Tuesday, December 11, 2012
WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Who Can Kill a Child?
Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s controversial and disturbing 1976 offering is also known as ‘Death is Child’s Play’ and ‘Island of the Damned’ – the latter quite apposite since there’s more than a touch of ‘Village of the Damned’ in the film’s aesthetic. In fact, I’d be tempted to describe it as the juvenile delinquent offspring of ‘Village of the Damned’ and ‘Island of Death’, except that Nico Mastorakis’s slab of venality wasn’t released until a year after Serrador’s infinitely better movie.
Besides, the original title – a literal translation from ‘¿Quién puede matar a un niño?’ – is the most fitting. It sounds rhetorical at first but, as English tourists Tom (Lewis Fiander) and his heavily pregnant wife Evelyn (Prunella Ransome) encounter ever more disturbing behaviour among the children of an isolated island off the Spanish coast, it’s revealed as the reluctantly arrived at answer to an equally disturbing question, i.e. how the horrific events they uncover could have happened.
As regards the why … well, that’s what makes the film so disconcerting.
‘Who Can Kill a Child?’ opens with an eight-minute sequence during which blood-red credits in scrawly handwriting play out over stock footage of the atrocities of Auschwitz, starvation in Pakistan, children dying in Korea, and that shockingly unforgettable image of Vietnam: the girl running naked and crying down the middle of a road. In measured voiceover, these human rights violations are described in the context of their cost in children’s lives. The voiceover is intermittently interrupted by children’s voices singing a wordless babyish song then breaking off to giggle. It’s an unsettling opening, not least for being so protracted. It had me wondering if Serrador wasn’t being somewhat questionable in his aesthetic. But at that point, I was merely expecting a cheap exploitation movie.
The archive footage is immediately superseded by the image of a crowded beach; corpulent adults, pudgy children and lithe adolescents merge into a crush of holidaymakers concern only about their tan or their swim. The contrast couldn’t be greater. The camera follows a child into the water. A body is floating face down. Turned over, it’s a woman, a huge discoloured bruise on her face. Tom and Evelyn quit the beach as the ambulance turns up. Later, walking through the resort at night, every bar packed to standing room only and a seedy atmosphere prevalent, they decide to hire a boat and cross to a small island where they can enjoy some peace and quiet. Bad move.
On the boat, Evelyn notes that the noises from the mainland have faded away, but she can’t hear a single thing from the island – it’s as if it’s deserted. Tying up at the small harbour, a few children watch them. Going inland, the streets, houses, cafes, bars and hotels are empty. The very lack of sound seems almost discordant. The heat is oppressive. Evelyn feels unwell. Tom becomes increasingly edgy. Prowling a shop for food, he doesn’t notice a corpse stretched out behind a stack of goods. Weird little incidents occur. Evelyn’s encounter with a pre-teenage girl is creepy in a way it’s hard to define. Indeed, much of the first half relies entirely on the emptiness of the locale and the not-quite-right expressions on the children’s faces to create an unsettling atmosphere. When Serrador plays his first card and shows the children doing something that is at once utterly reprehensible and nothing more than a game, it’s over 50 minutes into the film. Slow-burn is an understatement. There are, in fact, a myriad of minutiae which seem, on first viewing, like padding … but which take on a deeper significance by the end of the film.
Tom and Evelyn encounter only a few other adults on the island: an old man who is quickly incapacitated by the children’s vicious ministrations; a middle-aged man who begins to recount the strange happenings but is lured away from the couple’s company by the appearance of his tearful daughter (the strength of his paternal feelings proves his downfall); a fellow vacationer who Tom tries to save, the operative word being “tries” and a two generations of a coast-dwelling family whose own children suddenly become infected by whatever madness has claimed their contemporaries just by making eye contact.
This particular scene, with its suggestion of telepathy or hypnosis, introduces a supernatural element that pulls against the opening credits’ intimation that the children have, as one, turn against the adult world out of a sense of betrayal. This hint of an explanation is introduced much earlier when Tom recounts to Evelyn the episode in Fellini’s ‘La Dolce Vita’ where Steiner (Alain Cuny) kills himself and his two children, speculating that he did it to spare them an intolerable future as they grew up.
Another interpretation – and I can’t claim credit; I came across it on an IMDb message board – focuses on Evelyn’s meeting with the young girl. She introduces herself as “Lourdes”, and since she’s the only one of the children who is given a name, we can only assume it’s for a reason. Lourdes being the spa town in France visited by pilgrims hoping for a vision of the Virgin Mary, the implication is that the children’s behaviour has been influenced (or they’re outright being controlled) by a higher power. I’ve not Juan Jose Plans’s novel – I don’t even know if it exists in an English translation – but I’m informed that it contains a scene where some sort of dust falls from the heavens by way of precipitation.
Serrador wisely allows it to remain an enigma, planting clues and symbols but keeping the narrative free of exposition. As a result, ‘Who Can Kill a Child?’ plays out like a waking nightmare, the more so because you can never quite shake your mind free of those first eight minutes. They eat into your subconscious while the rest of the movie unremittingly twists its barbed hooks in the pit of your stomach.