Who Can Kill A Child? (1976)
By: Mr Intolerance on April 30, 2009  | 
DVD
Alfa Digital (USA). Region 1, NTSC. English DD 1.0, Spanish DD 1.0. English Subtitles. 111 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Narcios Ibanez Serrador
Starring: Lewis Fiander, Prunella Ransome, Antonio Iranzo, Miguel Narros, Maria Luisa Arias
Screenplay: Luis Penafiel
Country: Spain
External Links
IMDB Rotten YouTube
With a name like this one, you know you're in for a rough ride. Children are sacrosanct in Hollywood, and indeed in most feature films. The notion of having to kill one is anathema to the average human – if you read that Roald Dahl short story where you root for the new-born child to survive its birth and then learn it's Adolf Hitler, and start thinking about the numerous ways in which the child could have died, thus saving millions of lives, but then stop yourself for wishing death upon an infant – well, that's the kind of morality this film taps into. This film drags you by the hair, kicking and screaming, out of your comfort zone.

Who Can Kill A Child? really rubs your nose in it from the get-go. The film begins with reportage from the Nazi death camps, the Korean War, Vietnam, Biafra and the Indian/Pakistani war, showing you images of dead children and implicitly stating that you'd have to be a terrible bastard on that kind of scale – effectively a Nazi – to be able to kill a child, thus effectively sanctifying children, just so as later actions in the film are even more of a sucker-punch to the unwary viewer. The images are grim and harrowing, as are the facts reported with them – in the case of the Indian/Pakistani conflict, the UNICEF statistics that are quoted state that a child dies every five seconds in that part of the world. This does not key you up for a happy viewing experience.

When the credit sequence finally ends (and man, it goes on for a long time), we're on a beach in Spain, and a child has found a body in the water, the corpse of a young woman. The camera dwells on children in this opening scene – their innocence, their playfulness, and their caprice, too. The young woman, a foreigner, has been knifed a number of times; her throat slit and multiple punctures to her stomach and thighs. The paramedics deduce that she was probably killed and hurled off a boat by someone "sick in the head".

Our couple, husband Tom and heavily pregnant (6 months down the track) wife Evie, are tourists who've turned up to the seaside town of Benavis on holiday, but as its time of Fiesta and the town is full of tourists, they decide to go somewhere a little less crowded – the nearby island of Almanzora. This is a decision they will live to regret. During their time in Benavis, just have a look at how prominent children are in the film; the director has made it very clear about how we see children on a daily basis, and how, much like William Blake did, we see them as a source of infinite potential, rather than seeing their innate selfishness and proclivity for mindless id-gratifying cruelty. The man who sells them film for their camera states that children are always the ones who suffer the most during war and famine, and while he's right, he's also oblivious to the fact that children have an egocentric flip-side that most people care to forget.

The rather heavy-handed morality of the film is addressed in a conversation between Tom and Evie about the world that they are bringing their third child into – the violence, the "craziness", as they put it. Tom recounts to Evie a sequence from Fellini's La Dolce Vita, where a man kills his children to save them from the world we've created for them and then kills himself. Evie dismisses the film, claiming that as the director is Italian, he must be a fascist – the irony of a person living under Franco's Falangist regime saying that shouldn't be lost on the viewer. Adults do tend to see things in more of a black and white fashion than children, and I guess that's what the director is trying to address. Killing children? Bad. But then, given what happens later in the film...

Tom and Evie hire a boat and head for Almanzora – the headline about two more corpses having washed up on the beach having no special significance to them, even despite Tom having mentioned that a flower Evie finds in the water is from the island because the current sends things towards Benavis. The film at this point has quite a measured pace, lulling the audience into a false sense of security – all the better for when the action gets a-going. The boat gets to Almanzora and Tom and Evie are met by children on the quay. One child, a sinister, black haired boy, is fishing, and is unresponsive to Tom's questions about what he's fishing for, and gives Tom a disturbingly hostile look when he tries to look into the boy's fishing creel. Something is not right in Almanzora – that much is evident right from the word go. Tom is sadly oblivious to this to begin with. Even at this early stage of the film the audience is practically yelling at the fella, "Get back in the boat! Go home you fool!"

