I’m always in the market for a fucked-up horror movie, but it’s rare for me to find one that works in delivering true scares and not just gross-outs and violence. I also like to know what horror buffs consider particularly scary films. Alice Cooper’s mentioning of how much he was afraid of “Suspiria” lead me to watch it, and it was an excellent choice. So when I heard in an interview with Eli Roth that he showed a movie called “Who Can Kill a Child?” to Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright and that they were affected by it, I knew it was the movie for me. And I can honestly say it delivers in both disturbing concept and genuine frights.
I think the best horror movies were made in the 1970s. “Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” “Dawn of the Dead,” “The Exorcist,” “Halloween,” and the aforementioned “Suspiria” all succeed far better than most of today’s output for the simple fact that they were pushing boundaries without the aid of sophisticated techniques. There’s a grittiness to 70s horror cinema that for whatever reason makes it better suited to scaring people. “Who Can Kill a Child?” is right in this category and uses the film medium itself to heighten the tension. It also uses the era to make a social comment. The film was made in 1976 by Spanish filmmaker Narciso Ibanez Serrador based on a novel by Juan Jose Plans. It opens with a series of newsreel footage depicting atrocities caused by war interspersed with creepy kids singing as the credits roll. The footage shows the effects WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War, and wars in Africa and India had on children. Hideous shots of maimed, burned, or starving children are couple with cold, superimposed captions stating the death toll of each war and how many of those were children. Children were easily the highest casualties of the wars and by showing the audience the harsh reality of the world, Serrador makes us feel even more sympathetic to them then we probably already were.
From there, the movie proper begins with a dead woman’s body washing ashore in a busy resort community. She has been hacked and slashed and the police assume it was some maniac. We’re then introduced to Tom and Evelyn, a vacationing English couple. Tom has been to Spain before and speaks Spanish rather fluently, but Evelyn does not. Evelyn is a few months pregnant and we learn that the couple have two other children back home. The like it in Spain, but where they are is far too busy for their liking, so they decide to rent a boat and take the four hour journey to an island Tom visited years before. When they arrive, they see a number of children diving off the dock and fishing, but they are all stone-faced and refuse to tell the vacationers anything. The couple explore the small village but it appears entirely deserted and electronics being left on makes it seem like they left in a hurry. The town is eerily silent, a fact that Serrador exploits brilliantly as the audience is certain something bad is going to happen, but is not sure when.
Tom and Evelyn keep catching glimpses of children who run away before any answers can be gotten. Eventually, a little girl approaches Evelyn, entranced by her pregnant belly. After touching her stomach an uncomfortably long time, the girl runs away, again leaving the woman totally alone. The trouble starts in earnest for them when they see an old man tottering quickly down a long, hilly alleyway. Another little girl enters the alleyway and laughs giddily as she finds the old man and proceeds to beat him to death with his cane. It’s a horrible scene that is played entirely off of the little girl’s maniacally laughing face. After moving the old man’s lifeless body into a barn, Tom is horrified further when he sees the children have decided to use his body as a pinata and gleefully take turns swinging at it with a scythe. Now, the couple must escape the island, but to do so, they may be forced to do the unthinkable.
The movie works at making these seemingly innocent youngsters incredibly menacing and to a degree genuinely frightening. The cinematography in the film, by Jose Luis Alcaine, is near-perfect, using the secluded and deserted nature of the surroundings to engulf the characters and the far-away shots of the children amassing in the village streets to create dread. Serrador picks children who are at once cute and terrifying as we know what lurks behind their smiling faces. I was surprised at just how much the film was affecting me and how much it transcended pure shock and preyed on real fears. Having the protagonists be parents themselves was also a genius move as the horror that adorns their faces goes much deeper than simply fearing for their lives. We see how physically ill it makes them to have to think of children behaving this way, but in order to get back to their own children, they may have to drop all illusions that these kids are in any way innocent.
Very few movies have done the concept of evil children as well as “Who Can Kill a Child?” and I think it’s because of how touchy the subject is with most people. But truly that’s the point the film is making. The evils of adults are rained down the hardest on children, and what would happen if one day the children decided to fight back? Other films like “The Omen,” “Children of the Corn,” and “Village of the Damned,” have child antagonists, but in all three cases, the children are in some way possessed or demonic. Here, it’s much more just a “natural” occurrence. Though we’re lead to believe SOMETHING is causing it, the film never really explains what exactly made these children on this tiny Spanish island start to kill their parents. But after viewing all the horrendous real life footage at the start of the film, the audience doesn’t need much else. It’s pretty clear. We brought it on ourselves.
“Who Can Kill a Child?” is on DVD now and I heartily recommend it.