‘Child Eater’ is a frightening, passionate horror film that has fun creating its own monster and is sure to whet your appetite
“It’s just a house. A normal house.”
There’s something inherently fascinating about fairy tales and urban legends that have been passed down through generations. These stories act as equalizers that are meant to bring together an audience through a collective fear. We all remember what it’s like to be afraid of the dark, dread going down into the basement, or burying ourselves under our bed sheets to block out the noises and images that lurk in the shadows of a bottomless closet. Erlingur Ottar Thoroddsen uses this communal feeling of storytelling as the core of Child Eater, and while his film might touch upon many classic ideas and archetypal fears, it does so with the energized flair of someone who is determined to say something new with all of this. Thoroddsen doesn’t succeed at every corner of this, but he does create something very memorable here that hints at a burgeoning (Icelandic) name in horror to keep an eye out for…that is if they haven’t gotten torn out.
Child Eater kicks off with a hell of an intro where a young girl is holding her own severed eyes as she innocently delivers the line, “He hurt me.” After getting thrown into this chaotic world, the film shifts to 25 years later and the damage that this mad man did to children all those years ago is still felt like a lingering scar on the community. The film centers around Helen, who has been hired to babysit Lucas after the recent death of his mother. Helen’s babysitting session soon turns into a nightmare as Lucas goes missing and it’s up to Helen to find him in time (along with the help of the surviving victim from the film’s intro) before the worst takes place.
That’s a simple enough premise in place and it’s comforting to not see Child Eater attempt to overcomplicate its narrative. It’s much more interested in wanting to tell a chilling, good old-fashioned monster story, and on that front it completely succeeds. The film’s villain, Robert Bowery, the titular “Child Eater” is a terrifying sort of monster. He’s an individual suffering from an eye disease, so he kidnaps children and eats their eyes with the hopes that it will heal his condition. That’s a beautiful concept. It’s just disturbing stuff, and then when you throw in other details like the death mask that Bowery would make these kids wear, it all becomes even more upsetting. Even just watching Bowery in motion is chilling stuff, his twisted body language and cane movements go far. There’s a very raw looking moment where Bowery grabs Lucas and it’s such a scary, voyeuristic moment. The character that Thoroddsen has created here also looks like some scarier version of Christopher Lloyd from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and when is that not ever a good thing?
The film’s scares aren’t relegated purely to Bowery either. Uncomfortable aesthetics across the board continue to place you in a state of uneasiness. There are creepy dolls with missing eyes that become even creepier, accordingly. At other times there is the eerie singing of children, mysterious calls to the Sheriff’s office, and the disturbing symbol of a fake glass eye that acts as a macabre memento and symbol for Bowery’s destruction. Even the camerawork and framing are full of moments where Lucas is leaning into empty frames, feeling small, and the visuals emphasizing his powerlessness. The film also does a good job at tapping into accurately depicting children’s fears of the basement and the dark and how overwhelming those things can be.
The film also isn’t afraid to get a little metaphorical at times, most of which works in its favor. There’s an anecdote about how catching a sparrow in your birdhouse means that someone is going to die that the film plays with. There’s also a memorably parable about a “reverse stork” with black feathers who doesn’t bring babies, but rather takes them instead that is sort of used as a thesis statement for the film.
Child Eater bounces around between set pieces within Lucas’ house, the woods, and a hospital, all of which are made the most out of. These frequent switches also keep the film from stalling and each new location adds to the story in some way. All of this is aided by the fact that you actually care about Lucas through all of this and the moments where you get to see him outsmart Bowery legitimately make you want to cheer. A lesser performance of a weaker script could have turned this journey of retrieving Lucas into a pain, but Child Eater never suffers that problem.
That’s not to say that the film is without its rougher moments though. There are some hokey performances throughout the picture and the film’s budgetary restrictions are clear, but the scares still connect so these issues are never too overwhelming. They’re the typical pitfalls of early pictures. In the end though the film still does take some definite risks and I was impressed to see how far they go with Helen by the end of the movie. Her brutal display at the end of things perhaps implies a dark future for her, which is a PTSD story that I’d certainly check out. Maybe her trauma even sees her carrying on Bowery’s murders in some messed up way. Child Eater doesn’t close on as happy of an ending at it might seem, and it’s details like that that have this film leaving such a lasting impression on me, as well as excited for what Thoroddsen does next.
The film screened ta the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.