Monday, February 19, 2018

"He Probably Took Them on an Impromptu Picnic" - The Children (1980)

(Note: This post is a contribution to The Deadly Doll's House of Horror Nonsense's 8th annual The Shortening, which celebrates the shortest month by covering "films that deal with vertically challenged villains." This film, The Children, was covered on that blog here in 2010.)

We turn our attention to Max Kalmanowicz's The Children (1980), one of the most fondly remembered--and rightfully so--horror films of the early 1980s. Unfortunately, I have found that, inexplicably, not all of your universe's critics appreciate this suburban nightmare.

Here are some of the most blatantly ignorant reviews I have found of The Children. Reviewer schmecking writes, "The characters weren't interesting, the movie gets tedious and it didn't have any momentum." Reviewer duke1907 writes, "I couldn't believe that I had waited 26 years to see such a bad movie.... The effects are horrible. There wasn't a single scene that was scary." Reviewer trishaade writes, "The ending was so very predictable, made no sense within the context of the movie and was really a huge disappointment. Plot holes abounded and much was left unexplained. It definitely could have been better written."

Suffice it to say all these misgivings about the film are entirely incorrect. Let us look at the film in some detail to contravert such delusional fallacies.

The film’s opening shot is a marvel of efficient storytelling, as it shows a massive tank made of bricks that sits on the grounds of the Yankee Power Company nuclear power plant. The camera lingers on some pipes for several seconds, asking the audience to take in the potential for danger.

Two inspectors climb down some stairs in front of the tank, talking about the clueless managers. “Those fat-asses got no idea what’s going on.”

They quit their inspection because it’s quitting time, having missed a small leak, which the prowling camera shows us is causing yellow gas to rise up from the pavement.

The dance of cause and effect continues as we watch a school bus drive through rural Massachusetts to the town of Ravensback, bringing students home. Something appears amiss, however, because the students are all smiling and singing songs about how great the bus driver is: “Here’s to the bus driver, the bus driver, the bus driver. Here’s to the bus driver, the best of them all. He’s merry, he’s jolly, we love him, by golly. Here’s to the bus driver, the best of them all.”

Then the bus drives through a yellow cloud of gas from the nuclear plant, and we know there will be even further trouble in the future.

After so quickly and efficiently establishing its premise, the filmmakers build some atmosphere. We watch as a sheriff’s deputy performs the behavior known colloquially as “making time” with a young girl who runs a roadside vegetable stand (in fact, just a cart piled with vegetables with no indication they are for sale).

Meanwhile, Sheriff Hart finds the school bus blocking part of the road and is surprised to see it is completely empty. He drives up the road a short distance to find a house with a typical family: a woman sunbathing in her underwear and her lesbian lover sitting at a piano popping pills. Their son, Tommy, has not arrived home, despite the school bus sitting a short distance from their house. The woman in her underwear puts on some clothes and helps the sheriff investigate the school bus because she doesn’t trust his competence.

The filmmakers present the next scene with playful irony as they intercut a radio conversation between the middle aged sheriff and his deputy Harry. The sheriff stands with the cold, gruff lesbian while the deputy stands with his young, handsy girlfriend. Few films have portrayed so effectively the contrast between the excitement of youth and the frostiness of middle age.

After the sheriff leaves, the woman investigates a cemetery where she sees children hiding in the distance.

She gets more than she bargained for when she stumbles over the bus driver, dead with his face apparently burned off.

The audience must consider the possibility that the children on the bus, in fact, did not “love him, by golly.”

(It must be noted that the cemetery is only a few yards from the abandoned school bus, so a competent law enforcement professional might have investigated it and found the body in short order.)

The woman is startled by her son, who gives her a big hug. She does not seem to notice the black nail polish on his fingernails, however, which proves to be a fatal mistake as his mere touch reduces her to a bus-driver-like burnt corpse.

We next venture with the sheriff to the country store, where brothers who may or may not be Ron and Clint Howard are trying to sell scrawny chickens to the proprietress for unknown reasons.

The sheriff’s next stop is the Shore house, where he informs another set of parents that their children are missing. In this case, the Shores are a topless woman and a mustachioed bodybuilder.

The sheriff asks if their daughter Janet is home. Mrs. Shore replies, “Isn’t she a little young for you, Sheriff? She’s only nine.”

The parents admit they have no idea whether Janet is home or not. Then the mother says the bus driver “is a bit senile if you ask me. He probably took them on an impromptu picnic or something.”

When the sheriff shoots down this idea, she asks, “You don’t think they’ve been kidnapped, do you? A kidnapping in Ravensback? Oh, Jack, how exciting!”

Clearly appalled by the Shores’ lack of interest in their child, the sheriff dumps an ashtray into the swimming pool and storms away.

The children gleefully start killing their parents, all of whom are home in the middle of the day, with hugs. Naturally, the parents immediately become terrified of their children.

Our attention turns to a happy Ravensback family, John and Cathy Fremont and their son Clarkie, home from school with a cold. (Cathy, charmingly, has the voice of Suzanne Pleshette.) They also have a daughter, but she was on the school bus and is currently missing. This particular family falls on the lower end of the health-consciousness spectrum, it seems: John repeatedly kisses the sick Clarkie and Cathy, despite her pregnancy, continues to enjoy smoking.

When night falls, the suspense coils tighter, as the sheriff finds Deputy Harry dead in the woods. The sheriff takes on John Fremont as a surrogate deputy as he searches for the town doctor, the chilly lesbian woman from the earlier scene. Sheriff Hart and John bust into the doctor’s house but find nobody. “Looks like they’re in bed,” says the sheriff before barging into the bedroom without knocking or announcing his presence.

