Children are creepy. To anyone who has ever posted on a YouTube video declaring the cuteness of a small child as they attempt to play guitar or whatever, you're a fool. Children have only one motive in my mind, which is to murder you while you sleep. Okay, maybe I'm playing with hyperbole here but in horror films children have proven to be a highly effective method of distilling fear into the audience. Whether it be in Orphan, The Exorcist or The Omen, children will always be a reliable piece of real estate in the horror genre. Continuing this trend and putting a nice little spin on it, we have Tom Shankland's The Children.
Released in the UK in December of 2008, The Children stars Eva Birthistle as Elaine, who is visiting her sister's family along with her husband and three kids. Her sister also has two children, and at the very outset of the film it is clear something is wrong with the four youngest kids. They all appear to be uncommonly provocative with each other, and all seem to be displaying symptoms of the flu. The next day, it appears the titular children of the film have grown violent, and one by one they attack and kill the adults who are supposed to protect them.
What I really like about The Children is the story is simple, and yet wholly interesting. In a rather occurrence for horror films just about every character over the age of ten is completely fleshed out, and done so in a way the audience feels sympathy and empathy for them. So many writers and directors seem to be unable to grasp the concept that for a good horror film to work, the characters in them need to be interesting and developed, so that the audience cares when they are in danger. Without good characters, a film essentially becomes an emotionless meat grinder. The acting is certainly strong enough to support the characters too, with nearly everyone turning in a fine performance. The actual child actors all put in superb performances too, although they are very one note, but that's all the film really needs.
There is also some depth attempted to be put into the screenplay. It's nothing spectacular, and will never amount to any prolonged debates, but it's still nice to have. The depth pretty much boils down to the moral argument of the killing of children, even if it is for survival. This morality is given slightly more depth by the fact it is parents killing their children, but it is still mostly glossed over, and is almost made redundant by the various and bloody ways the children are killed. And the deaths certainly bloody; if you're strongly against violence involving children, you'll want to give this a miss as the deaths are pretty graphic.
While the morality plays a game of see-saw between delivering decent discussion value and falling flat on its face, what actually ends up hurting the film is the ending. I'm not going to give it away, but what made the film so great was the sense of mystery it had built up around itself, but just before the end credits roll the film tacks on a few shots that allude to the situation outside of the house setting, and this wasn't really necessary. The film would still have been just as conclusive,and perhaps even stronger, had it retained the mystery surrounding the violence of the children, and crucially how far it had spread.
Technically, the film is impressive. Shankland makes great use of the beautiful, snowy location with some great pans and wide shots. The cinematography by itself is solid, but it is the location that gives it such a great boost. The direction is generally good too, with set-pieces being well-handled and shot in the most effective way possible, although conversational scenes sometimes fall flat as the script and directorial focus obviously wasn't concentrated on these scenes. They're functional, but there's no Tarantino level of dialogue and character interaction.
The blood and gore effects are awesome, and this is something I rarely praise in films as I feel a horror film should never rely on gore. Rather than fall-back on it, the gory imagery is used to accentuate the film, with some pretty disturbing moments, especially one in which you will probably never be able to look at a toy doll again. As I mentioned before, a fair amount of this violence is carried out against children, ranging from being flung through car windscreens to being stabbed through the throat with a broken door frame. The children are painted in a wholly antagonistic fashion though, so it's hard to take offensive with any of it, really.
The Children is not a revolution in horror, but it doesn't really need to be. It's a well-made, well acted film that functions purely as fun, smart and scary horror film. It rarely falls to common clichés of the genre, and you will find it incredibly hard pressed to identify which characters will die, as the film makes sure to make each and every death unpredictable. If you're in the mood for something fresh, bloody and just plain fun, then check out The Children.