Adolescence is a sensitive period of human life. Weaving between childish dreams and the rigid fibers of reality can be joyful and carefree one moment, then quickly turn callous and unforgiving in the next. At the mercy of inexperience and vulnerability, children often endure emotionally crippling incidents that accompany them like scars into maturity. Cinema’s fascination with childhood is not solely devoted to darker subject matter, yet it still yields an endless list of memorable films concerning juvenile trauma. Among these entries lies a rare tier of movies that explore the grisly nature of being a kid by using highly fictionalized narratives. Children come of age in the shadows of horrid boogeymen, ravenous monsters, and mystic phantoms, emphatically resisting the evils that threaten to defile and destroy them.
Although these films are filled with implausible conflict, the stories resonate because we all know what it’s like to be a frightened kid navigating this savage world. Here’s a list I consider to be the Ten Best Films Featuring Kids vs. Evil. This isn’t a list I see very often, so if you read this and discover any sliver of relevance during this Halloween season, be sure to share a list of your own favorite films where kids kick diabolical ass.
10. THE LOST BOYS – (1987)
Teenage brothers Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam Emerson (Corey Haim) move from Phoenix, Arizona to a scenic, coastal California town with their recently divorced mother Lucy (Dianne Wiest). At first, the film seems like any other 80’s story regarding “new kids” in a strange environment. Michael is a brooding hunk, sizzling with rugged angst. Sam is a hyperactive television addict and comic book fiend. Both of them are initially sour on Santa Carla, which happens to be the “Murder Capital of the World” due to endless waves of ghastly homicides and mysterious disappearances. Michael eventually befriends a local dirt bike gang and learns the dreadful truth about his new home in the process. The gang follows their lightning haired leader David (Kiefer Sutherland) each night on the boardwalk looking for action. But these aren’t regular teenagers—they’re a malevolent brood of vampires that rip people apart for entertainment.
Not long after meeting David and the gang, Michael’s body begins to change. At first, Sam thinks his older brother is simply staggered by merciless hormones. With some helpful incite from the Frog brothers, Edgar (Corey Feldman) and Alan (Jamison Newlander), Sam discovers that Michael suffers from something much worse than puberty. Sam and the teenage Frog brothers strap up to save him, nervously taking on the band of vamps in a raucous fashion that provides great laughs and scares alike. Parents are rarely present in The Lost Boys, much like the majority of films on this list. Sam begs his mother for help, but she dismisses his suspicion and blames it on his jealousy toward her new boyfriend.
The Lost Boys is a parable of sorts, demonstrating the consequences of what may happen if one ignores inner conscience and elects to follow the group. There are shades of sex and drug culture in the film too, quietly alluding to the dismal plague of peer pressure. It also speaks to the dangerous exposure of being young in a strange place and how sudden environmental shifts can lead kids down bitter, deadly paths.
9. LADY IN WHITE – (1988)
On Halloween night in 1962, nine year-old Frankie Scarlatti (Lukas Haas) is tricked by the local bullies and ends up locked in his school’s coat room after the dismissal bell. He remains trapped for hours and when night falls, he witnesses the ghost of a little red-headed girl reenacting her awful fate. A figure appears in the room, very much alive, and after spotting Frankie hiding atop the coat racks, barely visible in the shadows, it attempts to strangle the petrified little boy.
Set in a run-of-the-mill town filled with seemingly ordinary people and vibrant autumn colors, our young hero’s vivacious personality fits in quite well. Frankie somehow survives the vicious nighttime attack and decides to investigate. With help from his older brother Geno (Jason Presson), he slowly pieces evidence together, unraveling a tale of murder and revenge. Soon the little girl’s ghost begins to visit Frankie. They form a delicate friendship which allows him to witness another supernatural reenactment of her death. Frankie and Geno follow the girl into the woods and in the process they spot a frightening apparition, a lonely woman clad in all white clothing that further deepens the dark mystery of the film. As the rambunctious grade-school detective peels back each new layer of the case, he discovers that the killer may be closer than expected, still walking tall in his tranquil hometown.
Lady in White uses smooth style and atmosphere to establish a suspenseful chiller that is much more than it seems. This film is not interested in evaluating the terror of ghosts, but rather the heartbreaking moments that create them. Frankie’s journey is perilous, and he nearly dies while pursuing justice for the friendly specter. His relentless perseverance mirrors realistic moments of opposition that many children encounter in their lives. In the face of incredible misery, Frankie wrestles his fear and fights for what he knows is right.
