The Good Son (1993) **½
In some other review way back when, I called the evil child subgenre one of horror’s classiest neighborhoods. The biggest reason for that classiness, I think, is that it really isn’t possible to talk about a killer kid formula the way you can discuss the slasher formula, the zombie formula, the animal attack formula, and so on. Even such conceptually similar movies as The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane and The Bad Seed reveal more significant differences than significant commonalities upon close examination, largely because perspective matters even more in the evil child subgenre than it does in general. Children, after all, are rarely free agents in the sense that adults are. Dealing with kids almost necessarily means dealing with their families, too— and even when there is no family, that absence itself is of paramount importance. Under most circumstances, a prepubescent psychopath can’t plausibly be treated as a lone nut, and stories of this type are therefore practically forced to deal with their villains’ social lives, to confront the question of how they conceal their crimes from their parents, their teachers, their siblings, their classmates. Meanwhile, the dynamics of family life are such that choosing one participant over another to act as the eyes and ears of the audience leaves even a bad writer no choice but to think clearly about the needs of the story. You can’t just say, “We’ll do The Bad Seed, only we’ll give our ersatz Rhoda a little brother, and tell it from his point of view;” the shift in perspective alone turns it into a whole new tale, because the mother of a killer child would relate to the situation in a completely different way than would a younger sibling. The Good Son gives us still another arrangement, with still another set of ramifications. Instead of an evil little girl, it gives us an evil little boy, and its viewpoint character is effectively a resident alien within the family unit, a cousin who has come to live with the pint-sized predator’s parents while his own father is out of the country on business.
Mark Evans’s mother (Minority Report’s Ashley Crow) is dying. Neither Mark (Elijah Wood, from The Faculty and Deep Impact) nor his father, Wallace (Daniel Hugh Kelly, of Cujo and Star Trek: Insurrection), wants to believe that, but there’s really no getting around it. When the inevitable happens, Mark is unable to accept his loss, and he is furthermore haunted by the brave, rash, and thoroughly juvenile promise he made to her that he personally would see to it that she survived and recovered from her illness. It’s easy enough for an adult to say that Mark’s vow was never a realistic one, and that he therefore bears no responsibility for his “failure,” but eleven-year-old logic doesn’t work the same way as grown-up logic. In the months following the funeral, Mark grows increasingly withdrawn, and clings ever tighter to the notion that his mother is going to “come back”— by which he seems to mean approximately what Jesus Franco did when he called Lina Romay “a little bit of a reincarnation” of Soledad Miranda. Wallace is very concerned about his son, worrying specifically about the effects of his frequent business travel on Mark’s recovery. In particular, Wallace is scheduled to spend the last few weeks of the summer in Tokyo, but this hardly seems like a good time for a prolonged separation from Mark. Wallace’s brother, Jack (David Morse, from 12 Monkeys and Contact), has a somewhat different take on the Tokyo venture, however. Whatever Wallace is negotiating with the Japanese promises to make so much money down the line that he could put the hustling-and-scrabbling phase of his career permanently behind him. Consequently, this sojourn abroad, ill-timed though it may be, could put a virtual end to such things in the future, making Wallace more accessible to Mark in the long run. Jack is eager to help that happen any way he can, even offering to take Mark in for the duration of the trip. It’s still a difficult decision, but Wallace eventually concludes that Jack has the right idea. Even so, he hedges his bet just a little by arranging regular therapy sessions with Dr. Alice Davenport (Jacqueline Brooks, of Ghost Story and The Entity), a psychiatrist who practices in the town where Jack’s family lives.
