Along with REC and Trick ‘r treat, another must-see direct-to-disc release is Tom Shankland’s UK horror film Thew Children, which is now on Blu-ray and DVD from Ghost House UNderground and Lionsgate Home Entertainment. Beyond the break you’ll find an alterate review to the one we posted here last year. What seems like a normal trip to their auntie’s and uncle’s soon turns into a disaster as uncle Robbie is mysteriously killed after appearing to fall off a sledge, and then mysterious child like figures from the forest start attacking.
Yes yes, children are little demons, as anyone knows who’s ever tried enjoying a nice meal at a restaurant while one is screaming its goddamn head off two tables away. But you can only hope you never run afoul of children like The Children.
The latest entry in the “evil tots” subcategory of horror is this splatterific little shocker from England, in which two couples and their horde of progeny get together for an extended family reunion over Christmas and New Years holiday. At first, it’s all happy families, sledging in the snow, and gold stars for good behavior. Sure, sullen teen hottie Casey finds the whole affair kind of a pain, but then she’s a teenager and supposed to be in that rebellious phase anyway. More worrisome is the way the youngest boy, curly haired Paulie, has vomited up a gutful of yellow goo immediately upon arrival, and is now zoning out in almost autistic fashion, staring off into space and banging away on his toy xylophone. And his mood seems to be affecting the two smallest children in the house as well.
Suffice it to say that before long, Christmas cheer has taken a powder and the pristine snows blanketing the yard will be bathed in blood. Shankland has, naturally, done his share of borrowing, as almost all genre films do. That some infection or similar malady has struck the children has its most obvious antecedent in 28 Days Later. But these kids aren’t being zombified. They’re just becoming little Jasons.
Shankland certainly delivers the gory goods once the body count starts rising, with hapless victims — both child and adult — meeting their maker at the business end of garden tools, shards of broken glass, jagged bits of splintered wood, one especially nasty sledging mishap, and sundry common household items that happen to be metallic and pointy.
But he also has a real talent for the slow-burn building of suspense, allowing his narrative to unfold at a deliberate pace while establishing his characters, their relationships, and the isolation that sets the stage for their doom. Shankland leads us into the unfolding horror by first developing an entirely believable family dynamic, in which, as in all large families, cheerfulness and civility are often a thin veil hiding simmering tensions. Neither couple (the two fathers are the brothers here) really approves of the other’s lifestyle or career choices. And Casey’s uncle seems to be taking an interest in her, now that she’s blossoming into a comely young woman, that isn’t entirely right. When he shares a joint with her and compliments her tattoo, which she’s kept secret from her folks, is he just being the cool uncle, or is he (shudder) hitting on her?
Shankland craftily builds tension upwards from sly, Hitchcockian hints (the first victim of the children’s malice is the family cat, but the only evidence of that we see is that they’ve used its collar to decorate the little tree they’ve put in their tent in the front yard) to full-blown graphic carnage.
And by setting all of this within a family context, he deals with the most probable objection his story might receive: that adults would not find little kids (and the youngest here must be no more than six) threatening, even ones running at you with shears. The carnage is intensified because the parents are simply resistant to the possibility their precious babies could be responsible for what’s unfolding. Nor are they, as parents, willing to do violence to their own children, even to defend themselves. And so the kids exploit this. (The way Paulie lures his mother up an unstable jungle gym is chilling.) Naturally, suspicion unfairly falls on Casey. As a teen inhabiting that netherworld between childhood and adulthood, she’s the only one who’s really guessed what’s going on, thus taking on the traditional horror role of Character Whose Warnings Go Unheeded.
What also helps sell the story is that all of the children, down to the littlest, are surprisingly skilled actors. Most child actors aren’t very good at all, due to their youth and inexperience. (Compare how the talents of the Harry Potter stars radically improve from the first movie to the most recent.) But Shankland gets performances out of his moppet monsters that are as accomplished as anything from the adult actors.
It’s true that some plot points don’t bear close scrutiny. For one thing, this virus or whatever it is seems unusually clever in knowing precisely how to infect its victims starting with the youngest and working its way up in chronological age. Who knows, maybe it was engineered in an al Qaeda lab. Still, if anyone does manage to survive and escape the house, we know they won’t be escaping to safety. It’s in another one of Shankland’s subtle hints that we fear the outside world is no better off. Because despite numerous frantic phone calls, somehow the police have never managed to arrive….