Tuesday, January 20, 2009
The Good Son (1993, Joseph Ruben)
Bad taste has formalities.
A degree of distance from the audience is an important one. The hit and run scene from The Toxic Avenger plays out with such ignorant disregard for this formality that it unintentionally becomes amongst the most disturbing in cult film history. The joke is the same as Death Race 2000 except that the killers and victim are 80s comedy stock players rather than comic book mutants in ridiculous costumes. The tone is arguably just as cartoonish, but the violence carries out with lingering attention to realism.
Fifteen years later in Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV when Troma paid homage to themselves and repeated the same scene, Sgt Kabukiman NYPD drove the car. Hell, fifty minutes later in the original Toxie, a man gets his arm torn off and doesn't notice until he looks at the stump. The actors have caught up to the sadism and are in on the joke. Protocol has been established for the new era of gory comedy, an era which has not yet ended.
Evil children movies are never star vehicles. No one knows who the children in Village of the Damned were. Patty McCormack gave the most well known evil child performance of her day in The Bad Seed and made her name synonymous with the subgenre. On the other hand, who remembers the name of the other most famous evil child in film, Damien? Maybe they don't because he's not a self-employed evil child, he's the second coming of Satan. The Children of the Corn are eventually revealed to be worshipping a Lovecraftian monster. McCormack was simply born bad in her film, and so in his is Maccaulay.
This doesn't make The Good Son a subversive mainstream movie, only a cynical one. Casting the most popular child actor of the day as a cartoonishly self-aware sociopathic killer would be an idiot's idea of subversive. Since director and co-producer Joseph Ruben made his name with the excellent The Stepfather, my guess is that he wanted to try making his own unique version of another familial horror story. One with more history as a subgenre, that he could plumb and sort through the aspects of what worked. The Stepfather had already become a slasher trilogy and Ruben needed respectability beyond that distinction. Lest anyone doubt The Stepfather was a good movie, it's being remade now.
What better way to put a new spin on the old evil-kid tale and elevate your rep to mainstream success than by casting Maccauly Culkin as the little bastard? For the patriarchal father-manager Kit, what better way to demonstrate his little star's range? See, not only can he play a mischievous good kid...Incidentally, the first and only time Maccauly scared me was when I saw the tail end of a Home Alone commercial as a kid. Why was this evil little kid making those poor men slip on toy cars??
Unlike The Bad Seed or even The Stepfather, The Good Son's killer isn't the center of the story. That would be too difficult, having to legitimize the character by getting close to him. Instead we're saddled with doe eyed Elijah Wood, nowhere near as big a child star as his counterpart but destined for the rarest and luckiest of all child star futures, a popular adult career. His eyeballs were just as large as they are now. His skull was still growing into them. Those eyeballs are worth their weight in instant empathy. Unlike shifty, smirking little Mac.
Distance. This is distance from Mac and close proximity to Elijah, even going so far as to kill the little fawn's mom in the opening scenes. But Mac is the one on the poster. Everyone in America was closer to him, not least of all the kids. Even as a kid I knew this was a tasteless ploy to corner the kids whose parents would let them watch anything, and those who would get their parents to take them to an 'R' flick because it had Mac.
Roger Ebert isn't good for much, but occasionally he'll point out to comic effect the cold bloodedness with which such surefire gimmicks are concocted in Hollywood and targeted at children. My favorite is his 1994 review of Milk Money. He pronounced prophecy upon The Good Son with this gem:
"If this kid grows up into another one of those pathetic, screwed-up former child stars who are always spilling their guts on the talk shows, a lot of adults will share the blame."
The actual nitty gritty of Mac's evil is built up with a good degree of suspense, except that occasionally he'll spout a sinister line written specifically for the trailer. "You think this is a game...?" "If I let you go, do you think you would fly...?" There's no rejoinders to these moments, the scenes simply trail off into oblivion. The various antisocial budding-psycho things Mac does are convincing, they're what the worst kid you ever knew did for laughs. Fake body thrown on the freeway, shooting arrows and BB guns at animals. What constantly undercuts the credibility is Ian McEwan's mini-monologues for him. He's erudite about his love of chaos, and he's only ten. Maybe he's growing up to become Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.
After Mac's done almost-nearly killing people and animals, he starts making real attempts on people and only Elijah knows how crazy he is. Eventually we're lead to one the most convenient and emotionally implausible Hollywood endings ever, in which the heretofore useless mother is the one who finally stops her evil kid.
Evil kids almost always get away with it. The degree of contrivance allowed to punish Mac in the end here suggests last-minute executive meddling...It wouldn't have set a good example for the kids who want to be him. This is studio imitation trash from a director trying to escape the genre slums and a child actor making the worst possible choice to show his range.
What would this movie have looked like with balls instead of cheap respectability? The best trash protocol for evil kid movies is the distance to let them be as evil as possible. Maccauly never successfully kills anyone in The Good Son because that would be going too far - too far in a movie about an inexplicably evil kid with a fully developed philosophy for being evil.
Six months before Good Son's release there was Mikey, a low budget killer kid movie which strives for inappropriate carnage the way only a movie without stars can. The trailer makes me salivate.
Then there's Bloody Birthday, my other long awaited evil kid movie. In part because Julie Brown gets naked.
Maybe something about the phenomenon of Maccauly Culkin commanded a resurgence of the evil kid genre. No wonder they finally came out with Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice in 1992, eight years after the first one, with the tagline "These children are home alone, too. But their parents won't be coming back."