Thursday, 21 February 2013

Who Can Kill a Child? (1976) - Narciso Ibáñez Serrador

The big question I had when this film finished wasn’t so much Who Can Kill a Child?, but more why is it that I’d never seen or heard of this film before? I’ve been watching horror flicks all my life and I’d never even stumbled across this mid-seventies Spanish gem until now. English couple Tom (Lewis Fiander) and Evelyn (Prunella Ransome) are on holiday in Spain, leaving behind the tourist trap of the mainland they head off to a remote island that Tom once visited before they met. Upon arrival they quickly notice that there are no adults around, only children. Lots of children. To say more would only spoil things, but Who Can Kill a Child? is equal parts Children of the Corn (the story not the woeful film series) and The Wicker Man, sprinkled with elements of The Birds. That’s the sort of company it’s keeping.

Pedophobia has long been a staple of the horror genre, from early sixties classics such as Village of the Damned and The Innocents through to such modern nasties as Ils and Eden Lake. Kids are evil. We all know it, it’s just that most people don’t want to accept it. Anyone who remembers the horrific murder of two year old James Bulger by two ten year olds can attest to this I’m sure. It’s one of those things that everyone can associate with, either by having once been a child or the double whammy of also being a parent. If you really wanted to push the point home you might point out that the most evil people on the planet, Hitler, Stalin um Murdoch were all kids once. But I don’t need to write that, do I? It's always easier to scare people with what is all around them, rather than ghosts or the devil or any of that nonesense.

Who Can Kill a Child? starts off with a montage of true life images of atrocities from throughout the past century, bodies being dumped into mass graves in Nazi death camps, children with skin hanging from their limbs fleeing napalmed villages in Vietnam and starving skeletal children in war torn Africa. I’m sure Serrador would justify this by what follows in the film, but I thought it was a little much to be honest and could have done without it. That aside though I thought the film was almost like a missing link. The Spanish have had a bit of thing for nasty child horror lately, mainly thanks to Guillermo del Toro who seems to have children and horror at the heart of everything he directs or produces. Seeing this gives a little more insight into what came before del Toro.

The two leads are stalwarts of British TV and were absolutely convincing as a couple. They're reminiscent of Sutherland & Christie in Don't Look Now. Ransome is particularly good, going on much the same emotional journey as Mia Farrow did in Rosemary’s Baby. Hysterical women (or men for that matter) in films can be just the sort of thing to drag you out of a scene, yet she plays it just right. The real kudos though has to go to director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador who manages to keep the film moving forward despite the fact that at times not a lot appears to be happening. He does this by building and building tension to almost uncomfortable extremes at times. His set pieces are pitch perfect, the human piñata being a particular gruesome favourite. Serrador drenches the whole film in a sheen of sweat, it's an itchy nylon shirt stuck to your back, denim flares in the burning Spanish sun. The fact that so much of the action takes place in broad daylight as opposed to the usual trope of bad things only happening at night really helps sell the film as being real, which in turn makes it easier for the viewer to do what they should always do when watching a successful horror flick - ask themselves over and over what they would do in the situation. The deserted village calls to mind so many westerns, yet how many westerns ended with a stand off like the end of this film?

It’s impossible to watch this without thinking about the Spanish Civil War, and I think that is the none to subtle sub-text here. It’s not essential to understanding or following the film, but it elevates it a little higher than a mere schlocky Euro horror flick. Speaking of schlock this was remade last year as Come Out and Play. I haven’t seen it, so I won’t judge it until I do. The reviews weren’t kind though. Shame since I think a sensitive retelling of this story could be a huge hit. Then again Americans notoriously hate seeing children being killed in films. Sending them off to war or mowing them down in their schools is one thing, up on the silver screen is unacceptable though. Do hunt this down if you are a horror fan and haven't seen it. I promise you won't be disappointed.

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