As Tom and Evie walk around town the silence of the place becomes unnerving, the feeling amplified by the lack of anyone in public places. Besides the children on the wharf, there is nobody present, and no adult has been seen since Tom and Evie arrived. The local bar is like the Marie Celeste – half-finished drinks and meals on the tables and the feeling as though everybody must have left in one hell of a hurry. Evie stays in the bar, and Tom goes to the grocery store he remembers from the visit to the island he had eleven years ago. He finds no-one; Evie meets a strange child called Lourdes, who reacts to her pregnant belly in a rather peculiar fashion.

If alarm klaxons aren't going "awoogah!" by this sequence, then I think you really are missing the point of this film. Tom is still dangerously oblivious to the nastiness around him, but to which the audience are all too well aware – we see things that he does not. The dread is built up effectively in this fashion. To call this film a slow burn is to do it a disservice. It creeps ever slowly towards its denouement with a pace that is positively glacial. Normally I'd run a mile from such an outlook, but Who Can Kill A Child? manages to make this work in its favour. If this stumbled through, or rather blundered through, its exposition like Hostel or one of the Saw films, it'd never have made its point so efficaciously. Tom is initially endlessly optimistic in the face of the bizarre nature of the island they've come across, and I guess that kind of adds to the tragedy of the film; he's blind to what's going on around him until it's too late to take action against it.

The phone in the cafe rings, and a voice speaks to Tom in German; tragically, as it turns out, he can't understand it. But it does add another level of unease to the film. Tom and Evie go for a walk through the village in order to find the hotel they're meant to be staying at; still no-one is seen...until Tom and Evie spy a young girl using an old man's cane to kick the old man's arse to the kurb. When Tom questions the young girl, she merely laughs delightedly and runs off. It's an unpleasant moment, to say the least, and the first explicit picture we get of things having gone horribly wrong on the island. Sure it's been hinted at, but this is the first real image of the true horror the island represents. Tom places the old man's body in a barn, but once he's left it, it becomes the property of the children, who string it up by the heels and make a pinata out of it, much to Tom's, and by extension our, horror. It's a bloody and nasty moment.

Tom goes back to Evie and tries to lie to her about what he's seen and heard. He's rapidly having his illusions shattered about the wonderfulness of children, their cruelty being writ large for him, a la Lord of the Flies. Much like in William Golding's novel, children are presented here as monsters of the id, only satisfied by the here-and-now, their reasoning unknowable to adults. A strange man turns up in the hotel in which Tom and Evie have taken refuge, threatening them with a broken bottle, as you do. Having calmed him, Tom puts Evie to bed with some drugs, and goes to speak with the strange man. Cue: backstory.

Two days previously, we're told, all of the children rose just before midnight, split up into small groups and went from house to house with knives and clubs, killing all of the adults they could find. The strange man says that he saw his wife killed by the monstrous children, grabbed his shotgun, but like the rest of the adults on the island, couldn't fire – because, as he puts it, "who can kill a child?" The single-minded murderousness of the children, and their hard-line "agist" approach are equal parts Children of the Corn and Village of the Damned, but without the religious and science-fiction trappings respectively, are a hell of a lot more frightening. The fact that there is no real reason given for the carnage makes it even more horrifying, especially when considered alongside the opening barrage of children-suffering-under-atrocities shots – is this some kind of revenge against the adult world? There's a later sequence in the film that makes that idea even more chilling, as well as the all-too-obvious nature of the people being targetted being innocent of those atrocities.

At this point, Tom seems to make the decision to become the selfless, square-jawed action hero, which, given the fact that he's set up from the beginning of the film to be the Everyman, not the Tominator, makes him that slight bit less credible. Nevertheless, the performance still remains a sympathetic one – me, I'm not putting myself in to certain peril to save someone (the mysterious German speaking phone lady) I've never met, nor am I likely in the near future to making dramatic leaps out of a first story window and go running about the streets of the town I live in.

The church bells ring and Tom goes to investigate. Bear in mind that in the Middle Ages a person could seek sanctuary in a church, and was thus inviolable, and that even a dyed in the wool atheist such as myself still offers respect to peoples' houses of worship, what Tom finds in the church is cold, inhuman and frankly terrifying, not to mention lacking any kind of human dignity. It unnerves him to the point where he just wants to get the fuck out of Dodge. The strange man's young daughter turns up and tearfully asks for his help, claiming that various family members are unwell, following their beatings from the children. Now look, at this point of the film I was practically on my feet shouting, "No, you fool! It's a trap!" But what befalls him I'll leave it for you to see.

