March 19, 2013
Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)
The film follows a young British couple, Tom and Evelyn, holidaying in Spain. They decide to spend a few days on an isolated island. When they arrive, the main village appears to be deserted save for its children. Soon Tom and Evelyn discover the island's grisly truth: all of the adults are dead, murdered by their own children - and Tom and Evelyn are likely to be next.
Think of a zombie movie. A really edgy, nasty, gore-filled, provocative zombie movie. Now replace the zombies with laughing ten year-olds. That's pretty much Who Can Kill a Child? in a nutshell. I am not surprised it was banned in the 1970s by the BBFC (Britain's film classifiers). It is a profoundly dark and horrible viewing experience.
I mean horrible in the sense that it horrifies me, not necessarily in the sense that I don't like the film. It is, however, a profoundly challenging one. Even before we are introduced to our protaginists, a lengthy credits sequence displays documentary footage of atrocities toward children: dead Jewish children in Nazi concentration camps, crying children burned with napalm in Vietnam and starving toddlers in sub-Saharan Africa. I must be honest: I almost stopped watching the movie at this stage, so repellent and horrendous are the real-life images that Serrador bombarded me with.
Once the film actually begins, Serrador cleverly drags the first act out. There is a wonderfully paced introduction to Tom and Evelyn, the island, and the unavoidable sense that something has gone utterly, irredeemably wrong. From there the film dives sharply into some of the most difficult and nasty horror I've ever seen. It's well worth watching if you're a fan of the genre, but it's bleak viewing for anybody.
To my mind there are basically three kinds of horror movie. In the first kind, the horror is represented as a monster or villain; something that a protagonist can be defeated. American horror cinema used to follow this model, as did a lot of British horror films typified by the likes of the Hammer Studios. In the second kind, the horror is unavoidable and unbeatable; the protagonist's only solution is to escape from it. This 'survival' horror has been a staple of Japanese pop culture since the 1990s, and gained a lot of favour in the USA following 9/11 (Saw, Hostel, et al).
Then there is the third kind: the ultimate horror movie. Bad things happen. The horror is not only unavoidable, and unbeatable, it is also inescapable. Who Can Kill a Child? fits snugly into this third form. Bad things happen. No one gets out alive. This is relentless, inescapable, provocative horror.