TITLE: The Children
YEAR RELEASED: 2008
DIRECTOR: Tom Shankland
CAST: Eva Birthistle, Stephen Campbell Moore, Jeremy Sheffield, Rachel Shelley, Hannah Tointon, Rafiella Brooks, Jake Hathaway, William Howes, Eva Sayer
As our Creepy Kids Week continues, RICHARD PHILLIPS-JONES finds a few examples lurking in the English countryside with The Children (2008)
It’s the Christmas holidays, and two families from the same clan gather to celebrate the new year in a remote house. When one of the four small children in the group (Paulie) becomes nauseous on arrival, its written off as a case of being car sick, and nobody seems unduly concerned.
The other children seem scared by Paulie’s behaviour at first, before they gradually succomb to the same symptoms. They then begin to become very quiet and insular, with a look that almost suggests they’re plotting something.
After one of their party is maimed in what at first appears to be an accident, the adults and one teenager are gradually forced to consider the possibility that the children are turning on them…
The Children is a film which certainly has its influences. Where creepy kids in British horror are concerned, Village Of The Damned (1960) is an obvious reference point, and there is an atmospheric resemblance in part, but there’s also a strong flavour of the Spanish horror Who Could Kill A Child? (1976, aka Death Is Child’s Play/Island Of The Damned) in which the children of a remote island turned against the adult residents. Then there’s a touch of Night Of The Living Dead (1968), in so much as this is a very insular piece, focusing on a group of people isolated in a lone building.
The Children also shares another trait of all these films, that of touching the raw nerve of parental instinct within us. Just as those films shocked us by showing young children turning on their parents, The Children runs with that idea, as the little ones gradually turn from loving offspring to deranged monsters.
However, these are very subdued monsters on the whole, which makes them all the more chilling, eliciting our sympathy for the affliction which is engulfing them, and repulsing us with the calculated, almost mechanical nature of their actions. You literally don’t know whether to love or hate them.
As with most tales of disparate characters becoming isolated and in peril, there are the inevitable tensions and grudges coming to a head as the inhabitants struggle to comprehend what is going on around them, and yet they’re somehow more pronounced here because all of the protagonists are family, and family at Christmas is often a volatile combination at the best of times.
Tensions aren’t helped since a couple of the adults are of the annoying “modern parents” type that throw a hissy fit about the local school not teaching their kids to speak Mandarin, and think they can do better by teaching them at home. You just know they’re the sort who straddle their Land Rover over two disabled bays at the local Waitrose, before moaning that the Christmas crackers aren’t fair trade. Basically, you want to give them a slap.
Whilst the film does owe a debt to predecessors, its familiar ingredients are served up in such a disconcertingly detached, matter-of-fact manner by writer/director Tom Shankland that it has no trouble marking out its own territory. Crucially, the child performers acquit themselves brilliantly, and the cause of their sickness is never fully explained, although possibilities are hinted at.
The Children is understated, yet genuinely unnerving, punctuated by some genuine shocks and an open ending which will leave you pondering where the whole thing could head next. In my mind, it’s one of the best horror films of the 21st century’s first decade, and a proudly British one at that.