Monday, April 13, 2020

"What If He Starts Offering Out Drugs?" - Suffer Little Children (1983) - Film #175

Let us turn to the legendary British shot-on-VHS thriller Suffer Little Children (1983), one of the finest pieces of cinema ever created by an acting school populated almost entirely by children. As with The Zodiac Killer (1971), the circumstances of the making of the film are almost as interesting as the film itself--though the circumstances with Suffer Little Children (amateur project by acting school) are less grim than those surrounding The Zodiac Killer (attempt to catch serial murderer), the film itself is considerably more graphic and disturbing.

Oddly, some critics in your universe fail to appreciate this masterpiece. Reviewer Coventry writes, "'Suffer, Little Children' is so bad that I can hardly find enough synonyms for awful to describe what's going on here. It's practically unwatchable, with lousy editing, incomprehensible narration, inaudible dialogs (also because the acting performances are so inept) and no sign of coherence or pace whatsoever." Reviewer juderussell-84094 writes, "Look, this movie is bad. Really bad." And reviewer HumanoidOfFlesh writes, "Utterly cheesy and inept horror movie made by the students of Drama School.The editing is horrible, the plot makes no sense and the lighting is amateurish."

Obviously, these reviewers are unfit even to be called reviewers. Please read on for an appreciation of this groundbreaking film...

The film begins in an orphanage in England called Sullivans Children’s Home—a setting the film will never leave. The place is presided over by Jen and Morris, both of whom look at most a few years older than their adolescent charges. As the film begins, a girl is found on the orphanage steps holding a note: “PLEASE TAKE CARE OF ELIZABETH. SHE CAN’T SPEAK. THIS IS THE RIGHT PLACE FOR HER.”

Of course, the staff welcome her into the orphanage, sitting her down at a table. Jen says, “Look at her. She looks so miserable.”

In the next scene, Morris makes a series of phone calls attempting to investigate the mystery of Elizabeth’s identity and appearance while Jen goes through the plastic bag Elizabeth was carrying with her.

When Jen introduces Elizabeth to some of the other children, a girl named Sarah says, “Hello, Elizabeth, why can’t you speak?”

Seconds later, a quick shot of Elizabeth’s eyes is followed by a slamming door.

Sarah falls down, screaming, and a rock chord is heard on the soundtrack. (We never find out what happened to Sarah, who is never mentioned again.)

The next day, Jen and Morris discuss the impending visit of a pop star who used to live at the orphanage. Jen is excited about the visit, but Morris simply complains. “What if he starts offering out drugs?”

“Morris,” Jen replies, “if he does that, just smile sweetly and say, ‘No thanks, I’m trying to give them up.’”

Seconds later, the pop star, Mick Phillips, arrives with his roadie, Hustler, for some reason. As they enter the front hallway to a gaggle of four or five screaming pre-teens, a man walks by on the sidewalk and casts a curious glance at the fuss occurring inside.

Before meeting the kids, Mick and Hustler meet the two women who work in the kitchen, Elaine and Cath—both of whom take an inordinate amount of time discussing their horoscopes before the pop star arrives.

“It certainly has changed,” Mick says, looking at the kitchen. “Freezer? And two toasters.”

As Elizabeth stands creepily in the corner near the front door, Mick and Hustler meet some awkward girls, and then Mick meets Elizabeth. “You’ve got nice hair, haven’t you,” he says, lifting up her hair and letting it drop. He also gives her his crucifix, tying it around her neck.

After an intertitle that says “THAT EVENING,” Elizabeth sits in bed, fondling the cross and making a Lugosi-like gesture toward the two sleeping girls who share her room, Jules and Carol.

We see the girls’ collective dream, in which they walk through a forest and encounter some zombies at an abandoned shed. After a zombie rises from the dirt, Elizabeth shows up sitting on the ground next to a picnic blanket.

In a surreal scene, Elizabeth silently commands the zombies to have a picnic with her and the girls.

Outside of the dream, the sleeping girls walk to Elizabeth’s bed and lie down with their heads in her lap, illustrating that Elizabeth now has control over the girls.

She is also able to look straight at the camera.