That family consists of Jack’s wife, Susan (Wendy Crewson, from Skinwalkers and The Covenant), and two children: Henry (Macaulay Culkin) and Connie (Quinn Culkin, also Macaulay’s sister in real life). There’d have been a third kid, too, had Mark come to live with this parallel Evans clan a year or two earlier, but little brother Richard drowned in the bathtub, and is now represented only by his empty bedroom, which Susan has maintained exactly as he left it ever since. Anyway, all concerned are instantly welcoming toward Mark (so much so that Mark quickly begins seeing in Susan that longed-for reincarnation of his mom), but it’s Henry who is most visibly excited by his arrival. That’s natural enough— the two boys are roughly the same age, having just reached the developmental stage at which friendship comes to be less about having a playmate than about having someone to help puzzle out how life after childhood is supposed to work. Henry, as a rather peculiar kid in a small town, probably didn’t have a whole lot of social options before Mark came along, so his cousin’s advent is a major turnaround for him.
Okay, so let’s talk about Henry’s peculiarity for a bit. The most obvious manifestation is that he’s an inveterate tinker, and a damn good one at that. The next most obvious is that he’s an equally inveterate risk-taker, with a morbid streak a mile wide. Take Henry’s treehouse as an example of both tendencies. To begin with, it’s an impressively ambitious feat of garbage-tech engineering, made all the more so by the fact that Henry almost certainly built it totally unaided. At the same time, the branch system that supports it is at least 50 feet off the ground, and gaining access to it from the top of the plank ladder nailed into the trunk below requires a flourish of gymnastics that has to be considered life-threatening at that altitude. Mark comes very close to a fatal fall the first time Henry takes him up to the treehouse, and although Henry catches him like it’s no big deal, it very plainly is. Henry’s words as he hoists Mark to safety aren’t exactly the first thing I’d want to hear from my new bestest pal under the circumstances, either: “If I let you go, do you think you could fly?”
Needless to say, Jack and Susan take a distinctly hands-off approach to parenting. There’s no indication that they know about the death-trap treehouse, or the stash of cigarettes that Henry keeps hidden under the rim of the old well beside the local cemetery, or the guard dog he makes a habit of provoking into chasing him down by the docks. And while Susan at least is aware that Henry spends a lot of his time sequestered in the dilapidated shed just beyond the fence that defines the rather vast Evans property, it will come as news to her later on when she discovers that he’s converted the place into a sort of kiddie-league mad lab. Some of the things Henry makes in that lab have decidedly sinister implications, too— as Mark learns when Henry excitedly shows off the crossbow he cobbled together from an ingenious variety of junk. (My favorite touch: the trigger mechanism started life as the handbrake of a ten-speed bicycle.) Clearly inspired by descriptions of late-Medieval arbalests, the device uses a crank and gear to set the firing wire, and it launches its hex-bolt ammunition at sufficient velocity to penetrate the bark of a mature hardwood tree. Or, alternately, you might say that Henry’s crossbow is powerful enough to fell a good-sized marina guard dog with a single shot. Now it’s just barely possible that Henry didn’t mean to kill that dog (he says he still hasn’t quite perfected the sight on his crossbow, after all), but there’s no mistaking his intentions a few days later, when he tosses a stuffed dummy off of a highway overpass, touching off a chain-reaction wreck that cascades for hundreds of yards down the main road into town. The only question there is whether or not Henry is disappointed that evening, when the TV news astonishingly reports that nobody died as a result of his antics.
That, as you might imagine, causes Mark to reevaluate his relationship with his cousin. It also leads him to take a closer look at how Henry interacts with the other members of his family— and, for that matter, at the story of Richard’s drowning. How far might a kid with Henry’s taste for mayhem be willing to take sibling rivalry? And if Henry really did kill his baby brother, what does that imply for the future well-being of Connie, for whom he displays little patience and less affection? The most troubling thing of all, though, is Henry’s attitude toward Mark’s growing suspicions. Henry is well aware of the black speculations taking shape in his visiting cousin’s head, and he’s happy to encourage them so long as no adults are around to see it. Indeed, as Autumn approaches, Henry starts acting like a junior high John Ryder, essentially daring Mark to stop him even as he patiently sets things up so that Mark will look like the crazy one when the terror campaign begins in earnest.
There’s some indication that The Good Son represented a deliberate effort— whether on Macaulay Culkin’s part or on that of his father (who was also his manager at the time)— to put some distance between Culkin and the Home Alone movies. If that really was the aim, it would be hard to imagine a better vehicle for bringing it about. From theoretically adorable scamp to preteen sociopath in one easy step, right? The thing is, though, that it is precisely Culkin’s lingering Home Alone fame that makes his performance here as successful as it is. We’re already used to seeing him outwit and outmaneuver adults in a slapstick comedy context, so what we have here is really just a tonal inversion of familiar material; Henry Evans ends up looking exactly like Kevin McCallister’s evil twin. That resonance significantly strengthens what is otherwise a fairly stiff and overbroad performance, and elevates the handful of scenes that Culkin gets really right to perhaps the back porch of greatness, if not actually to greatness itself. Foremost among the latter is the ice-skating “accident” that nearly claims Connie’s life. The studious demeanor with which Henry regards his sister’s struggles beneath the ice while pretending to try to rescue her is far more horrifying than the excess of malicious glee that accompanies the highway sabotage earlier. It may not be “Patty McCormick on roller skates” good, but it’s awfully damned effective nonetheless.
Paradoxically, Elijah Wood, who acts rings around Culkin by any ordinary standard, doesn’t come across nearly as well, although the problem lies more in the writing than in Wood’s performance. To cite only the most glaring example, Mark’s conviction that Susan and his mother are somehow the same person simply isn’t credible coming from a kid Wood’s age, and it does the movie real harm as the bond between Mark and his aunt grows in importance. Wood himself may have noticed the incongruity, too, because he frequently conveys a vague impression that he was trying to act younger than his actual age, but overshot the target a little. Then again, we’d see rather a lot of exaggeratedly wide-eyed innocence from Wood a decade later in the Lord of the Rings movies, too, so maybe that’s just his default performance setting. What Wood does consistently sell is Mark’s ever-escalating sense of himself as the big brother Connie deserves— one who loves, protects, and looks out for her, instead of plotting her death via cleverly engineered accidents. Over-the-top earnestness is exactly what that aspect of The Good Son’s story requires, even if it isn’t such a good fit with some of the other stuff that goes on in this film.
Finally, I’d like to say a few words about The Good Son’s ending, which does a lot to redeem what might be the movie’s biggest fault. Like I said before, Jack and Susan have a remarkably detached parenting style— so detached, in fact, that it quickly starts to strain audience credulity. Virtually everything Henry does he gets away with only because his mom and dad are paying absolutely no attention, and to the film’s great detriment, there isn’t any outwardly apparent reason for their obliviousness. Jack doesn’t appear to keep crazy hours at the office, and unlike his brother, he has no job commitments dragging him out of town for extended periods, at least so far as can be seen from the few weeks of his life that we get to observe. Susan, meanwhile, doesn’t appear to work outside the home at all. These people ought to notice something, no matter how great their philosophical commitment to permitting their children to have their own private lives. Fortunately, the last act belatedly makes a plot point of all the missed signals, creating at the same time an interesting counterpoint between Mark’s efforts to stop Henry as a nearly powerless peer and Susan’s dawning awareness of the ghastly turn that her parental responsibilities are about to take. When the ending proper ties the two threads solidly together, the result is a bit heavy-handed, but it’s heavy-handed in a way springs organically from how everything leading up to it had been handled. It even makes a stab at redeeming that silly business about Susan’s surrogate motherhood of Mark, albeit not an entirely successful one. And if nothing else, I have to give The Good Son’s ending credit for being just about the nastiest thing that I can remember a non-“serious” Hollywood movie putting a mother through in the early 1990’s, which outside of The Silence of the Lambs were a pretty toothless period for horror and suspense films. You all know by now that that sort of thing goes a long way with me, right?