Monday, March 16, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Who Can Kill A Child? (1976)

There's an old saying in Hollywood warning actors not to work with animals or children.

If you happen to find yourself in a vintage 1970s-era horror film, however, you should amend that proverb a bit. May I suggest: don't piss off animals or children?
Because they will have vengeance, and there will be blood....

Case in point, the rather remarkable Who Can Kill A Child? (1976), a tense, Spanish-made genre gem. Like all great films (and great horror films) Who Can Kill A Child? reveals something important about the times in which it was crafted, a context which also gave rise to other child-centric horrors such as It's Alive (1973), The Exorcist (1973), and The Omen (1976).

As David Frum, the notable conservative scholar wrote in How We Got Here, The 70s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (For Better of Worse): " It's hard to remember an era when American popular culture was as nervous of children as in the 1970s." (page 106).

Frum further points out that the number of births dropped to its lowest level since the Great Depression in the year 1974. This was despite the fact that the baby boomer generation -- a huge generation -- was now of child-bearing age.

So what the hell was occurring in America during the 1970s to turn innocent children into icons of fear, anxiety and terror? Well, a recession and gas/energy shortage made children an expensive proposition, to start with. Plus, there was the contentious war for sexual equality (characterized by the controversy around the Equal Rights Amendment...). One front in that war concerned reproductive rights. The latest salvo was the Roe v Wade decision by the Supreme Court

Also -- especially where horror movies are concerned -- it is virtually impossible to separate the idea of "children" from the idea of "tomorrow." Kids are an explicit and recognizable representation of the future...our shared legacy. If something terrible happens to the children, the future becomes grim. If the children turn evil, again our outlook is desperate. If the children happen to turn against adults for a valid reason, then we have failed totally, and our civilization is doomed.

These notions are at play in the unsettling Who Can Kill A Child?, which depicts a British married couple, biologist Tom (Lewis Fiander) and pregnant Evelyn (Prunella Ransome), as they countenance true horror. The couple decides to take a vacation on the remote island of Almanzora, a place where "very few tourists ever go." It's a four hour boat ride from the mainland to Almanzora, and though the island "certainly looks peaceful," nothing could be further from the truth.

At first the island appears deserted, but before long, Tom and Evelyn learn from a shattered, lone survivor that all the adults are dead. Worse, the islanders were killed by their maniacal children; tykes who suddenly and inexplicably turned homicidal a night earlier. Before long, Tom and Evelyn are fighting for their lives as roving bands of murderous children block their escape route at every turn.

"Its as though they thought we - the adults - were their enemies," Tom realizes (a bit too late...).

On Almanzora, Tom witnesses a multitude of horrors, all while protecting his expectant wife. He sees a violent pinata game involving an elderly man strung up by his feet, a circle of giggling children, and a sharp sickle. He also sees the grisly aftermath of several massacres, including a beating death, and a vaguely sexual attack inside the island church. Finally, Tom and Evelyn -- now going into labor -- take their final refuge in a police station. The children arm themselves, and Tom finds a machine gun....

He's left with an unenviable choice. For...who can kill a child? Another important question: if our children rebel against us, could we, would we and should we fight back? As the film's climax reminds the viewer, making the terror identifiable, "There are lots of children in the world..."
Who Can Kill A Child? is the sort of horror film that gets under your skin through stealthy but effective means. It opens like a routine travelogue, as we follow Tom and Evelyn through the apparently mundane experience of their foreign vacation. The hotel at Benavis is booked, so they're sent to a house in the "old part of the city." They settle in, get directions to the beach, and then purchase rolls of film. That night, Tom and Evelyn enjoy fireworks and share an intimate (and well-written) discussion about Fellini, death, and the future in their rented bedroom. Nothing earth shattering at all...just ominously normal and "human." These moments establish the characters as real, but not in heavy-handed or soap opera fashion. It simply feels like we've gone abroad with them for a few days. Tom and Evelyn are likable and easy to relate to, a fact which serves the movie well.

