María Luisa Arias
Killer Kid Movie
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Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)
27th Jul 11
What do you do if you’re an impressionable, perceptive child who’s all too aware of how violent the “adult” world really is? (Note : Off-spring of Charles Bronson, David Hess and Joseph Fritzl need not reply).
It took four decades for one of the greatest horror movies of the 1970’s to receive a legitimate release in the UK – and Narcisco Ibanez Sarrador’s influential nightmare movie (the British-made The Children being its finest spawn) now ranks as one of the year’s essential DVD purchases for genre fans.
This is the full-length version of a movie variously released as Island of the Damned, Would You Kill A Child? and, confusingly, Island Of Death(no, not the one with the goat shagging and the victimised gay!). It opens with an eight minute montage of newsreel footage depicting historical events in which children were among the dead (the total number of child fatalities per tragedy is listed on-screen in case you were in any doubt). Were this film made today in the same way (unlikely, but no doubt there’s a PG-13 rated remake script doing the rounds as we speak, sitting on the desks of potential stars Hilary Duff and Robert Pattinson), there would be a whole heap of equally dire catastrophes to consider for inclusion, from Dunblane to 9/11.
Within the brief but valuable extras for this release, ported over from the U.S. Dark Sky version, director Sarrador voices his regret that he positioned this montage at the movie’s start rather than its nihilistic conclusion (he also reveals Anthony Hopkins was approached for the male lead). As a prologue, this harrowing sequence is far from subtle (conversely, much of what follows is), but the impact is undeniable. A haunting lullaby accompanies images of bulldozers manoeuvring countless corpses at Auschwitz, napalm-burned kids in Indochina and assorted juvenile victims of the Korean and India-Pakistan wars. Sarrador’s movie is very much a product of the post-Night of the Living Deadera of horror filmmaking : the natural extension of that film’s documentary-like moments of authentic horror and its use of fake TV/radio news excerpts was to incorporate genuine horror into an equally apocalyptic scenario. This film, like the very best of the post-Romero American nightmares, has not lost its power to disturb.
Likable biologist Lewis Fiander and his pregnant wife Prunella Ransome are sympathetic Brits abroad during a fiesta vividly depicted in the relatively light initial stretch in tourist-central. Intrusions of ominous violence mar this otherwise breezy introduction to our protagonists: images of self-immolation play on local TV (“The world has gone mad” someone comments, simply and accurately), and a razor-slashed female corpse is discovered by a kid on a busy beach. Before they or the audience are aware of what is in store for them, Fiander and Ransome discuss the pessimistic conclusion of La Dolce Vitaand debate whether it’s more humane to kill their unborn child rather than let it loose in a world overwhelmed by violence and hate. Unusual for a genre movie, especially one from non-English filmmakers, the dialogue is convincing and thought-provoking and highly relevant; there’s no padding here, despite the above-average running time.
The couple take themselves off to an old haunt away from the crowds. The beautiful island of Almandora, given an initially melodic theme within a score that will soon turn discordant and alarming, will become an ironically idyllic backdrop for some extreme events. There is a masterfully controlled sense of slow-burning unease as Sarrador offers glimpses of things the characters haven’t seen – notably a brutalised corpse in a local shop – while gradually exposing the threat posed to our heroes on this oddly deserted paradise. The couple are not unduly concerned by creepy, incoherent phone calls from an apparently imperilled woman, but Fiander keeps some disturbing discoveries secret from his wife: a freckle faced girl laughs callously as she beats an old man with his own stick. In a memorably unsettling reveal, he spies on a group of giggling kids playing what looks like an enthusiastic game of blind man’s bluff…but closer inspection reveals the presence of sickles and a tormented, barely alive adult suspended from the ceiling.
The Romero influence is apparent when the kids become like Night of the Living Dead’s zombies, marauding relentlessly in crowds outside the church in which the protagonists have barricaded themselves. As in Night, the outbreak of violence spreads like a virus: hitherto unaffected kids elsewhere on the island are almost supernaturally converted to be a part of the escalating uprising. And, like Romero, Sarrador refuses to offer any clear explanation of why this is happening. The only surviving adult on the island (subsequently manipulated and lured to his doom by his own daughter) tells of the sudden bouts of violence committed by ordinary young people who have spontaneously formed hostile gangs. This doomed character can offer no reassurance and merely reiterates the film’s best known title: in doing so, he reinforces why Sarrador’s threat is so much more terrifying than Romero’s. Here, no one is able to offer a conclusive, defiant “Shoot em in the head” solution. “No one did anything…” notes the traumatised islander, “…because who can kill a child?”
In Sarrador’s pessimistic masterpiece, the apocalypse is presented as an inevitable one: the children have simply turned to violence against their elders in response to all they’ve seen in a war-dominated, violent grown-up world. Cinematically, the film has precedents in the smaller-scale likes of The Bad Seed and Village of the Damned, both of which mute the disturbing power of their stories by, respectively, Hollywood wrap-ups and science fiction explanations. The central theme of Sarrador’s movie feels like a direct extension of the unforgettably flippant twist ending of Bava’s Bay of Blood, in which two ordinary looking brats cheerfully commit the kind of callous acts of murder the movie’s various adult perpetrators have been indulging in for the previous 80 minutes. Terrifying children in today’s horror movies tend to be ripped-from-the-headlines knife-wielding, remorseless hoodie thugs living out the Daily Mail’s worst nightmares by torturing attractive middle class citizens in (admittedly harrowing) British movies like Eden Lake.
Eden Lake ends on an extraordinarily upsetting sour note, though Sarrador offers an even more distressing open-ending. Keeping the violence off-camera throughout the movie – restricting it to aftermath shots of adult victims – enables the relatively explicit climax to pack an extra punch. A key, still-shocking turning point comes when Fiander shoots a gun-toting but sweet-faced little boy (all the kids in the movie are disarmingly ordinary and average-looking) in the head, signalling the necessary-to-survive transformation of the “hero” into a child killer. Sarrador lingers longer than anyone will want on shots of dead kids, Ransome’s baby kills her from within in a horrible moment, and the jaw-dropping finale is drenched in grim irony, as the cops shoot dead the lone surviving adult, mistaking him for the threat a la Ben in the Romero movie.
There’s nothing unusual about a 70’s horror movie ending with the suggestion that the horror is far from over. But, in the context of Sarrador’s shattering film, the final moments of Who Can Kill A Child are agonising.
Versions Lots of cuts of this released all over the world. The Dark Sky release in the US and the Eureka UK release appear to be identical though