Besides puberty, two of the best things to happen during my adolescence were the glory days of VHS and the proliferation of neighborhood mom-and-pop video stores. And even though I’d be a freshman in high-school by the time my family bought its first VHS machine, lots of my friends’ families were early adopters of the technology, which meant grade-school sleepovers suddenly became a lot more fun. While no video-shop clerk in his right mind would have rented an X-rated flick to a bunch of nervously chuckling thirteen year-old boys, there was never any problem getting our hands on movies that were extremely violent and outrageously gory. So it was at this tender and very impressionable age that I saw movies like Phantasm, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell and Zombie, and George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.
While each of those films is still near and dear to me, it was Dawn of the Dead that made the biggest dent in my malleable psyche. In its day, the film really pushed the blood-and-gore envelope and served up one of the most terrifying visions of apocalypse ever captured on film, earning it an X-rating from the MPAA upon theatrical release. But there’s one scene in particular that even today makes me uneasy – the one at the helicopter refueling station. As Ken Foree checks out the aftermath of a zombie attack in the station’s back-office, two little snarling dead-kids bolt out of a closet and attack him, forcing him to open fire on them. The sequence ends with their bloodied bullet-ridden remains flailing on a couch. Never had child murder been shown so explicitly in a movie before. Even now it’s usually implied or happens off-screen – you rarely get to see the murder in progress. Romero had broken a major cinematic taboo, one that few have dared to repeat since (even in as bleak a film as Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist). And it’s precisely that taboo that is the focal point of Who Can Kill a Child? (¿Quién Puede Matar A Un Niño?),an eerie Spanish horror obscurity from 1976 directed by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador.
Tom (Lewis Flander) and his pregnant wife Evelyn (Prunella Ransome) are a British couple vacationing in Spain in the middle of a particularly festive season. Seeking to get away from the throngs of tourists, they head to the island of Almanzora, which they find oddly empty except for a few small children. Assuming the adults have left for the day for a celebration, Tom and Evelyn wander the island trying to find a bite to eat and accommodation for the night. All they find however are empty streets and abandoned buildings, all the while being watched by these strange-acting children. The first adult they run into on the street is an old man who desperately tries to warn them of something before being clubbed to death by a giggling girl. When that same old man winds up becoming a human pinata for some scythe-wielding kids, Tom and Evelyn realize that the children have gleefully killed off all the adults on the island, and that in order to escape they will have to kill or be killed.
Name your favorite killer-kid flick – The Brood, The Children, Children of the Corn, Devil Times Five, It’s Alive – and I guarantee you this one trumps it. Unless of course, you love cookie-cutter horror flicks which over-rely on sudden loud noises, flickering lights, CGI gore, rapid-fire editing and that annoying blue-green color-scheme to be ‘scary’. (If so, please visit the Lionsgate website.) It also helps if you don’t have a short attention span. At 112 minutes, this movie takes its sweet time getting up to speed. But hey, this was made in the 70’s, back when horror movies were more concerned with setting up the story, developing characters, creating atmosphere and building tension.
Although it’s never explained what drives these kids to murder (in the same way Hitchcock never explained what made The Birds go crazy), it’s implied that it’s a reaction against the cruelty inflicted on them by the adult world. The film opens with a seven-minute montage of actual newsreel footage depicting the aftermaths of war, disease and famine — all of which claim a disproportionately large number of children yet could be easily prevented by adults. For this reason, Serrador’s children have taken matters into their own hands to save themselves from hunger, poverty, concentration camps, and nuclear bombs. (Even Evelyn’s unborn child joins in on the revolution, ripping her apart from inside the womb.) While adult hypocrisy preaches protection of children from all evils, it conveniently ignores the ones induced by its own selfish ambitions. We may be shocked by the scenes of child murder in this film, yet we’re indifferent to the thousands of children dying for real every day on the TV news.
It’s really a shame Serrador only made two features in his career since his direction here is masterful, often recalling Hitchcock and Romero (shades of Night of the Living Dead are evident during the siege on the house and in the fate of the protagonist). As brutal and unpleasant as the premise of the film is, he keeps things tasteful, never letting the violence become exploitative. Although Serrador wants his message to hit hard, he never resorts to cheap scares or melodrama to get his point across. (e.g. the kids are calm, cold and calculated rather than frothing-at-the-mouth maniacs). Though comprised mostly of sunny daytime scenes, Child manages to be very creepy, thanks to some excellent casting choices for the kids and the brilliant use of silence to create an aura of unease around the tranquil Spanish island location. (And while we’re on the subject of the soundtrack, I really need to track down Waldo de los Rios’ eerie score!)
There hasn’t been a really good killer kid film in a while, and since these things tend to be cyclical, I’d say we’re due for a good one. And although I’m not a big fan of horror classics being remade for today’s ADHD-afflicted audiences, just imagine how a good screenwriter could update this film for modern times. Pedophile-priest piñatas, anyone?
P.S. Thanks to Dark Sky Films, Who Can Kill a Child? is available on Region 1 DVD – complete, uncut and looking absolutely fantastic. Includes a cool interview with the director! You can check out the trailer here.