Ah, Troma. Most recognised as purveyors of some of the cheapest, most insane guerrilla filmmaking within the genre and home to classics such as The Toxic Avenger and Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D., it’s often surprising to find them behind distribution of the odd serious horror flick.
One such film is Max Kalmanowicz’s 1980 nuclear-horror The Children.
Welcome back to Terror Tots. Fancy a hug? Well… you won’t after this…
When a school bus carrying the children of the small backwater town of Ravensback drives into a heavy fog caused by a leak at the nearby power plant, all on board mysteriously vanish. It’s down to Sheriff Hart and his slacker deputy, Harry, to track the location of the missing kids and driver… but the truth is more horrifying than they could have imagined.
Before long, the tykes are stumbling their way back to their families, perpetually reaching out for a hug from their nearest and dearest – a hug that results in the recipient suffering a torturous, flesh-incinerating nuclear death.
For all intents and purposes, the kids in The Children are essentially zombies – but rather than stumbling around wailing “braaains!” à la Return of the Living Dead, they’re reaching out their black-tinged fingers for a loving hug while crooning “Mooommmyyy!” or “Daaadddyyy!” and grinning malevolently. This is where Kalmanowicz’s film works most effectively at getting under your skin.
In terms of the actual filmmaking, The Children is a competent little shocker, though obviously created on a very small budget. The effects of killer hugs are displayed via crude superimposed fades as the victims melt, and closer looks at the makeup on the dead reveals little more than grisly-looking clumps of painted papier-mâché that wouldn’t seem out of place in an Italian zombie flick from the 1970s. Performances range from perfectly okay to gorgonzola-cheesy, but there’s enough creepiness and general oddity going on to take your mind away from it.
As mentioned, the scariest idea at the core of The Children is that of the deadly crisis faced by the parents of the zombified youngsters. Most simply can’t resist rushing to the aid, and waiting open arms, of their moaning offspring – including some who know what will happen, but simply can’t admit it to themselves; a biological and existential quandary of the most cruel sort.
Zombies are bad enough in general – being faced with the reanimated, murderous corpses of your loved ones is a common trope of the genre – but the matter is made all the more cutting when it’s the children, not adults, at the core of that momentary emotional rollercoaster. For one of the genre’s most disturbing (for more than one reason) presentations of the results of taking the wrong action during such an emotion-fuelled moment, see Andrea Bianchi’s 1981 zombie-fest Burial Ground (aka The Nights of Terror) in its uncut form.
Of course, in the end the fight needs to be taken to the little pasty-faced people-melters, and taking an original approach to its monsters, The Children opts for a rather unconventional method of putting them down for good: lopping off their hands. I’m sure there’s something to be said thematically regarding this – the only way to kill these kids once and for all is to ensure that they can never hug again – but it’s a little lost amidst the unintentional hilarity of the hokey FX work and elongated fake arm stubs. Still, it’s a turn that remains shocking even today – it would be safe to assume that offing children, whether monstrous or not, on-screen simply never gets any easier to process, regardless of the decade.
Despite its awkward tonality and other wonky elements, there’s enough to like in The Children that warrants putting it amongst the stable of worthwhile, but lesser-known murderous munchkins here on Terror Tots. It’s thoroughly weird, undeniably creepy (and willing to kill off just about everybody!), yet absurd and occasionally amusing in its awkwardness. In other words: it makes for a pretty good waste of 90 minutes. Anyone up for a remake?
It would be wise to avoid spending your cash on Troma’s “25th Anniversary Special Edition” DVD of The Children, as the transfer isn’t good by any stretch. I hear that you can watch the full thing on YouTube, though, should you wish to take that route…
Oh, by the way… free hugs over here! Come and get it… you know you want to…