Terror Tots: The Children (2008)

On this particular entry of Terror Tots, we’re taking hold of the title of a film we’ve already delved into (1980’s The Children), and giving it a jump through time to 2008.

No – it isn’t a remake, but it is another ‘parents vs. kids’ jamboree… in Tom Shankland’s 2008 British shocker, The Children.

It’s Christmas time in the English countryside, and doting parents Elaine and Jonah arrive with their three kids – toddler Paulie, his slightly older sibling Miranda and moody teenager Casey – to celebrate the season at the rural home of Elaine’s sister, Chloe, her husband Robbie and young ‘uns Nicky and Leah.

All seems to be getting along as per usual – adult conversations, fun in the snow and the expected cacophony of young children going wild together – until a strange sickness begins to spread amongst the youngsters. Slowly, they start to exhibit flu-like symptoms – grogginess, slight fever and vomiting – that soon give way to outbursts of disturbingly violent and calculated behaviour.

Dismissing the strangeness and spurts of violence as just a part of dealing with occasionally unruly children, the parents involved remain blind to what is happening to their tykes until, as expected, it’s simply too late to stem the building tide of bloodshed. The only one who catches the steely stares and suspicious behaviour of the children early on is the rebellious Casey, who finds herself on the receiving end of disbelief and violence from not only the children, but also their parents, due to her insistence that the terrible quartet of infected psychopaths have to be stopped by any means necessary.

The Children is a slow burner, and potentially frustrating in its determination never to provide easy answers. The clues as to what exactly is going on are there throughout – including a couple of early, seemingly benign dialogue exchanges that surreptitiously set a much grander scene than the isolated incident portrayed for the majority of the runtime. It’s sly to a fault perhaps in that regard – Shankland remaining content to provide only a very quick single shot to indicate the multiplication of bacteria, for example – but it remains admirable in its ability to generate an atmosphere that becomes ever more chilling as the film progresses.

The film looks excellent, sporting some inspired use of the camera and editing to create a sense of something being terribly, terribly wrong in the early stages, and the violence, while impactful, is never overplayed – especially when it’s directed at the infected children. This is one of the keys to the film’s success at being a true shocker, as demonstrated most ably in the despatching of the first miniature murderer.

Rather than offering deaths as moments of crowd-pleasing relief, revelling in the removal of the threat as so many other horror films would tonally accept, The Children remains somewhat sympathetic of its antagonists – after all, they’re simply sick children, not entirely relegated to the position of the ‘other’. Their killing is approached by way of necessity, in heat of the moment self defence, and the parental grief that immediately follows is well realised by the cast and sensitively handled by Shankland – at least until the point where all bets are off. This considered tonality most definitely helps set The Children apart from others of its ilk.

Keeping a common thread throughout many killer kid films, including this one’s aforementioned 1980 namesake and previous Terror Tots entry Home Movie, the disbelief of the parents in the face of barely-deniable evidence is core to the continuation of the on-screen mayhem in The Children – heightened here by the adults’ turning on the rational, straight-talking Casey. As in Troma’s earlier effort, the children here also know exactly how to manipulate the adults into walking headlong toward their deaths – begging for help or mewling for attention only to spring their vicious traps when the timing is right.

Less believable, however, are moments in which grown adults appear to be physically overpowered by their diminutive offspring – standing idly and screaming as they are physically mutilated rather than fighting back. One can almost forgive the idea of an adult simply not having it in them to offer deadly resistance towards a youngster – mental and emotional fatigue leading to a draining of all fight – but to do nothing while jewellery is slowly ripped from your flesh without so much as lashing out at the child responsible, even by basic reflex, is inconceivable.

Still, The Children stands tall as a true shocker. Filled with dread, heavy with atmosphere and steadfast in its refusal to play it safe in both its narrative and visual construction, it’s most certainly one of the most effective killer kid films to grace the modern screen. The perfect fodder for Terror Tots.



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