Saturday, March 07, 2009

Movies: The kids are all fright.

Director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's otherwise brilliant 1976 flick Who Can Kill a Child? starts off with a near fatal misstep: a tedious montage of Twentieth Century atrocities, all played out under a droning and pedantic voice, that informs us that children – won't somebody please think of the children! – are the real victims of the foolish violence of the adult world. We get footage of the Holocaust and the Vietnam War, among other things. Of course, there's no mention of the uncounted number of children that died in Spain's Civil War or the estimated 31,000 children forcibly taken into government custody and brought up in Spain's state-run indoctrination camps during Franco's reign (which had ended a year prior to the flick, so continuing fear of reprisals seems a less likely explanation for the omission than good ol' moral cowardice). First and foremost, this unnecessary lecture is painfully trite. The death of every victim in any of these various violent infernos of ideologically-driven stupidity is tragic. Did we need Serrador to remind us of this? Second, the montage is meant to serve as a sort of exposition for what follows, suggesting that we're going to see a Spartacus Jr. political revolt against oppression. While the idea is, in and of itself, not a bad premise for a story. (In fact, one of my favorite punk bands made a brilliant, if short, career out of just that premise.) The problem is that it doesn't apply to the movie Serrador made in any meaningful way as the director relies entirely on a supernatural explanation for what happens in the flick. Last, and by no means least, it serves as a sort of smart-ass answer to the question posed in the title. Who can kill a child? Apparently everybody. It seems to happen all the time. To be fair, even Serrador admits, in the interview provided in the special features of the DVD edition I watched, that he regrets opening with the montage. He feels that it should have come at the end of the flick. Rather, it should have stayed on the cutting room floor.

The first 10 minutes or so are awfully stupid, but survive the browbeating intro and you'll be treated to one of the few genuine gems of 1970s era Euro-horror. Uncanny and unsettling, stylish and well constructed, grotesque but ultimately humane, Who Can Kill a Child? partakes of the genre- and taste-punishing ethos of the best of grindhouse era horror from over the pond without demanding its viewers to dumb down or sacrifice solid storytelling for vapid stylistic flourishes.

The plot is simple, but well played. A British couple, the angular and excitable Tom and the very preggers Evelyn, are on holiday in Spain. Despite Ev's 'bout-to-pop-ness, Tom is determined that they avoid the crowds and make their way to a remote island he visited as a student researcher many years ago. Tom and Evelyn rent a boat and make their way out to the island only to find it semi-deserted. A handful of creepily silent kids watch the docks and roam the streets, but otherwise the island's principle town seems dead. Now, the average French couple or pair of vacationers from Italy would perhaps decide that a town completely devoid of adult life was a bad sign and get worried. But Brits don't give up on vacations. Mustn't grumble, after all. T & E go to find grub and shelter and, after some odd encounters with the local children, end up in a local hotel.

I don't think it quite qualifies as a spoiler to say that the children, evidencing some sort of hive mind telepathy, have off all the adults in the town and taken over. Tom learns this when he sees a handful of kids using an old man as a piñata. Literally. Only instead of a stick, they're using a sickle. Shocked and confused, Tom tries to keep a lid on things until he can think of a way out (another display of the Brits' stiff upper lip approach to demonic children and other disasters). After all, these are Spanish children – perhaps trussing up an on old man and taking whacks at him with an edged weapon is simply something these swarthy types do. It's Spain after all. Half Moor, isn't it? Barely even European. Sadly, Tom's "what problem?" approach is undermined by the appearance of a local adult who has been holed up in the hotel. Senor Exposition explains that, one night, the children just poured out into the streets. Laughing all the while, as if it were a big game, the children went from building to building and slaughtered all the adults.

The rest of the movie involves Tom and Ev's desperate and violent effort to escape the island while the children, moving in otherworldly unison, try to stop them.

The visuals are gorgeous. The film's got an overexposed, sun-bleached look that reminded me of Hooper's superlative Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The empty streets and faded buildings, though shot with a clean and almost workman-like efficiency, give the flick as strange sense of alienation. This mysterious island of children is part of the same Spanish sun-oppressed landscape one gets glimpses off behind the melting clocks and distorted humanity of a Dali painting. By keeping his children silent and cryptic, in the best Village of Damned tradition, Serrador doesn't allow his flick to suffer from crappy child acting. Instead, he uses his evil children as a swarm. The monster children in this movie have the same overwhelming and relentless malevolence we get from Hitchcock's birds. One particular scene in which a silent mass of hive-minded children slowly descend on a small seaside home in an eerily organized fashion is a standout that will imprinted in my brain for ages.

The acting is low key and somewhat silted, but way that starts out as charming and becomes a significant part of the emotional heft of the flick. It's somewhat like watching the cast of one of those PBS Mystery Brit-imports suddenly take a turn towards the weird and Lovecraftian. Ultimately, underplaying the whole thing works wonders. Tom and Evelyn always seem a little wooden, like to people playing at a marriage. As a viewer, you wonder whether this is just slightly lifeless acting. But, when the fit hits the shan, so to speak, their marriage proves to be a bit of a sham, in a painfully polite and earnest way. Tom and Ev care about one another, they want to do well by one another, and when they chips are down, they want to escape together. What they don't do is love one another. In one key scene, the couple is trapped in a cell, temporarily safe but also hopeless surrounded. The two protag's collapse, one on a plank bed and the other leaning against a wall until he slowly slides into a seated position on the floor. The viewer waits for Tom to get up and comfort his wife. But that moment doesn't come. More so than any of the violence or gore, it’s a devastating moment. Even the film's most horrific moment, in which viewers are treated to a truly novel and horrific interpretation of the term "inside job," is underplayed to great effect.

Even with it's lame intro, I highly recommend Who Can Kill a Child?. It is hard to imagine a better fusion of Euro-horror technique and classic "weird tale" style storytelling. Good stuff.


Sasquatchan said...

How would you compare to other stories of the same genre ? ie children of the corn immediately comes to mind, or.. Gosh.. Totally blanking on it, but where the aliens come in and take control of the children.. I want to call it "Them" but that ain't right..[not them the french movie, either..]

I'm sure there's a PhD to come out of the ideas behind kids turning on parents and the underlying fears that drive these kinds of stories..

The Igloo Keeper... said...

I still reckon The Bubblegum Gang would be able to have these little Spanish brats.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

I liked this one better than CotC. There's less characterization of the children, but this one looks better and the story ends in a more satisfying manner.

CRwM said...


I don't know. The bubblegum gang is smarter. But while the bubblegum gang is cunning, the kill kids have the numbers. Plus, any contact between a normal child and the kill kids seems to result in the normal kid being assimilated into the kinderborg. Those would be strong advantages for the kill kids.