Tonight's movie is "The Child" (1977), an obscure cheapie from exploitation sleazemaster Harry Novak that attempts to merge elements of "Night of the Living Dead" and "Carrie". When I first saw it, I was a little surprised by the fact that a movie that features zombies doesn't spend most of its time dealing with zombies; maybe I was still bitter about the fact that I hated "The Beyond", a non-zombie zombie movie that every horror geek in the whole world except me seems to worship. I simply had to bury my expectations, though. "The Child" is too weird to be called a zombie film, even though it features killer corpses.
"I think I saw the script headed up that way...but you'll never catch up to it now, dear."
Young Alicianne, pretty and vulnerable in the way that any respectable 70s horror heroine should be, arrives to fulfill her new position as the governess of a little girl who has recently lost her mother. Rosalie Nordon lives with her father and older brother in a rambling country home situated next to a forest. A cemetery is also located nearby, the very one in which her mother has been buried, and Rosalie has been making strange nocturnal visits to the graveyard. Alicianne--the way that any respectable 70s horror heroine should--fails to acknowledge that there's something critically loopy about this family. One night at dinner, Mr. Nordon tells a story about how a local pack of boy scouts accidentally used the stem of a poisonous plant to stir their stew and died as a result, laughing about the incident as he imagines the little kids all dead. Rosalie thinks it's pretty funny, too, while older brother Len just looks embarassed and apparently schemes about how he can get Alicianne away from Rosalie for a little "horseback riding". Mmmm hmmm. Rosalie hates everyone, and plots their deaths, usually at the hands of her "friends": zombies that prowl the local woods, and that she has somehow befriended by bringing them kittens to eat. She apparently wants to kill everyone who was at her mother's funeral, since she has a 'hit list' sketch she made of the service and places an X over everyone's face when she kills them. Despite this, the makers of "The Child" have never sued Quentin Tarantino, as far as I know.
But ...but she's got the face of an angel!
The meager scope of "The Child" allows for Rosalie to torment Mrs. Whitfield, after which the zombies rip off the old lady's face. Then Rosalie uses her Carrie-like powers to animate a shotgun and kill the gardner, a seriously underdeveloped character who you will most likely notice for the first time when it's time for him to die. Rosalie also kills her dad, and then sends the zombies after the escaping Alicianne & Len. A final confrontation occurs in an old wooden mill, where Alicianne loses any shred of spunk she ever had and simply stands by screaming uselessly while Len vainly tries to hold off the living dead. She doesn't even try and help when the zombies come for Len, but it's only when her own ass is on the line that she's finally able to pick up an axe and land a death blow right in the middle of Rosalie's head. The breathtaking rampage has finally come to an end!
Maybe this would be a good time to mention how utterly bargain basement this movie is. To say that "The Child" has no budget to speak of would be a serious understatement, and it appears to have been photographed on film stock that the filmmakers found unspooled and buried under a pile of gravel in a supermarket dumpster. Still, many movies manage to be interesting and even glorious in their cheapness. "The Child" seems to have been shot silent and then dubbed in post-production, which could be the main problem with the acting. Especially bad is an old lady character named Mrs. Whitfield who seems to be reading her lines phonetically off of cue cards through a haze of senility.
The biggest thing pulling it in the wrong direction is Rosalie herself. Meant to be evil, her presence in the movie is simply annoying. She scowls, she sneers, she glowers, she shrieks her lines. One of the movie's most memorable moments is when Alicianne promises to teach Rosalie how to make doughnuts, to which Rosalie sneers in a disgusted way, "DOUGH nuts???" Tatum O'Neal she's not. But just try not to smile when Rosalie threatens her father with a zombie attack: "My friends are gonna come and hurt you BOTH! Hurt you BAD!"
Even so, "The Child" is eerie and effective. The low budget ambiance in this film is breathtaking at times, and if it wasn't for the awkward performances, "The Child" would be damn near perfect. The movie creates a bizarre and otherworldly atmosphere. The action takes places in isolated rural locations, especially two large rambling houses. In one of my favorite spooky scenes, Mrs. Whitfield has her dog tied outside at night and it's barking at something. She goes outside to see what's the matter and sees the dog's leash lying there, empty, and suddenly it howls horribly off-camera.
The locations in the film are always interesting, even though they often suffer from a lack of establishing shots. For instance, both of the big houses are filmed from low angles in order to disguise any neighboring homes and add to the sense of isolation. It's actually a good thing in this case, as the houses seem more alien and disconnected because of it. There are also some great sequences where the characters walk through the woods, surrounded by strange landscapes. The claustrophobic quality of having the entire soundtrack dubbed enhances the movie's strong dreamlike effect, particularly in a scene where Alicianne follows Rosalie on one of her nocturnal visits to the cemetery. The scene is shot day-for-night, and not only is it daytime, it was apparently one of the sunniest days in the history of the region. We're never quite sure if this scene is real or simply a dream, but the foggy outdoor set and the swirling camera are very unsettling.
Underdeveloped in the film is the fact that Rosalie is supposed to be telekinetic. The scene where Alicianne meets her for the first time is an awkward attempt to demonstrate it: as Alicianne approaches the sleeping Rosalie's bed, her bedside jack-in-the-box ejects itself unexpectedly--a subtle touch, but so subtle that it slips right by you on first viewing and leaves you confused. Another scene, one of the better ones in the film, has Rosalie tormenting Alicianne with a jack-o-lantern on Halloween, the candle relighting itself in a dark room and following Alicianne all over in the darkness. It's a deliciously spooky thing that you don't usually find in horror movies where peoples faces are hideously mangled. An animated scarecrow is also a freaky touch.
Wow, Rosalie's got some skills in art class, doesn't she?
The presence of zombies in "The Child" seems almost last-minute, like the movie was supposed to be a "Carrie" ripoff and was hastily rewritten with a zombie motif. No matter, the ghouls in the film are actually extremely well-done and the makeup is awesome. They also mean business, causing a few startling mutilations. It's a humble body count, but the gore is nasty and effective. The director fills the movie with fleeting glimpses of the zombies, lurking around trees and lumbering just out of frame in some cases. During the final confrontation, you finally get a good look at them and it was worth the wait.
The ultra-cheap look of the film may turn off a lot of viewers who will see the movie as junk, and that's pretty fair. The music and sound effects are on the level of a Halloween haunted house sound effects album, which you'll either adore or despise. Also a problem is the fact that the movie is supposed to be set in the 1930s; the characters drive some awesome old cars, but the rest of the sets feature a number of anachronisms that you can't help but notice, especially the clothing the characters wear.
"The Child" sure is memorable, considering how obscure it seems to be, and it has more than a few morbid touches that lift it far above other Harry Novak films I've seen. I really dig it.