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Who Knows What Evil Lurks . . .

July 15, 1993|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly writes about film for The Times Orange County Edition.

Dennis the Menace is a bad boy. He stomps on Mr. Wilson's flowers and gets into mischief around town. Behind those freckles lurks a modern Katzenjammer Kid. The chiefs at Warner Bros. hope his small-fry deviltry will bring the crowds in for their just-released movie based on the famously annoying comic strip.

Now, if only Dennis was up to murdering someone--or at least able to summon the hordes of Hades with a wink. This meager mayhem just won't do; Dennis may be a brat, but some of the kids from Hollywood's past were real troublemakers.

Take the pretty little girl from "The Bad Seed." She could kill with a coy smile, innocently ask her mother, "How many kisses for how many hugs?" and then move on to her next maniac moment. Don't like a school chum? Drowning can work. How about that nosy gardener? Hey, how fast do men in dungarees burn? I remember my mother looking at me oddly the first time we saw this film on TV, when I was about 7 or 8.

The motivations behind the plot of Mervyn Leroy's 1956 picture are murky--something about a genetic predisposition to violence--but this tiny psychopath, played by Patty McCormack, is a chilling creature. She's a Hitchcock monster in pigtails. If Dennis the Menace gets on your nerves, just daydream about sending him to this sprite's next birthday party.

Oh well, some kids can't help being mean; it's just in their makeup. Damien is a handsome boy--oh, maybe a bit on the moody side, but what beautiful brown eyes! Too bad he's the Antichrist; that's going to make it hard to find friends in elementary school.

We first met Damien in "The Omen," which came out in 1976 and starred Gregory Peck and Lee Remick as the parents with more than a bundle of joy on their hands. With Lucifer as your real father-figure, celestial-sized mayhem can't be far behind. Damien fills his childhood moments with decapitations and other romper-room amusements. He was even more ambitious (and older) in the three "Omen" sequels that followed.

Not one of the towheaded beasts in "Village of the Damned" are lovable tykes. These super-potent children appeared ordinary enough (except their flinty eyes glowed whenever they wanted to dust someone) in this 1960 British import, but they gave major headaches to everybody living in their small country burg.

How did they get there? With horror flicks, you never ask the tough questions, but it had something to do with a vile spell that impregnated all the fertile women in town. (This was another movie that unnerved my mom.) The picture had a mediocre sequel, "Children of the Damned," in 1964.

A truly lousy adaptation of Stephen King's "Children of the Corn" came out in 1984, but it's worth mentioning for two reasons: The adult couple at the mercy of these juvenile delinquent cultists are as stupid as they come (so stupid, you enjoy watching them fall prey to these ghastly brats), and the plot about some sort of cranky cornstalk god is as dumb as mud. There's minor pleasure in observing how terrible Hollywood can be.

The Dead End Kids (later, after growing up some, they became the Bowery Boys) weren't evil, but they were larcenous, the product of post-Depression scrappiness. Huntz Hall, Bernard Punsley, Leo Gorcey and Gabe Dell, the main dead-enders, made a few pictures in the '30s, the best being "Angels With Dirty Faces" (1938) and "Dead End" (1937).

They were tough, and barely likable, in both, starring opposite James Cagney and Pat O'Brien in "Angels" and Humphrey Bogart and Sylvia Sidney in "Dead End." Hall played the clown and Gorcey played the hot-air tough. Funny guys, as long as you ignored the switchblades hidden in their back pockets.

Anyway, all the Dead End Kids added up could never equal the grisly cuteness of the biggest miniature-sized star ever, Shirley Temple. A pudgy-faced abomination, she didn't need to curse or wield weapons to make us nervous--all Shirley had to do was sing, dance and recite her honeyed lines with that pouty way of hers.

There she was, making pots and pots of money for Hollywood, in such hits as "Little Miss Marker," (1934), "Curly Top" (1935) and "Heidi" (1937). Wholesome as oatmeal, all-American as a stale firecracker, frightening as an ultra-precocious child let loose on a nation. My mother always thought Shirley was a bit much, but adorable just the same. She gave me nightmares; how could any kid live up to her?

No youngster could live up to Anthony Fremont in the "It's a Good Life" episode of television's "The Twilight Zone," but we wished we could. The notorious 1961 show (available on video, as are all the titles mentioned here) starred bug-eyed Billy Mumy as a rural boy who could make unpleasant things happen, from bloody dinosaur battles in the living room to permanent banishment of unappreciative grown-ups "into the cornfield."

Anthony was a parent's worst fear, the offspring who never has to do anything he's told. He could read minds and he demanded happy thoughts. If Anthony made a two-headed freak out of the neighbor's pet, well, so what? You smiled, said, "That's a good thing you did, Anthony," and hoped that was the end of it.

Mothers and fathers across the country must have shuddered; I know mine did. Kids, though, we just grinned, giddily thinking about that cornfield.

Dennis the Menace, meet Anthony Fremont. And pay attention--you might learn something.

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