Once we reach the island with Tom and Evelyn, the horror mounts. In little, clever bursts at first. For instance, there's a portentous moment early on (before the nature of the children is revealed...) in which Tom sees a little boy fishing on a pier. Tom tries to peek under the lid of the boy's fishing basket to see what he's caught, but the boy won't permit it. He shoots Tom a murderous, aggressive look. We never actually find out what's under that lid, but the moment is disturbing, and your imagination takes flight.

Other moments are crafted with more than a modicum of skill. There's an absolutely brilliant shot featured deep in the third act, an awe-inspiring reveal over one character's shoulder and a background mountaintop populated by "watching," unnoticed children. The move in question is a simple camera pivot, but one perfectly executed.

Or notice the manner in which the camera doesn't move at all during a critical juncture, as a central character slips slowly and inexorably out of lower right-hand corner frame for the last time, making the death all the more significant and powerful. And the director appropriately moves to hand-held, immediate camera-work during the siege in the police station, which ramps up the anxiety.

When Who Can Kill a Child's narrative calls for bluntness, we get that too, with shocking and egregious results. Late in the film, Tom is confronted with a barricade of children, three or four rows deep. They won't budge and just stand there, smiling at him. After a moment's hesitation, Tom opens fire with a machine gun, bloodying and murdering his youthful opponents. The gun fire is like a slap in the face...we're not used to such screen violence leveraged against children.

Even that spiky moment is superseded by a final, high-speed, nail-biting confrontation on a pier, with an attempted escape in a row boat. Children launch an ambush from the pier, jumping off and attacking Tom in the boat with ferocity and velocity. He frigging beats them back with a wood board, a knife, and any other weapon he can find, and the movie doesn't shy away from revealing the bloody results of the massacre.

Of course, I don't encourage violence or even the depiction of violence against children, but horror should be about the shattering of societal taboos and movie decorum. And horror is also - indeed - about nightmare scenarios rendered real, and asking the viewer to identify with "what it would be like" to face them. Who Can Kill a Child is both taboo-shattering, and identification-provoking, and by my reckoning that makes it a great bit of genre cinema. You'll be shocked at what you witness, yet at the same time, you may want to slap Evelyn silly when she refuses to reckon with the "reality" of the situation that the children on the island are homicidal.

The film's ending is comparable to Night of the Living Dead, with a slow-to-adjust society failing to understand the nature of the enemy and making a bad mistake. In a strange way, the movie is also a kind of "revenge of nature flick," like Day of the Animals or Hitchcock's The Birds...only with kids instead of animals. And of course, it's harder to shoot down a giggling child than a grizzly bear or pecking bird, right?

Who Can Kill a Child? is not perfect. The film mis-steps badly by opening with a nine minute, documentary "atrocity reel" about real crimes committed against children across the globe. We see starving children in Africa, murdered children in Pakistan, and young victims of the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts. These scenes are true and appalling and powerful, but I question their necessity in a horror film. They start the movie off with a gruesome, unnecessary heaviness, which, in some senses, undercut the very ordinariness of the travelogue and the slow-escalation of horror that follows. Essentially, they make the movie less effective because they telegraph the point of the narrative before the very narrative has begun.

The images in the mini-doc are powerful, but unnecessary. The director makes his point (about the world's cruelty to children...) without them all-together. In the body of the film proper, Evelyn sees footage on a camera shop TV of children dying in the Philippines. A shop owner says "the world is crazy. In the end, the ones who always suffer are the children." Message transmitted and received. The graphic imagery at the beginning is therefore just heavy-handed overkill.

Also, non-horror fans might rightly complain that Tom and Evelyn have apparently been born without the gene that allows them to sense the warning signs of incipient danger. This is something horror aficionados (like myself), willingly accept...because what fun would it be if Tom and Evelyn did recognize the danger and abandoned the island in their boat before the horror escalated? Horror fans will willingly (and happily) suspend disbelief, but non-genre fans may be screaming at the film's characters to get off the island NOW!!!.
Who Can Kill A Child? also shares much in common with the Children of the Corn franchises of the 1980s and 1990s, yet I should be absolutely clear: it's also a better-made scary movie than any one of them (even the '84 original). After watching this film, you may even want to amend a second proverb.