8. THE WITCHES – (1990)
After directing the unnerving horror classic Don’t Look Now in 1973, British legend Nicolas Roeg returned to the genre nearly two decades later with an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s cautionary children’s tale, The Witches. The film follows a boy named Luke (Jasen Fisher) who moves to England following the death of his parents. With his loving grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling) as his new guardian, Luke soon learns the truth about witches. She tells him of demons dressed as regular women that “spend their time plotting to kill children, stalking the wretched child like a hunter stalks a bird in the forest.” As he trembles with fear, Luke’s grandmother cautiously advises different ways to recognize a witch in disguise. This newfound knowledge later aids his narrow escape from the slimy clutches of a menacing, purple-eyed lady attempting to lure him away with a snake and a chocolate bar.
Helga suddenly falls ill and her doctor suggests a summer vacation to warrant a firm recovery. She and Luke settle in at a seaside hotel, ready to relax and enjoy their time together. Luke soon discovers that the resort is overrun with grotesque witches posing as attendees of the convention for the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Anjelica Huston is phenomenal as the gleefully wicked Grand High Witch, complete with a thick German accent and a penchant for theatrical mannerisms. Her wonderful performance is underlined by ambitious storytelling and stunningly inventive special effects created by Jim Henson’s iconic Creature Shop.
As Luke struggles to save himself and possibly all the children of the world, Roeg softly alludes to the age-old warning that countless parents use to educate their children: “Don’t take candy from strangers.” The witches plan to use sweets to entice their young targets to their horrific doom. This slice of real life hits hard and generates genuine chills. It’s the perfect starter film for youngsters developing an early thirst for horror.
7. THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE – (2001)
Guillermo Del Toro’s Spanish horror-drama introduces a riveting, unique perspective that stands out among the endless scroll of cinematic ghost stories. The Devil’s Backbone is a mournful tale of unfinished business and desolate secrets. The Spanish Civil War claimed the parents of young Carlos (Fernando Tielve), ultimately forcing his relocation to an all-boys orphanage somewhere in the barrens of Spain. Not long after his arrival, the tormented spirit of a dead orphan named Santi (Junio Valverde) begins to haunt Carlos. The childish specter lurks in the somber corridors seemingly lost and alone while his obsidian eyes brim with scathing anguish.
The majority of Del Toro’s work concerns human beings that act more monstrous than any of the fictional creatures he creates. This film is no exception. Once Carlos discover the horrible truth of Santi’s death with the reluctant help of his fellow orphans, the boys must abandon their delicate, childish ways and combine their strengths to avoid meeting a similar fate. Their violent defiance shatters any purity left within, and they emerge as filthy, disturbed young men, forever wounded by their tragic time together.
The Devil’s Backbone is rich with social and political commentary relating to the bloody history of Spain, much like Del Toro’s highly superior film, Pan’s Labyrinth. Juxtaposing Carlos and the mystery of Santi with the spoils of catastrophic civil conflict evokes a desperate struggle that acts as the pulsing core of the story. Forced into early maturity by the hellish carnage of war, Carlos and his fellow orphans unknowingly watch their innocence die while standing up to a savage evil that dwells among them.
6. THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS – (1991)
Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs is a delightfully depraved film. Thirteen-year-old Fool (Brandon Quintin Adams) is a restless captive of a dilapidated ghetto tenement in Los Angeles. His mother is sick and dying in her bed, in need of emergency surgery to stay alive. His sister sells her body to feed her babies, but barely gets by. The Robesons (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie), their Scrooge-like landlords, plan to evict the entire building unless the tenants can pay their numerous months of back-rent. With nowhere to go and no money to save his family, Fool is left with a heavy dilemma. Enter his sister’s “friend” Leroy (Ving Rhames), who suggests they steal a priceless coin collection from the wealthy landlords. This money could buy them a new home and fix Fool’s mother up with the best medical care. With no father around, Fool is the man of his house and has no choice but to follow through with Leroy’s plan.
The Robesons, known to each other as Mommy and Daddy, aren’t your ordinary heartless slumlords. They live in a massive home that they rarely leave. Padlocks cling to the outside of every door and window as if the couple worries less about intruders breaking in and more about someone else getting out. Once inside, Fool soon realizes why people cross the street to avoid this house. When the demented homeowners discover the brave wannabe-burglar, an incredibly tense game of rabid cat and frantic mouse ensues. With the help of Roach (Sean Whalen), a boy living inside the walls, and the Robeson’s timid daughter Alice (A.J. Langer), Fool jukes and dodges attacks from all angles and learns the disgusting truth about Mommy and Daddy and the mysterious people who live under the stairs.
Craven’s film is somewhat of a Grimm tale bursting with rich subtext. The title brings attention to a large population of disenfranchised people often preyed upon by the wealthy elite. The film does well to criticize how middle class beliefs regularly conceal the true corruption of those who passionately support them. It also heavily explores familial horrors that go on behind closed doors like imprisonment, incest, sexual abuse, and cruelty to children. In Craven’s unrelenting world, kids are shown no mercy. Fool is forced to grow up fast if he wants to outwit his clever enemies and see his family again.
5. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET – (1984)
By including Wes Craven’s finest film on this list, it could be argued that other slasher classics like Halloween or Friday the 13th should be included as well. They all involve teenagers stalked and slaughtered by iconic evil, but A Nightmare on Elm Street possesses unique qualifications. First and foremost, Robert Englund’s legendary boogeyman is specifically a child killer. He targets adolescents throughout a murderous career that continues even in death. Furthermore, the film is very much about how the young, seemingly innocent characters suffer the searing wrath of Freddy Krueger, but the magnificence of Craven’s mind submerges us within an even deeper conflict without warning, quietly administering complex criticisms of modern family dynamics. He provides honest reflection of the parents and their violent influence on the bloody fates of their children.
There are moments in A Nightmare on Elm Street where Nancy Thompson is more of a parent than her mother. Mom is constantly drunk and in passionate denial, lying to her daughter as if she were a random stranger. There’s a scene before Nancy confronts Krueger where she gently ushers her inebriated mother into bed, tucking the covers tight all around with unconditional affection. This role reversal comments on a much larger idea that Craven buried between the narrative lines. He previously stated that the sins of Mom and Dad in Elm Street represent the simple fact that parents try so incredibly hard, yet end up failing their children in one way or another.
The driving force of this horror MVP is the hard-nosed, no-nonsense heroine. Nancy Thompson is sixteen or seventeen years old, but her wisdom is decades ahead. The entire story crutches on her intense battle with fear and its razor-gloved spokesman. She doesn’t depend on others to save her. Instead, Nancy takes charge and mounts a courageous defense, setting brutal traps like Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs. In the end, Nancy prevails by refusing to play the victim. She realizes no amount of violence can defeat her scarred adversary. Instead, she vanquishes Krueger by taking back her life, repossessing every sliver of fearful energy she ever surrendered.
4. THE GOONIES – (1985)
The Goonies is an essential film about childhood friendship. It comes from the maverick minds of adventure professors Richard Donner, Chris Columbus, and Steven Spielberg. The story follows a band of teenage outcasts from the fictitious Goon Docks neighborhood in the very real town of Astoria, Oregon. When the characters first come together on screen, the mood is grey and glum despite their laughter and raucous horseplay. The families that occupy the Goon Docks are in the last stages of foreclosure. A rich dick from the wealthy side of town plans to purchase the land, bulldoze the properties, and construct a pristine golf course in the only place these Goonies can call home. All hope seems lost until the ragtag posse unearths a tattered treasure map formerly owned by the legendary pirate One-Eyed Willy. To save the Goon Docks from demolition, they set out on a perilous journey to find Willy’s lost “rich stuff.”
This entry walks a thin line between joyful and gruesome. It’s essentially a swashbuckling adventure film peppered with moments of shock and horror that would sour the parents of younger viewers if not for Spielberg’s trademark tenderness. The lovable characters created by he and Columbus suffer exhilarating near-death experiences and traumatic situations that play out more like attractions at an amusement park. Dead and decomposed bodies appear at almost every twist and turn of the story as the teenage heroes evade booby-trapped tunnels established by murderous pirates centuries before. They find a frosty corpse with a bullet wound in his forehead, chilling in a freezer filled with ice cream. They’re violently pursued by two bumbling idiots and their psychotic, pistol-toting mother. They even get to meet the third and youngest brother, a deformed giant chained to a basement wall with nothing but a chair and television set to keep him company.
Once the entire group is assembled and forced on the run, each one of them presents a diverse contribution that aids in the team’s survival, proving that people are powerful when united despite any differences that may linger between them. This sensibility is echoed within the entertaining mixture of genre DNA found in The Goonies. It magnificently demonstrates the strength and importance of friendship. Most of all, it portrays young people coming together and their unwavering determination in the face of overwhelming adversity.
3. IT – (1990/2017)
Stephen King’s IT is one of the prolific author’s most endearing works. It was first adapted to the small screen in 1990, airing on ABC as a two-part miniseries. This version jumped between two separate time frames, focusing on seven terrified children battling an ancient, shapeshifting entity in the 60’s, only for them to return as adults in the 90’s to finally destroy it. Beverly, Ben, Bill, Mike, Stan, Eddie, and Richie are outcasts in their hometown of Derry, Maine. Although their social similarities appear to bring them together, we soon realize the real reason for this union—they’re all being stalked by a nameless creature simply known as It. The monster is telepathic, often choosing to mine a person’s subconscious for nightmares to transform into. It often appears in the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown, a disturbing jester with a special craving for children. He has happy red hair and wears an odd suit beneath his crimson nose. Before feasting, the beast uses immense terror and fright to enhance the taste of its youthful prey. To this cerebral monster, spreading fear is akin to “salting the meat.”