After a long scene in which a dozen children eat breakfast, and after another long scene in which Jen and Morris speak on the phone to a doctor and learn that Elizabeth’s muteness is psychological rather than physical, we are introduced to Basil, a boy who walks with a crutch. Elizabeth beckons Basil to climb the stairs, and then we hear a crash. Basil has fallen down the stairs, where he coughs up blood.

Elizabeth and her two cronies stand at the top of the stairs.

In an extended scene that really shows off the acting abilities of the cast, Jen and Morris interrogate Jules and Carol. They force the girls to write separate statements about what happened. However, the statements are identical, which furthers Jen’s and Morris’s suspicions. Morris thinks Jules and Carol might have been bullying Elizabeth, trying to steal her pop star crucifix.

In the kitchen, Elaine tells Cath she is suspicious about Elizabeth because of her eyes, but Cath dismisses her concerns.

Meanwhile, Jules and Cath are performing some kind of ceremony with Elizabeth in a dark room.

Later, Jen goes on a date with the pop star to a disco called Cloud Busters. Instead of setting up the date in a conventional cinematic manner, or simply cutting to the date at the disco, the filmmakers set it up through voice-over, first with Jen opening a letter from Mick (as with most people, their date is arranged by mail) while we watch Elizabeth’s satanic ceremony, then with a phone conversation discussing where to meet and what to do. On the date itself, we don’t hear Jen and Mick speak at all. (In a nice reference to Elizabeth’s hand movements, the pub is adorned with a poster for Lugosi’s 1931 Dracula.)

Also, Elizabeth somehow sees what is happening at Cloud Busters.

The date ends on a couch, presumably at Mick’s house, where Jen and Mick romantically discuss what happened to the boy with the crutch and whether Morris blames Mick because he gave Elizabeth the crucifix.

The scene then cuts to Jen and Morris’s office, where Jen is upset. “Six kids nearly drowned!” she says, though we have seen nothing to indicate anyone has been anywhere near water.

“I know,” Morris says. “Relax, I just want to know—“

“I can’t relax! How can I relax when six kids nearly drowned?”

“No use crying over spilt milk,” Morris retorts. “No harm was done in the end, was it? None of the kids have drowned. They’re all okay.”

Instead of showing the incident, Jen attempts to explain what happened to Morris, but she communicates nothing more than six kids almost drowned, apparently intentionally. The conversation is intercut creepily with a shot of Elizabeth’s eyes.

The film then shows even more visual imagination than before with a split-screen depicting a phone call between pop star Mick and Jen.

The phone call sets up a previously unmentioned birthday party that same day, and the film then cuts to screaming kids around the front door, welcoming Mick, who brings with him a stereo system. Mick dances while a catchy theme song plays:

“Suffer suffer suffer little children!
Suffer suffer suffer little children!
Suffer suffer suffer little children!
Suffer suffer suffer little children!

Are you afraid to close your eyes at night?
I’m gonna creep up on you while you’re dreaming.
There’s no one who can save you left in sight.

Suffer suffer suffer little children!
Suffer suffer suffer little children!
Suffer suffer suffer little children!
Suffer suffer suffer little children!”

While the song is still playing, Morris and Mick experience a realistic awkward silence for a few moments before they shake hands for no real reason. Mick says, “It hasn’t been easy me coming back here like this. I expected to get a feeling of coming home. Well, I didn’t get it.”

Morris explains his own character, helpfully. “I try to be witty and it just comes out sarcastic. I’m just not very good with grownups, I suppose.”

Screaming suddenly erupts from the living room, where all the kids are apparently trying to kill each other by pounding on their legs, while Elizabeth and her cronies laugh.

The film cuts to Jen in an apocalyptic wasteland that appears to be the orphanage’s back garden. She sits in a metal death trap of a patio chair and looks around wistfully as she waits for Mick. When he arrives, she tells him innocently, “I tell you I’m looking forward to going to bed tonight.”

There follows an intimate scene that displays the filmmakers’ thorough, almost textbook understanding of adult relationships. Jen asks Mick, “Are you lonely?” to which he replies, “Probably.”

