The Children DVD review

Tom Shankland's British horror movie, The Children, deserves to shoot right to the top of your to-view list...

The Children

I’ve been trying to write this review off and on for four days now. Arranging and rearranging paragraphs dealing with plot, characters and acting before sighing, hitting the close button on Word and admitting that, no, I don’t want to save that last hour of work.

My problem is that The Children, a British horror film from Tom Shankland, is amazing. At the same time I can understand why many people will disagree. Actually, that’s not my problem. My problem is that I don’t care about any of these potential objections. This makes it impossible to shoehorn The Children into a typical review format, because the criticism isn’t balanced by praise, but rather eulogy. I’m also acutely aware that my passion for it derives from the fact that it hits every one of my soft spots: the twisting of the everyday, the terror of isolation, the insidious effects of doubt and distrust. So let me put this out there immediately. This isn’t a balanced review. This is a sermon. Please be seated. Let us begin.

It’s Christmas and Elaine arrives at her sister’s idyllic countryside home with the family in tow. The youngest child is throwing up, but the adults are too wrapped up comparing lives to notice that this illness is turning their beloved offspring against them and that it’s spreading. Only rebellious teenager Casey has any idea of the murderous inclinations building within the eight-year-olds, but she’s busy flirting with Uncle Robbie and trying to ditch the family for another party.

Children turning on adults is a familiar premise, but don’t let anybody use this as a criticism. It is the gradual warping of the familiar that provides the film with its constant sense of menace. The children’s descent into violence begins with the lashing out, crying and grabbing that are the hallmarks of play at that age. What makes these kids terrifying is not that they’re murderous, but rather that, even at their worst, they’re still driven by the same impulses that drive most children. They’re violent, manipulative, immoral, impulsive, spiteful and acquisitive. In other words, just children with the handbrakes off.

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This tactic of twisting the ordinary into something sinister permeates every aspect of the film. A child’s vomit stops being a symptom of overexcitement and becomes a warning that the disease has claimed another soul. When the adorable Leah demands the adults stay out of her play tent, it’s delivered as a whine and arrives with the force of a death sentence. The crying, the laughing, even the toys – every single piece of this film is imbued with menace as the tone darkens.

Even the backdrop plays a part. Shankland’s decision to frame events against a winter wonderland is inspired. The camera lingers on melting icicles and sleds at the bottom of snowy hills. Every frame is beautiful and reassuring and completely at odds with the unfolding terror, which makes for the visual equivalent of chewing on cotton wool.

The vast stretches of bland white snow also serve to throw the children – bedecked in bright winter clothes – into sharp relief, furthering the impression of alien intelligence behind those empty eyes. This last line is a testament to the acting on display. The children are excellent, though, eerily, they get better the further they sink into blank-faced spite. The pick of the bunch is Hannah Tointon, who plays Casey, the beautiful teenage girl whose burgeoning adult indifference makes way for childish ruthlessness when her life is threatened.

This transition is made all the more shocking because The Children is as brutal a piece of modern-day filmmaking as I’ve seen. Scalps are torn off, earnings ripped out, pencils stabbed into eyes and necks driven onto spikes. The violence is horrific and yet, unlike Saw or Hostel, never voyeuristic. A compound fracture or icicle through the head is never dwelled upon, nor do The children ever take any pleasure in what they’re doing. They don’t smile, or show any interest in the suffering they’re inflicting. They just want the adults dead and, wisely, the film never offers an explicit motivation for this, beyond a sense that their rage is being driven by the underlying tensions that run rampant through the families.

And don’t think the children are spared this violence. In this film everyone suffers, even the audience. At one point I was shocked by how much I wanted one of the children dead. That’s not a pleasant place to find yourself and Shankland knows it. While the children give the parents every reason to kill them, it’s never reduced to an easy decision – a fact which ultimately causes them to blame the more disagreeable Casey for the carnage, rather than accept the evidence in front of their faces.

I like this film, possibly more than I’ve liked any film in a very long time. In saying that, it undoubtedly has enough flaws for other, more rational, reviewers to kick it down a few stars. It liberally plunders from The Omen, The Brood, The Exorcist and The Innocents, which could be used as evidence that The Children is derivative. The adults are largely forgettable and there are holes and questions and qualms throughout. No doubt these things would trouble those other, more rational, reviewers, but then they’d run off and slap the next mediocre summer blockbuster with six stars, so sod them.

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The Children is scary. It’s well made, well thought out and well acted. It moves with the pace of a sled picking up speed down a hill, and I’ve never wanted to look away and tell myself it’s just a movie more in recent years.

The twisting of the everyday, the terror of isolation, the insidious effects of doubt and distrust. These may be personal soft spots, but they’re also some of the very best reasons to watch films, and for that reason The Children deserves a eulogy.

Extras The DVD arrives packed with additional goodies. The pick of the bunch is most certainly The Making of The Children which throws together on-site cast and crew interviews, special effect walkthroughs as well as a few of the trials and tribulations of filming. Everyone’s consistently entertaining, and it’s quite creepy to watch the adorable kids turn into sociopaths before your eyes.

This is reinforced by the Working With Children featurette, which takes the old adage about never working with kids and blows it out of the water. There’s also a few tips about getting kids to cry on cue and how to make two children advancing up the stairs terrifying.

The rest of the specials are generally focused on areas covered briefly in the above two features. To that end, there’s a section dealing specifically with the work that went into the gruesome prosthetics found throughout the movies. Location scouting and how they created snow out of thin air, and Tom Shankland’s lair – in which he runs through some of his inspiration for the movie. All of which are interesting and well worth a visit.

Rounding it all out are the three deleted scenes, all of which were wisely cut. This particularly holds true for the extended ending, which strips away some of the original cut’s ambiguity, destroying it completely. Hoorah for the editing process.

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5 stars

Rating:

5 out of 5