Kids! You never really know what they’ll do, especially when
you fool yourself into thinking that you do. We can say we did our best, but there is no such thing as a perfect parent...so, what if our kids one day decided to take revenge on us for grievances both large and small, even for mistakes we didn't realize we made? And what if it could happen in an instant, before we even have time to react?
This is the nightmare scenario of 1980 independent regional freakout “The
Children”, a grisly flick that gives us an epidemic of mutant children who are suddenly transformed into deadly, smiling monsters. They seem relatively normal at first, at least when we glimpse them briefly
during a bus ride home from school. But then the bus they’re riding in passes
through a cloud of noxious yellow gas, the result of a leakage at the local
nuclear power plant. The bus is found abandoned on the side of the road, and it
takes the townspeople far too long to realize that the children have been
transformed into grinning, pallid zombies with black fingernails, now
possessing the ability to fry a human being alive in a matter of seconds just
by making contact with their hands. Just as contemporary counterpart “Friday
the 13th” featured a mother’s maternal devotion as a motivation for
hideous murders, “The Children” presents parental love for children as a source
of unimaginable death.
|"Ohhh I'm SO happy to see the children, and |
nothing seems weird about this at all!"
Just slightly more outlandish than “Ft13th”
depicts a small New England town called Ravensback that serves as an
unlikely snapshot of the changing family dynamic.
Although on the surface they carry on as
respectable people, the adults in the movie are incompetents who bring harm to
children, usually without even knowing they are doing so. The first two men we
see are workers at a nuclear power plant, and their recklessness is what causes
the whole ordeal in the first place; without any respect for the enormous
responsibility associated with maintaining a nuclear facility, they decide to
cut short their service call and head for a local bar, allowing a malfunction
to occur. A thick cloud of yellow gas results, engulfing the countryside until
it drifts into the path of an oncoming school bus.
Our female lead, Cathy Freemont (Gale
Garnett), is driving alongside the bus, and she too passes right through the
toxic cloud, zooming ahead of the school bus.
This becomes important later in the story, when we learn
that Cathy is pregnant and that the effects of the gas are only applicable to
children, but it’s also indicative of the script’s underlying message: things
that seem inconsequential to adults are likely to affect children for the worse,
and the adults are oblivious. The five children who were on the school bus represent
five local families. Cathy and her husband, John (Martin Shakar from “Saturday
Night Fever”), have two other kids, early teen Jenny (Clara Evans) and younger
Clarkie (Jessie Abrams). Clarkie avoids being turned into a zombie by staying
home from school that day, but Jenny is one of the cursed five. When Jenny and the other kids don’t come
home, sheriff Billy Hart (Gil Rogers) responds to the growing concern about the
Hart visits the first of the affected families, Dr. Joyce
Gould, who lives with her female partner Leslie Button (Suzanne Barnes) and
Leslie’s young son, Tommy (Nathaneal Albright). Joyce is a caricature of a
man-hating lesbian, berating the sheriff even as he does his best to figure out
what is happening. She also keeps Leslie nice and stoned on codeine, and
instead of Leslie, she is the one who goes to find out what happened to
Tommy. After parting ways with the
sheriff, she is lured into the nearby cemetery when she catches a glimpse of
Tommy. Joyce discovers the hideously charred corpse of what was once the school
bus driver, and when Tommy suddenly emerges from behind a tombstone and Joyce
sweeps him into a reassuring embrace, she is reduced to a smoldering pile of
charred flesh and bones in a matter of seconds.
This, true believers, is the awesome power of…The Children!
|Proof of the goth aesthetic infiltrating society in 1980.|
Another family in Ravensback contains an alcoholic wife and
her enabling husband, who are waiting on the return of their daughter, Ellen.
She does come back home, fries her mother alive on the front porch, and then
presumably does the same thing to her panicked father when she chases him into
the house. A third couple are presented as self-obsessed snobs who couldn’t
care less about the fact that their young daughter Janet is missing; the mother
smokes pot by the pool while entertaining her effeminate pimp of a houseguest,
and seems to think the idea of her daughter’s disappearance is “exciting”. These people are all punished, of course, by
being burned alive—their deaths occur offscreen, but the sheriff stumbles upon
the scene later in the film and notices that they were making a dinner of
lobsters, which of course involves boiling the creatures alive. Poetic justice has been served!
|Some mothers just have to play the martyr, don't they?|
Even though John and Cathy Freemont are the protagonists in
the film, they are just as flawed as the other parents in the town.
Not only does Cathy zoom right past a school
bus in her car, but once the shit hits the fan in Ravensback, there’s a scene
where she is too stressed out to resist smoking a cigarette, during which she
speaks directly to her very pregnant belly and says “Sorry”.
John is cloddish to the extreme, even though
he emerges as the machete-wielding hero.
For the life of me, I can’t explain why he discovers that the town is
being victimized by murderous zombie children, yet refuses to tell his
distressed wife that this is happening.
|"Honey, there's a trail of incinerated corpses from |
the cemetery into town, are you sure nothing's wrong?"
"Just smoke another cigarette."
The family of the fifth zombie child, Paul, is headed by a
stern farmer who seems like the type who could render a good whipping if he
felt the need. There’s also an older sister who is confronted by the newly transformed
Paul and doesn’t even notice that anything is wrong with him. Instead, she starts to berate him for
bothering her, which is a familiar behavior for big brothers and sisters
everywhere. Both she and the father end
up roasted like the others.
Director Max Kalmanowicz racked up most of his IMDB credits
in the sound department, and although he isn’t credited with this task in “The
, it’s interesting that the sound design is one of the most effective
aspects of the movie. The action is bolstered by strange electronic blips and
sighs, and I dare you to forget the weird sounds that the children make when
they are vanquished—the only way to kill them is to cut off their hands, and
when this happens, they emit a hair-raising animal howl as they die.
|"Why did I wait for the table read to look at the script??!"|
I already mentioned “Friday the 13th”, which was
released to theaters almost simultaneously with “The Children”. The two films share
a few things in common, most notably a score by Harry Manfredini. There are a few cues in each film that sound
identical. The two films also share Barry Abrams as the director of
One of the most memorable elements of the movie is the fact
that it depicts the death of kids, something that is still mostly taboo, or
used for extreme dramatic impact. “The
Children”, however, gleefully presents this in as much detail as its budget
allows, which adds to its unsavory atmosphere. The fact that the kids are
zombies could have justified this in the minds of the filmmakers, but that
doesn’t really change the fact that we see some rather extreme cases of the
mutilation of children. A young boy’s hands are cut off on camera, a group of
children are seen cowering in a barn while trying to avoid a man who intends to
hack them to death with a machete, and there’s a scene where the man does just
that very thing to a zombie girl who looks to be about age 9. We also see a 6 year old boy being chased by
a zombie child, and later his parents find his corpse in his bedroom…it’s worth
noting that the filmmakers show a little restraint in the depiction of this
dead little boy, sparing him the grotesque burned/boiled look of the adult
corpses in the film.
|"Tina? Get my agent on the phone, will you?"|
The cheapness of “The Children” and its ridiculous premise, however,
keep it from being taken seriously, which helps soften the blow of making a
movie that contains violence perpetrated by and against kids. Even though most of the action is played with
a straight face, “The Children” contains enough broad humor that it’s clear the
filmmakers were laughing with us. I’m sure a lot of viewers still saw this as
reprehensible even when it came out in 1980, but here is also a movie that is
somehow on the side of its villains. These monster children really are avenging
angels who punish their families, friends and neighbors for crimes that include
polluting their environment, disregarding their well being, and placing the
needs of children secondary to their own selfish interests.