Children have been used with a polarized range of convention in horror film. On one end is the perception of childhood innocence, using children as an emblem of hope to put a finishing touch on many a horrifying movie involved in exploring ruthless despair up to that point. On the other end on the pendulum is the frequent cliché of the creepy, sometimes evil child, a convention that only works because of the previously established perception of children as innocent. Films ranging from The Omen to Village of the Damned to their respective remakes to the cinematic miscarriage that was The Orphan play off the idea that turning something perceived to be innocent turning evil is one of the scariest things of all. However, we’ve seen it in so many movies by this point that this convention has lost its ability to be effective.
The UK horror flick The Children gives a nice fresh tweak to a tired and all-too-familiar horror trope. The story is simple: an extended family goes on vacation to celebrate New Year’s in a cozy but lonely cabin in the woods, and their youngest children gradually go violently insane and attempt to kill their elders off one-by-one. The children’s motive is only half-explained, resulting from a mysterious sickness that possesses them, youngest to oldest. The film’s ending alludes to something more complex going on, but The Children thankfully avoids the type of clear explanation that often takes all the air out of films like this. The ambiguity works.
The experience is not told from the children’s or their parents’ perspective, but from the standpoint of the oldest “child,” a disaffected teen largely ignored and undervalued by her relatives as a result of the constant attention given to the needy children surrounding her. This POV succeeds because she sees the children like the audience is meant to see them: not adorable icons of innocence and purity, but intolerable agents of noise and pitiful codependence. The whining and screaming of the children in the film’s beginning establishes them as selfish, disruptive, maddening forces of nature, paving away for their acts of violence later in the film rather than revisiting the worn and far too two-dimensional cliché of innocence-turned-evil.
This particular depiction runs against the notion that children possess some sort of innate purity lost somewhere in adulthood that pervades not only horror cinema, but society at large. The Children instead poses the opposite idea, that children—or, at least, these children—contain a unique capacity for inhumanity lost somewhere in pubescence (which is why the ‘sickness’ doesn’t affect the grown teen). The children of The Children aren’t emblems of hope seen before in all kinds of movies, but are depicted the way many people refuse to acknowledge them to be: insufferable. These are the children you see screaming incessantly at the supermarket. Kudos to The Children for constructively using one’s daily rage at other people’s kids as the starting point for a unique and entertaining horror film.
As with any horror film taking place in an isolated location, there are limited characters and thus a limited amount of kills, but writer-director Tom Shankland (adapting a short story by Paul Andrew Williams) makes the most out of this willful restraint. Each violent action is innovative, satisfying, affecting, effective, and well-worth-the-wait, avoiding the buckets-of-blood aesthetic and incessant violence characteristic of subsets of this genre. The film makes great use of parallel editing to complement one moment of violent suspense with several others occurring at the same time, amplifying this effect through sounds of seemingly arbitrary details, like a tea kettle or loud toy. The Children is also a uniquely colorful horror film, covering the frame with a varied range of yellow hues combined with contrasting colors, subverting the palette typically used by filmmakers to depict an aura of positivity and juxtaposing an attractive palette with horrifying acts. This combined with the factor of the film taking place mostly in the daytime shows that The Children isn’t going for the easy scare, separating itself from the pack of scary kid movies through Shankland’s confident stylistic approach (some disturbing images come off downright beautiful, like a close-up of blood permeating the white snow). The performances are decent all around, and Shankland avoids the typically flat performances given by children by focusing on the young actors’ facial expressions rather than overwhelming them with dialogue that would inevitably be badly delivered (this is one movie, Mr. Fure, that kids don’t ruin).
That being said, The Children really isn’t all that scary or creepy. It flirts with ideas like the troubling implications of hurting a child in self-defense or a literalized Freudian horror of being killed by one’s beloved offspring, but the film, intentionally or not, won’t resonate or get under your skin. It’s nothing more than an entertaining and well-made horror film.
The Upside: Attractive visuals, effective filmmaking, and an interesting new twist that revives what was a dead cliché.
The Downside: It won’t stay with you.
On the Side: Kids are assholes.