Scandinavian horror is a generally overlooked treasure trove of material, and The Innocents definitely fits in with the likes of Let the Right One In and Thelma – all hailing from the land of long summer days and freezing winter nights.
NOTE: There are spoilers included in this article, so stop reading if you have not already seen the film
In The Innocents, a Shudder exclusive, a group of four children occupying themselves during those long summer days when school is out and most families are on vacation discover mysterious powers while playing without adult supervision on the playground and in the woods surrounding their apartments. But what happens when there’s a bad seed blooming unchecked with superhuman abilities and only peers to stop the escalating horror of their actions? And where is the line between “troubled” and “troublemaker”?
Written and directed by Eskil Vogt (known for The Worse Person in the World and Thelma), The Innocents focuses on Ida who has just moved to the suburbs with her parents and autistic, non-verbal sister Anna (played convincingly and with sensitivity by Alva Brynsmo Ramstad). Ida appears angelic in her shortalls, with her long blond hair and dimples – but she is clearly a troublemaker, working out her frustrations by pinching her sister, putting glass in her shoe, and spitting over the balcony. Ida soon meets Ben, who is sidled with a not-very-nice single mother, in whom she finds another little troublemaker who joins her in those small torturous acts on her sister – but Ben goes farther than Ida is comfortable with when he tortures a cat that he clearly has developed a relationship with, but ultimately kills (an awful and graphic scene that almost made me bail on the movie). Still, Ida is drawn to Ben, and continues to play with him day after day.
Rounding out our foursome is Aisha, a sweet young girl, also with a single-mom who, while kind, is tired and overwhelmed. Aisha and Anna have an instant connection, somehow able to communicate telepathically, and through this telepathy, Anna begin to communicate in traditional ways. (I have mixed feelings about this treatment of autism, but I do think that it facilitates Ida’s ability to finally see Anna as a person, thus strengthening their sisterly relationship.) Ida discovers Ben has powers of telekinesis, and together with Anna and Aisha they amplify each other’s powers. Ida seems to not have any powers at all – but that doesn’t bother her as the four of them play games of telephone, exploring how far they can stretch their telekinesis.
Spoiler Warning: Exploring the end of The Innocents
As Ben’s powers grow stronger, they take a dark turn. Of the four children, Ben is the one who has been bullied and victimized by his mother as well as other children. Ben chooses violence, and the more violent actions he takes, the less empathy and more anger he feels. When he causes a kitchen accident in which his mother is gravely injured, he leaves her to die on the floor – covering her with napkins. Without that tether to any kind of authoritative oversight, Ben becomes completely unhinged. First, he shows Ida his increased power by breaking the leg of one of his bullies from a distance. When he learns he can control other people with a telepathic link, he uses this power to kill another of his bullies by having a stranger on the footbridge bash in his skull and push him over the side. He goes after Anna, but Aisha senses what he is doing, yelling at him to stop, and he chokes her telepathically, almost killing her until she pushes him to break the connection and stop him. This creates a rift between the former friends, and Ben sets his sights on eliminating anyone who can stop him – Aisha and Anna.
Ben taps into Aisha’s mother’s mind, using her to stab her own daughter in a gut-wrenching scene. He then focuses on Anna – but Ida finally realizes she has to protect her sister, and baits Ben with a toy airplane out to the footbridge he used to dispose of his former bully. She pushes him, but he survives and infiltrates her mind, compelling her to step into oncoming traffic. She also survives with a broken foot and concussion – but now she and her family are in grave danger.
When Ida returns from the hospital, the apartment complex is suddenly filled with people returning from their vacations at the end of summer. Alone in the house with Anna and Ida, their mother realizes she forgot something at the store (either by Ben’s suggestion or on her own it isn’t clear), and leaves the girls alone. Anna senses Ben across the lake and leaves the apartment to face him. Ida chases after her, but inhibited by her cast and crutches, cannot get down the stairs. Finally exhibiting her own powers, she breaks her cast and runs after Anna, who is engaged in a mental battle with Ben and appears to be outmatched. All around them, babies, dogs, and other children are affected by the energies being produced by this battle of the minds. This “final battle” is filled with suspense, because the exact nature of the violence is telepathic and unseen. The escalation is only exhibited by the barking dogs, crying babies, and children who stop playing and pay attention. Ida finally reaches Anna and takes her hand, thus compounding their powers, and killing Ben who comes to a quiet end, dying, alone and unnoticed, on the tire swing.
The larger picture implied by the ending of The Innocents
After Ben’s death, the girls return home in time for their mother to return from the store – the epic final battle having not lasted longer than the time it takes to buy a few groceries. Anna goes back to scribbling on her Magnadoodle – an activity that the filmmakers used earlier to indicate her sudden increase in communicative ability with Aisha’s help. Through their connection, the constant scribbling in circles and erasing turned into identifiable, purposeful images. When the mother returns from the store, the scribbling continues as before, but in the last moments of the movie, Anna lifts the pen and takes a long pause, as if she has channeled someone new.
The way the final battle and subsequent scene play out indicate that all children have powers. None of the adults present picked up on the energy, but every single child eventually stopped what they were doing – even stepping onto balconies from apartments hundreds of feet away – to witness the scene between Anna, Ida, and Ben, and as soon as the battle was over, went right back to what they had been doing. Since none of them touched the girls, it is unclear as to whether they joined energy with the girls or just looked on, but they all clearly sensed the energy surge. With Anna’s behavior at the end repeating the first time she had a telepathic connection, the filmmaker seems to be suggesting there is at least another child out there with telekinetic powers that Anna has tapped into. The question is, do all children have abilities, or can they just sense them?
The Innocents premiered on Shudder August 18th and is currently available to stream.
Is creepy kids the ultimate in scary? If not, what is? Give us your thoughts in the comments section.