Sunday, 7 March 2010

The Children (1980)


Having a kid in a horror film is a bad sign. They are dumb and they are lousy in a fight, but you know they are going to survive because the filmmakers usually lack the balls to kill them off. Instant tension deflation. This one of the reasons I like the "killer kid" subgenre. Here kids can get shot, stabbed, beaten, you name it. All bets are off. There's also something profoundly creepy about malevolent children. It's interesting to see a film that uses our obsession with childhood innocence and "kid wisdom" (ie crippling ignorance and self absorption) against us. The Children probably isn't the best example of the genre, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

The film takes place in the small New England town of Ravensback. Thanks to two lazy technicians at the local nuclear power plant, a radioactive cloud leaks onto the local highway (no doubt inspired by the still-fresh incident at Three Mile Island), contaminating a school bus and turning the half-a-dozen children on board into mindless zombies with an unquenchable thirst... for hugs! Normally this wouldn't be too bad, but these kids also have the ability to flash-fry someone with a touch of their fingertips. You can't hug with nuclear arms. The radioactive children are easily identified by their emotionless faces, pale skin and black fingernails. Good thing the goth look hadn't taken off yet, or things could have been a lot worse.

Sherriff Billy Hart is the first to find the abandoned bus, and sets about the grim task of informing the parents. Strangely it seems all the parents in the town are liberal weirdos who don't show the slightest measure of concern about their childrens' disappearance. One boy's parents are a lesbian couple, one a catatonic painkiller addict and the other an extremely irritable woman who seems mostly annoyed by the Sherriff's news and only heads out to the abandoned bus under severe protest. Later she is burned to a crisp by her own son. The Sherriff finds another girl's mother smoking dope and lounging topless by the pool. Upon being informed of her child's disappearance she remarks to her bodybuilder husband "A kidnapping in Ravensback? Oh Jack, how exciting!" Eventually they suffer the same fate. The subtext is clear, fail to conform to small-town values and your children will burn you alive.

The only parents who show any measure of distress are the relatively sane John and Kathy Freemont, although they aren't likely to win any parents-of-the-year awards either. At one point Kathy lights up a cigarette while muttering apologies to her unborn baby. Her husband is no great shakes either. In the third act of the film, John, Kathy and the Sherriff become trapped in their house Night of the Living Dead style. Despite failing to tell Kathy anything useful about their situation, John is completely shocked when Kathy clobbers the Sherriff with a vase after seeing him gun down some approaching children. Come on John, the key to a successful marriage is communication, especially during a zombie apocalypse.

John's lack of communication also comes back to bite him when Kathy sees their daughter Jenny in the front yard and rushes out to meet her. John saves Kathy, but not before Jenny burns the shit out of his hand. Jenny may be a write-off, but luckily their son Clarkie didn't catch a dose of radiation since he was absent from school with an illness. Unfortunately Clarkie is similarly ill-informed, so he lets his zombified friend in through the window. After a short game of hide-and-seek, Clarkie gets fried. This occurs off-screen, but it still surprised me as even in a film like this the only kids to die are murderous zombies.

Before the radioactive kid can do any more damage the Sherriff recovers and, having already proven that riddling the children with bullets doesn't do anything (except make me laugh), he grabs a samurai sword off the wall (I thought that only happened in Steven Seagal films) and cuts off the boy's hands. Apparently this is the source of their power because the kid goes down with an unearthly screech and the fingernails on the severed hands turn back to normal. This is a pretty big deviation from the standard "aim for the brain", but it does provide the entertaining image of grown men hacking the limbs off children with an axe, a samurai sword etc.

After all of the children have been dealt with (Jenny suffering a particularly gruesome fate at the sharp edge of a machete), the film ends with a strange epilogue that makes me wonder if they ran out of film, time, money or all three. Kathy goes into labour and while John delivers the baby there is a montage of shots including their farmhouse, a sunrise and most amusingly, a slow pan over the dead bodies of the mutilated children. After the baby is delivered John is shocked to discover that the baby has black fingernails. Dun-dun-duuun. Eat that Shyamalan.

Obviously this film will dip under the threshold of quality for most people. The special effects mostly consist of peeling latex makeup, and when one woman is burned alive it's shown through a dissolve similar to the transformation scenes from the original The Wolf Man. There's a pretty good Harry Manfredini score, but it's almost identical to his score for Friday the 13th. Acting is terrible. Still, I can still find a lot of things to recommend about it. They don't try to do anything too fancy with the story; they keep things small and self-contained, so it mostly works. The director has a good grasp of building suspense. The smiling children, walking with hands outstretched, are genuinely creepy. Plus a kid gets a point-blank shotgun blast to the chest. Recommended.

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