With a new film version by Stephen King fire starter just arrived and a third adaptation of his novel Salem’s Lot Along the way, it’s worth wondering if the developers will ever run out of King material to recycle or reboot. Eventually, when they reach a point where returns on reuse of the same material are falling — and with King books now being mined for TV miniseries on every streaming network from HBO Max to Epix, they might — at least have the option of stories to do about it feel like classics by Stephen King. stranger things, a series openly inspired by King’s work, is the most prominent and successful example, while projects like midnight fair or marrowbone often capture one aspect or another of King’s work. And the terrifying new horror movie The innocent feels more like a King story than most actual adaptations of his work.
There’s no model for what “a Stephen King story” feels like — the same man wrote the streamlined fantasy novel eyes of the dragonthe richly detailed post-apocalyptic epic the boothand the monster-free coming-of-age story “The Body”, later adapted as Stand by Me. The innocent King feels special in the Kids in Trouble mode, which he brought to stories as different as he did necessary things, The Institute, Itand yes, fire starter — all stories of children struggling to deal with threats well beyond their realm of experience, with the adults around them proving to be at best helpless and at worst harmful.
Written and directed by Norwegian Eskil Vogt (co-author to frequent maker of best-of-2021 lists The worst person in the world), The innocent follows a group of children as they control their growing supernatural powers. But while that description may seem a little familiar in an era of Young Super stories, by light burn to raise Dion to Midnight Special, The innocent‘ Execution is specific and refreshing. Vogt makes deliberate, thoughtful choices that add to the story’s drama and horror without ever turning it into the kind of action-centric special effects that Americans have come to expect from even their low-budget superpower stories. And he channels a particularly King-esque sense of horror as the kids come to understand how useless the adults are in their lives and how alone it leaves them.
Rakel Lenora Fløttum plays Ida, an 8-year-old Norwegian girl whose family has just moved to an apartment complex in a new town after her father got a new job. Ida’s parents are loving and supportive, but her time is heavily occupied by moving house and by Ida’s autistic older sister, Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), who is non-verbal, preoccupied with sounds and textures. Regularly tasked with looking after Anna while her parents are busy, Ida clearly sees it as a burden and mild embarrassment, especially as she clumsily tries to make new friends in a new place.
As Ida begins to bond with local boy Ben (Sam Ashraf), Anna finds her own mate in a younger girl, Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), who can communicate with her telepathically. It turns out that Ben also has weak psychic powers, but when the four children are together, they quickly become stronger. It’s never clear where these skills come from, or if their exponential growth is the result of group proximity or practice. But their rapid development has troubling consequences when one of the four begins to use their growing abilities to become violent – and lacks adult moral boundaries to constrain what comes next.
This setup sounds a bit like Josh Trank’s faux-found footage Supers film from 2012 timelinebut in execution The innocent ends up feeling a lot more like Tomas Alfredson’s low-key 2008 vampire film Let the right one in. The children’s performances are naturalistic and understated, and the writing makes them feel a lot more like movie kids than movie kids usually do. They don’t like to talk about their feelings or make big, meaningful statements that raise important issues about power and responsibility. They respond to the world instinctively and mostly internally, expressing themselves through actions rather than explanations.
At times, the naturalistic approach makes the film seem slow and unfocused. The glacial development of children’s powers leads to a lot of repetition as they experiment and interact. Fear lurks throughout most of the film, from the opening sequence where Ida hurts Anna just to see her reaction, to a climax that’s all the more startling for being so understated. But that fear never resolves to a degree large enough to feel cathartic — a thing that marks The innocent as different from his apparent inspirations. Even Let the right one in had his own version of an explosive finale.
One of the most remarkable (and Stephen King-esque) things about The innocent it’s so unsentimental about childhood. The film implies that children are just as likely to commit atrocities as adults – they are limited only by their lack of power and prejudice. Where films often see children as taboo, targets for the worst of whatever lurks in the dark, Vogt visits most of his worst horrors, as the title suggests, innocents. The horror elements are understated but sharp – there’s a range of animal cruelty that pet owners might find hard to stomach, and the fact that it’s clearly intended to evoke a character’s childish lack of empathy and ignorance of the consequences makes for a plus it only makes me more nervous. And the children’s association is no safer when it gets dark.
At the same time, there’s a compelling and particularly chilling sense that nothing that happens in the film particularly surprises you. These children are young enough to still expect new experiences every day and be confused, without the ability to tell the difference between an everyday event and one that would baffle even an adult. Just the way Ida never really thinks about telling her mother the truth about what’s going on in her life is a source of small, everyday scares for a sensitive audience.
For patient viewers – the kind of audience who enjoy King’s most expansive thousand-page books for the way they gradually create thoroughly immersive environments and characters – The innocent is a miracle. The child cast is believable and engaging, all the more so as they seem to be living through those childhood days of fear and wonder rather than playing them in front of a camera. That’s true, although this camera – courtesy of cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen – is unusually active, closing in on Fløttum’s face as she tries to process new threats or new information, spinning upside down to unsettle viewers and to confuse.
But performance and craftsmanship aside, The innocent is mesmerizing for its particular approach to the banality of evil, the everyday feeling that no one ever fully knows what’s going on in someone else’s mind. Parents here do not know that their children are engaged in a life and death struggle. The children cannot see how badly they need help and intervention. Only the audience knows everything and sees – early on and with a slowly building sense of sickening inevitability – where this supernatural conflict leads. It’s the kind of perspective King manages brilliantly, but here it comes with a sense of lulling stillness and slow-burning stillness as frightening as any of the third-act explosions he’s ever written.
The innocent runs in a limited theatrical version and can be rented or bought Amazon, vuduand other digital platforms.
https://www.polygon.com/23106917/the-innocents-review-horror The Innocents Review: Creepy slow-burn horror from the Stephen King school