Friday, April 9, 2010

WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? (1976)

Narciso Ibanez Serrador answers his title question right off the bat. He plays newsreel footage of twentieth-century horrors over the opening credits as a ticker tabulates the juvenile casualties of World War II, the partition of India and Pakistan, the Korean and Vietnam wars and the Biafran uprising in Nigeria. In an interview on the Dark Sky DVD, Serrador (who has worked mostly on TV as the creator and head writer of a long-running Spanish anthology series) thinks he may have made a mistake in putting this data up front. He now thinks it may have worked better as a coda at the end, but I think he shouldn't second-guess himself.

That litany of childhood death sets us up to respond to the developing nightmare on the island of Almonzara in a certain way that enhances the horror of it. Without the historical set-up, we might spend most of our time wondering how, not to mention why, the children of the island are systematically massacring the adults. Given a world-historical context, our speculation roams more widely than it might otherwise. We can begin to imagine the children's murderous "playing" as some sort of divine retribution.

Serrador tells us that he dispensed with an idea developed in the source novel by Juan Jose Plans, which was actually written concurrently with the screenplay. Plans wanted to explain the rampage with some sort of toxic event hitting the island, but Serrador keeps things more mysterious by not explaining it. All we know is that the killing impulse is transmitted telepathically from child to child, and in one case from child to fetus. Explain that how you like. It clearly put the American distributors in mind of Village and Children of the Damned, since they retitled Serrador's movie Island of the Damned for its stateside release. The general vibe of the film is like a cross between the Damned movies and Night of the Living Dead, though the island kids are more happy and playful than either analogy might imply.


The menacingly quiet scene above throws the benign scene below, from earlier in the film, into a more menacing light.

Of course, another way to answer the title question is to say, "We'll see." It's an open challenge to see whether the killer kids will drive our English tourist protagonists to the breaking point. The adults of Almonzara couldn't cross the line. One of the last survivors actually asks the question of the English couple to explain why he couldn't stop the tykes from killing his wife. Tom, we'll learn, is made of sterner stuff. Of course, none of the kids he might shoot are his, though he does have one of his own to worry about. After what he and we have seen, however, we're ready to root him on. Does that make us moral equivalents of all the soldiers for whom the children of the twentieth century were collateral damage? Serrador may have wanted us to feel that way, but the business with the telepathy undermines the effect. Once we see that going on, we're probably inclined to see the kids as no longer fully human. Are they? Or do they represent a sudden single-generation evolutionary leap that has to kill the past to secure its landing? However you interpret it, you're going to identify with the lone man who has to blast his way through them or beat them down with poles to escape the island.


Quien Puede Matar a un Nino? is a sinister, unsettling film. Its air of simmering apocalypse is enhanced by its quasi-future setting in which Thailand has fallen to a fictional Communist uprising. Its moments of violence shock by suggestion rather than with gore, and the most gruesome moments come when Tom starts fighting back against the kids. When the kids attack, most notably when they treat an old man as a human pinata, we never see when the sickle strikes home, but we're horrified enough by the pure perverse playfulness of the psycho brats. Depending on your attitude, the final battle between Tom and a mob of kids may be more than you can stand if you can't stand violence against children. I was sicko enough to want to cheer when he finally opened fire on them, and I suppose many other viewers felt the same release of tension when Tom took the offensive. Whether you regret that feeling afterward is up to you.

"Who can kill a child?" I'm sure some brave grindhouse types must have said, "Give me a gun, I'll show you who can kill a @$%#!! child!" back in the day.

Here's Dark Sky's own nicely done trailer for the movie (with a German title), uploaded to YouTube by dreamindemon

6 comments:

Rev. Phantom said...

One of my all time favorite killer kid movies. Don't worry, man--I cheered at the end too. lol

Drew said...

I've been curious about this since I heard Eli Roth talk about sometime ago. Definitely sounds like one of those novel horror flicks one doesn't run across every day, I may have to grab this now after this writeup, it's got me super curious, and it's been awhile since I've had my horror fix.

Samuel Wilson said...

Rev., you've probably gotta cheer when Tom finally opens up. Maybe the director wanted to move those war stats to the end to make us regret our applause, but the film works fine as is.

Drew, I wasn't aware of Roth saying anything about it, but I guess he knows his stuff. Thanks for writing.

The Vicar of VHS said...

I saw the necessity for Tom to open up on the kids at the climax of the flick, but I didn't cheer about it, and didn't really think the director necessarily wanted to inspire that reaction. I read it more of a "necessary evil" thing--concepts of innocence, right and wrong, etc. have devalued to such an extent that there's no escaping the cycle of violence--it's kill or be killed, even with children, and that's a sad thing all around. Perhaps all the sadder b/c of how much it rings true to modern experience.

There was a time when one couldn't imagine killing a child, even in self defense--the idea that children are innocent, can and should be corrected and set on the right path (as opposed to locked away and/or executed), seems at times to be a casualty of the modern age. We have long since given up on the idea of rehabilitating adult criminals--and with more and more juvenile offenders being tried "as adults"--kids 13, 12, 11 years old or younger--we're pretty much saying that once a kid becomes a criminal, there's no longer any hope. Again, I couldn't cheer that idea, though I could see its terrible logic.

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for your comment, Vicar. Again, I'm pretty sure that the film wants our reaction to be conflicted, but Serrador may have overplayed his hand with that telepathy business. People are bound to read that as "they're possessed" or "they're pod kids" or in simplest form, "they aren't human anymore." If only they had Captain Kirk on the island! He'd solve the problem with zero juvenile fatalities ;} But in all seriousness, had Serrador stuck to his guns and insisted on no why to what's happened to the kids, the climax would probably have been more purely horrific in the manner he apparently intended.

venoms5 said...

This is a very classy movie despite the subject matter. The director was totally successful in keeping the film from falling into exploitation trappings. Nothing wrong with that, just it was a surprise to see the material handled in a "respectful" manner.