Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)
When IMDB used to have message boards which, thanks to the thousands of trolls posting garbage, eventually forced them to shut said message boards down, I would often visit the pages of films which I found either controversial and/or extremely twisted. I’d throw a list onto a board with my other choices for “Most Disturbing/Twisted Films” and see what people thought and look for recommendations. A mainstay on my list was Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s scathing indictment against a violent world where bloodshed and war carry a heavy cost, particularly for children. Who Can Kill a Child? (1976) was one of the first instances where I felt like I was seeing something I shouldn’t. The subject matter, so disturbing and taboo, was not something you’d find at the local multiplex; suffice it to say, it almost felt illegal watching this Spanish/English language production. Of course, when watching a film made by non-Americans, there’s a certain exoticism as well as the expectation that in Europe, the more-relaxed ethical codes will result in a more daring and likely complex tale rather than the bland, censorship-prone productions made in the States. Serrador’s film is something different. A remarkably tense and extremely eerie film that refuses to play by any rules and wishes to educate and even scold first, then horrify.
Taking cues from both Hitchcock’s The Birds, George A. Romero’s zombies, and the popularity of paranoid thrillers in the 70’s, Child revels in the suspense of stillness. There’s something inherently creepy about children who just stare and do nothing, particularly those who do it with a smile on their face. The same year of Child’s release, we were given the ultimate bad boy, Damien, in The Omen. And let’s not forget that a couple of years prior, Larry Cohen would introduce his killer baby monster in It’s Alive, and a year before that, The Exorcist would feature a possessed child whose ferocity was matched only by her filthy mouth. Devil Times Five (1974) had an intriguing set-up but was let down by hamfisted direction. Stepping even farther back, there’s The Bad Seed, an iconic and unintentionally campy depiction of biologically-inherited barbarism. Village of the Damned features a gaggle of blond, telepathic little tykes with a murderous streak, and even Lord of the Flies featured a group of kids whose mild-mannered demeanor transforms into a rampaging lust for blood. Of course, there’s Children of the Corn, which only wishes it could be as powerful as this and those other films. Honestly, the best part of that movie is the hand-drawn opening credits sequence. What sets Who Can Kill a Child? apart from most, if not all of these films, is the disquieting randomness of it. Serrador’s screenplay, adapted from Juan Jose Plans’ novel “El Juego de los Niños,” streamlines much of the source material, but a key change is Serrador’s decision to forego with any explanation for the children of Almanzora’s sudden shift from cheerful little moppets into bloodthirsty killers.
While the opening ten minutes of the film has been rightly criticized as being heavy-handed, there’s no denying the power of the horrifying images as well as the clarity with which Serrador presents his case. The laughter of children brings a tragic sadness to the preceding images. Newsreel footage from the Indo-Pakistani War, the Korean War, Auschwitz, the Vietnam War, and the Civil War in Nigeria makes it clear that short-sighted, power-hungry adults have no regard for the lives they destroy as they continue to fight meaningless wars. The fact of the matter is, the truth is the truth, period. In an interesting twist, the prolific Spanish television director stated years later that he should’ve placed the footage at the conclusion of the film. Although this could be an improvement, it would also somewhat reduce the underlying themes with which he’s presenting since the film is ostensibly an exploitation film, albeit one with an uncompromising and very disturbing premise. This wasn’t the first time he’d explored the trials and tribulations of young people as he’d directed the respectable horror The House That Screamed in 1969, but this time, the theme of children being victimized would be turned on its head.
The grainy, black-and-white footage gives way to a joyous, sunny day at the beach for the residents of Benavis on the Costa del Sol. Hundreds of people enjoy the sun and surf until a badly mutilated body washes up on the shore, ironically first discovered by a small child. As the paramedics drive the body to the morgue (they’ll return when a second corpse appears a few hours later), their car passes a bus carrying vacationing English couple Evelyn and Tom, played by Prunella Ransome (Golden Globe nominee, Far from the Madding Crowd) and Lewis Fiander (Dr. Phibes Rises Again). Tom is “practically a doctor” due to his job as a biologist (although I wouldn’t go to him with a broken leg) and Evelyn is six months pregnant.
The first half hour of the film features glorious footage of local color and the parade festivities. It’s shot in a documentary-style which gives the events a vibrant, lively quality, capped off by a massive fireworks display.
I was reminded of my first trip to Paris with my wife. We stayed in Montmartre, which was nice but extremely tourist-heavy. Despite this exciting atmosphere, it’s simply too crowded and Tom is itching to take his non-Spanish-speaking wife to a tiny island off the southern coast of Spain named Almanzora, which he initially mispronounces. It’s an amusing little observation of a man attempting to appear worldly. A similar theme was explored in Adam MacDonald's Backcountry (2014). They have an extremely civil conversation about abortion, then Tom reveals himself to be a movie buff and points out one of the more forgotten, darker aspects of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, in which a man murders his children to spare them the anguish of living in a world he’s created.
