Horror films are littered with seemingly sweet and innocent things becoming terrifying, whether it be animals (like the family dog in Cujo or giant bunnies in Night of the Lepus), dolls (like Child’s Play and Demonic Toys), or pubescent high school girls (like in Carrie). Of this type of horror, the one that tends to scare me the most are evil little kids. I’m not talking about The Omen or The Exorcist, in which there’s some kind of demonic reason. I mean stuff like The Good Son (which is awful) and The Bad Seed (which is great), in which the kid is just evil and nothing can be done about it. Perhaps no film uses evil children as effectively, or chillingly, as the 1976 Spanish film, Who Can Kill a Child?
Directed by Narciso Ibanez Serrador from a novel by Juan Jose Plans, Who Can Kill a Child? (also known as Island of the Damned) plays like if Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds had been called The Children instead. The kids just mill around, staring at the adults ominously, before finally descending on them in a barrage of scythes, machetes, bats, and even pistols, all the while giggling that half-cute/half-unsettling whimper-laugh that we’ve all heard a million times. Killing adults is fun for them! And like The Birds, or any zombie movie worth its salt, the explanation for why the kids have gone bad seems to be a shrug and a grunt. It appears to be localized, but it also appears to be spread to other, pleasant children through touch. Is this just an allegory for making sure your kids wash their hands to stop the spread of cold and flu germs? Was T. Berry Brazelton behind this?! (That’s a very sweet reference, by the way.)
Perhaps the scariest part of the movie is how seriously Serrador takes the topic, tying it very directly to how war affects children. The movie opens with a series of newsreel montages depicting atrocities caused by war, interspersed with creepy kids singing as the credits roll. The footage shows the effects WWII, the Korean War, Vietnam, and wars in Africa and India had on the impressionable youths of the time. Hideous shots of maimed, burned, or starving children are coupled 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 than we probably already were.
This doesn’t last forever, though. I mean, it’s a horror movie after all, and a pretty disturbing one at that. The story 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 (Lewis Fiander) and Evelyn (Prunella Ransome), 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. This is sort of their opportunity to have a weekend to themselves before yet another rugrat takes over their lives. Or, you know, before they’re really happy with having another kid; Their feeling towards children is very much at the center of the film.
They like it in Spain okay, but the resort at which they’re staying 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 from the electronics being left on, it seems 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 just 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, enchanted by her pregnant belly. After touching Evelyn’s stomach an uncomfortably long time, the girl runs away, again leaving the woman totally alone. The trouble really picks up 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 horrifying 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. The couple knows they must escape the island, but to do so, they may be forced to do the unthinkable.
What makes Who Can Kill a Child? most effective is how Serrador shoots it: very sparse and very lingering. There are many shots of the couple standing in the foreground staring at a group of kids that has sprung up way off in the distance. His direction to the child actors must have just been “smile” because that’s pretty much all they do. There’s nothing going on behind the eyes, and it’s fairly obvious these aren’t stage kids, likely just locals he hired. It’s amazingly effective, though.
A horde of anything is scary, and children are no different. Many shots feel like they could be used in a typical zombie movie if you only changed the subjects. There are truly chilling moments when the evil kids casually touch the hands of “normal” kids and then, without any fanfare, they all turn around to silently face our heroes. Toward the end of the film, the heroes hole up in the island’s police station and barricade themselves in from the onslaught of whippersnappers, and it’s very reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead or something akin to that. Children are wilier than zombies, though, which makes them all the more terrifying.
With an ending as bleak as anything, haunting photography, and a troubling message, Who Can Kill a Child? is a film that by all rights should be a classic of ’70s horror, but due to the very unsettling scenes involving children, it’s been forgotten to a degree. In 2012, a remake was mounted entitled Come Out and Play, which just showed up on Netflix Instant. It’s the exact same story, just not quite as effective, due almost entirely to the cinematography. The 1970s just made grindhouse work.