Forget "never trust anyone over 30." How about, "never trust anyone under 12?"

1 comment:

  1. It seems to me that there are simpler explanations for the "eek! Children!" attitude in 1970's movies without resorting to ideologically tainted "how can I blame this on the gays?" conservative "scholarship" (Really, David Frum? Really?)

    1. The boomer generation itself had shocked and horrified its parents with a frightening revolution in lifestyle, and had absorbed and sublimated its own parent's attitudes, and 70's cinema reflected this horror and guilt. This is Stephen King's theory (see "Danse Macabre"). (I remember reading a 70's era SF story, in Amazing or Fantastic if memory serves, where a boomer parent seeks help from a member of the previous generation because the boomer-era kids' have grown up to be a frightening extrapolation of what the boomers were to the 60's and 70's. As I remember it, the description of life in the 00's was pretty accurate. The Greatest Generation dude, by the way, like Rorschach, says "no".)

    2. This one is obvious - to the freedom-minded boomer gen, children represented everything they'd come to hate and fear (I'm generalizing, of course) - responsibility, settling down, the need to become like their parents... and remember, this is also the generation that grew up with "Leave it to Beaver" and so there was a constant struggle between the desire for the Ideal Cleaver family and the need for freedom, for me, me, me. This combination of Idealism and Selfishness is the very thing that would give us Reagan a few years later... and, of course, David Frum. During the 70's, however, these opposing desires produced the Id monsters of "child horror".

    3. I'm guessing you're a smidge younger than me - born in '62 I'm either a boomer or an x-er, depending on where the lines get drawn - but the era in question was a time when both the horrors done to children and the horrors inflicted by children were becoming widely recognized, rather than suppressed and repressed... the beginning of the era when kids were trained to fear strangers and check candy for razor blades, nowadays taken to extremes (I read this morning where a woman in Mississippi was cited by police for allowing her 10-year old to - gasp! - walk to school alone! WTF?) and at the same time the era of Manson, Hell's Angels, and Juvenile Delinquency. If one grew up in the era, one did read or hear regularly of horrible things done by teens and younger kids (there's a list in "Seduction of the Innocent", for example). Its not that these things never happened prior to the 50's, it's just that it wasn't a part of public awareness until then.

    4. And finally, the effing war. There's a famous photo from the era that shows a young Vietnamese girl running in terror. She is naked, she is screaming, she is crying. It is horrible to see. This photo ran on the front page of papers across the nation. There is a context to the photo, which I am deliberately not looking up right now, that says she was actually running from North Vietnamese. F the context. What that photo told Americans was that children are dying horribly, children are being burned, being mutilated, screaming in fear and sobbing because of America. We can always justify wars, oh, we're doing it to prevent that or save this, but there on the front page was the reality we never want to confront, never want to think about... when the bombers fly, children die. (David effing Frum. Really.) Those murderous tots that sprang from our collective subconscious to tear at our collective throats were horrifying not because their rampages were unfathomable... they were horrifying because, to our collective subconsciouses, they were just. (The corresponding "nature amok" subgenre sprang from a similar psychic pool, timed as it was with the rise of the environmental movement).

    Okay, maybe I let a little of my own ideology slip in, there, on that last one. But my point is valid. Horrifying scenes of Vietnamese destruction played a far greater role in the horror of the 70's than did Roe v. Wade.

    I think your point about "children representing the future" as an element in the rise of child horror is valid. This was the era of dystopian SF and the future wasn't what it used to be.

    Last quick thoughts: even in the benign "Escape From Witch Mountain" children turn out to be aliens. Also, Ray Bradbury's tales are filled with horrible sociopathic children... and at the same time he's almost ridiculously nostalgic for childhood. Weird.