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July 2011

Who Can Kill A Child?

cast: Lewis Fiander, Prunella Ransome, and Antonio Iranzo

director: Narciso Ib��ez Serrador

112 minutes (18) 1976
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Eureka DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by Max Cairnduff

Who Can Kill A Child?

It's not every film that begins with a ten-minute or so montage of archive footage of children dying in concentration camps and associated wars. As the frankly disturbing grainy black and white images play out, a voiceover describes casualties. Between each set of images, music rises up and children can be heard laughing and giggling.

That footage was hard to watch. This isn't fiction. This is a description of how millions of children have died in real life. By the time it is finished and the movie proper began I was already thoroughly unnerved. If you're anything like me you've probably watched a lot of horror movies. Hardly any of them unnerve me (or you I'm guessing). It's very welcome when they do. It's a big part of what I watch them for.

The film then cuts to a Spanish beach where a corpse has just washed ashore. The body belongs to a foreigner, and a quick examination suggests that they were stabbed to death. A newspaper headline reveals that this isn't the first such corpse found in the last couple of days. Oblivious to all this are Tom (Lewis Fiander) and his wife Evelyn (Prunella Ransome). They're an English couple on holiday. Evelyn is heavily pregnant and this is their last chance for a break before the birth.

Tom and Evelyn enjoy a little time on the beach and at a festival, but they're only spending a day or so, on the mainland. Their real holiday is a on a little-visited local island which Tom spent time at a few years previously. Before too long they've hired a boat and sailed off to enjoy the island's hospitality.

When they arrive things are not as they expected. The local children at the harbour they pull into are unfriendly, and there appear to be no adults around. The local caf� has nobody behind the counter, just a chicken which has been rotating on a spit so long it's burnt down to an inedible carcass. What soon becomes apparent is that there are (almost) no adults left at all. The children have killed them. The question for Tom and Evelyn then is: if they want to survive themselves, can they kill children?

Who Can Kill A Child? (aka: Death Is Child's Play) is a fascinating film and much of it works very well indeed. Only Tom speaks Spanish, which leads to a nice naturalism as Tom speaks Spanish to the few locals and survivors they encounter but English to Evelyn. Evelyn is dependent on Tom because she can't communicate, and in classic 1970s chauvinistic style because he takes an awfully long time to tell her what's really going on (perhaps too long, if I discovered a horrifically savaged corpse I wouldn't leave my wife sitting downstairs in an open area while I checked to see if there were any more bodies).

The lighting is naturalistic and, unusually for a horror film, almost everything is in plain sight. This isn't a film where the viewer jumps at shadows. The sun washes the streets and there's a tremendous visual ordinariness to the island which helps ground the film so making the strangeness in it all the more stranger.

The children are suitably creepy. Frequently they seem playful, but their idea of a game can include stringing an adult up as a human pi�ata. They seem moved almost by some form of collective consciousness, but there's no implication of alien invasion or possession. Something has passed between them, but what is unclear. An evolutionary response perhaps, a form of pre-emptive strike..?

Who Can Kill A Child? is in some ways a blend of elements from films such as The Birds (there's an excellent sequence where Tom and Evelyn have to walk through some children who simply stare at them as they pass, and which is a clear reference to Hitchcock's film), and Night Of The Living Dead. The children are other, no longer of our species, and as a separate species they feel no compassion towards us.

Not everything works. As I indicated above Tom at times behaves with a certain bewildering stupidity and Evelyn is no better. Tom's investigation of the town while Evelyn waits at their (deserted) hotel builds suspense but makes little sense given what by then he's already found. Thankfully, none of this really impacts the ultimate story but it is noticeable. Equally, Evelyn's character is distinctly pre-feminist doing little beyond screaming and getting in the way. That said, Prunella Ransome is on distinctly good form here and does a lot with a part that, without her, could have become quite irritating.

This is a deeply unusual horror film. Without that opening sequence it would simply be a case of evil children killing adults. With it, though, there's an implication that they're justified. The question of who can kill a child is central, and Tom and Evelyn have to debate it, but the opening sequence made it already apparent who can. We can and we have, in vast numbers, decade after decade. Killing an individual child is a moral quandary, massacring them remotely by carpet bombing a mere statistic. It's not often a horror film chooses to make that sort of point.

All this moral substance is undercut a tad by the children here being brutal killers, but a point is being made about equivalence. As a viewer it's impossible to empathise with the children (none of them are really personalised in any way), but in their position given that opening sequence could they empathise with us? Should they? As Serrador says in one of the extras, if children were a separate species we would be their greatest predator.

The DVD of Who Can Kill A Child? comes with two excellent interviews, with the director and cinematographer respectively. Both are refreshingly frank about what they like and don't like about their work. Serrador openly admits that he didn't like Fiander in the lead role (I did) and actually wanted Anthony Hopkins. The cinematographer is equally interesting talking about lighting problems and continuity challenges. Both are models of the sort of material I look for on a DVD release, but rarely find.

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