After the death of his terminally ill mother, Elijah Wood is sent to live with his uncle (Daniel Hugh Kelly) and aunt (Wendy Crewson), whilst dad David Morse accepts a one-year job in Japan. Wood immediately hits it off with his cousins Macaulay and Quinn Culkin, but soon Wood learns that Mac has a dark, malicious side. Possibly even homicidal, he may have even killed his baby brother years ago. Unfortunately, Mac has his mother wrapped around his little finger, and there doesn’t appear to be a damn thing Wood can do about it. Also, Wood starts to suspect that Crewson might be the reincarnation of his mother, after his mother told him on her deathbed that she’d never leave him. This doesn’t exactly help in convincing people that Mac is the murdering loon, not Wood. Jacqueline Brooks plays a dense and extraordinarily gullible child psychologist called in when there is concern over Wood’s increasingly tempestuous and heightened behaviour.
This 1993 ‘bad seed’ thriller isn’t the best offering from director Joseph Ruben, but like the underrated “Sleeping With the Enemy” and especially “The Stepfather”, Ruben amusingly mixes black humour and domestic terror. Just not quite as well as before. It has its moments (I enjoyed it in cinemas as a sick, twisted 13 year-old), and an effective casting-against-type in Macaulay Culkin, who gives his best-ever performance as the dead-eyed (yet ever-smiling) pint-sized sociopath. Elijah Wood is effective too, as are David Morse (a truly versatile actor) and Wendy Crewson in thankless roles, and Culkin’s real-life sister Quinn is terrific as his sister in the film. Why is she the only Culkin to have not really gone on to anything? She’s really quite good here. The faces of Wood and Macaulay Culkin are key in this. Wood (showing off early representations of the facial expressions and mannerisms that eventually went into his Frodo Baggins about a decade later) is big-eyed and open-faced, Culkin dead-eyed and pale. I have no idea why Wood earned far more praise at the time than Culkin, both are good, but Culkin slightly better.
The only memorable thing about Daniel Hugh Kelly and Jacqueline Brooks is how little they seemed to have aged since 1983 when the former appeared in “Cujo” and the latter in “The Entity” (both extremely effective and underrated genre films). They give the exact same boring-arse performances as they always do.
An appearance by something called ‘Mr. Highway’ (then somewhat controversial) is the blackly humorous highlight of this sometimes effective, but completely formulaic film. With a screenplay by Ian McEwan (yes, the Ian McEwan of “Atonement” fame), it’s watchable, but stunt casting aside, it isn’t memorable, nor is there much tension or terror. In fact, it’s a bit neutered, perhaps so that it wouldn’t alienate the young ‘uns. The problem is, it resulted in a film too tame for horror audiences and a bit over the heads of the younger set. It’s not a bad film at all, just a bit too familiar and safe, and it doesn’t surprise me that the project had been bandied about since the late 80s. It’s a little stale. I also thought that the semi-mystical subplot involving Wood seeing his dead mother inside Crewson (or whatever it was meant to be) is a little too weird and half-though out. In a way, though, it’s the most original part of the film, just not very well-integrated.
Good music score by the legendary Elmer Bernstein (“The Magnificent Seven”, “The Great Escape”, “To Kill a Mockingbird”), is a highlight, and the chilly setting and scenery are almost like a character itself. Good, ballsy finale I must say. I mean, just think about what just happened. Evil or not, that’s just kinda wrong, really, on more than one level. By the way, does anyone see Bart and Milhouse in Culkin and Wood here? I felt a similar dynamic going on.
It’s a shame that Ruben has essentially dropped off (after the failed buddy actioner “Money Train”), because his thrillers were always at least amusingly schlocky.