They rent a boat and arrive in the village, where some very sweet-natured children happily bring their boat in. With the exception of the infamous Prince Valiant-haired kid, who gives Tom shit for trying to look in his fishing bait basket, things seem pretty normal, albeit quiet. There’s an eerie calm surrounding the village. Tom equates it to the possibility that most of the townsfolk have headed off for a festival on the other side of the island, but as they discover a squeaky, rotating oven spinning burnt chicken, melted ice cream, and a deserted bar, something seems amiss. It’s very difficult to establish atmosphere in a film, particularly in a horror film set mostly during the day; a rare occurrence as nighttime has more often been the time when bad things take place. Thanks to a transfixing, off-putting score by Waldo de los Rios, who would pass away a year after the film was released, and the brilliant work of future Almodovar cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine, the film doesn’t need to hide under the cover of darkness to conjure up a feeling of dread.
Editing also plays an important part in the mysterious quality of the film. The film was actually shot in numerous villages, but through the work of editors Antonio Ramírez de Loaysa (No One Heard the Scream) and Juan Serra (The Prodigal Woman), it’s absolutely seamless. The pacing, coupled with the intrigue built-in when visitors encounter a strange situation, constantly keeps the audience on edge as they round each corner, uncertain of what lurks ahead. While Tom heads to a local grocery store, where he apparently didn’t need anything in aisle 2 or else he’d probably have noticed a bloody corpse, Evelyn encounters a little girl named Lourdes. She seems sweet and fascinated by Evelyn’s baby bump, rubbing it and listening to the baby’s heartbeat. Since it’s unlikely that I’ll ever become pregnant, although I have seen Ivan Reitman’s Junior, so I know it’s possible, I can never quite appreciate how annoying and intrusive it must be for women to have their bellies constantly felt and prodded. Evelyn seems fine with it and after she and Tom get some weird phone calls, they proceed to a boarding house, which is, as you’d expect, also empty.
While both characters are presented as likeable, good-natured folks, Tom does have a condescending, sexist streak in him. In the first instance of genuine terror they witness, a little freckled girl steals an old man’s cane and beats him to death. The murder is slightly obscured and when Evelyn (correctly) observes that the old man is dead, Tom tries to play things off as just some silly game that got out of hand. This, despite the fact that after he’d carried the lifeless body into a barn, he watched in horror as a group of children strung up the corpse like a pinata and used a scythe as a whacking stick while giggling hysterically. It’s a deliciously wicked twist on a common children’s party game which had been presented more traditionally earlier in the film. He claims that “nothing” happened. To use an English word to describe his actions, I’d have to say “Tom, you twit.”
The keyword here is “game.” They find a lone survivor, played by Antonio Iranzo (Burnt Skin), who describes a nightmarish occurrence two days prior. Around 11:30pm, “it was as if every boy and girl in the village woke up at the same time.” He heard nothing but laughing and screaming and, in a party-like atmosphere, they proceeded to systematically attack and viciously beat every adult in every household. The frenzied killing continued and he briefly considered fighting back, but then again, we’ve gotta have our title, so he asks “Who can kill a child?” What makes the film all the scarier is that the children appear to be normal in every way, except now their sense of fun and games has mutated into a warped, homicidal amusement.
The film has an impressive amount of momentum, with nary a dull moment, even in quieter scenes. Serrador assumes total control over his material and suggests just enough mayhem and carnage without feeling particularly gratuitous. A woman attempts to call for help via the village switchboard and all we see are little torsos bashing through a door and quickly rushing into the room. Later, in a shadowy church, Tom discovers one group of girls modeling an adult woman’s dress while a group of boys paw at the half-naked body of the woman who’s just been killed. It’s an exemplary example of the important distinction the director places upon what exactly is going on with these kids. They aren’t maniacs with the adult mind of serial killers in a children's bodies. They’re still very much kids, but something, Tom later refers to it as a “mass madness,” has taken hold and their concept of right and wrong has been irretrievably altered.
The unspeakable act of child murder is fully-addressed here, as Iranzo’s sobbing daughter arrives and claims her “grandma is sick.” Tom knows something's up, but Iranzo simply states, “She’s my daughter.” In a long, wide shot, she takes his hand and leads him around the corner, where we hear his terrifying scream a moment later. They run for the dock and Evelyn briefly falls over onto her stomach. Like the scene in Julien Donkey-Boy, any time a pregnant woman falls, I cringe. They manage to get to the square, but the sight which greets them takes their breath away.
A huge group of 50 kids or more stand at the village’s exit. None of them move. Serrador displays masterful handling of his subject as the various closeups on the children indicate that these interlopers are new “playthings.” Slowly, they begin to approach; some of them carrying knives. This mob of children steadily approaching is genuinely frightening. Tom and Evelyn barely escape in a car; shoving a dead body out of the driver’s seat and heading to the other side of the island. In an extremely funny moment, they see a house, but Tom points out, “there are children down there.”
