Retro Review: THE CHILDREN (2009){0}

The annals of “killer kids” genre cinema is a long and colorful one indeed. Of course we have classics like The Bad Seed (1956), Village of the Damned (1960), and The Omen (1976), but the extra-caffeinated horror geeks will bring up solid little titles like It’s Alive (1974), Devil Times Five (1975), Who Can Kill a Child? (1976), The Children (1980). Children of the Corn (1984), Pet Sematary (1989). And there’s also The Other (1972), The Brood (1979), The Pit (1981),The Good Son (1993), The Plague (2006), Wicked Little Things (2008), and the French import Them (2006) to consider, so let’s just say we’re looking at a sub-genre that’s certainly earned a spot in the horror hall of fame.

Despite sharing a precise title with the 1980 film, Tom Shankland’s The Children is not a remake — which makes it halfway intriguing already — but in many ways it feels like an homage to the small-but-effective low-budget shockers from the mid-’70s. (The ones where the premise is wacky, but still delivered with a deadly serious face.)

As expected, that premise is a fairly basic one: An extended family (a half-dozen grown-ups and more than a few kids) are spending some time at the family cabin for a New Year’s celebration. And then, out of the blue, the wee ones start acting … weird. And then aggressive. And then full-bore insane.

So while we’re dealing with a simplistic (and not all that unique) story construction, this dark British import works on a variety of interesting levels. Firstly, the characters are actually interesting, if only in a basically familiar way, and it’s this small layer of character development that carries us through the more maniacal moments. Second, as a straight-faced horror flick, The Children works quite nicely. There’s a strange sense of off-kilter unease that revs up once Act II gets rolling, and the film delivers a fair share of legitimate scares, creepy moments, and icky little repulsions. But the icing on all these layers is the film’s sense of ambiguity and contradiction. In most horror films, we have an evil presence and an innocent victim. Here, however, we have a bunch of victims … most of whom are too stunned or sympathetic to even fight back! Watching your kid kill someone is scary, but watching them come after YOU … yikes.

Director Tom Shankland, who previously directed the rather good WAZ (aka The Killing Gene), captures the ambiguity quite well, and in a few key scenes he wrings the hell out of it. It helps that he has some grown-up actors who are able to “sell” this material — and a special mention to the murderous minors! Without good little actors to portray your mini-maniacs, you’re left with something really dumb-looking. Like Carpenter’s virtually worthless remake of Village of the Damned. Little factors that help a lot: A solid balance between set-up, conflict, and horrific execution; surprisingly crisp work in the departments of score, editing, and cinematography; and an admirable focus on keeping the threat both vague and urgent. (Yes, the kids all are murderous lunatics, so the WHY of the issue isn’t all that important right now.)

Certainly not the flashiest, loudest or most original “killer kids” flick to hit the scene, The Children still works more than well enough to warrant a cozy couch on a rainy night. The DVD is available if your player (and your wallet) can handle a region 2 (UK) import, but it looks like Ghost House Underground has snagged the film for US release — which means we can probably expect a Lionsgate DVD announcement sooner or later.