[With Come Out and Play, the remake of Who Can Kill a Child?, set to debut at TIFF tonight, we decided to take another look at the original film.]
I read a quote from Adam Balz over at NotComing.com that even the most avid cinephile will never see 0.1% of all films released commercially. Considering the number of films released annually from all parts of the world, I'd venture to guess that take your favorite genre of film, and you are unlikely to see 5% of those.
Now, given how many less-than-worthwhile films are out there, it is one of the great pleasures to stumble upon a classic you may never even knew existed. It is not a new film, or even newly on DVD, but after watching something this compelling, after first getting over the surprise of unawareness, you will probably agree with its quality.
Spanish filmmaker Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's Who Can Kill A Child? (1976) has a certain grace not often encountered in horror films. Some of Dario Argento's films have it, Robin Hardy's 1973 classic The Wicker Man definitely has it, Hitchcock nailed it with The Birds, as did Spielberg in both Duel and Jaws. It is something primal that gnaws away at the irrational part of your brain and hits a sort of G-Spot (H-Spot?).
The film starts off a tad on the exploitive side. The opening minutes may make or break viewing the film, and an argument could perhaps be made (I'm not, however) that it is unnecessary and explains why this film has never really made it to North America. A version of the film was released with this entire sequence excised, amongst other things, called "Island of the Damned," clumsily referencing John Wyndham.
Documentary footage over the lengthy opening credits unflinchingly shows horrors visited upon innocent children during WWII, Vietnam, and widespread famine in Asia and Africa. Narciso Ibáñez Serrador may be dropping a karmic hint as to what will follow plot-wise, or perhaps he is going for generating horror, sympathy and outrage prior to more conventional opening imagery as the story starts.
Tourists frolic on the beach, and a body washes up on the shore. While folks look on (in that special way people do when there is a car accident on the side of the road), an ambulance picks up the corpse and carries it away. Instead of following this unexplained event, the camera follows the ambulance until it passes a tourist bus heading back into town. It is a bit long-winded, but the film decides to follow an upper middle class white couple on their vacation to the south of Spain.
Tom and Evelyn -- apparently from Britain, but they speak in Spanish even in private, an artifact of Spanish and Italian post-dubbing in the filmmaking -- want to get some time away from their kids, while Evelyn is in the middle of her third pregnancy. Finding the Spanish port too crowded during a summer festival (fireworks and piñatas everywhere), they rent a boat and head for a tiny island Tom knows where things are peaceful and quiet. When they arrive at this island, a few children help them tie up their boat, but gaze at them more than a little odd-like.
Arriving at the town square, the sun is sweltering and the tall white-washed adobe buildings are completely empty. Forbiddingly empty. It is here that the film kicks into high gear by actually doing nothing. Tom and Evelyn are left to wander the emptiness, first trying to make the best of things, feebly convincing themselves that the residents must be on the other side of the island at a festival or something. Evelyn, while taking a load-off in the deserted cantina, has another strange encounter with a young girl. Soon afterwards she and Tom witness an event which is both casually off-kilter and horrific that it borders on sublime.
While I'm being a bit coy on plot details, the titular question offers more than a little clue. The effectiveness of Who Can Kill A Child? is in the slowly building tension on the island, which lets the sun and the architecture breathe along with the characters. The concept of daylight horror seems strange, as it is commonly accepted that chilling things go bump in the night. Much scarier, I think, are when things are horribly askew in broad daylight.
Surprisingly, few directors attempt this type of horror. There was mention of The Wicker Man and Duel above, and Peter Weir's one-two punch of Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave also comes immediately to mind. This film clearly belongs in that master class and more is the pity that it is so damn obscure. There is a scene in the film where a man encountered by the confused couple is simply convinced to walk to and accept his own annihilation, which he clearly knows will be of the worst sort. It is horrific in a way that by the film's logic is weirdly plausible. Another scene involving Evelyn and her pregnancy is amongst the best of that kind of discomfort realized on screen in the history of cinema.
Furthermore, I can only guess that a key moment (it is on the poster, no less) from Kátia Lund & Fernando Meirelles' City of God was cribbed directly from Who Can Kill a Child?, just as Narciso Ibáñez Serrador borrows effortlessly from Romero and Hitchcock. Why this film is not woven properly into the tapestry of great horror films is tragic, but it can be found quite easily courtesy of Dark Sky Films and their 2007 Region 1 DVD release (and before that, ALFA Digital's not quite as polished 2004 release). The remake, Come Out and Play, is set in Mexico and directed by a mysterious single-named Makinov, and about to debut (as of this writing) at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.
After all, if you are only going to see 5% of even just the horror films made worldwide, the original Who Can Kill A Child? should be one of them.