The big screen adaptation of IT was released twenty-seven years after the TV movie as if the final ideas were incubating in the sewers with Pennywise, awaiting the perfect moment to finally awaken. The new take focuses solely on the Losers Club’s childhood encounter with It, planning to cover their adult years in a 2019 sequel. Director Andy Muschietti’s film was a whirlwind at the box office because it utilizes the most entrancing part of the novel and original miniseries—the kids. Muschietti places the adolescent characters in the 1980’s and twists the scares into previously uncharted territory, allowing their innermost phobias to manifest on screen.
Stephen King’s IT is energetic and alive, taking many forms much like the nightmarish central villain. The power of memory is a rampant theme throughout, along with the importance of friendship. The story is very much about childhood trauma and the torment that can reverberate into adulthood. Through intense fiction, It hints at the concept of a pervading, true-to-life wickedness hidden beneath distracting veneers of small-town charm. In the end, this story is simply about people growing up, conquering their fears and overpowering evil through sacrifice, unity, and trust.
2. THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER – (1955)
Famed actor Charles Laughton’s sole outing as a director is an undeniable cinematic masterpiece. Wrought with curious energy and a grim, expressionist aesthetic, The Night of the Hunter is a particularly frightening film striped with thin overtones of strange humor. Robert Mitchum plays a devilish serial-killer posing as a preacher named Harry Powell. He descends with furious evil upon a fragile widow and her two children, John and Pearl (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce). With his father gone, young John valiantly accepts a paternal role, protecting his mother and sister with courageous dedication. He also harbors a secret regarding the location of some stolen cash, which is why the ghoulish preacher appears on his doorstep in the first place. As John’s family becomes further entranced by Powell’s eerie charisma, the boy learns the true danger of the peculiar drifter’s presence, but not before the odd man marries his mother. With every adult in town mindlessly transfixed by Powell, John is left to fend off the cutthroat lunatic on his own.
This classic is effective on many levels, but the theme of childhood purity corrupted by the violence of adults is the most endearing. It moves like a twisted fairy tale with ominous truth and rhythm, perfectly depicting the stark contrast between dreams of adolescence and the wicked reality of growing older. John and his tiny sister are forced to leave their innocence behind when they escape their maniacal stepfather by river boat. They find shelter with an old woman named Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) who already cares for a handful of orphaned youngsters. John is wary to trust her and remains vigilant, constantly peering out the windows in anticipation of Powell’s return. In Rachel, John and Pearl find a wise guardian who answers their delicate pleas for protection. She wastes no time in fetching a shotgun when the vile preacher finally comes calling.
The Night of the Hunter is a treasure woven together by various threads from different genres, delivering unique experiences to audiences of all breeds. Throughout the jarring events of the story, we’re right beside John and Pearl as their old lives slowly crumble. We watch the world force them into adulthood by pitting the children against a nearly unstoppable force and after more than half a century, the result is still horrifying.
1. Child’s Play – (1988)
With his birthday right around the corner, little Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) wants nothing more than a Good Guy doll, just like the ones advertised on TV. He eats Good Guy cereal, dons Good Guy pajamas—Good Guy PJ sneakers included—and religiously watches the Good Guys cartoon, loyally echoing its creepy catchphrase: “Hidey-ho!” Andy’s mother Karen (Catherine Hicks) is elated to find an alley vagrant peddling one of the popular dolls at a generous discount. She has no idea that the soul of a ferocious voodoo killer dwells within the toy. Her son’s heart soars when opening the gift. The brand new Good Guy quickly introduces himself to Andy as Charles Lee Ray, but his friends get to call him Chucky.
Terrible events ensue with Andy always stuck at the scene of the carnage. When he claims Chucky is to blame for the slew of trouble, the adults think Andy is just another disturbed kid. The evil doll eventually attacks Karen, revealing her son’s stories as something more than childish daydreams. At this point it’s far too late as Chucky begins to mow down any and all who get in the way of his master plan to steal Andy’s soul and commandeer the boy’s body. The first film in the Child’s Play series set up what may be one of the most beloved horror movie matchups in young Andy Barclay vs. Chucky.
Their confrontation continues in Childs Play 2 (1990) with Alex Vincent returning as the main protagonist. Without relying on adults to believe or protect him this time around, Andy instead dodges the demonic doll on his own. His rebellious, teenaged foster-sister Kyle (Christine Elise) soon learns the truth and attempts to rescue Andy, leading to a thrilling final act chase throughout a massive Good Guy factory with Chucky in furious pursuit. In Childs Play 3 (1991), Andy, now played by Justin Whalen, is sent to live in an uptight military school. Chucky arrives and the regular commotion ensues— adults die, kids blame the doll, and nobody old enough to vote will believe them. With these sinister fables, franchise creator Don Mancini and his collaborators successfully evoke the volatile influence of mass marketing on children and the awful denial of adults who dangerously ignore it.