Narciso Ibáñez Serrador is primarily a TV director in Spain, but he’s taken at least two interesting -- and these days rarely seen -- excursions into cinematic horror during his career, first with 1969’s still barely available Gothic psycho-thriller “The Boarding School” (also known as “The House that Screamed”) and then this uncompromising and compelling little oddity from 1976.
“Who Can Kill a Child?” takes a healthy portion of its influence from both Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”, and makes them the template for its “Midwich Cuckoos” theme; but it is also doubtless hatched from the same contemporary sense of disquiet that fuels David Cronenberg’s “Shivers” (1975), in which one suspects that the kind of society that’s being portrayed going to Hell in a hand-basket might actually just be getting what it deserves by way of a much-needed shot of revolution courtesy of the fortean uncanny -- even if we do kind of still feel for the beleaguered, under-siege protagonists we’re being encouraged all the while to root for as they fight to preserve the status quo. Rather than flesh-eating zombies shaking down civilisation or a medical mishap leading to a spontaneous outbreak of sexual licentiousness in a suburban tower block, Serrador’s film -- developed from an idea by novelist Juan José Plans who later wrote up his own book form take on it -- is closer to “The Birds” in tone, in that it focuses on the relationship between a male and female protagonist (in this case an English couple on holiday) and takes place on a small, seemingly idyllic island where a previously benign, almost unnoticed fact of life suddenly takes on a much more menacing aspect which threatens not just the lives of the main characters but the whole of human civilisation. In this case it’s not the birds that suddenly unaccountably turn on the human race … but its own children! The unnecessary seven minutes of documentary preamble during the title credits rather thumps the viewer around the face with what should have remained implied and ambiguous subtext, but it also introduces a discordant note as Serrador parades a roll-call of black and white newsreel atrocity footage from across the world before our eyes, where-in children are shown suffering torture and torment through man’s wholesale addiction to war down the decades. The bleak mondo images are accompanied by off-putting sounds of children giggling, seemingly in play; the juxtaposition may be disquieting enough in of itself, but the sounds made by children in happy, engaged play will have taken on an even more sinister aspect by the end of the film.
“Who Can Kill a Child?” follows the same basic plot formula initiated so successfully by its illustrious predecessors: first, a character-establishing prologue in which we get to know the young English couple Tom (Lewis Flanders) and his pregnant wife Evelyn (Prunella Ransome), in this case while they’re enjoying a holiday on the streets of a Spanish resort town. Ominously, bodies are already washing up on the beaches among the sunburnt holiday revellers, but the couple are bound for the isolated coastal island of Almanzora -- where Tom grew up as a child -- and the troubles of the crowded mainland soon seem a million miles away. The couple arrive to find a sunny island of dusty streets and alleys and white, lime-washed houses, hotels and hostelries -- but all are apparently entirely deserted; only a few sullen children fishing at the docks are to be seen anywhere in sight. Tom and Evelyn at first assume the inhabitants have all gone to the other side of the island for some sort of festival. Later, an angelic, grinning little girl appears and tenderly pats Evelyn’s bump while Tom is out searching the streets for other islanders, but the true nature of these children (whose numbers seem to be steadily increasing) is made all too clear when the couple finally find a gown-up inhabitant – an old, infirm man – only to witness his being attacked by an apparently playful little girl who pulls his walking stick from his hands and merrily starts beating him over the head with it while laughing and giggling delightedly! Tom runs to the old man’s aid but discovers his skull is already crushed by the time he reaches his stricken form. He follows the child (who skips away down the street without a care in the world) and later finds her with a group of friends who have now made a game out of attempting to use a scythe to decapitate a corpse suspended by its legs from a rope! The middle section of the film sees the tension build as the couple attempt to gather any remaining survivors and evade the large gangs of children that are now congregating and killing their few remaining elders with increasing frenzy; while the final act sees Tom and Evelyn facing up to the knowledge that they have to reach the dock and escape before they’re faced with the ultimate dilemma – in order to survive, would they willingly kill a child?