The children’s mother (Marisa Porcel, Anna and the Wolves) comes out and it appears that these kiddos haven’t been affected, but that soon changes. While Tom and Evelyn rest inside the house, a few of the leaders of the children’s cabal arrive. A sweet little girl rushes up to greet her new friends, but she’s met with a cold, piercing stare. Cutting back and forth between their tiny eyes, it’s clear something strange and even telepathic is happening. The task complete, the rest of the children wordlessly sit down and wait for the adults to come out of the house. Tom and Evelyn manage to escape again; meanwhile the children’s mother is baffled as to why her kids aren’t following her commands. In a subtle but very disturbing visual, the cliff behind her suddenly fills with children, staring down at her.
Tom finally begins to come to grips with what he has to do, but before he can run down a group, Evelyn forces him to swerve, causing them to crash. They barricade themselves in a police station, where Tom manages to snag a machine gun. I admit, being a gorehound, my initial thought has always been “Fuck yeah!” even though the implication of what he must do is depressing. One has to admit though, these kids don’t make it easy. In a climactic moment, the children snag a battering ram and while they pound away, an adorable, and extremely cherubic youngster aims a revolver at Evelyn’s head. He smiles sweetly just as he’s about to pull the trigger. Tom spins around and fires, striking the kid right in the head. This causes all of the other children to systematically and wordlessly retreat. Tom comes to realize that no one had attempted to fight back when the tykes attacked, so his actions have confused and forced them to regroup.
They rest in the cell as the camera makes stately pans across the precinct, including over the body of a blood-splattered policeman sprawled across his desk. In what is arguably the film’s cruelest plot twist, Evelyn begins screaming as her unborn child rips and tears at her insides. She remembers her encounter with Lourdes and claims “he’s one of them now.” Although Ransome’s performance may be a tad over-the-top here, the moment where blood begins to trickle down her legs as the children in the other room giggle chills the blood. She dies and Tom is surprisingly quiet, pensive even. It appears he’s in shock and he sits down, unmoving, until dawn. What comes next recalls both the actions taken by Max Von Sydow in Ingmar Bergman’s beautiful The Virgin Spring and the parents of the slain daughter in Wes Craven’s nasty remake, The Last House on the Left.
The final showdown occurs as Tom makes his way through the square and encounters the children. Long, elegant dollies across their smiling faces emphasize their supposed innocence and you can see Tom wrestling with the decision he has to make. One of the girls even holds a baby. He slowly raises the gun and still, the children continue to smile. He pulls the trigger and mows at least six of them down. The huge, bloody wounds which materialize on the kids’ backs are huge and one of them stares daggers at him as he runs off, stupidly tossing his machine gun aside. I wish it had been indicated whether the gun was empty, because otherwise, this seems like an incredibly stupid move. He manages to get on the boat and it’s an absolute melee of blood and violence. The kids pile on top of him, many with bulging eyes as they plunge tiny knives into him. He bashes several of them over the head with his oar. It’s chaotic and messy. A boat carrying the mail arrives along with some government officials, who only see a man mercilessly beating a group of children. Although Tom tries to yell “It’s them!” he’s the one who’s shot.
What makes the final scene so effective is the efficiency with which Serrador approaches the moment. Instead of showing the children playing the long game with these new “playmates,” the events unfold with remarkable economy. They’re sobbing and whining and we get the feeling the madman on the boat will be blamed for all of the deaths in the village. However, before the officer can even investigate, one child cheerfully shouts “Adios!” He turns to see them joyously absconding with the many rifles on the boat. What boat needs that many rifles? Is it Pablo Escobar’s boat? In a wonderfully dark and apocalyptic indication of what’s to come, a little girl asks the boy with the piercing eyes, “Do you think the other children will play our game with us?” He replies in the affirmative, stating that “There are lots of children in the world,” as a group of kids head off towards the mainland.
Who Can Kill a Child? was released under a plethora of other titles, each more exploitative than the rest. Trapped, Island of the Damned, and Death is Child’s Play are just a handful of the alternate monikers used, although even Who Can Kill a Child?, though a bit classier, is still pretty explosive. Due to the graphic nature of the film and certain prints being heavily cut, the film remained criminally underseen and Serrador would never direct another feature film, focusing entirely on writing and directing for television. This is highly unfortunate since his expertise in the craft of tense, atmospheric settings and difficult subject matter is evident. Luckily, this unapologetically rebellious work has justly been lauded over the years as an exemplary example of message-based horror filmmaking as well as a nasty kick to boot. Serrador clearly achieved what he set out to do. Make a point, but present it in an unflinching, entertaining manner to educate as well as horrify.