Made in Britain: The Children (2008)
Kids, eh? Who’d have them?
Children are a fairly common feature of horror movies. There’s a long and fairly mixed tradition of creepy and homicidal kid films out there. From the 1970’s overlooked gem Who Could Kill a Child, through to modern day efforts such as, er, Orphan (midget homicidal Russian hooker FOR THE FAIL), the spooky child has long been a mainstay of the genre. That’s before I even get on to mentioning supernatural kids in films such as The Exorcist and The Omen. Anyhow, the horror film with child as antagonist hasn’t really been exploited too heavily in this country, as the hit rate is strikingly low. Eventually, the problem of killer child films will always arise: adults and teenagers are physically vastly superior to kids. Therefore, at some point, it’s going to become fairly easy to bitch slap the little bastards rather than getting stabbed with whatever implement they may be wielding. Some films try to come up with a pseudo supernatural way round this (such as Children of the Damned), but the only viable alternative is to couch an ethical dilemma in the film, and the one that formed the title of the Spanish movie mentioned above- could you kill a child even to protect yourself?
Contains murderous brats and spoilers
The Children is an interesting film, for the most part. Following an extended family as they take a holiday in a remote part of Britain, we’re introduced to the aforementioned moral dilemma. When the youngest child brings home a viral infection, the kids stop being alright. They develop signs of nausea, and start staring dreamily off into space for no good reason. Pretty soon after that, our enfants terribles begin exhibiting more bizarre, violent and sociopathic behaviour, culminating in a series of pretty gruesome murders and one of the mothers forced to make a Sophie’s choice style decision: can she kill little Miranda to save teenage Casey?
As mentioned, his is, for the most part, quite a good film. The opening tries a touch too hard to confirm our characters as archetypes- Casey (Hannah Tointon) has tattoos and is trying to get to a party, Jonah (Stephen Campbell Moore) is a failed businessman and quasi-hippy douche and so forth. The Children are best described as being normal kids, which makes the flashes of extreme behaviour exhibited early on all the more disconcerting. Still, the first third of the film trucks along in a nonchalant sort of fashion, diligently setting up the carnage to come and making sure that all the preparation is in place.
It’s the second third where the film hits its stride. The transformation of the kids from being ill to being evil is handled in a flash point, where the first act of real violence in the film is committed. It’s not, surprisingly, child on adult, but instead Jonah snaps and delivers a well earned spanking to little Paulie (William Howes). He’s given the usual admonishments “we don’t hit children here” (You will do), but he’s blithely unconcerned at their opinion. Following this event the floodgates are open, and Miranda (Eva Sayer)takes her chance to stab Chloe (Rachel Shelley) in the head with a fork. No real damage done, but it’s clear that these children are very, very wrong. Before this, however, the atmosphere had been peaking for a while. There had been signs, such as the children staring aimlessly off into space for no good reason, that something was amiss, but the tension was worked up through detail, one child’s inability to focus, the complaints about being ill, remarks from the parents about herd instinct etc. There’s a palpable sense of wrongness to the entire family dynamic, so when the mood is eventually shattered with the violence, and the film hits top gear, it almost comes as a relief.
The dinner table heralds the transition into the final third, and this is where the film starts to have problems. While I wasn’t overly chuffed with the slow-moving first section, I could at least see the point to it. However, here, director Tom Shankland seems in a rush to cover the screen with as much claret as he possibly can. He also has to go out of his way to try to level up with the physical disadvantage that the children must overcome, so incapacitates his main character Elaine (Eva Birthistle). What this comes to, is that the final third of the film feels hopelessly disjointed. Too much happens too fast, and the characters all seem to have had some level of higher thinking removed. For example, Casey is Chloe’s daughter, yet at all points in the final third Chloe keeps trying to tell everyone that Casey is murdering the adults and the children are in danger. This is nonsense, and annoying nonsense at that, because one of the characters was there as Paulie’s intended victim in a cracking scene in the greenhouse. It’s absolutely inconceivable that these adults could believe Casey to be the killer, and a bit of a relief when Miranda finally offs Chloe with a doll to the head.
This is, as mentioned, a good film, but I believe it’s too truncated and the pacing is inconsistent. For example, there are plenty of seriously “off” moments between Casey and her stepfather and his brother, a series of grotesquely inappropriate will-they-won’t-they scenes, that add less than nothing to either our understanding of events or the relationships between the characters. Does it matter, at all, about these, considering that when the children eventually flip out the surviving male basically disregards everything Casey has to say? He gets his comeuppance, natch, but still, it made me wonder about the point of these exchanges.
The acting, by the way, is all very good. Tointon, now free of the Hollyoaks scourge, may well be one to watch in future, and the three child actors are simply superb. Birthwhistle has an extremely difficult role, and as a result is probably the weakest character given that at no point did I think she wasn’t going to make the choice to save Casey. Incidentally, this is a flaw in the film, if you set up the moral quandary of “could you kill a child to save a life” then at least have the character making the decision equivocate for a second before forcing the character into action. That doesn’t happen here, and it’s a real pity. Against that, though, is that by this stage of the film the Children are unequivocal monsters, and as Elaine is the sole adult with a brain cell in the film (even if it does flicker on and off) there’s only really one way she’s ever going to go.
Furthermore, tonally this film is all over the place. The first third tries to set up like a traditional horror movie, and the second goes for eerie suspense. The final act, once the tension is broken lays on the violence and gore with great glee, but the mood is shattered. The end of the film, however, finishes on a terribly unsettling shot of a group of children staring with dead eyes out of the wood, which is tonally more fitting in the second act of the film. The actual end, by the way, suggests that Casey may well be infected, and this is the image the film should have ended on, even if the children staring is more powerful.
That’s the problem with this film, it feels, as mentioned, unfinished and truncated. I wonder if with another rewrite they could possibly have fixed some of the problems of the film. The pacing could have been tweaked, and the extraneous crap with Casey as Lolita could have been excised. The time spent watching Casey flash her stepdad could, instead have been inserted into the final third to allow it to breathe a little more. We don’t need propelling at breakneck speed to the finale, as we can clearly see where this film is going. Allow the characters a chance to grow; to develop so that they aren’t just imbecilic meat puppets for your slaughter.
Overall, this is a good film, but not a great one. There’s plenty here to recommend, and for the most part it is very effective. However, at the end of the day it is a film that is little more than good in parts, and although I find just enough in it to approve it, I’m never going to sing its praises from the rooftops. At only 80ish minutes long, The Children, unlike real children, never stays around enough to become a burden, but it feels more like an opportunity missed than a classic in its own right.
Still, it’s way better than Children in the Corn.
Until next time,