ChristmasEva BirthistleRachel ShelleyHannah Tointon
The Children
Medium: film
Year: 2008
Director: Tom Shankland
Writer: Tom Shankland, Paul Andrew Williams
Keywords: Christmas, horror
Country: UK
Actor: Eva Birthistle, Stephen Campbell Moore, Jeremy Sheffield, Rachel Shelley, Hannah Tointon
Format: 84 minutes
Website category: Horror modern
Review date: 3 January 2012
It's a British horror film set around Christmas, in which children catch an illness that makes them want to kill you. I was impressed with it, but it seems to have fallen flat with a few horror fans. It might help to have had one or more of the following:
(a) young children
(b) second-hand experience of this via friends or siblings
(c) the capacity for human empathy, rather than being a psychopath
There are plenty of Evil Children horror films, obviously, but what makes this one strong is the fact that it's less interested in the children themselves than in their parents. It takes a surprisingly long time for the children to turn vicious and even then we don't see that much of them. After all, they shouldn't be particularly threatening. They're tiny and far too young to be able to pose any physical threat to an adult... theoretically.
However a small child is its parents' greatest vulnerability. They'd sacrifice anything to save them, often up to and including their own lives. (Becoming a parent in the first place means surrendering almost all control over your own life, after all.) Thus the focus is on the adults and what they're prepared to do. They'll deny the evidence of their own eyes. They'll become suicidal. They'll be unable to bring themselves to use a weapon against two tiny killers walking slowly up the stairs towards them. They'll make terrible choices, right up to the end of the film, and go looking for their offspring while the audience cringes and begs them not to.
What's special is that this is the kind of stupid behaviour that normally sinks a horror movie, yet here it's the whole point of the film. It works like gangbusters. It's deliberately exploring the ways in which parenthood changes you. There's a blatantly suicidal action taken at the end of the film, for instance, but would you have chosen differently? You'll agree with it. You'll know it probably means death, but you'd probably do the same thing. This film gives its characters impossible choices and then watches them live or die by them.
This is genuinely scary. Horror movies aren't usually frightening, but this one manages it. It takes a good while to get there, going through "unnerving" and "tense", but by the end this film had got to me.
So it's all about the parents. We have two couples getting together for the New Year, along with a mob of rugrats and a sulky teenage daughter. Their characterisation is pretty good and there's plenty there to get your teeth into, but I think the film could have worked harder on helping the audience to tell who was who. I could tell that one of the men was teaching his daughter Mandarin (despite being as white as me) and wanted to start a business importing Chinese traditional medicines, but I'd have struggled to say which of the two that applied to. Similarly the wives (who are sisters) have distinct parenting styles, but again are being allowed to blur into each other. I think the problem is that much of the movie is just family hubbub. Conversation comes from all directions, the characters become a multi-headed gestalt entity and it becomes slightly harder work than usual to keep track of everyone. I wouldn't go so far as to call this a flaw, but it is something that writer/director Tom Shankland could perhaps have done more to alleviate.
There's a lot of texture to the parenthood theme. Rachel Shelley asks Eva Birthistle if she's read a particular MMR article, which is a big deal here in the UK because of Andrew Wakefield's 1998 paper alleging a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The British Medical Journal has since declared his research fraudulent and peer-reviewed studies haven't managed to reproduce his results, yet the damage was done and parents across Britain refused to let their children get inoculated. (MMR, by the way, is measles, mumps and rubella, three highly contagious diseases whose damage can include sterility and congenital defects.) I was actually a bit uneasy about this, partly because the film's psychopathy-inducing disease does show similarities with autism and partly because Chinese-teaching dad's prophecies of evil Chinese plagues sweeping across the country seem likely to be what's affecting his children. However the other dad later shoots down all this Chinese handwaving in no uncertain terms and I'm prepared to hypothesise that Shankland's merely exploring what's a tender spot with many parents, rather than actually pandering to it.
Similarly you'll notice the shots of a snow globe and some insects, which are being made to look a lot like microscope slides of bacteria.
There are other parenting quirks. One couple are going for home schooling and seem to want to shelter their daughter from the world. "You brought them here when they're sick? You know how susceptible Leah is." There's also disagreement about whether physical punishment is appropriate. "We don't hit kids here." Those gold stars are a good idea, but I don't think they're a universal panacea. You get a good idea of the differences between the two sets of parents, but there's also a running motif of the failure of the generations to communicate. No one really listens to the children. If they claim to feel ill, they're lucky even to be believed. "You're not sick. You don't have to copy everything that your cousins do." Similarly a daughter's concerns are dismissed when she says, "I don't like my cousins," while jumping up a generation reveals that the mothers have a problem with granny. She's banned from the gathering. "Promise you'll kill me if I turn completely into Mum."
The actors are all fine, by the way. Crucially the child actors are solid, never breaking any of their scenes with flat line delivery or just not being in the moment. I didn't recognise any of the adults, although I see to my surprise that Rachel Shelley had previously played Elizabeth Russell in Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India.
There's gore, including kills of both adults and children. One of the latter's even funny. Laughter is a release from tension and all that... but let's face it, it's also entertaining to see a kid get splattered in a horror movie. However I regret Shankland's fondness for near-stroboscopic cutting at key moments, which meant that I found one particular death less satisfying than it could have been. (I'm talking about the film's biggest idiot here.)
This isn't just a pint-sized zombie flick. It's far more sophisticated than that. Coincidentally there was another well-regarded British horror film in 2008 about scary kids, called Eden Lake, but those were teenagers. It takes its time in getting to the point and even longer in letting the penny drop for the parents, but it has its reasons for doing so. In some cases the penny never drops, in fact. I also liked the fact that they don't bother suggesting a psycho kid apocalypse at the end, because they've got something better instead and in any case they know we'll be speculating about apocalypses anyway without being prompted. (Snowy weather means the emergency services have been useless and so we've heard almost nothing from the outside world.)
It's short and unnerving, like its children. I also think it'll last. When we look back on the horror genre in future decades, this will be a film that's remembered and respected.
"I'm the abortion that got away."