Friday, March 25, 2016

Children, The (1980)

... aka: Abrazo mortal (Mortal Hugs)
... aka: Children of Ravensback, The
... aka: De si gentils petits... monstres! (So Sweet, Little.... Monsters!)
... aka: Toxicke deti (Toxic Children)

Directed by:
Max Kalmanowicz

The killer kid movie has been a genre staple for quite some time now. The ball first got rolling back in 1956 with the classic The Bad Seed. Based on Maxwell Anderson's successful stage play, the film focuses on blonde-haired, blue-eyed 8-year-old Rhoda Penmark, a cute and spunky pig-tailed moppet who also happens to be a cold-blooded, calculating little murderess. Because the original film allowed Rhoda to get away with her crimes (and resulted in the death of her mother), censors demanded the end be changed to punish the little psycho via divine intervention (a random lightning strike). The next notable film in this category was Village of the Damned (1960), with its legion of creepy, emotionless, blonde-haired alien kids causing havoc in a small British village being a popular enough concept to result in the sequel Children of the Damned three years later. The brilliant Henry James adaptation The Innocents (1961) focused on a repressed governess (Deborah Kerr) who believes the two young children in her care are possessed by spirits. LORD OF THE FLIES (1963) depicted the level of savagery a group of young boys could be reduced to when stranded on an island and left to their own devises. Numerous other popular films in the 60s carried on the killer / evil kid theme, most notably the stylish ghost tale Kill Baby Kill (1966), Mia Farrow's creepy pregnancy in ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) and the trowel-wielding zombie girl in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), but the real explosion of these kind of movies happened the following decade.

Though there were numerous other examples prior to its release, it was The Exorcist (1973) and its famous depiction of cherubic little Linda Blair being possessed by a foul-mouthed demon that launched a whole spate of similar films hoping to shock audiences with "innocent" children doing all kinds of horrible things. Excluding the numerous Exorcist copies primarily produced in Europe over the next few years, Larry Cohen gave us IT'S ALIVE (1974), which involves a mutant infant that begins its killing spree right out of the womb. That same year, the one-of-a-kind DEVIL TIMES FIVE (1974) mixed drive-in exploitation with the killer kid theme to surprisingly good results. Soon after there was ALICE, SWEET ALICE (1976), which laid suspicion on a series of brutal murders on a young, disturbed Catholic schoolgirl, WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? (1976), which featured a whole island full of killer children, and The Omen (1976), a huge hit that centered around the 5-year-old Antichrist and was followed by a whole bunch of sequels (plus an awful remake). Other 70s releases featuring killer kiddies of note included the TV movies ALL THE KIND STRANGERS and Bad Ronald (both 1974), THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE (1976), Audrey Rose, CATHY'S CURSE, THE CHILD (all 1977), Halloween (1978), The Brood, Salem's Lot and THE VISITOR (all 1979).

Things didn't slow down one bit in the 80s with The Godsend (1980), The Appointment, Bloody Birthday, Kiss Daddy Goodbye, NightmareThe Pit (all 1981), Don't Go to Sleep, Trick or Treats (both 1982), Children of the Corn (1984) and numerous others. All the 90s and 2000s have proven is that they are never going to stop making these things. It's gotten to the point now where it's hard to even watch a horror film (especially ones dealing with ghosts or the supernatural) without it including some glum, precocious little pasty-faced "creepy" child. The Children pretty much mixes up what went down in Village of the Damned with a dash of Night of the Living Dead's killer zombie child, but this low-budget offering at least offers up an amusing twist to the standard formula.

Worried about not getting paid for overtime, a couple of construction workers leave their job investigating pressure drops at a nuclear generating facility a bit prematurely. There's a leak, a cloud of toxic smoke forms and then is blown off by the wind to the small town of Ravensback. A school bus with five children on board end up driving right through the cloud. Soon after, Sheriff Billy Hart (Gil Rogers) stumbles upon the bus abandoned by an old cemetery with the motor still running but neither the driver nor any of the children are anywhere to be found. He then goes to ask the parents (most of whom seem curiously unconcerned) if any of their young'uns have made it home. With a resounding no from pretty much everyone (one even suggests the driver “took them on an impromptu picnic or something” and finds the prospect of her daughter being kidnapped “exciting”), Sheriff Hart has his dimwitted young Deputy Harry Timmons (Tracy Griswold), who seems mostly interested in getting in his girlfriend Suzie's (Joy Glaccum) pants, put up a roadblock so no car can enter or leave until the mystery is solved. But never fear, the kids finally do show up... except they aren't quite the same when they do.

Because of the poison gas, the kiddies have been transformed into pale, bloodless zombie kids with black fingernails who have the amazing special power to cause anyone they touch to start smoking and essentially burn to death. The epidemic of children lurking around with outstretched arms and smiles on their faces giving deadly hugs soon starts claiming the lives of nearly everyone in town. Seemingly the only parent in the area who even gives a damn, John Freemont (Martin Shakar), teams up with the Sheriff to find out what's going on when his daughter Jenny (Clara Evans) doesn't come home. The two learn this isn't just an isolated incident in their small town but is happening all over the Tri State area. The kids eventually trap both men, plus John's very pregnant wife Cathy (Gale Garnett), who gets so stressed out, she takes a drag off a cigarette, pats her stomach and apologizes to he unborn baby (!) and their little (unaffected) boy, inside.

A very dumb but pretty memorable low-budget film, this has lots of unintentionally funny / corny dialogue that makes the otherwise OK cast look bad and drags in the middle with a bunch of repetitive and off-screen kills, but the premise remains a lot of fun and there are both laughs and a few mildly creepy bits. Most hilarious of all (well, if you have a certain sense of humor) are scenes with the surviving adults shooting the little monsters with a shotgun from the window and the big finale where our heroes run around armed with an axe and sword dismembering the combustible kiddies (the only way to kill them) right and left! They even throw in an amusing, albeit predictable, little twist at the very end.

The cast includes Shannon Bolin as a general store owner and Rita Montone (Maniac) as an airhead mother who goes topless. The music is from Friday the 13th composer Harry Manfredini, who I'm beginning to suspect only actually composed one score during his entire career because all of them sound exactly the same. Co-writer / producer Carlton J. Albright (whose children Sarah and Nathaniel get to play two of the nuclear tykes) and co-writer / associate producer Edward Terry (who also plays a small role as a redneck) later teamed up for Luther the Geek (1990). Both it and this one were released by Troma, whose full-screen “remastered” 25th Anniversary release is pretty much a joke but does contain some good extras like a commentary track from Albright. The extras reveal that this film was also, amazingly enough, the basis for an off-Broadway musical!

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