Writer/Director Eskil Vogt’s The Innocents delivers one of the more complex and disturbing depictions of childhood in recent memory (read my review).
A seemingly ordinary summer vacation at the playground becomes anything but when a group of children discovers emerging supernatural abilities. Their innocent play and exploration quickly take a dark turn.
Vogt, who co-wrote Thelma, is no stranger to using superpowers to explore morally complicated characters and treating them with empathy. It makes for a vastly different approach to the subgenre of creepy kids, though the filmmaker makes a case for why The Innocents doesn’t belong in that category.
Bloody Disgusting spoke with Vogt ahead of The Innocents’ release to discuss his approach to horror, blurring the lines of morality and breaking one of horror’s biggest taboos.
The Innocents takes time to flesh out its central characters: Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum), Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), Ben (Sam Ashraf), and Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim).
Vogt wanted to evoke childhood before layering in horror.
“What was the most important thing for me, I think, and what I spent the most time talking about with my cinematographer was more than I wanted to make a scary movie; I wanted to make a movie that captured some of the feelings of being a child. That meant not always doing the scary thing and sometimes doing the more real thing or capturing some detail that a kid would do and an adult would never. And just being in that moment, even if that has no plot function, you have that close-up of the kid picking at the scab and putting it in her mouth. Most people would have done that at some point. That means they might remember that feeling, watching that. The movie feels more real, it feels more grounded, and you’re more invested in it. I wanted that to be part of it before the movie goes into the scarier part. I wanted people to invest themselves and their childhood feelings into the movie. That was important to me not to let the horror elements take complete control over the characters in the story and let more of that come out of the characters. Let that evolve from the characters.”
The Innocents frames the narrative solely from the children’s perspective; the adults exist peripherally. That shift means it doesn’t quite fit into the “creepy kid” subgenre.
Vogt explains, “When people talk about the movie, I understand that they need to describe it, and sometimes they use the creepy kids, the scary kids kind of thing, which is a genre in itself. But for me, that genre is about being with the adults, and the kids are so scary in those movies because you don’t know them. You have no idea what they’re thinking. They might look cute, but they have this evil gleam in their eyes, and they might be possessed by the devil.
“That’s not my movie. I wanted to be with the kids in their circle and understand them. That meant that the adults were in the background, the adults that came and did these cameos where they tried to control their kids’ lives, but they had no idea what the kids were doing, so it felt superficial. That came out of that need to be with the kids and understand the kids. That was the priority.”
The focus on the children as they navigate the moral repercussions of their powers means that good and evil aren’t so binary. Vogt realized it wasn’t so simple for his characters.
“When I watch a horror movie, I can be very entertained by the black and white of the evil, the boogeyman, or whatever. It makes for great cinema. But when I make it, I’m confronted with the fact that I don’t believe in good and evil in a way. For me, it’s just words that describe impulses and feelings we’re all struggling with or trying to control to be socially acceptable human beings. Even adults can’t even control their anger. We can’t expect a 10-year-old boy to control his anger. That needed to be part of it for me. Step away from that Catholic tradition in horror films that it’s black and white, and God and the devil and those things, and keep it to be more an inner drama that all the characters have. They’re all good and evil in my movie, I think.”
Because of the emphasis on the characters and their arcs, Vogt realized he needed to keep viewers on their toes. He succeeded with a gruesome horror taboo involving a stray animal.
“Compared to most scary movies, my movie is a slow burn in the beginning because I need to take the time to establish the feeling of childhood, the characters and because the threat is not external. It comes from the characters, so it needs to evolve. That means that at some point, something has to happen. That was the moment with the cat because it’s about how these kids find each other and test those limits of what’s allowed.
“You need to prepare yourself for everything because, for some reason, that is more taboo than killing and chopping up a baby to show some, even if everyone knows it’s not real. I mean, we never, we didn’t hurt the cat. But still, people need to be reassured about that because it’s taboo. When that happens, people are like, ‘Okay, I’m not safe here. This movie is taking me somewhere where, and I need to pay attention because bad things can happen here.’”
When asked whether The Innocents could exist within the same universe as Thelma, Vogt answered, “It’s interesting. The idea for The Innocents came in early stages while we were brainstorming for what became Thelma, but Joachim [Trier] wasn’t that interested. Maybe because he hadn’t become a father yet, it was just one of those ideas that dropped to the floor but then later came back to me, and maybe because I am a father, I felt more connected to that than he did. But yeah, maybe we make an extended universe. Maybe the Scandi supernatural universe of something. Isn’t that what you’re doing now?”
The Innocents (review) in theaters and On Demand on May 13, 2022.