The Children (2008)
Hannah Tointon (Casey), Eva Birthistle (Elaine), Stephen Campbell Moore (Jonah), Jeremy Sheffield (Robbie), Rachel Shelly (Chloe), Eva Sayer (Miranda), William Howes (Paulie), Jake Hathaway (Nicky), Rafiella Brooks (Leah)
Viral Outbreak Which Causes Violent Behavior in Children
“A relaxing Christmas vacation turns into a terrifying fight for survival as the children begin to turn on their parents.” -IMDb.com synopsis
As I said in my review of Cooties, killer kids are a dynamite concept for a horror movie. They’re either a corruption of something sweet and innocent into something monstrous or the overt selfishness and lack of empathy of childhood magnified into some horrific creature, depending on your tolerance for children. It’s the perversion of something weak into something suddenly powerful, turning a power dynamic on its head that makes the idea work.
Conceptually, The Children (not to be confused with the other killer kid movie of the same title that was distributed by Troma) is a bit of an amalgamation of People Toys (also known as Devil Times Five, because some movies deserve two awful titles) and Who Can Kill a Child? (the gold standard of the killer kid sub-genre, for those who were curious). The setting of a winter retreat where sweet innocent-looking kids brutally murder selfish shit-head adults is reminiscent of the former while the idea of a communicable homicidal urge passed between children reminds me of the latter.
What The Children does, which no killer kid film that I am aware of has done, is makes it very personal. In all other killer kid movies the kids are either completely unrelated to the protagonists, mutated in some way to make them monstrous, or behave in a detached and inhuman way from moment one. The titular children aren’t like that, they look like kids and though they have a placid look on their faces until the moment of murder they still know how to use their emotional attachment to the adults to their advantage. They come to their loved ones crying, begging for comfort and trying to hug or be held. When confronted with violence they cry and act weak, only resuming their attack when the prey’s guard is down. It’s a very insidious tactic that makes this movie especially rough and mean. Who Can Kill a Child? asked if you could bring yourself to kill a random kid who attacked you, The Children asks if you would be able to murder your own child as they beg for mercy and comfort to save your own life.
Now, your own mileage may vary on the effect this movie has on you. Some people hate kids and will see the protagonists of this movie as stupid and weak, bragging that they could fight a hundred kids and win (as the earthen floor of their basements would surely attest). This movie is going to hit the hardest for those viewers who have children, work with children, or have a close bond with a niece/nephew or young relative. Those people are going to project their own experiences onto this movie and for those people (present company included) this is a deeply disturbing film.
Sometimes writer/director Tom Shankland takes mercy on the viewer, allowing extreme violence to be more implied than shown. We’ll see a kid’s head falling rapidly toward a giant shard of glass than cut away to a close-up of blood running along the floor. Other times he opts to show rather extreme bits of gore (there is one extremely gory kid kill in this movie and two others which are merely very violent), albeit generally in quick shots rather than anything lingering. Unfortunately this stylistic choice sometimes makes it difficult to tell what the hell you’re actually seeing on-screen.
On the subject of muddled messages, I had a little trouble with the characters. It at first seemed like there were twice as many kids as there actually are and I had a difficult time establishing which ones belonged to which adults. I only managed to hammer out the character relationships upon reading some reviews of the film after watching it.
The movie takes its sweet time getting to the point, spending time with the adults yammering on about nothing and being awful people. It would seem that the unlikable qualities of the adults were a choice, framing the teenage Casey as the ersatz leading lady but Casey isn’t a much better. The Children doesn’t make Cooties’ mistake of framing all the children as awful before they become violent but it does make it feel like the violence visited on the parents is more than a little bit of comeuppance for their selfish and shallow behavior. The adults are petty, patronizing, and really kind of deserving of their fates.
Casey’s big defining characteristics are that she hates her stepdad, who clearly loves his two biological children more than her. She has a complicated relationship with her mother, a terrible relationship with her younger sister, and likes her cool weed-smoking uncle. She’s an asset to the plot largely because she’s the only character actually willing to commit violence against the children when things go to hell. This actually makes Casey seem less heroic as she doesn’t seem to feel much remorse for violently killing her siblings and cousins, which seems at odds with the big point of the movie.
But forget the adults because I want to talk about the real stars of the film: the kids. Child actors are underappreciated in any genre, but especially in horror. The mark of a great child actor is that the audience doesn’t even realize they’re there. Pet Sematary is terrifying movie filled with all manner of horrors, but the most effective bit of the film is three-year-old Miko Hughes as the re-animated Gage Creed. Gage has a ton of dialogue (though quite a bit less than he has in the book, for obvious reasons) and he doesn’t read it super naturally but it works because a three-year-old is speaking like an adult and he’s terrifying. The kids of The Children don’t talk much, even before they become evil, but they communicate a myriad of emotions with astounding ease. There’s nothing false about any of the child-actors in this movie and if I can praise it for nothing else I praise this movie for that.
The Children is slow to start but once it makes it over the second-act hill it’s a disturbing roller coaster ride to the finish and a very worthwhile and enjoyable film from there. Now I’m going to talk about the film’s ending so those wanting to avoid spoilers should skip down to “The Shill.”
After dispatching Casey’s sister, she and her mother Chloe are surrounded by an army of children in the woods. Casey vomits what appears to be the same yellow bile that all the infected children have thrown up earlier in the film, and then climbs in the car with her mother and rides to safety. The shot slowly zooms in on Casey’s face as her expression goes from fearful to dispassionate and the shot goes to black. The implication seems to be either that Casey is young enough to be susceptible to the virus or that it effects people of all ages but works more slowly on teenagers and adults.
It’s a nice stinger but it also robs the movie of the more existential undertones. So Chloe may be attacked by her daughter and killed, what does it matter at this point? To survive she’s had to endure the death of her family. Her oldest daughter killed her young son and his cousin by impaling them on sharp debris, she ran over her younger daughter with a car. What’s the point of surviving when you have to live with the realization that you had to brutally kill your own children? Could you live with yourself after that? Would you want to? There’s no triumph to Chloe and Casey’s escape, they have nowhere to run to and they’ve lost everything. For Casey to go insane and kill her mom would surely be preferable to having to live with the guilt. That’s why The Children is unique and why it’s so deeply affecting.
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