He tells her, “In a couple years I’ll be able to retire and perhaps try and have a personal life of my own.”

She responds by saying, “What sort of person are you looking for?”

He sighs. “I don’t know. Possibly someone like you.”

They lean toward each other to perform what may be the most awkward kiss ever captured on video.

A few seconds later, Jen and Mick sit in the living room with Morris. The conversation turns to theories about why everybody is going crazy. They settle on the ridiculous idea that Elizabeth (who is shown during their conversation staring into space, her face lit by a green strobe light).

As the adults talk, Elizabeth and her cronies light candles upstairs, then immediately go to sleep.

In the morning, all the kids talk at breakfast about how strange the week has been. One of the girls, Terri, says, “It’s really been a wild few days.”

Sarah, the girl who was first ambiguously injured after Elizabeth’s arrival, says, “I know. My head still hurts when I lie on that side of where I conked my head.”

“What I want to know is what’s causing it,” Terri says.

The image zooms into Elizabeth’s eyes. Because Elizabeth is causing it.

Suddenly, Terri stands up, holding a knife that might be considered a bit too sharp for breakfast at an orphanage. She stabs Morris’s hand, then gives the knife to Elizabeth, screams, and falls down.

Moments later, Elizabeth, sitting on the couch, looks straight at the camera and in a demonic voice says, “Suffer the little children.”

Also, a small potted plant levitates in the air for a second.

Elizabeth gets weapons from the kitchen—knives and hammers—and passes them out to her “slaves.” They climb the stairs, where the children who are not her slaves are studying. She forces one of the children to stab herself graphically in the leg while blood spurts out at a constant pressure onto the music posters on the wall.

As the film’s climactic orgy of violence ensues, the adults run upstairs to find Elizabeth and see what is going on. On the second floor landing, a girl stabs Mick bloodily in the leg, but being a good pop star he slams the girl against the wall, where she crumples to the ground, leaving a bloody trail on the plaster from where her head struck the wall.

Morris, meanwhile, is assaulted downstairs, stabbed with a wooden stake, which causes him to cough up blood. Though he tries to climb up the stairs, he falls, and one of the children shoves a knife through the back of his head. The blade emerges from his mouth while Elizabeth’s demon voice, offscreen, says, “Destroy the Christ-worshippers.”

Mick and Hustler, who appears out of nowhere, run upstairs, but Hustler is stabbed fatally in the neck.

Mick reaches the attic upstairs, where he is crucified with knives against the wall while Elizabeth and her slaves laugh.

The children chant, “Come devil come” for a long, long time—which of course transforms Elizabeth into a woman.

Fortunately for the forces of good, Jesus appears.

“No!” Elizabeth’s adult form says. “Go back! Go back, Christ!”

But Jesus reaches his arm toward her, presumably casting a spell against the demon and her slaves.

The girls writhe helplessly on the floor for approximately five minutes. We watch Jools scream and convulse. Then Jesus turns his attention on Elizabeth, who screams until the soundtrack gives out. Moments later, all that remains is the crucifix Mick gave her lying on the floor.

In the finale, Jen returns with a man we’ve never seen. She sees the bodies on the stairway and begins to scream.

The End

After the credits roll, the film offers an extraordinary epigram: “This movie was made by the students of Meg Shanks’ Drama School. They had no experience and no money, just determination and guts. To the Parents: Thanks for putting up with it. To the kids: THANKS.”

Suffer Little Children stands on its own, and there is little I can add that would increase anyone's appreciation of the work. Very few films invite the audience into their universe so successfully and keep the audience so rapt with attention. Some might dismiss the film as amateurish, but it is clearly put together with great skill. A truly amateurish film would fall into traps Suffer Little Children avoids with great elan: the urge to explain where Elizabeth came from, what is happening at any point in the narrative, why Elizabeth wears Mick's crucifix throughout the story, why Jesus appears at the end to save the day, why Jesus appears only after all the adults in the house have been savagely murdered. The filmmakers use misdirection as effectively as any professional filmmakers, as in the dream where the girls have a picnic with zombies. Suffer Little Children is a beautifully made horror film that is truly disturbing, powerful, and groundbreaking.