Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Who Can Kill a Child? Movie Review
Killer kids rank as one of the most frequently used shock gimmicks in horror movies. Titles such as The Bad Seed, The Devil Times Five, The Omen, Children of the Corn and Orphan have milked this idea repeatedly, sometimes even basing an entire franchise on it. Yet very rarely do filmmakers use this plot device to make a larger point--such as how society is repeatedly failing its young in the face of modern, industrialized warfare. Such is the theme of Who Can Kill a Child? (a.k.a. Island of the Damned), a 1976 shocker that was written and directed by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador.
Serrador was no stranger to horror when he did Who Can Kill a Child?. Even though he has done much more work for television during the course of his career, he previously directed the gothic thriller The House That Screamed (read my review of that film here), which demonstrated his thorough understanding of the horror genre. With Who Can Kill a Child?, Serrador takes the plot device of homicidal children and places it in the context of the most brutal military conflicts, from World War II to the Vietnam war, thus creating a revenge story of sorts. In other words, Serrador uses his movie to speculate what would happen if children would one day rise up in unison to overthrow their greatest enemy: adults. The resulting film is very unsettling, leaving other killer kid movies look quite tame (if not outright hokey) by comparison. Read on for my complete review.
Who Can Kill a Child? opens with real footage of the child casualties from several military conflicts between the 1930s and 70s. A narrator details each conflict, emphasizing how the children died (severe injury, starvation, execution, and/or death by close proximity to battle) and the estimated number of child deaths per each conflict. Then the opening credits roll, which is followed by the introduction of a British couple Tom and Evelyn (Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome) who are on vacation in Spain before the arrival of their next child. Tom wants to take Evelyn to Almanzora, a small island of the coast of Spain, so they can get away from the noisy, large crowds on the mainland. Yet when the couple arrives at Almanzora, it appears to be deserted, with only a handful of children playing among the streets of the island's only town. As they explore the island and talk to the few adults they find, they realize that the children have come together to kill all of the adults on the island ... and that Tom and Evelyn will be next.
On its surface, Who Can Kill a Child? invites comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds and George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. All three films depict a reality that is on the verge of a complete meltdown, as if the universe has decided to turn itself on its head in order to purge itself of particular impurities. Each film does not provide a rational explanation for what is happening; in Who Can Kill a Child?, it's strongly implied that something supernatural or super-human is at work (particularly in light of how one of the adults dies) but nothing is made certain. What sets Serrador's story apart from a widespread zombie plague or inexplicable animal frenzy is its emphasis on adult society's hypocritical attitude on human-on-human violence. Society simultaneously abhors such violence as inhumanely immoral and yet accepts it--on gigantic, international scales, no less--as a political inevitability. By the same token, society claims to cherish and protect children, yet children are among the highest casualties whenever war and famine occur.
The closest comparison I can make between Who Can Kill a Child? to other titles would be Village of the Damned and William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Its supernatural aspects are reminiscent of Damned, while its connection between war and children is reminiscent of Lord of the Files. Golding set his story against the backdrop of war, to demonstrate how children are just as doomed to engage in organized violence as their progenitors; in contrast, Serrador has the children engaging in organized violence in retaliation against those who are supposed to protect them from such evil.
For as heavy-handed as this film may sound with its explicit opening, Serrador makes it work--in fact, the film wouldn't work nearly as well without it. The characters of Tom and Evelyn provide the necessary human element to an absolutely unthinkable situation. They struggle to accept what is happening around them and even after they do, they still go out of their way to avoid harming the children in the futile hope that some of them might still be normal. In contrast, the children seem aware of this internal conflict within the adults and toy with them repeatedly: There are several scenes where they could easily attack and kill the visiting couple, but they don't. The children also don't exhibit any emotional signs of aggression; no matter how monstrous their actions are, they still laugh, smile and play like normal children. Overall, the situation on the island of Almanzora is a dark, warped reflection of the wars seen in the film's opening footage: Whereas Tom and Evelyn are justified in fighting against and sometimes killing the children to protect themselves but hesitate to do so, actual wars aren't waged for the purpose of attacking defenseless children but they wind up killing hundreds of thousands of them anyway without pause.
Serrador amplifies his film's inherently bleak mood by having most of it take place entirely in broad daylight. Not only does this reinforce the feeling of desolation on Almanzora, but it also emphasizes the brazen, unrestrained attitude of the murderous children. They don't need the darkness of the night to provide cover in their attacks against Tom and Evelyn--they want to be sure that the panicked couple can see everything they do. As with The House That Screamed, Waldo de los Ríos provides yet another memorable score that complements Serrador's mastery of suspense.
Who Can Kill a Child? is the most intense killer kid movie I've ever seen. It's one of those rare horror films that lets the mood build throughout its entirety and never stoops to the repetitive, graphic shocks that are commonplace in cheap, grindhouse-style horror to keep itself running. From its ominous opening to its chilling conclusion, Who Can Kill a Child? is film for horror fans who appreciate tales of unrelenting dread.