Monday, September 7, 2020

“I’ll Show You How to Make Donuts” - The Child (1977) - Film #186

Won't someone please think of The Child (1977)? Robert Voskanian's pseudo-zombie film is one of several classics released between Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), a group that includes The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974), Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972), The Grapes of Death (1978), and other explorations of zombie mythology. But among these classics, The Child stands high due to its thrilling climax and sense of mystery.

Not all of your universe's critics agree. For example, reviewer preppy-3 writes, "The story is thin and there is TONS of padding to make the film 85 minutes long. The acting is terrible across the board....Badly directed with some of the WORST editing I've ever seen in a motion picture." Reviewer mwold writes, "this is just crap-it's just soooo cheap, I think that's my major complaint." And reviewer thesparklingdemo20 writes, "This movie was seriously awful. The acting was the worst! It was worse than a student film."

Needless to say, these reviewers are obviously clinically insane. Please read on for a realistic appreciation of The Child...

The film begins in a highly Gothic manner as a little girl first stares into a mirror, then picks up a kitten in a foggy graveyard and hands it to someone on the other side of a tombstone. The film then cuts to a highly non-Gothic oil field in Southern California as a woman, Alicianne, drives an antique car along dirt roads. A pesky steel barrel rolls down a hill, forcing her car off the road, so she decides to walk through the woods.

In the forest, she is startled by a dog, but the dog is quickly controlled by a little girl and an old woman, Mrs. Whitfield, who asks Alicianne back to her house in the woods, despite the fact that Alicianne is hurrying to her new job as a housekeeper to the Nordon family nearby. Mrs. Whitfield says she used to have boarders in her house but “Rosalie Nordon used to play tricks on a lot of my boarders. I think she was trying to scare them off.”

Alicianne asks her about the tricks but Mrs. Whitfield can’t give any specifics. “Rosalie regards these woods as her own private property. She’s quite a little girl. Her mother spent most of her life in mental institutions. Rosalie’s always been strange. Worse since her mother’s there.”

Alicianne confides that her own parents died when she was a child, and she grew up in the area.

Just as it seems Alicianne is leaving, Mrs. Whitfield tells her some animals have been killed in the woods recently. “There is something. I hear them calling to one another in the night.”

Alicianne finally leaves Mrs. Whitfield’s house to resume her journey through the woods—a journey accompanied by ominous music. She sees a mauled cat and runs into a fog bank, where we see a clawed hand touch a tree trunk.

Finally, she reaches the Nordon house, where the gardener is raking leaves. She walks up what appear to be the back steps, entering a small door and making her way through the big house, finally encountering the man of the house, Joshua Nordon, and his son, Len (pronounced “Lynn”).

Joshua says, “Hope you’re not a nervous woman. Can’t stand nervous women. Past ten years of her life, my...wife’s been in and out of most of the rest homes around.”

“I’m sure Rosalie and I will get along just fine,” she says, apropos of nothing.

After Joshua goes to bed, mumbling something about not being able to take care of his own children, Len tells Alicianne, “We’re not used to having people around, Pa and I and Rosalie. You’ll have to try and understand us.”

She doesn’t reply; she simply walks upstairs.

We see Rosalie Nordon sleeping in her bedroom. The filmmakers establish her status as an unusual child through the fact that on her bedside table sits a jack-in-the-box, a “toy” no child in any universe would keep next to their bed.

Alicianne enters the bedroom uninvited and the jack-in-the-box springs out, startling the housekeeper. Rosalie wakes up. “Who are you?” she asks, a reasonable question.

Alicianne introduces herself but doesn’t explain why she has entered the little girl’s bedroom. After explaining that she moved back to the area because she missed it, Alicianne tells the girl good night and switches off the light.

Meanwhile, someone or something snatches Mrs. Whitfield’s dog Rambler in the night.

In the morning, Alicianne prepares the quickest breakfast possible (a half-grapefruit) for Rosalie, announcing that Alicianne and Len are going riding in the morning without Rosalie, which sounds like a perfectly normal thing for a housekeeper/nanny to do. After she leaves, Rosalie uses apparently telekinetic powers to make the lid on a bottle of milk slip off and fall to the tablecloth. Afterward, Rosalie works on a sketch of her mourning family with X’s through most of them. (It is clearly a child’s drawing because all the people look exactly like muppets.)

Rosalie flashes back to her mother’s funeral, which begins with a fog bank moving past the mourners at roughly fifty miles per hour, and ends, as do most funerals, with a lightning storm.

Later at dinner, Alicianne says, “Rosalie, I’ll show you how to make donuts. My aunt always used to make them special for Halloween.”

“Donuts!” Rosalie says with a sneer.

“Sure,” adds Len. “You want to learn how to bake stuff. When you get married, you want to be a good wife to your husband, don’t you?”

Rosalie has no response, as she of course recognizes the universal centrality of making donuts to a solid marriage.

The conversation then turns to how oleanders are poison, and how a group of Boy Scouts died when some oleander sap got into their food while camping. “Killed every one of them, damn little fools,” says Pa, giggling and then guffawing at the idea of dead children. Rosalie joins in on the laughter. Alicianne continues eating.

On a pleasant stroll through the grass without Rosalie (which occurs, it must be pointed out, during work hours), Len explains that his mother was robbed and killed. “They think some tramps did it.” He also says of his mother, “She used to read books about the mind. She said...she said the mind was a secret world. A place nobody had explored yet.”

They hear an echoey growl. “What was that?” Alicianne asks.

“Some animals,” Len says casually. “In the woods here. No one’s ever seen them. When they hear that noise, they lock their doors and stay inside at night.”

