Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2013-06-20 04:07

Written by: Juan José Plans (novel), Narciso Ibáñez Serrador (screenplay)
Directed by: Narciso Ibáñez Serrador
Starring: Lewis Fiander, Prunella Ransome, and Antonio Iranzo

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

“What did the man of the pension tell you?"
"Just that something strange had happened to the kids on the island."
"Strange... But what?"
"I don't know. Some sort of madness. I can't understand this."

Creepy kids hold an obvious allure for the horror genre due to their inherent incongruity. Take an angel-faced tyke and have them do some evil stuff, and, boom—instant scary little bastard. There’s almost always a bit of a buffer to them, though—they’re either part of an alien hive mind, possessed by Satan, or the Antichrist himself, so most of them always at least have an excuse. Who Can Kill a Child? dispenses with that notion, as Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s film ponders a sinister and inexplicable world where the kids have just had enough of adults’ shit and have revolted in homicidal fashion.

That sounds kind of petulant, but the film opens with a near ten-minute long sequence detailing how various historical atrocities have particularly impacted children throughout the world. A Mondo-flavored newsreel reveals the unflinching horrors of Auschwitz, the Vietnam War, and other conflicts that have left children either dead or emaciated shades of human beings. As the horrifying images roll by, you’re reminded that the world is a terribly ugly place, and the film goes on to reveal an even more terrifying one that’s been besieged by a banal evil. When an expectant British couple (Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome) go on a holiday in Spain, they decide to head to an island off the coast that’s eerily vacant, save for a smattering of bizarre children stalking about the place.

As you’ve no doubt gleaned by now, things take a deadly turn—eventually. Despite its lurid subject matter and its schlock and awe tactics, Who Can Kill a Child? carries itself with an odd sort of refinement. For an exploitation film, it certainly doesn’t go full bore and sensationalize its violence, as Serrador instead prefers a slow burn approach that breeds a palpable sense of alienation even before the married couple make it to the desolate island. The coastal Spanish town where they initially take refuge is haunted by the holiday celebrations—even the fireworks punctuating the night sky sound spooky. When a corpse with a slashed neck washes up on the beach, it’s definitely time to get the hell out of dodge. Little does the couple know that the true terror lies in their supposed refuge, and Serrador also takes his time here—sure, there are long, drawn out sequences where Fiander and Ransome poke about the town and explore the empty buildings and crevices, but there’s such a creepy, desolate quality to it, as if the duo had stumbled into some Euro-horror Twilight Zone (Anthropophagous would especially echo this a few years later).

Once the kids become overtly violent, the film gains some real intensity. The image is just as fucked up as it might seem, especially when a little girl beats and old man to the edge of death with his own cane. Afterwards, the rest of the kids take his body, string it up, and play a demented game of piñata with a sickle. Instead of plunging full bore into the schlock, Serrador and cinematographer Jose Luis Alcane (one of the all-time great DPs) dance around its edges and leave a little bit to the imagination—the very idea here is weird enough, and they don’t overcook certain aspects of it. Some stuff feels a little like gratuitous padding—there’s a subplot involving a woman who’s pinned down and tries to make radio contact with the married couple, only to meet a grisly fate that has little bearing on the actual narrative, and some moments linger just a little bit too long. The film’s 110+ minute runtime eventually feels a little excessive, especially since the film is pretty threadbare from a narrative standpoint, but its mysterious setup is just about right.

Serrador continues to skirt around the exploitative stuff by confronting the horrific nature of the situation. As the title suggests, there’s a real quandary here that makes it tough to revel in the violence, and it’s here that the film doesn’t shy away: once Fiander is committed to surviving at all costs, things get really ugly and harrowing because this is obviously some pretty taboo stuff. Nobody really wants to see kids corrupted by evil, much less getting blown away by a guy packing a rifle, but this one definitely goes there (and even more bonkers places—the climax is deliriously violent and ironic). Some restraint is still on display: for one thing, Fiander (subtly channeling Donald Sutherland) really sells an anguish that morphs into despair and rage. Like many of its contemporaries, Who Can Kill a Child? centers on civilization’s confrontation with and descent into barbarism, and it’s especially disorienting because it is so inexplicable—the film provides no explanation for the kids’ behavior. It’s vaguely supernatural since they’re apparently able to convert other children by transmitting their madness by the briefest of contact, but there’s a purposeful ambiguity to it all that puts the carnage in sharp relief: here’s a bunch of kids engaged in total savagery, a true world gone mad (a notion that's even highlighted visually, as this is a decidedly sunny affair that mostly unfolds in broad daylight).

If there’s a point to Who Can Kill a Child?, it’s buried somewhere in that sentiment. The opening newsreel stuff provides some sort of posturing, as if the film will really be about something, but whatever message the film has in that regard gets muddled because it’s not as though these specific kids are exactly sympathetic, nor do their victims deserve such grisly fates. Had the island served as some kind of purgatorial (or hellish) abode for the damned rather than a setting for a riff on Village of the Damned (indeed, the film was released in America as Island of the Damned), it may have found a cool, black-hearted conceit; instead, it’s just pure madness that revels in bewildering violence that’s turned the world upside down. It’s a place where even the children are caught up in a circle of violence—it just so happens that they’re the perpetrators as much as the victims, and the film reaches the height of its disorientation when Ransome’s pregnancy goes horribly awry in one of the most bizarre and squirmy sequences you’ll ever encounter.

Who Can Kill a Child? has obviously become one of the most notorious movies of all-time, and it’s one that lives up to its hype, more or less. With its largely unflinching eye and its artful approach, it’s even a step above pure junk its concept would seemingly entail. While I’m not convinced it reaches the heights to which it seems to aspire with the historical and sociopolitical contexts, it’s pseudo-thoughtful stuff that lands squarely between the arthouse and the grindhouse and stands as a fairly unique entry in the killer kid sub-genre. No Satan, no antichrist, no bad seeds—just pure, unfiltered evil, like an army of Michael Myerses stalking, killing, and enjoying it; most of the kids are wry but subdued in a way that reflects childhood innocence and a detached sociopathy all at the same time. The film gained more infamy when Eli Roth named it a personal favorite, and that affection surely informed the homicidal Bubble Gum Gang in Hostel. This gang is a little more subdued, but you can sense a perverse glee in them that renders the proceedings all the more bizarre.

Long relegated to a chopped-down version in the United States, the film was restored to its full glory when Dark Sky released it on DVD back in 2007. The anamorphic transfer solidly captures its grimy beauty—this is both a gorgeous film and a gritty one all at once, and it looks unique compared to other films of the era. The disc also provides the original audio soundtrack that mixes English with the native Spanish language encountered by the characters, though viewers have the option for a full Spanish version as well. Supplements include separate interviews with Alcaine and Serrador and a still gallery. It’s not the most robust of discs, but the film itself is treated very well. With its beat-for-beat remake hitting home video, now is a good time as any to finally dust this one off for a discovery or a revisit. Maybe that was Makinov’s point in the end, as Come Out and Play serves as a potent reminder that it’s hard to recapture lightning in a bottle. Who Can Kill a Child? is the lightning and the thunder all at once. Buy it!

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