By Drew Taylor | The Playlist August 15, 2013 at 1:04PM
One of the touchstones of the horror genre are movies that involve the "scary little kid"—things like "The Omen," "Village of the Damned," "The Innocents" and, more recently, movies like "Joshua" and "Orphan." In these films, childhood innocence is perverted, replaced by pure, blackened evil, and the results are often chilling. But a much more interesting sub-genre, one that "Kick-Ass 2" (opening this weekend) fully engages with is the "killer kid" genre. This is different than the "evil kid" strain because these children aren't necessarily evil (and there is no supernatural mumbo jumbo) but they can drop you like a bag of laundry just the same. The first "Kick-Ass" introduced us to Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), a pint-sized real-life superhero who is much more comfortable with stabbing a villain in the throat than taking him down to the precinct for booking. (In the sequel she grapples with her love of justice and her societal responsibilities.) In honor of Hit Girl's return to kick-assery, we thought we'd run down five more memorable killer kids. They might not have gone to college yet but they've already got a PhD in Murdernomics.
So, just to recap: these are children who have never been possessed by the devil or come from outer space. They are just regular kids who can murder the shit out of you. In a way, these children are even more chilling than the ones who inhabit cursed videotapes or are forced to battle each other in a futuristic deathmatch, since they more closely resemble the kid next door or the one that your coworker just had. Handle with care.
Joe Wright's whirligig thriller, ostensibly about a young girl named Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) who is raised by her former-spy father (Eric Bana) to become a killer, is really more of a coming-of-age tale laced with feminist subtext and fairy tale imagery and staged like a long, violent European art movie music video. Hanna is lethal, for sure, but she's also sweet and curious; there's an element of the fish out of water comedy mixed in there as well. When she kills she does so efficiently, more as a means to an end than anything else, since her main goal is to kill the woman who murdered her mother (Cate Blanchett, in full-on evil queen mode). What makes "Hanna" such a cool, involving variation on the killer kid subgenre is that while her father trains her to be a killer, it's Hanna herself who chooses to go out into the world and seek revenge. It's what makes the movie a legitimate piece of proto-feminist filmmaking instead of something like Zack Snyder's "Sucker Punch," which came out around the same time as "Hanna" and mistook basic concepts of female empowerment for girls dressed like anime characters firing machine guns at Orcs. Hanna is an extraordinary young girl, born as part of an experimental procedure, but it's through her interaction with an ordinary British family that she learns just how regular she can be. Just because she's a killer doesn't mean she doesn't sometimes need a hug.
The set-up for Luc Besson's "Leon" is the stuff of pulpy film noirs (and we mean that in the best possible way): a family is murdered by a crooked DEA agent (Gary Oldman), leaving behind a lone survivor named Mathilda (a young Natalie Portman) left to avenge her loved ones. Enter Leon (Jean Reno), a mafia hitman who Mathilda recruits to train and guard her. The two develop an unlikely relationship as she trains for the moment when she can kill Oldman. While the movie occasionally tips too far in the (wrong) direction of strained whimsy, it does an admirable job in presenting the way that petulant childhood anger can curdle into something harder and more hateful. The way that Portman transitions from a little girl into a little killing machine is tackled beautifully, with the right amount of gummy grime thrown in for good measure. Part of what makes the movie so effective is how delicious a villain Oldman is: you can feel yourself rooting for the assassin and his protege to accomplish their goal because he's so damn loathsome. For years Besson talked about wanting to mount a sequel that followed a fully grown Mathilda as she makes a living as a contract killer, but for whatever reason this goal was never accomplished and the project mutated into "Colombiana," with Zoe Saldana in the grown-up Portman role. Unfortunately that movie wasn't nearly as effective, and Saldana's performance lacked the frayed nerve-ending woundedness of Portman's which, at that age, remains a marvel of child acting.