Tom and Evie decide that fleeing is the appropriate activity right about now, and flee they do, through the eerie and deserted streets of the town, watched from windows and hiding places by the children. The childish glee, usually so championed by the likes of William Blake in his Songs of Innocence, the child being seen as intrinsically good and its joy being representative of its lack of experience of the corrupt adult world, is here a thing to be repulsed by, with the inane, cruel giggling (something I loathed equally about the August Underground films) as its' major motif – the children are enjoying this; seeing the adults as victims, in their power. Add to the that the fact that the film takes place in bright sunlight, on an idyllic island, and the incongruity of all these factors helps the film to pack one godalmighty wallop. It's like no other film I've ever seen before, and I've seen the whole "killer kid" thing a bunch of times, whether it's The Bad Seed, Spider Baby, or the aforementioned Children of the Corn or Village of the Damned – hell, even The Exorcist or the first two films in The Omen franchise (as well as the fourth, but let's not talk about that one) – Who Can Kill A Child? is simply the nastiest version of the idea possible. A child's caprice, whether it might be tormenting a play-fellow or pulling on a cat's tail to cause it pain, or pulling the wings from a fly might be seen as mildly distasteful, and an act to be reprimanded – but that same caprice applied to human beings suddenly becomes much more deliberately evil, malign bordering on, and here teetering over into, the vertiginous abyss of the egocentrically and sadistically vicious.

The tension in the film has been simmering up until this point, here it boils over and the sense of threat, which has always been present, somehow becomes more real, more visceral. I mentioned before the sympathetic performances of the actors portraying Tom and Evie, well, here the direction and performances really come to the fore in making the audience fear for the characters' lives – unlike many exploitation films where we kind of almost revel in the characters' gruesome ends or various travails (say, 2000 Maniacs, Poor Pretty Eddie or Mad Foxes), the difference with Who Can Kill A Child? is the fact that we really care about Tom and Evie. While the camerawork and the general vibe of the film are quite unflinching, bordering on the documentary style, given their flat, realistic portrayal of events, that sympathy is never compromised.

Seeing a large group of children should never be a threatening sight (imagine being in front of a class of fourth graders), but here it's enough to make your hair stand on end – Tom and Evie's flight to the boat is blocked by a wall of children; the question now is one of what to do. For the characters and the audience the question goes even further, delving into the ultimate notion of what is right and what is wrong – at what price survival? It's stated pretty clearly that the children are entirely inimical to any adult on the island, but given the sanctity of children in our day-to-day lives, what can you do when threatened by a lethal brood of pre-teen killers? Remember the first time you saw Mimic, and the mutant moth-men slaughtered the children in the subway station? How much did you flinch from that? And remember, those homeless kids were innocent – these ones aren't. It's as old as Euripides' Greek tragedy Medea, over two and a half thousand years old; you don't kill children on the stage or screen; society simply won't accept it – infanticide is the one crime that age has not wearied, we still see it as ultimately reprehensible. Those who molest and kill children are seen as the worst of villains – even in prison they often have to be put into solitary so that the other criminals don't kill them. The title of the film gains an even greater significance when the characters are put into a situation where that most unforgivable of crimes seems like the only "out". Remember, Tom and Evie are regular folks like you and me, and given that caveat – who can kill a child?

Tom and Evie manage to get to a remote part of the island where there are still adults, well, an adult at least, but there are children there as well, and that whole creepy Village of the Damned vibe returns, and that simmering feeling of imminent brutal violence returns, too. They want a boat to get back to Benavis, but the house they've taken refuge in belongs to fishermen who aren't present, and the matriarch of the house and her mother, who seem to delight in being cruel to the children, invite our couple in to await the return of the fellas on the boat. But in the meanwhile some of the children from the village turn up and something odd passes mentally between them and the children from this remote part of the island, and the audience's unease rises.

