Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…
Who doesn’t enjoy watching cinematic mayhem perpetrated by and against bratty, misbehaving children? It may not be as highly ranked on your list of guilty pleasures as it is on mine (above movies based on SNL sketches and below the oeuvre of Kevin Costner), but you’ll agree it’s a sweetly cathartic release watching disrespectful little bastards get put down. No? Just me? I can’t be the only one as the “killer kid” genre has a long and healthy existence with films like Children of the Corn, Devil Times Five, The Bad Seed, and the Spanish shocker, Who Can Kill a Child? to name just a few. There’s something innately frightening about children not only capable of murder and malevolence, but actively engaged in it as well. Their inherent creepiness is a natural fit for horror films although that trait can sometimes work against a film too. We’ll come back to that thought, but now it’s time to check in on The Children…
Two families come together for a fun-filled and peaceful Christmas holiday in the English countryside. Chloe (Rachel Shelley) and Robbie (Jeremy Sheffield) along with their two young children are playing host to her sister’s family. Elaine (Eva Birthistle) and Jonah (Stephen Campbell Moore) have two little kids of their own and have also brought along Elaine’s rebellious teenage daughter, Casey (Hannah Tointon). It’s not long before one of the boys starts throwing up and acting vacant and lethargic. Soon the other three kids are showing similar symptoms, but they’re intentionally hiding it from the adults. What is visible to the parents is a growing unruliness among the children consisting of tantrums and small outbursts of violence. Minor outburst leads to cold-blooded murder and soon Casey and the remaining adults are faced with the possibility that their precious little cherubs may have become bloodthirsty psychopaths in disguise.
The Children is a brilliant and at times brutal piece of atmospheric terror and dread and easily one of the best horror films of the decade. It doesn’t rush a single thing instead letting the characters and story develop naturally before the world goes absolutely ape shit before our eyes. Chloe and Elaine may be sisters, but they have distinctly different views on raising their children and living their lives which contribute to a building tension between them and the couples. Robbie’s barely perceptible and highly immoral affection for his very hot teenage niece doesn’t help matters either. It’s a full thirty minutes before the first adult falls victim to the pint-sized monsters, and in that time we see what the parents don’t. The children growing distant and confused, their empty yet malevolent eyes, the flashed visions of blood-soaked intent… we may not know what the hell is happening, but we know it’s building to something horrible. It all comes to a head around the dinner table as the tykes share furtive glances before the first one strikes out.
One of the flaws in the “killer kid” genre is that at the end of the day the menace is still just a three-foot tall, fifty pound weakling. Who here (besides Cole Abaius) would truly feel threatened by a goddamn child? If you knew or suspected that they had already killed, if they were coming at you maliciously, who wouldn’t be capable of knocking that kid on their ass, slamming their head in a door, or breaking their tiny and fragile neck one-handed? (Again, Abaius is excluded.) The beauty of The Children is in the way it bypasses that concern all together through character development and the fact that the potential victims are the kids’ parents. One couple practices gold stars instead of spankings making the very thought of striking a child completely foreign to them. One character has felt impotent in his parenting duties and now sees the opportunity to step up and take charge with disastrous results. Even if you could bring yourself to kill a kid in self-defense, could you do it to you your own son or daughter? The hesitation and decisions that would be questionable in other films feels utterly believable here.
None of this would work if the actors couldn’t sell it with conviction, and luckily all five of the grown-up leads give solid performances. Tointon stands out at first for her big, beautiful eyes, inviting cleavage, and milky white thighs before you realize she’s giving a marvelous performance as the only character who truly understands and accepts that all is not right with the world. Straddling the line between childhood and adulthood, Casey is also the first to act… she quickly becomes one of the strongest horror heroines in years kicking major ass along the way. The four kids are a mixed bag acting-wise, but even the worst of them is still passable. Paulie (William Howes) and Leah (Rafiella Brooks) are the first to get sick and are also the creepiest of the bunch. Their eyes reveal a focused and gleeful joy one second and a detached and empty evil the next. Miranda (Eva Sayer) is the last of the four to succumb to the mysterious influence and she does a fine job of conveying her fear of the other children before finally joining the troop of murderous midgets. The second problem with these types of movies can be found in the child casting as film-makers often choose actors who have a generally creepy vibe about them already. (Think Atticus Shaffer in The Unborn, Daveigh Chase in The Ring, or those fucking blue dress twins in The Shining.) Thankfully, all of the child actors here seem normal enough in the beginning before turning towards the dark side. Paulie comes close to being a full-time spook though… creepy-ass curly-haired little shit.
Director and co-writer Tom Shankland has crafted a minor horror miracle with The Children with nary a misstep to be seen. (I can forgive the character who frantically tries to bust through a closed door with a fire poker instead of simply unlocking the goddamn thing, as well as one character who seems to have trouble hearing relatively nearby screams.) Stupid woman with the fire poker aside, everyone behaves as believable as possible given the situation. There are no scenes with cars that suddenly won’t start or cell phones that lose signal or die at the most unfortunate times. In addition to making a smart film Shankland’s also delivered a fairly beautiful one. From eerie shots of empty woods, to the hillside stillness of children staring vacantly as if listening to an unseen (but clearly evil) Pied Piper, to a magnificent use of color and technique including a stunning overhead tracking shot that follows one mother’s trek through snow turned crimson, The Children continues to impress as it terrifies. Shankland doesn’t skimp on the violence and blood either with multiple beatings and impalings to adults and children alike (including one nasty stab to an eyeball). The violence done to and by children would never get bankrolled by an American studio.
The Children is a smart and gutsy horror film that stays strong throughout it’s admittedly brief running time of eighty minutes. Once the intentionally paced opening hits the half hour mark all hell breaks loose and things don’t let up until the end. This is where lesser films would run off the rails with unnecessary exposition and explanation, but Shankland wisely forgoes anything of the sort. Instead he delivers a devastating ending with chilling effect. The last shot may leave you wondering and debating, but it should also leave you thrilled that original horror films are still being made in a world overrun by PG-13 crap and glossy remakes. You just may need an all-region DVD or Blu-ray player to see it…
The Children is available on import DVD. Currently (and criminally) there is no domestic release date.