As we delve into the world of lesser-known films focusing on murderous children, on this entry of Terror Tots we’re turning our eye to the little-seen, yet still controversial, Who Can Kill a Child? – also known as Island of the Damned and, in its native Spanish language, ¿Quién puede matar a un niño?
Released in 1976 and pre-dating Stephen King’s similar tale Children of the Corn by one year, Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? follows vacationing couple Tom and Evelyn as they enjoy some “us” time in Spain. Taking a small boat to a nearby island – hoping to take in the sights, sounds and local lifestyle – the couple quickly encounter a group of strangely unresponsive children swimming at the docks.
Slightly perturbed, they forge on with exploring the town, only to note the disturbing absence of any adults whatsoever. Their explorations and mounting confusion takes up a rather large chunk of the runtime, as director Serrador puts most effort into working with his eerie, semi-abandoned environs. Most unusual for a horror film, too, is the fact that the hideous happenings occur in consistent broad daylight – nothing is hidden in darkness, and there are no tricks of the light on show here.
Eventually, Tom spies an elderly gentleman standing in the street with his cane – but before he can engage the man in conversation, a young girl appears, takes the cane, and viciously batters the old gent with it. Her only response to Tom’s angry and confused interrogation is to giggle repeatedly and run away. He follows… and comes across the scene of a gaggle of children animatedly involved in a particularly heinous interpretation of piñata!
From here, the gloves are off and Who Can Kill a Child? becomes a game of survival. Pursued by the crowds of murderous children, Tom and Evelyn set about attempting to somehow escape the island – but when push comes to shove and self-preservation makes it necessary, the answer to the film’s titular question is made abundantly clear.
There are few films out there that happily display automatic weapons being fired directly into crowds of children… but this is one of them, folks.
It isn’t all bloodthirsty mayhem, however – truth be told there’s actually very little in comparison to modern efforts. The shock factor in Serrador’s film is almost entirely due to the setup and atmosphere. The actual malady affecting the children appears to be supernatural in some way, with unaffected children seemingly being ‘infected’ by looking into the eyes of those already displaying homicidal tendencies. One such sequence sees Tom and Evelyn forced to walk, quietly, to their car in a moment that heavily references Hitchcock’s The Birds – replacing the feathery fiends of that film with a group of perched, staring children instead. Unfortunately, the director’s attempt to create unnerving tension throughout much of the film leads to some annoyingly plodding setup and strained pacing. Credibility in character action is regularly stretched to accommodate this – I mean, who wouldn’t make a bee-line straight for the boat after first realising that things around here weren’t right?
Serrador has a point to make with his film – and he’s more than happy to wear it on his sleeve. Almost the entire first 10 minutes of Who Can Kill a Child? is forged from actual wartime footage married with sombre voiceover and statistics detailing the horrendous injury and death visited upon innocent children across World War II, the Indo-Pakistan, Korean, Vietnam and Nigerian Civil Wars.
It’s incredibly grim – displayed in black and white and sporting uncompromising imagery of concentration camp victims, mass graves and dead and dying youngsters. The footage of each war is unnervingly segregated by a brief musical interlude featuring children’s voices singing a lullaby overture and giggling. The point is clear, but it takes much too long to get through it – and many viewers will likely fast forward through this intro or simply give up altogether before getting to the actual plot of the film.
Serrador seems to want to ask just how much longer we have, continuing to act the way we do, before violence is a commonality amongst the young? How do we stop it, without resorting to violence in return? Can we?
The grim finale speaks of infected children intending to teach the other kids of the world to “play like we do”, their minds so twisted now that murder and mayhem comes as naturally as play – nay, replaces it – and more disturbingly, they don’t even need to have left the womb to perpetrate it. Serrano muses of lost innocence, corrupted youth… and knows where he’s squarely laying the blame with a tonality that teases sympathy with these youngsters even as they’re killing every adult in sight. But the lofty goal feels less than perfectly realised on the base level of the narrative. Without his intro to hammer the context home from the beginning, it’s just another killer kid film.
Who Can Kill a Child? was largely unavailable on home video and DVD until recent years, but can be snapped up rather easily nowadays. Also check out director Makinov’s (yes, credited as a single name) capable remake Come Out and Play from 2012, which proves a very close reimagining of the original, with much of the same effect (and same inherited pacing and narrative issues as a result).
Neither film is perfect, but both are worth checking out if you need to remind yourself why contraception is a key part of your life!
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