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Innocents review

The Innocents review: A wan killer-kid thriller

Any horror movie that calls itself The Innocents is inviting comparisons. That’s the title, after all, of a true classic: Jack Clayton’s elegant 1961 haunted-house psychodrama, in which Deborah Kerr shuddered and quaked with a superstitious terror that may actually have been a coded expression of her own perverse desires. The film haunts the marshy…


Any horror movie that calls itself The Innocents is inviting comparisons. That’s the title, after all, of a true classic: Jack Clayton’s elegant 1961 haunted-house psychodrama, in which Deborah Kerr shuddered and quaked with a superstitious terror that may actually have been a coded expression of her own perverse desires. It haunts the marshy fields that are its genre. Every pale, aristocratic heroine is petrified by the turning a screw, every creepily right child runs wild through an old dark home, and every lonely spirit stands ominously still in the distance.

Written and directed by Eskil Vogt, who scored an Oscar nomination earlier this year for The Worst Person in the World, this new Innocents is not, in any official capacity, a remake. In its portrayal of grade-school children acquiring strange powers in the middle of a lazy Norwegian summer, there’s more Stan Lee to it than Henry James. The phantom impression of Clayton’s film, which was released more than 50 years ago, is still evident in the way Vogt pulls backwards, placing a menacing figure against a wall of negative space. At the most, they are distant relatives. However, the new one is far less effective.

The setting is an apartment complex and not a large Gothic mansion. Ida, a Scandinavian moppet (Rakel Leonora Flotum), has moved here with her family. Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), her older sister, has lost her speech ability due to regressive autism. The children are looked after by a competent governess. Their carefree afternoons are hardly interrupted by adult supervision. Vogt is a very adolescent-oriented person.

Rakel Lenora Fløttum dangles on a swing.

The girls’ unfazed curiosity colors most moments — including the scene where new playmate Ben (Sam Ashraf) demonstrates that he can move objects with his mind, manipulating them like a young Jedi. The environment can also give you this ability. Soon, the children, along with their sensitive neighbor and companion Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), start sending mental messages to each other, and playing mind-reading games. The Innocents never bothers to explain the source of these powers. It would be like answering a question that its tiny characters don’t know how to ask.

Vogt previously told a story about a supernatural coming of age. He co-wrote, with frequent collaborator Joachim Trier, the campus Carrie riff Thelma, about a sheltered college kid whose burgeoning paranormal abilities were really a manifestation of her pent-up desires and resentments. (It was, like Clayton’s The Innocents, a repression allegory.) Vogt follows characters whose minds and relationships are still in development. The blunt emotions of childhood — fear, joy, anger, jealousy — are given a terrifying new outlet.

Rakel Lenora Fløttum watches an angry Sam Ashraf.

The horror of this horror movie is the underlying anxiety of all bad-seed thrillers: A nagging concern that the kids aren’t all right. Ben, the film’s sullen, petulant villain (he is a young Anakin Skywalker who has lost his way to the dark side many decades before schedule), raises red flags that are often associated with serial killers. He casually kills a cat to experience what it feels like. This is a prelude to a disturbing act of violence in the kitchen. Ida also has a few moments of cruelty. This is evident in her habit to stomp on earthworms and stuff family members’ shoes full of glass. One does not have to squint hard to imagine her among the similarly fair-haired Midwich cuckoos of Village of the Damned. It is a terrifying thought that children are given dangerous power before they have fully developed empathy.

There are moments of finely orchestrated pinprick unease in The Innocents. It’s a straightforward story with all the intrigue and charm of a superhero origin story. At a certain point, we really are just watching the good telepathic little squirts facing off against the bad one — which might be less of a problem if Vogt didn’t keep defaulting to the same basic visual scenario of two kids staring intently at each other from opposite sides of an open space, the camera sluggishly zoom

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