For many, the last taboos of cinema are the murders of children and animals. But while most films still shy away from depictions of animal cruelty, the dramatisation of infanticide is surprisingly common.
Of course, there are films like Night of the Living Dead and Pet Sematary that skirt the moral implications by transforming their children into supernatural creatures, but a few directors over the years have confronted the issue head-on. As early as 1917, The Awakening of Helena Ritchie featured the murder of a child as a major plot point. But if child murder has been a facet of cinema since the beginning, why is it still considered to be such a taboo?
Here are 5 examples of child murder in cinema history that helped shape our responses.
One of the greatest films of the early sound era, Fritz Lang’s M centres around the hunt for a child rapist and murderer, played expertly by Peter Lorre, in 1930s Berlin. The film was controversial for its time, not merely because of its subject matter, but because Lang refuses to explicitly condemn his antagonist. Lang reserves his vitriol for the society that spawned the monster and allowed him to operate, rather than using it to demonise the monster himself.
In one iconic scene, the killer lures a young victim away from safety and implicitly assaults and kills her. Although the act is never shown on screen, the death of the girl is illustrated by shots intended to show absence and loss of innocence such as the mother calling for her child and a helium balloon tangled in electrical cables. These techniques of abstraction are still used today to navigate the thorny issues of depicting infanticide and are often, as here, far more powerful than showing the act itself ever could be.
Universal’s original Karloff outing has lost a lot of its power to shock and amaze over the years, but one scene remains both tense and poignant. In it, a freshly escaped Frankenstein (which is the name of both the monster and the doctor since the book makes it painfully clear that the monster is Frankenstein’s son, so screw you) happens on a child picking flowers by a lake. The child doesn’t recognise his monstrousness and is content to play with him, throwing flower heads into the lake to watch them float. Frankenstein soon decides that it would be fun to throw this child, who apparently can’t swim, into the lake.
It’s his childlike innocence, and his failure to comprehend mortality and cause and effect, that dooms his new friend. It’s a truly standout scene for Karloff, whose ability to bring pathos to the monster is never more acutely on display. It’s little surprise that this scene was cut from many versions of the release. Even in a film rife with blasphemous themes, this was a step too far.
American cinema in particular has always been wary of depicting violence against children, so it comes as some surprise that one of the most explicit and gory child deaths in mainstream cinema was featured in one of the biggest blockbusters of all time.
The second killing of the movie is all the more shocking because it happens in broad daylight, in front of an oblivious crowd of holidaymakers. As the waters cloud with blood, the screaming child thrashes in the shark’s teeth. We never see any wounds, or even the whole shark itself, but the blood on screen feels very real, as does the distress of the child.
Why was this death considered less controversial at the time than others, then? It could be because of type of threat. The transgressive nature of the act of child murder, more than the act itself, is what seems to set off controversy. Therefore the shark, being a part of the natural world, doesn’t have the kind of agency necessary to spark moral outrage. A shark can’t break a societal taboo, because it is never a part of society. Even the most visceral death at the hands of mother nature is a tragic act of god, without an agent to direct your rage at.
Don’t Torture a Duckling
The taboos of America and the UK don’t exert quite the same influence on the continent. Lucio Fulci’s is one of the better examples of European genre cinema that was willing to push the envelope when it came to child murder.
In Sicily, a young reporter is keen to unmask a child murderer who preys on delinquent boys. Much like M, it lingers on the idea of a modern day witch hunt and criticises the society in which the murders take place just as much as the culprit. Fulci shies away from many of the trappings of the traditional Gialli. This is a tale of small town paranoia, rather than cosmopolitan vice. The discoveries of the children’s bodies are always shocking, but the actual on-screen violence is reserved for the adults, with a particularly disturbing sequence involving mob justice meted out on a presumed witch.
British 1970s Public Information Films (PIFs)
What exactly was happening in Britain during the 1970s? Most recollections of the era depict it in various shades of dull beige, but 1970s Public safety announcements paint a very different picture. If we go by what they say, then Britain was an apocalyptic hell-scape populated by water demons, rabid dogs and dead-eyed children blind to the suffering of their own.
These films seem to take a ghoulish delight in the deaths of children, but also have a strange, surreal quality to them. They are so striking that many modern British directors still cite them as influences. The Central Office of Information that produced them was a peculiar institution, giving unprecedented creative freedoms to its directors and, as these were technically educational broadcasts, allowing them to operate largely without censorship from the BBFC.
Take Lonely Water, for example, an iconic PIF about the risks of drowning when playing near water. The Donald Pleasance voiceover and the figure of ‘The spirit of dark and lonely water’ in grim reaper cloak make this more like a Hammer short than a government announcement.
In Apaches, children playing on a farm are picked off by falling metalwork, tractors, poisonous chemicals and drowning in manure, in a series of unfortunate deaths that make it feel like a prequel to Final Destination.
The prize offering is Finishing Line, a notorious 20 minute film that was banned from broadcast for 20 years. Directed by PSA veteran John Krish, whose work earned him the nickname ‘Doctor Death’. Finishing Line depicts a school sports day, feverishly imagined by a headmaster as punishment for his reckless charges, in which all of the events involve the nearby railway line. As the children are killed and maimed by the trains, the banality of the event is played up by matter-of-fact teachers and spectators, which gives the whole thing a surreal, Hunger Games-ey feel.