays the perfect mad man. This is Kubrick at his finest and the use of Danny as a vehicle for the shining is a stroke of brilliance.
1. The Omen (1976)
This is one of the all time best horror movies that features a child to date. People often refer to this film specifically to make jokes about devilish children. The little boy has an intensity in his eyes and his mere presence that makes you unsettled throughout the film. He is able to evoke empathy from you and terror. That is no small feat.
Gregory Peck becomes the US Ambassador to England years after he and his wife adopt a young boy named Damien. Strange things tend to happen around Damien. During his fifth birthday celebration, his nanny hangs herself in front of the partygoers. Eventually, the family hires a new nanny who has an odd relationship to Damien. The most horrific scenes in the film don’t always happen when Damien is on screen but the idea that they are happening because of him and what he represents is terrifying.
This movie has a couple of sequels that allow us to see why the anti-Christ would want to inhabit a child attending military school. Nonetheless, the original version of this film stands on its own. This is by far the best film that Richard Donner directed, which is too bad because you would think this would have been a harbinger of things to come.
The Omen used Harvey Stephens effectively because he presents as a sympathetic character to an extent and you never see him truly commit a violent act. As violence happens around him through animals and other freak accidents, you bristle at the concept, but are completely drawn into this film like none other.
When we are finally presented with Damien’s origins, the mental imagery is even more terrifying than what can be depicted on screen. Quite simply, this is a brilliant piece of story telling mixed with horrific elements. This is one of the more important films in the canon of horror films that feature children.
Author Bio: Edwanike Harbour has a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is an avid film buff and currently writes for Madison Film Forum. When she’s not in front of a movie screen, she is usually listening to indie rock and reading Don Delillo novels.