The notion of infanticide raised in the film's title, let alone the film itself, is quite prevalent, but it is equally matched by the notion of matricide and patricide, equally uncomfortable, queasy subjects for even a horror film as extreme as this one. There's one scene around this point that positively chills the blood – I'll let you find it – as Tom and Evie fuck off yet again to try to find greener pastures that don't exist. To call this film claustrophobic would be an understatement – it's like being trapped in someone's mouth – hot, clammy and totally in the thrall of someone else's will, with little, if no, chance of escape. This is the point where Tom's morality changes, and where survival, that most primal of instincts, takes over. It is not a comfortable moment for the viewer. Up until now we've sympathised with him, but given his bold as brass statement that he doesn't care about the children anymore, we start to re-evaluate both his and our own agendas.

Night falls – this is never a good sign in a horror movie. The children form a wall which Tom targets, but Evie, representing the conscience of the average human, can't run into into in a jeep, and fucks up their efforts, and the pair are then placed into a kind of Night of the Living Dead scenario. You might damn Evie for her sentimental actions given the events we've seen so far, but look at the title again and ask yourself the same question. Much as the zombies in Romero's awesome classic might not represent all that much of a threat individually, together they are a frankly terrifying horde, and the children here work in the same way. Tom Vs Child=victory for Tom. Tom Vs 30+ children=a very bad day for one and all. And when those children get hold of guns...

If there was any film for which you would give the appellation "all bets are off", this is it. Once Tom defends Evie with, shall we say, maximum intensity, this film can only get nastier – and our own morality and our sympathies with the characters are really called into question. I think I should leave you here, at the beginning of the final act, because to spoil the goodness of Who Can Kill A Child? would be a tremendous crime. The violence will just gut you, and the climax is astounding. Like I said before, there is no film it's equal. This is the Holy Grail of the horror/exploitation canon. And it's a piece of art at the same time. For shame that this version isn't as good as the Dark Sky release (in terms of a pristine print), but props to Alfa Digital for keeping the film alive, nonetheless. In some regards the grimy nature of the print works in the film's favour, in terms of emphasising the tone.

Never judge a book by it's cover. Have a look at the completely craptastic cover art for this film. Go on, look to the left. This cover is RUBBISH. It looks like it was designed and drawn by a five year old – and before you start thinking, "My, this handsome reviewer has a point – how appropriate, given the nature of the film" - can this handsome reviewer just state for the record: wrong, wrong, wrongitty wrong. This cover sucks balls and is probably one of the reasons why the film isn't better known – who wants to own a film that looks so shithouse. Imagine giving your friend a lend of this – they'd take one look at it and think you were barmy. You'd assume it was a film with zero budget filmed in your mate's backyard (not that there's anything wrong with that), and not the red-hot slice of fried evil you'd actually be holding in your hand. The Dark Sky cover has a real sense of the film's menace, and Tom's seeming impotence in the face of it, emblazoned all across it, and is all the better for it.

The question of "why" is never answered, by the way. And the end is almost heart-breaking. This film defines gut-wrenching.
Video
The picture is sharp, but still has a bunch of infrequent flaws – speckle, particularly. I'd also suggest that the film has been put together from a number of prints of various quality, as there are sequences that don't seem to match up in terms of sharpness or colour palette – sometimes it's quite bright and vivid, at other times faded and washed out. The Dark Sky version, which I've seen, is pristine.
Audio
Serviceable without being great, the audio could be a bit better, but given that the film is hardly an action-soundfest, it'll do. Just. Annoyingly, the subtitles don't match up with the vocals. Again, another reason to buy the Dark Sky version.
Extra Features
Pretty close to bugger all, basically – another reason to buy the Dark Sky version. There's a trailer (which tells you nothing about the film) and a slideshow. That's all, y'all.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Possibly one of the hardest films of all-time to watch, Who Can Kill A Child? is also one of the best. It's not just a piece of exploitation tat (as I'm sure many would write it off to be), it's a film to make you think and reflect on. You will not be the same person after you watch it – that I will guarantee. If it doesn't move you, then you are quite possibly an inhuman monster. Stellar performances mixed with excellent direction make this a film that everyone should see, and a film that will do strange things to you. It really doesn't matter which version of this film you see, as this movie totally coruscates its audience in any fully uncut form, and is the kind of thing you must see, and the kind that really does sort the tourist from the purist.

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