They are not in bed, however. Instead, the doctor’s partner, Miss Button, is at the piano, burnt to a proverbial crisp, as is her poor Doberman.

John and the sheriff soon find one of the kids, but she appears to be neither radioactive nor homocidal, simply in shock, and her fingernails are not black. They take her home in the police car, but as she lies in the back seat we see her fingernails fade to black, so to speak. She reaches for the sheriff, but he manages to stumble out of the car.

The little girl walks out of the car, past the sheriff, into the woods. “She tried to attack me, John!” the sheriff says before driving away, having lost interest in the girl who is only a few yards away, apparently.

Director Max Kalmanowicz stages a particularly frightening scene at Molly’s general store. The children stand outside and greet the gullible Molly with open arms.

We don’t see her death, but we hear her hideous screams.

After the sheriff and John return to the Fremont house, they listen to a news report on TV. Children have been disappearing all over the tri-state area. “In another unrelated instance,” the TV newsman reports, “the Northern Tier nuclear facility was forced to shut down today because of a pressure drop.” It seems the yellow cloud was more expansive than it appeared at the beginning of the film.

The Fremont daughter, Jennifer, returns home, her nails black. She burns her father’s hand by grabbing it, but he escapes, only to find another child attacking. The sheriff, without thinking, blasts the child with his gun, but it has little effect on the monster child.

The adults barricade themselves into the Fremont house (or rather, they shut the door) while the children gather outside a la Night of the Living Dead (1968). The sheriff starts to pick off the kids with his rifle, though they continue to get up.

Seeing the sheriff apparently murdering children, Cathy smashes a vase over his head before John can explain that something is wrong with the children. (Audience members, exasperated with the sheriff’s incompetence, might conclude that incapacitating the man will probably increase the Fremonts’ chances of survival by at least 40%.)

Clarkie, meanwhile, is oblivious about the condition of the other children. In a scene perhaps influenced by Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot (1979), Clarkie, in his second-story bedroom, opens the window for his friend Paul, who was casually walking around the roof of the house.

Clarkie plays hide and seek with Paul. Clarkie loses. The shot of his burned body is accompanied with someone, presumably his father, yelling “Clarkie!” though his father is not in the scene.

At last, the sheriff makes a good decision. He grabs a katana sword from its display on the wall and unsheathes it. In perhaps the film’s most famous image, the sheriff slices off Paul’s troublemaking hands.

As expected, the removal of the hands has the desired effect of killing the cursed child.

The sheriff says, “They don’t bleed! It’s their hands! God, if they get those hands on you! Bullets have no effect on them. John, we’ve got to cut off their hands!”

Then, a second later, he says, “The best thing we can do right now is wait. Maybe it’ll all pass. Whatever’s happened to the children, maybe it’ll go away.”

A second later, the sheriff changes his mind again, and he and John venture outside with the sword and an axe with the goal of chopping off the neighbor children’s hands. After stumbling futilely through the darkness for several minutes, the sheriff and John catch sight of the remaining children as they head into a barn. “We’ve got them now,” says the sheriff.

They corner the children in the hay loft and be-hand them all.

After murdering the children, the dazed men simply walk out of the barn...but unfortunately for them they have forgotten about one of the children.

In the end—which some might consider predictable, though others might view its predictability reduced somewhat by the fact that it makes no sense—Cathy gives birth to the newest Fremont child, but its hands, somehow, are cursed with black fingernails.

As must be clear from my description of the film, The Children is a tense nightmare from start to finish. It is almost inconceivable that director Max Kalmanowicz made only two films, The Children and Dreams Come True (1984) (which we have not covered on Senseless Cinema...yet). Similarly, producer Carlton J. Albright was only involved in the making of these two films and the sensational Luther the Geek (1989) (which we have not covered on Senseless Cinema...yet). In a more perfect universe (i.e., my Universe-Prime), these filmmakers had long and productive careers, though of course neither was able to match the exacting quality of their first venture, The Children.

One of the strongest features of the children is the simultaneous specificity and ambiguity of the cause of the children's murderous rampage. While it would be tempting to attribute the rampage to the school bus's exposure to the yellow gas emitted by the nuclear plant, such an attribution, the film seems to say, is too simplistic. The television tells us the epidemic of murder-by-children is covering the tri-state area, though the cloud of gas was only a few cubic yards in volume. Furthermore, only children are affected by the yellow gas; we see that the adults who drive through it are unaffected until they are set upon by the children. Finally, I believe it is safe to conclude that science has not developed any nuclear-powered gas with the side effect of turning children's fingernails intermittently black, not to mention deadly. No, the reason behind the rampage is not just the nuclear plant's emissions. Like Night of the Living Dead (1968), the film presents one possible explanation for the ensuing mayhem, but it does not provide the final answer.

It must be said that another fine aspect of the film is the musical score by Harry Manfredini, famous for scoring the Friday the 13th series, which began in 1980, the same year The Children was released. I can summarize my appreciation of this aspect of the film no better than the anonymous contributor on IMDB's trivia page for The Children, who wrote incisively, "The Children, made in the same year as Friday the 13th, has the same composer as Friday the 13th, so the films' scores sound similar." High praise, indeed.

In conclusion, The Children is a subtle, ambiguous, chilling masterpiece of terror perpetrated by innocent children with black fingernails. What more could one ask from a movie?