Stephen Campbell Moore
Evil Kiddie Horror
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The Children (2008)
12th Dec 08
During a family gathering for New Year celebrations, five children fall ill and begin killing the adults. It's not a Happy New Year.
We've all seen enough scary kid movies to know that when they're done properly, the results can be mesmerising. Director Tom Shankland (WAZ) credits The Omen as a key influence behind The Children, but there are perhaps even stronger echoes of Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's 1976 kiddie horror Who Can Kill a Child? to be strongly felt here. For those of you fortunate enough to have seen the bleak Spanish film, the central idea revolves around a British couple who arrive on a quiet island which is populated solely by homicidal brats. The absence of adults is down to the fact that they've all been executed by the heinous toddlers, without struggle…because who can kill a child?
In The Children, the terror is transposed from sunny climes to the freezing cold of the British festive season where two sibling in-law families meet to celebrate the approaching New Year. We have two sets of parents - Elaine and Jonah / Chloe and Robbie - each with three children, the oldest of which is Elaine's first daughter, the teenage Casey . While festivities are underway and all the adults are having a jolly nice time, the kids begin to act stranger than normal, in particular Paulie, who has already shown physical signs of illness (that's barfing to you and me), as well as hitting his pompous father, Jonah, in the face. Elaine's young daughter Miranda seems terrified by Paulie’s increasingly unusual behaviour when it comes to bed time (hitting a toy xylophone incessantly while staring into space).
The following morning, it's time for fun in the snow, which is when enfant terrible (and possibly autistic?) Paulie shoves a sleigh down the hill, resulting in the first 'accident'; merely a hot coffee spill involving the most annoying adult of all, wannabe-entrepreneur Jonah. Afterwards, they congregate for the kind of lunch that is unlikely to bring out your broody instincts; five sick, young kids simultaneously start squealing, crying, and throwing up, testing the viewers' patience as well as the parents. Robbie remedies the gloom by retreating back to the snow for more sleighing fun with the kids. The fun soon turns sour when the kids almost randomly (and seemingly innocently) orchestrate the second 'accident', which results in Robbie's gory demise. From this point forth, the children are as unpredictable as they are dangerous, freaking out all over the place, while the (remaining) parents struggle to keep control of the situation, blaming each other for the disturbing events which unfold. Refusal to accept the notion that the kids are responsible for what is happening will be their undoing.
Much like in a Romero zombie movie, it is the reactions of the survivors that adds real spice to the siege formula. The bickering and arguing, the shifting of blame and the re-alignment of expected character conventions - along with countless other character flaws - inevitably interferes with their chances of survival. The adults portrayed here are hugely flawed individuals, except perhaps Elaine. Her husband, Jonah, really is the "knob" Casey labels him; any dad trying to teach his five year-old daughter Mandarin deserves what's coming to him!
Tom Shankland's follow-up to WAZ is a taboo-breaking exercise, which actually depicts parents killing their own flesh and blood. It's a tense, unnerving and genuinely terrifying experience which will challenge most audiences to expect what the plot delivers; the slaying of children, portrayed here as diminutive monsters who, let's face it, need to be stopped at all costs. Much like in Who Can Kill a Child?, the cause of the 'illness' is not really explained, although the script does vaguely hint at some kind of super bug. As you would hope for in a film which portrays killer kids, the young actors are impeccably cast; William Howes as Paulie will definitely stay with you afterwards - never has the cry for "Momeeeee!" seemed as grating as it does during the climbing frame scene. The other youngster who excels is Eva Sayer, who plays Miranda - her emotions are the most difficult to read, her actions (almost) impossible to predict, and rather than just playing 'evil', she looks genuinely alarmed by what is happening, imbuing her role with added scope. Ex-Hollyoaks girl Hannah Tointon is knockout as the almost-adult Casey, "the abortion that got away", and instead of being lazily written as a typically aloof teen, she's feisty and resourceful, so we’re behind her all the way. This is no doubt helped by the fact that she gets most of the best lines, like "Did you ever hear of contraception?". I wonder if that line was an option for the movie's tagline...
A factor which helps set The Children apart from much run-of-the-mill horror fare is the decision to place all the action throughout the course of one morning and afternoon (i.e. Constant daylight), as well as reliance on bright, colourful, even beautiful settings as a backdrop for the carnage. Everything about the environment is inviting; the secluded property itself, the acres of land and the clean, white snow, so the effect of hardcore violence is maximised when the crunchy white stuff turns red with adult blood. Additional aesthetic touches come courtesy of disturbingly intrusive quick-cuts accompanied by unpalatable screeching on the soundtrack, which although slightly old-hat, even gimmicky, nevertheless jar the viewer into uncomfortable territory.
It's been a brilliant year for the British horror film. Mum & Dad showcases modern parenting at its best, while Eden Lake has done wonders for domestic retreat tourism, and now, The Children have come to stab, gouge, pull and scream their way into 2009. This is a truly well executed genre movie which really deserves to do well at the box-office. While the understated menace of classic waist-high classic horror like Village of the Damned or The Innocents have no doubt wielded considerable influence here, yours truly is yet to witness a film which possesses such potential to be marketed as a contraceptive device.
The Children is out in UK cinemas now. For more information go to the official site here