A look at the shattering 1976 Spanish horror film

I first watched the 1984 Stephen King-penned horror film CHILDREN OF THE CORN with my parents on cable when I was 10 and even at that relatively easy-to-please age, its punch-pulling pedigree was obvious. Here was a film with a shocking enough opening sequence (I especially winced at the bit where the creepy kids pushed the beefy chap’s knuckles into the blender) and with a pair of solid enough lead actors in Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton and propelled by the grim concept of small town kids locked on murdering everyone over 18. But the film was utterly undone by juxtaposing the eeriness of the killer tots with an inner look at their religion and societal structure and was totally torpedoed by an FX heavy ending complete with a silly corn-creeping demon.

It’s understandable that CHILDREN OF THE CORN shrugged and sunk its inherent horror deep into the weeds because, well, that’s kinda what American horror movies did in the 1980s. This is not to necessarily dismiss 80’s American horror films outright, because I generally like them for what they are – lighter in tone, conventional, accessible and slick. But a movie about kids killing their parents and all adults within their sight-line needs to cut deeper to the bone. It needs to have the courage of its convictions. King’s own original short story played with suggestion and shadow to unnerve effectively. The film adaptation aimed to wrap the terror up with a tidy bow to please the multiplex set. The result is a picture that is neither fish nor fowl.

But nearly a decade prior, Spanish director Narcisco Ibanez Serrador tapped into the visceral, primordial horror of those who nature has designed us to protect rebelling against us instead (and cutting our throats) with his 1976 Spanish masterpiece WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? And where the King film’s mission to freak-us-out flopped, Serrador’s nihilistic shocker succeeds. This movie – even in its shorter, more direct US cut ISLAND OF THE DAMNED – is truly one of the most savage and upsetting movies that the genre has ever offered and yet – despite its sensational subject matter – it’s anything but an exploitation film. Recently released in an impressively thorough and meticulously remastered Blu-ray edition from Mondo Macabro, WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? is a somewhat obscure-on-these-shores dose of mature, unsparing horror that demands as much attention as possible.

The film stars Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome star as Tom And Evelyn, a British couple who are celebrating the impending birth of their third child by leaving their other two kids at home and whisking themselves off to the Spanish coast for a sun-soaked holiday. Escaping the mainland, the pair rent a small boat and drive off to the tiny, remote island Almanzora and soon discover that, while beautiful, the isle is virtually abandoned…that is, save for a horde of children. These wide-eyed moppets unnerve our heroes instantly, staring and them wordlessly and often breaking into manic giggling. When Tom witnesses one little girl bludgeon an old man to death and later sees a dozen of them using his corpse as a gory pinata, he breathes past his nausea and begins to conclude that something is dreadfully wrong. Wrong with island and wrong with these fresh-faced little boys and girls, all of whom seem to be on a perverse crusade to sadistically torture and violently butcher every adult they encounter. As Tom and Evelyn try to leave the island, the blood-lusting brood block them and every turn leading to a shattering, disturbing climax that you won’t soon forget.

On the surface, making children into monsters and forcing adult heroes to defensively slaughter them seems an easy mark. Horror movies are bought and sold on shattering societal taboos, after all. But Serrador is operating on an entirely different level. In the original Spanish and English cuts present on this release (the US cut is also here), Serrador treats us to a stomach-churning “mondo” style documentary that plays over the slowly unspooling opening credits. In it, the director employs a sickening wave of real 16mm footage of children being experimented on and murdered and dumped into mass graves by their Nazi tormentors, shots of juvenile Korean war survivors shambling through wreckage and the effects of nerve gas on kids during Vietnam. While damn-near impossible to watch, this opening is Serrador’s way of offering an allegorical explanation of the horrors to come. Here, he suggests that although we pride ourselves on being a species that protects and nurtures our children, we have a long, ignoble history of betraying trust and inflicting legacies of pain upon our offspring, of playing our “games without frontiers” and crushing our innocent successors in the process. And naturally, as pain begets pain, the cycle inevitably will continue.

Except here, whatever madness or virus has these children in its grip (refreshingly, nothing is explained, though it’s clear the impulse to murder is spread through the children by eye-contact or touch) is a break in the cycle of pain. These kids do not kill each other. They mourn when one of their brethren falls. They are a kind of hive-minded new species that is driven to enact a kind of rough justice on the generations that came before them. In the 1975 sci-fi/horror classic SHIVERS, director David Cronenberg has said of the phallic sex-parasites that tear through their hosts, turning them into Freudian ID-fueled maniacs, that they are in fact the “heroes”, wiping out the “old” to make way for the “new”. I think that same philosophy can be applied to WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? The killer kids have but one purpose and that is to completely wipe the slate clean of the human beings that bore them, thus inheriting the earth and breeding a new master race, one that sticks together. On that tip there’s just as much social parable here than there is in George A. Romero’s zombie films. In fact, Serrador’s film pre-dates Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, the film that first hammered home the idea of the dead as a new race inheriting the earth, by two years.

In lesser hands, WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? would be cold, cruel and pointless. But it’s not. There’s a real poetry here and it’s anchored by the lead actors’ deft performances. Serrador takes enough time with the first half of the the film to allow us to get to know them, to care about them, to emotionally invest in their doomed plight. And as the picture downspirals hard and fast into the unthinkable, we feel – along with revulsion, shock and terror – deeply, profoundly sad, a response that is accentuated by Serrador’s THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED composer Waldo de los Rios’ dark, dissonant, delicate and moody score.

WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? is an exceptional and essential genre film.  Once you see it, you will never shake it. Ever.

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