Shot in relentless, sun-drenched and sweltering Mediterranean daylight for ninety-five per cent of its running time, “Who Can Kill a Child?” is the ‘anti-noir’ of horror, spurning recourse to any kind of shadowy recess and putting everything up front in the light of day where there’s no hiding place: under holiday-brochure-blue skies and among quaint old-world rustic village charm. Serrador and his cinematographer José Luis Alcaine (whose exceptional work in colour balancing the very different light of the film’s various intercut locations -- whether they be in mainland Spanish settings, on a Madrid soundstage or along the Mediterranean coast -- is the main star of the film) create an atmosphere of complete normality with their beautifully photographed and imagined little village and then seek to undermine it with the outrageous behaviour of their highly convincing cast of little terrors. The film is still surprisingly shocking even without the excessive gore of a Fulci or a Romero zombie splatter-thon: matters come to a head quickly in a scene purposefully set in a Catholic church where Tom (whose ridiculous attempts to hide from his pregnant wife the atrocities being committed by the children on the island hints at a wider point about new parents being unwilling to face the realities of violence in the world) witnesses the aftermath of the murder of a young woman who was a guest at the island’s main hotel: her young girly killers coo with delight as they try on and model her blood-stained dress, while the boys pull off the remainder of her clothes for an adolescent gawp at her naked prone body! There is obviously a “Lord of the Flies” or Clockwork Orange-esque concern with child delinquency and lawlessness at work behind this apparently macabre situation, although the cause of the outbreak is never addressed and an alien possession theme seems heavily implied by the children’s telepathic ability to pass on their murderous ways through close proximity to previously unaffected youngsters. A key scene comes when Tom and Evelyn encounter an adult survivor who eventually resignedly allows himself to be lured away to his death by his own daughter. He knows perfectly well the whimpering child is leading him into a trap, but he can’t sacrifice his humanity by killing a child, least of all his own! An early scene on the mainland where the hotel TV displays in the background scenes from an uprising in Thailand that is at that moment leaving thousands of children injured or homeless leads Tom to question whether it’s right to bring children into such a world (by way of quoting a Fellini film!), but, with mordant irony, he is eventually compelled to fight for his wife and his own unborn child, and so is lead inexorably toward just such an horrendous violent act, bringing the movie to its ultimate crisis point.
“Who Can Kill a Child?” is an extremely effective, well-mounted and chilling little film, with an unsettling sadistic streak at its deceptively sunny core. The two adult leads work pretty well: Lewis Fiander has the look of a young Donald Sutherland and is just as believable as the sensitive English holidaymaker out of his depth; Prunella Ransome is especially moving as the pregnant wife, her trusting maternal nature an unfortunate disadvantage in this warped, uncanny new world. The child actors are excellent though, made to look as though they’re engaged in all manner of atrocities with the aid of some judicious editing, Serrador stages some hugely memorable scenes with them: having hundreds emerge over the brow of a sun-bleached cliff top or crowding the streets, grinning and giggling in expectation of another new murder game. The sight of a cute little infant trying to wield a revolver he can barely hold straight, let alone pull back the safety catch on, or of Tom attempting to release the motorboat from its moorings while swatting away loads of little tykes with a wooden poll, result in images and sequences that are at once both macabrely humorous and unsettling. The film hasn’t been available on DVD before in the UK but now gets a wonderful, colourful and crystal clear transfer on this disc from Eureka Entertainment, along with two excellent little featurettes culled from 2007’s U.S. release from Dark Sky Films. Narciso Ibáñez Serrador talks about the geneses of the project in one ten minute piece while cinematographer José Luis Alcaine explains how the apparently deserted island is really a master class in illusion created by editing, with at least four different locations in different parts of the country being used to create the special village atmosphere we see on the screen. Alcaine’s featurette runs for fifteen minutes.
“Who Can Kill a Child?” is an essential euro-cult classic and this release is a must-have for any fan of euro horror worth his salt. Recommended.