Films about a demon-child – either possessed by, or directly related to the devil as in the Omen films, or emotionally wonky brats with an intense self-preservation urge - have a tendency to showcase outrageous behaviour that make the monster-child a bit of a cartoon character.
The Bad Seed (1956) is probably the granddaddy of demon-child films, with Rhoda being a loud, grating shrew who stomps over unsympathetic victims trapped in their laughable, melodramatic lives. The original stage play, with its expressive characters and maudlin performances, were retained for the film version, making it difficult to believe such a repulsive child and such stupid parents and relatives could exist. Of course, that made the film rather fun kitsch, but Rhoda could never develop into a deep character because even though she's a fiercely independent force, she's also incapable of maturing into an adult because she's quite content being a glowering, power-hungry brat.
The flipside is The Omen, which has a child barely capable of speech or much independent actions beyond knocking his mother over the banister. Because of Damien's physical and mental immaturity, it's the adults who do all the plotting and fighting which sets the stage for Satan's little spawn to grow into his role as the leader and instigator of Armageddon (as mapped out in two sequels where he's a teen, and then an egomaniacal adult). His future is therefore inherently grandiose and epic, but being tied to one specific faith, it also makes him frightening to a more select class of believers, whereas most audiences probably feel the arrival of the antichrist is a silly myth.
Neither the screaming melodrama of The Bad Seed nor the religious doom-and-gloom underpinnings of the Omen films have much basis in everyday reality, and the makers of Joshua seem to have realized a demon-child's impact on the world is more believable when the assault is simple, low-key, and local.
Before Joshua enacts a brutal plan to tear down his family unit, he expresses misgivings about himself and his parents' love in private one-on-one conversations with his mom and dad (something admittedly even the teen Damien did as he struggled with his position as Satan's child in Damien: Omen II), and we initially feel sympathetic for the ‘weird' little child prodigy when he's pushed to the sidelines after his sister's birth; even his piano practicing proves disruptive to the bliss his parents feel as they pour all of their attention on their newborn, filming every coo and gurgle with the video camera; and whereas they want to hear nursery rhymes, little Joshua would rather focus on a deconstruction of Bartok.
George Ratliff and co-writer David Gilbert
have fashioned their tale after classic seventies shockers that mandated audience patience in order for the slow-mounting unease to affect audiences before the final payoff - which usually consisted of a single reaction shot that delivered more horror that a grand special effects sequence.
Ratliff's style also draws from his own experience as a documentarian, and while a visually polished film, there's an intriguing mix of staid shots that convey the family's elegant NYC apartment, and subtle hand-held shots that avoid being showy, but add a strange gritty reality to the film's frequent raw, emotional scenes.
On the DVD's commentary track, the filmmakers prefer to asses their film as an elaborate dramatization of post-partum depression which affected Joshua's mother right after the boy's birth, and re-affects her when Joshua seizes on her vulnerabilities by setting up a chain of events that bring the whole nightmarish feelings right back again, causing the father to relive the anger and fury he secretly hoped wouldn't return after their daughter's birth.
Even though Joshua is nine, his plotting is as intricate and elaborate as his deconstruction of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' at a school recital. It initially sounds like a series of unrelated notes, but as Joshua's favourite uncle realizes, they're precise tonal points deliberately chosen by his gifted nephew. “Twinkle, Twinkle” becomes the metaphorical architecture of Joshua's plan, where strange disparate events ultimately converge to destroy the last obstacle in the boy's goal to create his own idyllic family unit where he will always be the favored one.
There's a reaction shot that nails the level of evil that's affected the family, and it's the reverse angle of Roman Polanski's money shot in Rosemary's Baby: instead of the mother reeling back from the unseen horror of her demon-child (another spawn of Satan, transforming the film into another elaborate albeit urbanized myth), Ratliff chose to cover the child's victory expression, which sends his parental aggressor into a public rage; and unlike the horror that filled Mia Farrow's giant eyes in Rosemary's Baby (punctuated by a mocking brass wail by composer Christopher Komeda), Ratliff holds on the boy's demonic grin to show us the horror that sends the parent into a rage, and he dials down dialogue and sound effects so Nico Muhly's score can make a final statement on the elaborate game Joshua has clearly won in a public court.
Joshua has its slow spots – it takes a while before Joshua's plan finally begins to move forward, but unlike Birth (2004), another slow-paced, NYC-set film that addresses the destruction of a family caused by a strange child bearing his own weird vision of reality, the scenes of discord and the parents' attempts to rebuild their lives aren't disconnected, and they form important links in the film's plot. (Birth also relied on one exchange of unintelligible dialogue to clear up the film's mystery, whereas in Joshua, we know everything is tied to a battle of wits between the son and his initially blindsided parents.)
Identical in content to the Fox DVD in the U.S. , Maple's Canadian disc offers a clean transfer of the film with a robust 5.1 sound mix that flatters the fine score by newcomer Nico Muhly; bereft of popular conventions, Muhly's score supports scenes with a refreshingly discrete and subtle approach to suspense and horror.
Among the extras, the commentary track is the most prominent and the most disappointing; Ratliff and co-writer Gilbert are far too casual, and don't use the film as a venue to discuss their careers in great detail, the struggle to get the film made, or follow through with solid, detailed explanations of specific aspects of their script. It's not a bad track; just bland, with too many minor comments on as-they-happen scenes, with minor and cast production anecdotes, and many felicitous nods towards their cast.
The Cast & Crew Interviews are basic actorly statements on their characters, of which Jacob Kogan is the most interesting because the child actor is very precise and articulate in his views on his character and the script. The film's co-producer and production designer make brief appearances, but their comments are pretty negligible and sometimes repetitive. Additional cast interviews used for the film's internet promotion campaign add some further reflections by the actors, and Kogan's original audition shows the actor's innate intensity which director Ratliff used to shape a very chilling performance.
Also of note is a music video of “Fly” by composer/performer Dave Matthews. (The song is performed by Kogan in the final scene that sums up his clever ‘life-plan.') There's also a short gallery of deleted scenes, including a longer edit of the museum sequence, from which unused shots appeared in the theatrical trailer.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan