TADFF 09: THE CHILDREN Review
[Todd has a very different take of the film and we're playing dueling reviews. Read his review here.]
"You brought them into this world. Now ... They will take you out" is the, frankly pretty awesome, marketing hook on the British juvenile-slasher film The Children. I choose my words carefully because the film is on the whole rather immature; being more giddy for set-piece kills over storytelling and characterization. I am quite amazed how it is earned a reputation for being "scary." Tom Shankland and company have a eye for technical detail yet one too many establishing shots expose the episodic, plotted around kill 'money shots' nature of the piece. The film is so eager to please in a 1980s Freddy/Jason kinda way that it squanders a really good idea on the cheapest form of horror-thrills. Nevertheless the picture is shot with a talented eye and for the most part the acting and setting is well established.
Stacking the cards to push the maximum amount of buttons, The Children begins with one of those over-packed family drives out to spend Christmas in a big house - think a British Norman Rockwell-esque country mansion - and a delicate snowy landscape. The parents Elaine and Jonah have brought their disengaged bad-girl teen daughter Casey and younger children 8-ish Miranda and 4-ish Paulie. Greeted with holiday enthusiasm by Elaine's sister Chloe her husband Robbie and their two children 4-ish Leah and 5-ish Nicky. The table is set, the parents go about marshaling the inevitable 'controlled chaos' in these type of 'kids outnumber the adults' situations. The kids have opened up some of the gifts early and proceed to make a fair but of ruckus, but generally get along. This gives the parents a little time for chit chat and red wine. Elaine has a little control over her kids, Paulie is a shy and needy child, Miranda is a spoiled princess and Casey is simply given dirty looks and ignored. Jonah seems a fairly disengaged father, more interested in his herbal-medicine business than helping out his overtaxed wife. Chloe is more the super-mom and Robbie the 'cool dad,' playing and having fun with his children and who actually manages to bring his niece Casey out of her narcissistic teenage shell by, uh, you know, talking to her like a person rather than 'something to deal with.' Robbie also gives Casey a little freedom in the form of showing her where cellular phone signal can be found on the isolated property and giving her a sip of whiskey and a puff of marijuana.
I only go into plot and character detail only to express that the opening act of the film actually throws some interesting subjects on the table. The clashing parenting philosophies (and subtle passive-aggressive sniping) between the moms, and the dads inability to relate to each other at any level kind of expose these crazy social family gatherings with the kids making a mess and destroying everything. And all this in the name of, 'It just is not Christmas without children!' In the 21st century suburbs, forget religion or politics, discussing child-rearing most likely to end friendships and cause extremely awkward social gatherings and generate petty ill will. People take that stuff very much to heart.
It is here that The Children offers a promise that is righteously squandered in favour of cheap thrills. For one reason or another a viral sickness converts the unruly children into literal monsters which go from cute needy waifs to intelligent super-killers. The film rapidly turns into a homage of 80s slasher flicks with the adults doing incredibly stupid things and the children toying with them before stabbing, spiking and head splattering takes over. Yet this is neither fun in a Drag Me to Hell sort of way, and the tone stretches 'suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. The cinematography is great, as in, for example, a low angle close-up of one of the childrens eyes, moving slowly around, and it does more for the picture than the usual 'where did they just disappear' or 'car-will not start' horror cliches. With the exception of the hapless Stephen Campbell Moore who has trouble balancing the indifference/rage aspects of Jonah, the acting is pretty solid, even as the screenplay takes a nose dive. Knowing how to cross-cut action and delighting in gory kills does not necessarily make a good film or well rounded story and the film is not a crazy splatter spoof like a Dead Alive or Slither. My central complaint with the film is that it takes itself quite seriously, attempts to establish balanced parents and even tries to comment on parental pressure and parenting styles in the new millennium. In the end however, it simply degenerates to a shrill jump-scares with maximum volume and a "Wouldn't it be cool if..." attitude which ignores the first couple of reels utterly. I might add that the crowd I saw this film with had no issue with this And that lends to the usual observation that the horror superfans often get what they deserve if something this indiscriminating gets a pass these days. At least something silly like Child's Play or the Nightmare On Elm Street sequels know what they are and do not layer on ignorant (or lazy) pretenses. There is an ambition here which (oddly enough) is unwarranted because Shankland only seems to want to talk down to his audience (and his characters) resulting in one of those bad horror films where you cheer for everyone to die because you the viewer feel more superior to the idiocy on screen. Admittedly this has always been a problem in the 80s slasher cycle, which makes the preceding 70s Giallos more worthwhile trash cinema, with the exception of the original Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street. The Children does not have a story to tell, it has an gimmick to exploit.
Compared to something like David Cronenberg's The Brood and Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's Who Can Kill a Child?, both smart and (more importantly) legitimately scary, nay terrifying, horror films, it begs the question of why settle for this little pixie stick when there are far bigger and more varied candy shops out there.