Starring Martin Shakar, Gil Rogers, Gale Garnett, Patricia Albright
Directed by Max Kalmanowicz
All of us can surely think back to our youth and remember that one scary movie we all saw as a kid that was the source of more nightmares than any other. We often don’t even fully understand why that one film got under our skin and creeped us out so. For me, that film was an obscure little movie from 1980 called The Children. What scares us is one of those things that’s as individual as what one finds funny and erotic. Re-watching the film for the first time in close to 20 years, I’m no longer unnerved by the movie and yet I can still vividly recall the feelings of being terrified by the experience of watching it all those years ago.
After a successful theatrical run in 1980, a small VHS release in the mid 80s, and numerous mid/late 80s airings on the USA Network, often being showcased on either Saturday Nightmares or Commander USA’s Groovie Movies (where I first saw it), The Children seemingly dropped off the face of the planet, an obscurity just waiting to be rediscovered. Mostly forgotten except by a few select horror fans and completely unknown by a whole new generation of fans, The Children is finally getting its much overdue due thanks to Troma.
Even as a kid the premise of behind The Children seemed odd to me, as it does today. A nuclear facility on the outskirts of a small, quiet, countryside town experiences a leak. A school bus with only about a half dozen children drives through the a radioactive cloud emitted from the nuclear plant. Several parents report that their kids hadn’t come home from school that day. The sheriff finds the school bus abandoned except for the kids’ belongings off the side of the road near the old town cemetery. Local man John, whose daughter is amongst the missing kids, teams up with the sheriff to investigate. What follows is a surprisingly effective mood piece that combines elements of Village of the Damned and Night of the Living Dead with a little “Whatever knows fear will burn at the Man-Thing’s touch”.
The children survived the bus ride through the atomic fog but they’re definitely not the same innocent kids they were before. They now look deathly pale with dark circles around their eyes, their fingernails have turned black, and their grip causes a victim’s flesh to spontaneously combust – no fire but plenty of smoke and scalded flesh. Most behave in a typical zombie-like fashion but some smile in such a manner that you’re not sure if the young actors are trying to come across as sinisterly innocent or just having too much fun and can’t help themselves. The kids sneak about the town, mostly going back to their homes to kill their families, and later wandering around in packs almost like Romero zombies on the prowl. They can still speak although their talking is mostly limited to saying “mommy” or “daddy,” which they do with their arms outstretched Frankenstein-like as they seek to inflict a fatal embrace on loved ones. Even the family dog isn’t immune to suffering a fatal case of “hug burn”. The Children of the Corn only wish they were this sinister.
Why they turned into what they are, why they behave the way they do, why only children were affected in such a manner by the radioactive cloud – these are things you just have to go along with because explanation never come. Yes, if you really think about it the basic premise is actually quite ludicrous. Heck, the only thing that can stop them is to cut off their hands. Not shoot them in the head, decapitate them, or burn them; just chop off their hands and they instantly drop lifelessly to the ground and revert back to the look of the innocent-looking children they were before becoming murderous radioactive rugrats capable of combustible death touch.
But guess what? The movie works. In much the same way that I cannot explain precisely why it creeped me out as a kid, I also cannot explain precisely why the film works. I think a lot of it is due to the very concept of a film involving children killing and being killed – even some unaffected kids die at the hands of the atomic zombie children – and the notion that some of these people are going to have to kill their own children in order to survive. The Children is far from perfect and may not be as unsettling to the jaded in this day and age but it’s still a creepy little film that does exactly what it sets out to do in a manner that almost feels old fashioned by today’s standards.
The film’s biggest weakness is the pacing during the first half hour, although the finale also boasts a bit too much wandering with flashlights action. The first act is quite slow going as it meanders about setting up the mystery of what has become of the children and introduces us to potential victims including John’s very pregnant wife who has no qualms about lighting up a cigarette despite her delicate condition, other parents looking for their kids, the handsome young deputy, his girlfriend in Daisy Duke shorts, and way too many town citizens that look like they were derived from Clint Howard’s DNA. The first 30 minutes requires some patience but after that the film picks up dramatically and turns into a worthy horror film that constantly walks the fine line between creepy and preposterous. Most of the very effective third act finds John, his very pregnant wife, their very young son, and the sheriff in a Night of the Living Dead farmhouse situation having to deal with both the remaining killer kids and the wife’s difficulty accepting that the kids could really be dangerous, especially since one of them is their daughter. In what might be the films best scene, one atomic zombie child tries a little Salem’s Lot window action with their young son with unexpected results.
Troma boasts that their DVD release is taken from one of the only surviving prints of the original film, and while the image quality and sound are perfectly fine, the picture itself does suffer from occasional lines, pops, and dirt marks, the likes of which you’d expect to see when watching a reel of an old film. A Criterion Collection digitally restored DVD release this is not. And as usual, Troma has tossed in a ton of extras too numerous to list and I doubt I’ll ever sit through most all. Most notable are a very dry and loaded with lulls audio commentary by The Children‘s writer/producer Carlton J. Albright, a series of featurettes dealing with the film’s making, interviews with cast members today, and one on a musical stage production (!) based on the film. Hey, someone made a successful film out of Little Shop of Horrors so why not The Children?
I hate to end things on a sour note but there was one feature on the DVD but I feel the need to express my annoyance with; Troma honcho Lloyd Kaufman’s drearily unfunny intro for the film. Kaufman has a habit of sticking himself at the front of the movie (it’s literally before the film begins playing and not an extra you can choose not to click on) where he proceeds to waste several minutes performing some really bad comedy disguised as an intro for the film to follow. Kaufman can be an entertaining guy but this attempt at comedy goes on entirely too long and really, really sucks. This sort of thing might be all well and good for your typical outrageous Troma production but it’s an unwelcome presence that feels completely out of place at the start of a film like this. Would you want to get a DVD release of Last House on the Left that opens with Gilbert Gottfried doing some of his “USA Up All Night” shtick? Me neither.
Full-length audio commentary with Carlton J. Albright, writer/producer of The Children
New exclusive interview with Carlton J. Albright
New exclusive interview with star Gil Rogers
New exclusive interview with production manager David Platt
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