Tracey Beaker Meets The Exorcist: SUFFER LITTLE CHILDREN Reviewed

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DVD. Region Free. Intervision (Severin). 18.

“This picture is a reconstruction of events which took place at 45 Kingston Road, New Malden in August 1984…” we are informed by the portentous introductory voice over to Alan Briggs’ notorious meisterwerk Suffer Little Children: “These events were never reported in the press. The house is now derelict and scheduled for demolition.” The events in question, as shakily reconstructed on state-of-the-art (in 1983 terms, anyway) VHS camcorder, are initiated by the arrival of a young mute girl named Elizabeth (Nicola Diana), at the Sullivan Children’s Home. No sooner has she arrived than various nasty accidents start befalling the other residents. “First things first… Basil’s in intensive care!” emotes their custodian Jenny (Ginny Rose)… poor Basil, he fell down the stairs. Another child has a door telekinetically slammed in her face. To the further consternation of Jenny and her sidekick Maurice (Colin Chamberlain), household objects begin levitating unconvincingly and there’s soon more wobbly furniture in motion than at an MFI clearance sale. Nobody seems to notice that these events coincide with Elizabeth getting pissed off with people.

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Matters escalate further when former resident, now pop star Mick Philips (Jon Holland) visits and starts romancing Jenny (by taking her to Cloudbursts, an appalling night club packed with plastic punks and nerdy New Romantics). Lovelorn Maurice takes this very badly but not nearly as badly as Elizabeth, who seems to have conceived some kind of Satanic schoolgirl crush on the guy (improbably so, Mick resembling nothing more than a refugee from a bad Kajagoogoo tribute band.) By arranging for some poorly made-up living deadsters to erupt from an allotment (on account of which scene I suffered a particularly unpleasant flashback to Zombies Lake… or was it Oasis Of The Zombies?), Elizabeth manages to recruit two female lieutenants to her burgeoning cult.

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The situation at Sullivan’s continues to degenerate. A jolly party descends into an unseemly punch-up, then 12 of the home’s kids nearly drown simultaneously during a visit to their local swimming baths (we have to take this on trust as SLC’s budget didn’t stretch to an actual depiction of this traumatic moment.) Elizabeth and her minions throw some kind of candle lit ritual in the cellar, chanting “Come Devil Come!” and Elizabeth orders them (in her best Mercedes McCambridge tones) to take out “the Christ worshippers!” Several enthusiastic but unconvincing stabbings ensue. This outbreak of Grand Guignol (accompanied by inept heavy metal music and sufficient strobing to induce an epileptic episode in an elephant) is only nipped in the bud when Christ himself, in full crown of thorns (I’m not making this up, honest) intercedes personally to zap Elizabeth with disappointingly under-rendered  bolts of righteous Godly fury. Jenny gets a final screaming freeze frame, reminiscent of  Hilary Dwyer’s in Witchfinder General and Daria Nicolodi’s in Tenebrae.

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Speaking of  Argento, SLC’s mix of paranormal schoolgirl shenanigans and inappropriate heavy metal accompaniment could conceivably be cited as a precursor to his Phenomena (though a lot of people probably wouldn’t thank it for that, either.) “Suffer you bastards, suffer!” we are advised during the interminable racket of (whatever happened to?) Jlaada’s playout music  before puzzling random shot repeats bring the shambolic proceedings to a welcome close.

The house where this sub-Italia Conti take on “Tracey Beaker meets The Exorcist” was filmed did indeed get demolished (by a fire, apparently, though I’ve been unable to establish whether this was on account of an angry god fearing mob… or even an angry God himself) and allegedly a car park now stands in the place it once occupied. As for “Never reported in the press”, though… they wish! Nothing in this am-dram Horror epic could have prepared its creators for the sham dram that unfolded in the nation’s tabloids, once they had picked up the first sniff of a scandal from that redoubtable local organ, The Surrey Comet.  “This movie was made by the students of Meg Shanks Drama School” one of its poorly generated credits tells us: “They had no experience and no money, just determination and guts”… and boy, the intestinal fortitude of all concerned would be sorely tested over the coming months!

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Said kerfuffle is masterfully related by a strikingly handsome, witty and charismatic “video nasty”  historian in the bonus featurette Seducing The Gullible. This boy should go far. In his interview, director Alan Briggs reveals his past as a rock music promoter / huckster, which must have stood him in good stead for a stab at the success de scandale that Suffer Little Children unfortunately never quite attained. In contradiction to wild claims (typifying the atmosphere of moral panic back in the early ’80s) that he had somehow “corrupted” his juvenile cast, Briggs insists that he gave free rein to their enthusiastic creativity and that’s what you see on the screen. He talks less about SLC’s censorship tribulations than the difficulties of small film production (he’d clearly relish the opportunity to make another one with today’s technology) and distribution (in particular the difficulties of dealing with Films Galore’s rather “colourful” sounding George Goodey) back in 1983.

More than three decades after this harrowing sequence of events unfolded, the mighty men of Severin (via their “shot on video” Intervision imprint) afford us an opportunity to relive a particularly troubling bit of recent social history and see what, if anything, all the fuss was about with an uncut and now BBFC sanctioned release of Suffer Little Children. Perhaps House Of Freudstein  visitors represent precisely that special sort of cineaste who can look beyond this film’s technical and artistic shortcomings to engage with the philosophical, ethical, semiological and indeed eschatological issues it embodies. Perhaps not. In which case… “Suffer, you bastards, suffer!”

 

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