Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, 1976
Starring: Lewis Flander, Prunella Randsome, Antonio Iranzo, Maria Luisa Arias
The film opens with a series of documentary clips showing the fate of the world’s children from WWII through the wars and disasters of the early ‘70s, including starvation in famines, abuse, death, medical experimentation in the concentration camps, and more. This cuts to the Spanish coast, where Tom and Evelyn, an English couple, are vacationing. Tom speaks some Spanish and is hoping to visit a remote, serene island he was on some years ago. Evelyn is pregnant, but they make the trip by borrowing a small boat from the area postman. Though picturesque, the island at first appears to be abandoned, though they soon spot children playing in the streets.
No adults are anywhere to be found, though Tom and Evelyn attempt to enjoy their day anyway. Abruptly, they come across a little girl beating an old man to death with his cane and everything begins to unravel. It seems the children of the island are playing a very violent, fatal game with the area adults, and Tom and Evelyn are caught up in the middle. Will they go so far as to kill a child in order to escape?
Based on a novel by Juan José Plans – El juego de los niños, The Children’s Game – this is one of the bleakest, most underrated films in all of Spanish horror. You need to prepare yourself from the very beginning, because the film is set up with a series of some very graphic, mondo-style clips of children during wartime – WWII, concentration camps, the Korean War, Vietnam, famines in Africa, etc. It’s extremely grim and unpleasant, but this should give you a sense of what’s to come. It also presents a loose explanation for the children’s later actions.
The children here are thoroughly unlike the characters in other kids’ horror, including The Bad Seed, The Omen, Children of the Corn, Village of the Damned, or The Brood. For much of the film, they appear to be normal children, laughing, playing in the sunlight, and acting out some sort of elaborate game. Individually, they are not dangerous, but as an innocuously gathering group, they are terrifying. This, ultimately, is what makes Who Can Kill a Child? disturbing so many years later.
There isn’t a lot of graphic violence in the film. Serrador keeps everything close to his chest, subtle, and effective. In the film’s most brutal scene, where a young girl beats an old man to death with his cane and the children later string him up and hit him like a piñata, much of this is implied or shown briefly. It still packs a powerful punch and is a moment of truly rare horror. Another moment of terror is Evelyn’s pregnancy, which at first endears her to one of the children, but soon becomes an element of unavoidable doom. There is also a touch of murder mystery early on, as a sense of menace is introduced when a young woman’s body washes up on shore in the beginning of the film. The police discuss that she’s been badly stabbed and cut up, but the investigation doesn't go forward after this.
As with the animalsattack films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Who Can Kill a Child? feels very much like a nature run amok movie in some parts. The children are a swarming, natural force, such as in Day of the Animals, The Birds, The Swarm, Wild Beasts, and many more. They aren’t demonically possessed alien offspring; they are simply normal children who turn against humanity.
Director Serrador previously made an early Spanish horror film, La residencia, an interesting slasher-like movie with a Gothic flair. Waldo de los Rios, who scored that film, returned to work with Serrador on Who Can Kill a Child? and produced a wonderfully creepy score centered on children singing and humming. The cinematography from José Luis Alcaine is stunning and focuses on the lush, scenic Mediterranean shore. Like a handful of other effective horror films from the period – namely The Wicker Man – this is a brightly lit, sunny, daytime horror film. There are no dark corners or menacing shadows, because the threat of violence is right out in the open. Just as the loud, fast-paced village was somewhat anxiety-inducing, the abandoned town is eerie, sinister in its silence. Tom and Evelyn try to keep up a cheery facade as store after store appears abandoned, but the horror quickly sinks in when they receive strange phone calls and are gradually swarmed by the children.
Lewis Fiander (Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde) and Prunella Ransome (Far from the Madding Crowd; boy, what a name) give excellent performances and have comfortable chemistry together. Outside of the mostly anonymous children, they are largely the only actors here, though there’s a nice appearance from Luis Ciges (Horror Rises from the Tomb) as the wary postman who lends them a boat to get to the island.
Who Can Kill a Child? was released under a variety of titles – Island of the Damned to cash in on the Village of the Damned series, Trapped!, Island of Death, Death is Child’s Play, etc. It was impossible to get a hold of for years, but was fortunately released on a good-quality DVD from Dark Sky that comes with the highest recommendation. If you’re going to watch any of the Spanish horror films I've reviewed recently, this should be at the top of your list. It’s a truly excellent film that has managed to stand the test of time.