Sunday, 1 April 2018

A look at Creepy Kids in Cinema: Who Can Kill a Child?

Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s 1976 masterpiece Who Can Kill a Child?  begins with a montage of documentary footage depicting the devastating impact of war on children. The endless numbers of innocent young casualties of the Vietnam, Korean, Indo-Pakistani and Nigerian wars, as well as those who perished in concentration camps during the Third Reich. This incredibly grim introduction then cuts to the story of an English couple, Tom (Lewis Fiander) and Evelyn (Prunella Ransome), who are planning to take a relaxing holiday on the remote, isolated Spanish island of Almanzora. They arrive at their destination, only to find it almost completely deserted. They can only find children who rarely speak and acting in a weird, unsettling manner wherever they go. Tom later stumbles across a giggling girl beating a defenceless old man to death with his own walking stick. The couple discover that the entire island’s young people have been possessed by some unknown force which has transformed them into ruthless homicidal maniacs – they’ve brutally murdered just about the entire adult population. Realising that they will soon be the next victims, Tom and Evelyn try to escape. But they have to make a terrible decision. In order to leave the island, they will eventually have no choice but to kill at least some of the children in self defense. This poses a moral dilemma with the couple. After all, as the film’s title states, “Who can kill a child?”

Who Can Kill a Child? is undoubtedly one of the most original entries in the creepy/evil/possessed kids subgenre. It is based on the 1976 novel The Children's Game by Juan Jose Plans, considered a cult literary classic in Spain. Notably, Stephen King’s short story Children of the Corn, which has some notable similarities to Who Can Kill a Child?, was released the following year. In King’s story, the children of the isolated town ritually murdering all of the adults, as well the evil entity possessing the children and enticing them to kill said adults brings to mind the events of Serrador’s film.

Thanks to the outstanding performances from all involved, as well as particularly stunning cinematography from Jose Luis Alcaine and Waldo de los Rios’ powerfully emotive music score, Who Can Kill a Child? emanates an almost overwhelming atmosphere of dread, tension and malevolence. Not to mention the sheer disturbing power and creepiness of the casual savagery of the children’s acts.

Some of the most frightening films in cinematic history are those where a normal situation in a typically safe, non-threatening environment (such as the couple in Who Can Kill a Child? holidaying on a beautiful sun-drenched Spanish island), suddenly turns very uncanny, alien and dangerous. Add to that the children, who are typically meant to be harmless and innocent, being transformed into evil, sadistic and merciless killers. They’re also highly intelligent and manipulative – the polar opposite of the ‘sweet, naive’ child. In The Exorcist, the security of the family home is shattered by the demonic possession of a pre-teenage girl; in the original Village of the Damned a group of glowing-eyed evil kids who unleash their powers onto the hapless residents of a serene English village; The Bad Seed has a happily married couple’s picket fence life shattered by the seemingly ‘perfect’ angelic looking 8 year old girl being an accomplished liar, thief and murderer. These are films which take ordinary circumstances, where we all feel at ease and then flip them into something unrecognisable, that leaves us confused, disorientated and vulnerable to the ‘unknown’. All these movies beautifully demonstrate the desperation that people would have to go through if unexpectedly something we take for granted becomes our worst nightmare.  

Another common thread found in ‘creepy kids’ films is that often all the craziness starts to happen after a party or some sort of celebration. For example we have the house party in The Exorcist, the birthday party in Bloody Birthday, Damien Thorn’s birthday in The Omen, the school carnival in The Bad Seed, and so on. This also occurs in Who Can Kill a Child?, as before Tom and Evelyn travel to Almanzora, they attend a traditional street carnival held on the mainland. They observe some children hitting a piñata – later on at Almanzora – the possessed kids are seen hanging up the corpse of the old man who’d been beaten to death and pummelling his body with his own walking stick, just like with a piñata, as well as a sickle, in a grotesque parody of the earlier festival scene.

Who Can Kill a Child? is an intelligent entry in the Evil Child subgenre which skilfully presents the universally ‘taboo’ subject of the killing of children.  One of the most interesting and controversial points Who Can Kill a Child? makes is this: Why is it that as a society, we’ve tolerated the deaths of countless young people in wars and famines – they are justified as ‘collateral damage’, but when it comes to to taking the life of an individual child in self defence, most of us would suddenly get a conscience?