At night, Mrs. Whitfield is threatened by the mysterious forest animals, who manage to turn off all the electricity in the house, and then to turn it back on seconds later. Something enters through a curtain, prompting Mrs. Whitley to unsuccessfully try her telephone. For unknown reasons, she wraps a blanket over her shoulders and runs outside to the driveway, where Rosalie has been waiting in a car. “I’ve brought my friends with me tonight, Mrs. Whitfield.”

The old woman runs back into the house. Still feeling unsafe, she climbs down the basement steps, but shockingly a rotting hand grabs her ankle from underneath the steps. Something pulls her into the basement and murders her, tearing off her face.

The next day, when Alicianne tries to confront Rosalie about her habit of going to the cemetery at night to meet her “friends” (Alicianne thinks they are tramps rather than zombies), Alicianne also breaks the news that Rosalie’s mother isn’t there anymore. “She’s gone.”

“Gone?” Rosalie asks. “Gone where?” She doesn’t wait for a response, simply swinging on a swing and laughing hysterically for about five minutes.

Of course, Alicianne goes to Rosalie’s bedroom without Rosalie to investigate her drawings, all of which hint that the young girl might have an exciting future in the world of underground comix.

At night, Rosalie hosts a party for the neighborhood children, though we don’t see anything of the party except for a creepy jack-o-lantern, as Alicianne doesn’t attend the party. (Clearly, a housekeeper/nanny would have nothing to do at a children’s party.) 

When Alicianne admits the pumpkin scared her in the dark basement, Len gives her a jug of hard cider and says he will check the fuse. He walks down into the basement while Alicianne, whose job must be to keep Len company and not Rosalie, sips the alcohol. 

In a horrific, suspenseful sequence that is either a flashback or not, Rosalie peers through some window blinds at a man we’ve never seen before wearing a Jed Clampett hat who is trying to steal pearls while a rifle enters the frame and shoots him.

Later, Pa talks to Rosalie about her nocturnal excursions to the cemetery. “They need me,” she says.

“That settles it. You’ll be locked in your room after dark.”

Of course, Rosalie then accuses Pa of killing her mother, and Alicianne of trying to be her mother. When Pa asks again who is in the cemetery, Rosalie threatens, “You’ll find out. They’re gonna come and hurt you both! Hurt you bad!”

In a surreal (i.e., foggy) sequence, Alicianne confronts Rosalie in the cemetery the next day. “My friends are expecting me,” Rosalie says. “I have friends. They like me.”

Alicianne, insistently asking a question that may or may not be relevant, says, “Why do they like you so much? Why do they like you so much?”

Alicianne then dances with Len in the fog, but Len turns into some kind of scarecrow monster.

She wakes up from her surreal dream, only to find straw on the floor next to her bed. She sees something behind another door and calls for Len, who accompanies her outside the house and chases a figure down a hill. In a shed, he finds the dead man who was trying to steal pearls. (Wisely, the family keeps their pearls in a shed where nobody but men in Jed Clampett hats would think to look for them.)

Alicianne returns to the house, where she finds Rosalie’s teddy bear bleeding—and she discovers Pa’s murdered body, his right eye gouged out.

Len and Alicianne run away from the house. They drive away through the oil fields but the windshield shatters and Len is injured in the ensuing mild crash. 

A group of zombies (i.e., a horde of Rosalie’s friends) surrounds the car.

Eventually, Len discovers the zombies are sensitive to sound, so he honks the horn, which continues to sound inexplicably long after he and Alicianne run away from the car and toward what Len calls a shed next to giant oil tanks. They don’t find a shed, simply running around a series of roofless boardwalks until a zombie jumps on top of Len. He dispatches it with a wooden stake, and then a blubbering Alicianne gets her leg stuck in a hole between two boards. The hole, for some reason, is filled with barbed wire, but Alicianne eventually escapes. She and Len finally reach a corrugated-steel shed that looks somewhat less safe than their car.

Fortuitously, Len finds a shotgun in the old shed. He also finds a single shell sitting on the floor, so he loads the gun. Len and Alicianne sit in the shed as the sun goes down outside. Unfortunately, there is more than one zombie, and they start breaking into the shed in a thrilling sequence.

Len kills one zombie with an axe to the head.

Tragically, Len is pulled underneath the shed and his face is gouged off, leaving only the massively hysterical Alicianne alive.

Then Rosalie enters the shed and something ambiguous happens that might or might not involve the axe. Rosalie falls down, her face bloody. Alicianne also falls down, her own face covered with blood. Alicianne gets up and wanders out of the shed to the car, where the morning sun is rising.

The End

The climax of The Child is rightly lauded by some perceptive critics, but it is the film's adamant refusal to explain anything that truly makes it a classic. Unlike the pesticide of The Grapes of Death and the pesticide of The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, there is no indication of why the living dead rise from the grave to befriend Rosalie. Perhaps the reason lies in the contention that Rosalie's father killed her mother, and Rosalie's anger is so strong that her mind is controlling the corpses in the cemetery. Or perhaps the omnipresent oil drilling is pumping something into the ground that causes the dead in the nearby cemetery to rise, and to be amenable to the emotions of the nearest 10-year-old girl. Whatever the case, the film shines due to its lack of interest in explaining its terrifying situation.

Another fascinating ambiguity in The Child concerns the time period in which it is set. Based on the cars driven in the film, the story appears to take place in the 1930s or 1940s. However, the houses clearly have ducts for central air conditioning and heating, which I believe did not become common until the 1970s. Movies set in ambiguous time periods are always fascinating, and this is yet another element Robert Voskanian has added to his masterpiece that makes it a classic.

Finally, I must point out that the name of the film's production manager/assistant director is Smith Johnson. Is there a more perfect name in the history of film? I think not.