Monday, October 12, 2015

The Children (1980)

Written by: Carlton J. Albright and Edward Terry
Directed by: Max Kalmanowicz
Martin Shakar as John Freemont
Gil Rogers as Sheriff Billy Hart
Gale Garnett as Cathy Freemont

Since everyone is all abuzz over Cooties right now, I thought I'd hop in the ol' Wayback Machine and bring you some killer children that pack just as much bite without the guffaws. Well, not intentional guffaws, anyway. I'm sure I'm not surprising any of you with the fact that killer child movies are nothing new. They definitely fell by the wayside for a couple decades for the most part, which is too bad, but in the early 80's there were a handful of them. What's even more surprising is that all the ones I've seen are pretty decent! Sure, none of them are ever going to be regarded as classics, but come on, Devil Times Five is a good little horror flick. Who Can Kill A Child? is a little boring and pretentious, but it still has some damn effective scenes. Tonight's movie is certainly the silliest one of these things I've seen, but even it manages to pack a punch when the cards are down.

There's something so deliciously transgressive about killer kid movies, even if they're not any good. Just the fact that there are filmmakers ready and willing to go there in the first place is enough to gain a bit of respect from me. Violence against a child is typically the last taboo your average movie will break. Kill the mom, kill the dad, kill the cat, whatever, but the moment someone overtly murders a kid the censors bring the hammer down and people freak out. Now, I have kids and I'm not saying I enjoy seeing kids hurt. What I do enjoy is a group of filmmakers who are either daring enough or tasteless enough to say, “You know what? Fuck it. Kids are monsters. Let's chop the little bastards up”, and then dive into it with gusto. The same is true with any kind of flaunting of proscripted subject matter. Of course, there have to be some redeeming qualities to the movie. Plenty of filmmakers with as much talent as the Koch brothers have morals are just out to shock for shock's sake, and that's boring. There does need to be a story and an attempt to engage the audience by some manner other than triggering a gag reflex. If all these ingredients are there, then chances are I'm gonna be happy chowing down on whatever exploitation pie (because pie is better than cake, that's why) you're ready to serve me.

Our story starts on the site of a nuclear reactor. Two maintenance men are out checking pipes and valves and other maintenancey things, but it's nearly time to punch out for the day and cold beer is calling louder than duty. If they'd done their jobs this would be a short industrial training film and not a horror movie, so the two bozos don't notice a faulty fitting leaking some kind of steaming gunk onto the ground. The gunk leaks and leaks and pretty soon a huge cloud of yellow toxic gas is floating down the road and wouldn't you know it, school just let out. To let us know how sweet tempered these kids were before they got gassed, we meet them happily on their way home from a hard day of learning, singing a song in unison about how much they all love their bus driver! Now, my bus driver as a kid was a wonderful guy and pretty much everyone liked him, but I don't recall ever going to these lengths.

Whatever happened in that gas cloud was clearly nothing good, because not long afterward Sheriff Billy Hart finds the bus abandoned on the road by the local cemetery. Hart gets on the horn to Deputy Harry and Molly, the town dispatcher-cum-grocery-clerk. It's a great little bit of small town charm there that the old lady who calls out the cops does it from a CB radio behind the grocery store co-op counter. Supermarkets and convenience stores have all but killed this kind of shop, but if you live in a rural area like I do, there are still a few around to be found. I love places like these, and if you have one near you, you should definitely shop there instead of Target or wherever. Keep it local, people! All right, that's my Message for the day. Back to the movie.

Hart sends Harry to the outskirts of town with a couple of deputized good ol' boys (one of whom is Peter Maloney, a.k.a. Bennings from John Carpenter's The Thing!) while the sheriff himself goes around to the houses of various children with the dual purpose of looking for clues and the unpleasant task of informing every parent in town that their kids are missing.

No one has seen or heard from their children since they left for school. Then the charred bodies of adults start turning up, and it's not long before the Sheriff and his friend John Freemont, father of one of the missing children, put all the pieces together. The kids have somehow been transformed by the cloud into nuclear-powered zombies who microwave their victims to death! Only after Freemont's remaining youngest son has been horribly cooked to death do they discover that to stop the atomic zombie children, they have to chop their hands off. Cue a whole lot of kids getting hacked to pieces with axes and swords. But did they stop the spread of the atomic zombie child plague in time?

Aside from its willingness to graphically murder the shit out of a whole bunch of little kids, this movie has one other great strength that I admire. Those of you who've been reading here for a while know that I love my cheesy pulp horror paperbacks every bit as much as I love my horror movies. Every time I hit a used bookstore, the first thing I do after checking for old Virgin and Target Doctor Who books is hit the horror section and grab everything with a monster on the cover (and any Ramsey Campbell books I don't yet have, because he's my favorite horror author and you should all read his stuff). Something those 70's and 80's vintage horror novels do frequently to pad 40 pages of story into a 200-plus page full length novel is to spend most of the middle section of the book introducing characters just to kill them off and up the body count. These characters generally get anywhere from three to ten pages of backstory and action in the book before the giant leeches slurp them down or the land-walking jellyfish melt them to a screaming puddle of goop, or the giant lizard catches them using a phone booth in the wrong part of the desert. Do that seven or eight times and you've just doubled the length of your book.

Children does this during the sequence of Sheriff Hart going around asking the parents if they've seen their kids. For such a small town, its made up of quite a bunch of eclectic characters in the best pulp horror tradition. One single mom lives with her much younger girlfriend, much to the sheriff's disapproval (the movie never comes right out and says what's supposed to be going on here, but it comes across loud and clear). One crazy rich lush is sitting by the pool in nothing but her bikini bottom, drinking and flagrantly smoking pot in front of Hart while her muscle twink boyfriend lifts weights beside her. When she's told her daughter is missing along with a whole busload of other kids, she becomes very excited at the prospect of a mass kidnapping because their town is usually so boring. And of course there were the good ol' boys and the grocery store lady/police dispatcher from earlier, along with a few others. The characters are all no more than brief sketches, but unlike so many of these movies where you can barely tell anyone apart except by the ways they get killed, here each character is given such a distinct personality that even if you don't remember everyone's name, you instantly recognize them and know what part they're playing in the story. What it takes clumsy hack authors fifty or more pages to do in the exact same type of story, this movie does with astonishing efficiency in just a few minutes of screen time.

I've never seen such a low-budget throw-away movie pull this trick off so well. The Children is an absolutely perfect film translation of what it's like reading those horror paperbacks, and for that reason alone, it's worth checking out. It's a fun, fast-paced flick with an unusual plot and some unexpectedly brutal violence. A fine way to spend a chilly fall afternoon.

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