Boys & Ghouls Come Out To Play… WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? Reviewed

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DVD. R1.  Dark Sky / MPI. Unrated

Who Could Kill A Child? That’s the provocative question posed in the title of Narcisco Ibanez Serrador’s fabled 1976 Euroshocker… actually, that’s just one of the many  titles which has been attached to Serrador’s picture, and probably the most appropriate given that it’s a straight translation of the original Spanish title ¿Quién Puede Matar a un Niño?… others have included Would You Kill a Child?, Death is Child’s Play, Lucifer’s Curse, The Killer’s Playground, Trapped, Island Of The Damned and that old standby, Island Of Death …a rose by any other name would smell as sweet and Serrador mounts this hybrid of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Wolf Rilla’s Village Of The Damned (1960)  in impressive style, so very impressive that it would come to exert an obvious influence over such subsequent fare as Fritz Kiersch’s Children Of The Corn (1984).

No surprise really, as Serrador sprang from prestigious Spanish horror stock. His polymath father Narciso Ibáñez Menta acted, wrote, produced, directed and performed make up duties (no doubt he also had a hand in the catering) on a host of Spanish cinema and TV efforts, many of them in our favourite genre. Serrador himself served a similar apprenticeship in TV drama from the early ‘60s onwards before making his feature debut with the stunning, claustrophobic La Residencia aka The House That Screamed (1970).

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As if to prove that he wasn’t some kind of one-trick pony, Serrador unfolds the action of Who Could Kill A Child? in bright sunshine on a deserted holiday island… this one is possibly the ultimate in agoraphobic horror! Much of the credit for this must go to DP Jose Luis Arcane, who would later become the favoured cinematographer of Pedro Almodovar and Bigas Luna, and who gets his own bonus interview featurette on this disc. In fact Serrador (who comes across as a very agreeable chap on his own featurette here) derives maximum benefit from all of his collaborators, chiefly his leads Lewis Finder and Prunella Ransome as Tom And Evelyn, a young couple expecting their third child and discovering that their Spanish holiday heaven is rapidly descending into something altogether more hellish.

Finding the mainland resort of Benavis too over run by tourists for their liking, the protagonists take a boat to the sparsely populated island of Almanzora… sparse indeed, as there seem to be no adults around and the local children respond to Tom and Evelyn’s presence in distinctly surly manner. He speculates that the grown ups have all decampred to some shindig on the other side of the island, but a gradual accumulation of disquieting detail increasingly indicates that there is something very  wrong going on in Almanzora. When Evelyn does finally set eyes on an adult native of the island, it’s an old man who is promptly bludgeoned with his own walking stick by a young girl. Tom, goeing to investigate, witnesses the sequel – a macabre game of human piñata – and the penny drops that maybe he and his wife should have just settled for a weekend in Skegness. Desperately searching through the empty homes and shops for an explanation of what has happened, they uncover a wounded and traumatised guy (Antonio Iranzo) who’s been hiding out from the killer kids and gets Tom and Evelyn up to speed: a couple of nights previously all the island’s children had gone on a spontaneous rampage, gate crashing one house after another and murdering their adult inhabitants, in a spirit of infernal fiesta. His chilling story told, this guy makes the mistake of leaving with his young daughter, who mercilessly leads him into an ambush. This and most of the film’s other killings take place off screen, which only makes the climactic blood bath all the more horrifying when it does play out.

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Hotly pursued, Tom and Evelyn make several escape attempts but can’t shake off those murderous munchkins. This is genuinely involving stuff, as Serrador has taken the time to establish them as characters that we care about, ably assisted by the sympathetic performances of Fiander and Ransome. The director admits in his bonus featurette that he didn’t really get on particularly well with Finder, but the Australian actor is utterly believable as an urban sophisticate with macho pretentious, who flounders when faced with danger before steeling himself to the point where yes, he will indeed kill a child (mowing down dozens with a machine gun as an encore) when survival demands it. Ransome (sadly, no longer with us) is even better, radiating sweetness and vulnerability. Waldo de los Ríos’ OST plays its full part in ratcheting the tension en route to a the deeply downbeat denouement, as the final quarter hour or so  reverts to claustrophobic mode and shock succeeds shock without ever giving way to schlock… as a useful point of comparison and contrast, did you really give a toss about what happened to Tisa Farrow, Serena Grandi, Zora Kerowa and their travelling companions in Joe D’Amato’s similarly set up but woefully directed Anthropophagous Beast (1980)?

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This is crackingly efficient and effective horror movie making… the only points at which WCKAC wobbles slightly are those where it dwells on the nature of the killer kids’ condition and its transmission (some kind of “animal magnetism”, it is limply suggested). It would have been better to leave this to the imagination of the viewer, as Hitchcock had in The Birds. Anyway, the film’s harrowing full title sequence (omitted for years from previous releases, reinstated here in its entirety) supplies all the motivation that the nihilistic ninos of Almanzora could wish for, comprising a collage of news reel material detailing how children have always suffered the most when “mature” adults wage war on each other… the horrors of The Holocaust, Indo-Pakistani wars, Biafra, Korea, familiar images of Vietnamese innocents strafed by napalm… Serrador’s version of children turning on adults is grotesque and ultimately absurd but the message appears to be that the converse state of affairs is even more shocking and ridiculous, yet is repeated throughout history with numbing regularity. Interesting and ironic that this powerful prologue has been for so long prodcribed by political establishments that continue to condone the perpetration of such horrors in real life! It was only in 2011 that Who Can Kill A Child? got an uncut UK release, courtesy of the Eureka label.

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Incidentally, during the long period when this footage went unseen, the rumour mill was working over time with speculation on what it actually comprised. Various critics of a “liberal” persuasion convinced themselves that it contained material “equating” abortion with violence against children and declared this to be some kind of reactionary faux pas on the part of Serrador. Well, for starters it transpires that there is no such material. Now you mention it though, thanks for putting me right about any lingering suspicion I had that abortion was in some way “violent.” Obviously any foetuses concerned are gently coaxed out of their mothers’ wombs and sat down with a nice cup of tea…

Dark Sky present the film in a beautifully vibrant transfer, anamorphically faithful to its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. As a bonus you get those interview featurettes with Serrador and DP Alcaine (courtesy of the ubiquitous David Gregory) and a generous gallery of promotional materials.

Serrador, who on the strength of this and La Residencia could so obviously have been a contender, never (officially) directed another theatrical horror feature (nor one in any other genre). The consignment of his promising directorial career to the dusty bin of cinematic history was stipulated as a condition in the contract he signed with a TV company to exploit the lucrative game show concept that he had dreamed up… namely Un, Dos, Tres. And yes, that’s the same show franchised to ITV in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as 3-2-1. Now that’s really horrible…

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