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Joshua: Sibling devilry 

Echoes of Rosemary's Baby scream at tepid thriller

As demon children go, 9-year-old Joshua (Jacob Kogan) isn't the worst of the lot. He's a great pianist. He walks the dog without prompting.

But then there's the little matter of tampering with his mother's postpartum-depression medication. And the hamsters that tend to go belly-up the minute Joshua starts "tending" them.

Directed by George Ratliff, Joshua delivers a Manhattan Gothic that borrows heavily from Roman Polanski's 1968 horror classic, Rosemary's Baby. Here sophisticated New Yorkers Brad (Sam Rockwell) and Abby Cairn (Vera Farmiga) would appear to have every reason to be blissfully happy. They're rich. They have the kind of apartment generally seen in design magazines. And they have two children, newborn Lily and prep-school genius Joshua. Sure, one of them – the titular dour bastard – is a tightly wound creep who seems to prefer throat-crushing, button-down oxfords, Beethoven, Egyptian funeral rites and appears to be trying to drive his parents crazy.

But he does well in school.

Some parents might have him committed.

Others might up his allowance.

Joshua attempts to inspire dread from the sight of this studious, black-haired kid with an ax to grind over the attention heaped on the arrival home of his newborn baby sister, which leaves Joshua suddenly the odd child out. As the film progresses, the increasingly ludicrous story inspires disbelief.

Unlike the mesmerizing performances by Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes in Rosemary's Baby, Farmiga and Rockwell are incessantly irritating yuppies, so entranced by their new bundle of joy that Joshua is pushed to the margins like an abandoned toy. Even more unbelievable than a homicidal 9-year-old is a couple this frisky and fun during the days of lost sleep and breast pumps. In some ways, their son's desire to get rid of them seems justified.

Despite its snarky contemporary tone and Sundance Film Festival origins, Joshua is one of the less interesting devil kids in the bloated genre of American "terrible children" movies. Instead of offering insight into parental anxiety or the vanities of well-heeled new parents, Ratliff's film milks a cultural dirty little secret, of dislike of children – especially ones beyond the "cute" years – by suggesting our dislike is legitimate.

Along with their zombies, serial killers, transvestites and homicidal white trash, American horror films have had a long-standing love affair with the idea of devil brats. In this fertile subgenre of horror, films such as The Exorcist, The Omen, The Bad Seed, It's Alive and Village of the Damned feature kiddies who go beyond tantrums and spilled milk into murder and mayhem. In capable hands, such as Polanski's, the demon baby can feel richly psychological: a treatise on our cultural fear of women, pregnancy and the freakish extent of a mother's love.

In less inspired hands, such as Ratliff's, kiddie horror feels like an expression of our cultural bad self: our tendency to demonize and vilify that which is different and vulnerable.

In an effort to play with the Rosemary's Baby formula, instead of devil-worshipping neighbors giving the new parents something to fear, Brad and Abby find a nemesis in an evangelical Christian. Brad's mother, Hazel (Junebug's deliciously earthy Celia Weston), wants to render Joshua born again despite the objections of Abby, who is Jewish.

Hazel is also just the kind of Southern Bible-thumper meant to really spook hip Manhattanites. Suggesting the film Junebug fast-forwarded to 10 years later, here the urbanites have escaped the South only to have to grapple with the return of the repressed in the form of this proselytizing mother-in-law. Ratliff at least seems to know whereof he speaks when it comes to overzealously religious Southerners; the University of Texas grad directed 2001's Hell House, the superior 2001 documentary about an evangelical haunted house in Texas.

Though Joshua aspires to some of that Rosemary's Baby sense of icy, psychological horror, more often the film feels like mean-spirited schlock in a glossy wrapping. Ratliff builds his uneasy, tonally ambiguous film toward increasingly foreboding terror that never pays the expected dividends but instead takes a final, out-of-nowhere detour into camp.

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