The Innocents: Eskil Vogt’s terrifying Nordic horror mystery uses ‘creepy kid’ trope to chilling effect

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De uskyldige or The Innocents is directed by Norwegian filmmaker Eskil Vogt, a regular writing collaborator of Joachim Trier. They recently co-wrote The Worst Person in the World, a film that has been rightly making a lot of noise this awards season. The film in question here, a horror mystery, is a different beast altogether.

Ironically named The Innocents, it continues the legacy of this glorious genre trope of creepy children. Possessing an undeveloped sense of morality, conscience, and little empathy, kids are also more clever than we give them credit for. They are thus capable of nonchalant malevolence and acts of unspeakable cruelty towards those they deem beneath them, including siblings, younger children, animals, and insects, all the while concealing their deeds in a garb of cuteness. It is for this reason horror filmmakers have used kids to raise the scare quotient of their movies, but most of those attempts are schlocky and surface-level, and do not really explore the bizarreness of childhood and childhood friendships.

But with The Innocents, Vogt is not interested in cheap thrills of demon children exacting revenge on their adults (or some such). The Innocents’ protagonists do have supernatural powers, but they behave like actual kids would do (or at least how we adults think kids behave, because we really do not know what they do when we are not looking) if they were somehow in possession of such powers. There is depth here that grounds the story and characters, despite fantastical and supernatural elements.

Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) and Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) are two sisters whose parents have moved to a new place, one flat in a cluster of apartment buildings. Anna is autistic and has lost her ability to form words and display emotions (she can feel, but is unable to articulate them). Ida, a little younger, is casually cruel towards her older sister like kids can be. She devises new ways to torment her helpless sibling like pinching her on the thigh and, in a distressful scene, even putting broken glass into her shoe.

Ida befriends a troubled neighbourhood boy called Ben (Sam Ashraf), an older, unloved child possessing telekinetic abilities. There is no reason given for that, nor for how Ida can bend her arm at an impossible angle. Ida and Ben’s relationship is all cute until we see him throwing a cat off a high-rise building. Ida is horrified and turns away when he crushes the feline’s little skull as it mews in agony, and asks her, “Did you hear that?”

Anna, on the other hand, has found her own friend, a younger girl called Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), with whom she has the ability of sharing and gauging others’ emotions, even across a distance. Spending time with Aisha seems to have miraculous effects on Anna, who gradually regains the ability to enunciate words and manifest emotions to her mother’s delight.

However, these powers with a mysterious provenance are not used only for good either. Ben, frustrated by his mother’s indifference and scorn, eventually resolves to fight back and use his enhanced powers. His quest for vengeance does not stop there, as he takes aim at bullies too.

Now, Ida is properly appalled, and scared for her family too. Okay, Ben is friendly to her at the moment, but what if she said or did something innocuous that he found offending?

As the stakes escalate, The Innocents never involves adults in children’s matters, and the focus of the script stays relentlessly on the quartet.

This movie has a way of getting under your skin like few horror thrillers today. It has to do with the deftly written script, direction, and performances from the kids. Ashraf is wonderfully eerie and believable in the role of Ben, by turns sympathetic and evil, likeable and terrifying — and sometimes all at the same time.

The Innocents is streaming on Mubi India.

Under the Radar is a weekly series that talks about one great movie or TV series that for some reason slipped most people’s attention — flew under the radar, so to speak — and is certainly worth checking out.

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