In the new supernatural horror film “The Innocents,” that monster is a preteen named Ben (Sam Ashraf), and his gasp-inducing act early in the film is a hint of the sins to come by his, and other, little hands.
“We still like to think that kids are pure angels,” Eskil Vogt, the film’s writer-director, said in a recent interview over video. “I think we need to face that the opposite is true.”
Ben, who lives in a towering Oslo apartment complex, isn’t the only 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 building, Anna miraculously regains her ability to speak. Anna and a neighbor girl named Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), who can hear thoughts, team up to 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 far more sinister power he’s not equipped to handle, and the consequences are deadly and heartbreaking.
A movie of icy dread, “The Innocents” unnervingly explores how children can be both uncorrupted and cruel, a paradox that can have deep emotional repercussions that linger well past the playground years. The young characters don’t question their otherworldly powers, nor do they fully comprehend the responsibility that comes with them. But they know enough not to tell their parents.
Vogt was no different. On vacation as a kid, he remembers using an air gun to shoot a sea gull in flight; he saw the bullet make impact, but the bird didn’t fall. He kept it from his parents.
“I remember walking around that day and going to bed that night thinking that this sea gull was dying slowly in agony somewhere because of 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 their humanist dramedy “The Worst Person in the World.”
In a separate video interview, Trier said if there’s a through line between both films, it’s how Vogt uses “form and visuality to make something that’s worth showing on a big 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 films 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,” about a paranoid sightless woman. Three years later he and Trier co-wrote Trier’s film “Thelma,” about a college student with telekinetic powers.
A horror movie fan, Vogt said he was drawn to the films of David Cronenberg, especially the devilish man-child movie “The Brood” (1979), but also to Wolf Rilla’s “Village of the Damned” (1960), with what he called its “weird and special” youngsters.
Vogt said he also looked no further than his living room and his two children, ages 9 and 11, who “can be the best kids in the world and in an instant they can become raging lunatics.” He said it was because of open casting, not an intentional choice, that the kids 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 are 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 new film adaptation of Stephen King’s “Firestarter” and the HBO dark comedy series “The Baby.”
T.S. Kord, the author 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 decades as horror “wants to point out all the ways in 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 have 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 choice to assign villainy to tweens with at least some agency in their actions. In horror, kids are usually bad because of external forces (“The Exorcist”), or they’re teenagers who’ve already been messed up (“Eden Lake”). Of course, there are also fiendish fetuses (“The Unborn”) and blackhearted babies (“Grace”), but their consciousness is still unshaped and therefore particularly susceptible to outside diabolical forces.
“The Innocents” is closer in spirit to “The Bad Seed” and other horror films in the far more frightening middle, where kids do bad things because they haven’t totally figured out that other people have feelings.
“During childhood we have to create our own set of values and morals and not rely on what our parents told us,” Vogt said. Eventually, he continued, “you have to do some of the stuff your mother said you shouldn’t do, and figure out if she was right or not.”
It remains 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 children’s powers,” an indication of how strong the desire is to affirm childhood as a time of incorruptible purity.
But “kids with powers have consequences,” Vogt said. So does just being a kid.
“I remember lying in bed and hearing sounds and imagining the worst thing and how that would become part of my reality because I had no way of distinguishing between what’s real and not,” he said. “I would be completely and totally scared out of my mind. I don’t think I’ve been as scared as an adult as I was as a kid.”