Note: This is a repost from a piece I wrote for The Bloody Iris run by the great Jenny Spencer. While that site will be no more (or is no more currently) I want to recognize in front of all of you witnesses that I adored Ms. Spencer's contributions to the bloggie blog world for the time I was able to read it. Her endeavors will be amazing no matter what she endeavors. Dedicated and reposted to the great J.S. My irises are bloody with tears (and this ain't fuckin' True Blood).
The question is the title is the plot is the twist is the disturbing tale of humanity. Human reaction and overreaction and fear. Perhaps Who Can Kill a Child? is a story of lack of reaction or mis-action. One thing is for damn certain, by the time you finish this picture you will have a number of new questions floating around your cerebrals and only a small percentage will have anything to do with the film you have just watched; most will have to do with yourself. What would you do? Could you… would you… kill a child?
Directed by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador and released in 1976, ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? or as the translation there of, Who Can Kill a Child?, follows a couple of English love birds through their journey to an island just off the coast of Spain who find themselves with among strange, dagger-eyed children. As the tale unfolds, the children begin to show that they are the wolves in sheep’s clothing and not the innocent lambs children ought to be. The question raises itself quickly and repeats itself straight on to the end of the film. Who can Kill a Child?
Known by several different names including Island of the Damned, Who Can Kill a Child? is based on a novel by Juan José Plans entitled El juego de los niños or The Children's Game. You can see its influence everywhere. Stephen King’s Children of the Corn. The Children (1980). Blood Birthday. Movies and stories where children are the murderers for whatever reason we need to justify making them the bogeymen. These are the tales of lost innocence conveying how naiveté can kill just as much as the working knowledge of a machine gun. While it is not the first film to convey the concept of children as the antagonists or murderers, it may be the most brutal up until the time of its release. One can look at Village of the Damned and Children of the Damned before it; The Bad Seed as well. All have their twisted moments of truth when the great reveal bears witness to demon children up to the worst kinds of debauchery. Maybe Who Can Kill a Child? is the first film to show the level of violence committed by and against children and that is why it has attained such notoriety. The film did not receive a DVD release until 2007 which may be at least in part due to the infamy that surrounds it. Before we go into the philosophical internal suffering this film can evoke, let’s talk about the simple brutality.
Images of children shot in the head, starved and made victims of wars they were unable to stop are thrust directly into the viewers face as the film opens up. Actual newsreel footage of the Holocaust in Germany as well as other crimes against humanity are displayed one by one to the point of nausea. Immediately following the parade of atrocities, the viewer is brought into a world that is more happy; mysterious, but more adventure than abomination. Serrador seems to be using the old switcheroo. Remember Cannibal Holocaust? Remember that tortoise that saw itself decimated and “eaten”, completely dismembered? The shots following that scene and any scene of very real animal cruelty were juxtaposed with images of fictitious violence. Perhaps this director is playing the same stunt (only several years earlier) in order to get a rise out of this audience. Nauseate your audience. Disturb them for real and then you can deliver them various other concepts and visuals, all strengthened by the initial blow of reality. It doesn’t take a gory head wound to push your buttons. Just some stock footage and a little imagination.
That’s not to say that WCKAC? doesn’t have its fair share of Crayola red blood dripping from any number of head wounds. Plenty of adults and children alike meet their demise on the mysterious island off the coast of Europe. Imagine a child beating and old man to death with his cane. How about a gaggle of children using an elderly man as a piñata? What’s worse about that image is they aren’t playing with a broom handle or even a bat (which might be preferable). They are playing with a sickle. Maybe this movie disturbs because a very normal couple is forced to take aim at children over and over again to preserve their own life from the pack of murderous kids. Maybe we all realize that the same child who burns an ant with a magnifying class or destroys a city of Legos is capable of other destructive acts. The violence is clearly unrealistic, but then again so is the violence of children’s games. It doesn’t hurt that the child actors are more than capable of churning guilty thoughts in your head.
From the outset you’re forced to ask yourself, “When will I find out why the film is so titled?” You might find any number of reasons early on in the film but the true reason comes later as the film reaches its boiling point. Tom (Lewis Fiander) and Evelyn (Prunella Ransome) are forced to save their own lives by destroying the life of a child. It isn’t an action taken with much thought, but is instead made under the influence survival instinct. From the moment of the first child’s death (there will be others) the viewer beings to question, after an almost intentionally long pause for contemplation, “Could I kill a child if this same scenario presented itself?” Your answer will vary and there is no correct answer since the scenario that drives the narrative of this picture if fiction. You can put your moral code handbook away for the time being even if it leaves you feeling a bit icky to do so.
While the premise of the film will haunt and stir your mind to a brief bout of mental illness, the composition of shots combined with an utterly hair-tearing use of slow, dramatic pause will keep you yelling at the screen. The characters may not take your direction, but you may relieve tension. Well acted. Well written. It’s a very good piece of filmmaking which many of the Spanish horror production of the time seems to bring to the table regularly, be it with abstract use of color or in controversy of content.
One thing of note and it is pure speculation or perhaps an observation to be taken with the grain of salt. Our leading lady, Evelyn, shares an uncanny resemblance to a combination of Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) from the DePalma’s Carrie released that same year and Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) from Rosemary’s Baby. It’s not clear that this would have or even could have been intentional although we do find Evelyn to be pregnant and very much wanting the potentially homicidal baby out of her body with no time to spare (or fist for that matter). The tie to Rosemary’s Baby by Polanski shows up also in the use of strange sing songy, children’s voiced music that reoccurs as a major theme throughout the picture. It has the feeling of a modified version of the score from Rosemary’s Baby. Maybe this is an attempt to draw parallels between Satan’s child and then children of this island of the damned. The ever increasing fear of children was a common theme throughout the history of the horror genre and rose to a peak in the mid to late 70’s and carried forward into the early 80’s. Maybe asking Who Could Kill a Child? was a rather valid question given an increase in irreverence spurred on by the youth counterculture stretching their sea legs for the first time in the late 60’s. After all, even the Manson Girls were somebody’s children before they were on cell block eight.
You don’t have to answer the question even if you know the answer. Watching the movie may force you to deal with some very unpleasant truths, but if you can stomach your own mind long enough to complete watching this picture, you’ll be left with the thrill of a twist ending that goes as far as Rosemary’s Baby and maybe an appropriate step beyond. Or you could just keep telling yourself that you have absolutely nothing to fear from your progeny, but… hope they aren’t asking the question, “Who can kill mommy or daddy?”.