Based on a story by Paul Andrew Williams (The Cottage, London to Brighton) and adapted by writer/director Tom Shankland (The Killing Gene), The Children works extremely well as a subtle mood piece where the utter normalcy of a weekend is shattered by the most unlikely villains - little kiddies who still have affection for their parents, but are driven by a malevolent force to maim them in horrible ways.
The reason for the homicidal streak isn’t clarified – we know it stems from a strange virus that goes airborne one foggy winter night – but the presumption is that it’s the by-product of all the chemical and genetic mucking around from which the host family has tried to shield their kids by living in a remote area of Britain. It’s also clear that its airborne infiltration mean there are other families being affected by the bug, and the weekend killfest is a microcosm of what’s likely happening all over town.
It’s also an assault that no level of technology can prevent, because the attackers are ordinary children and teens – villains that no parent is willing to kill in order to survive. That alone guarantees a completely nihilistic finale, since it involves mothers and fathers killing their offspring like rabid animals.
The kids observe, plot, and execute their plans with banal expressions, and the urge to kill seem to stem from a prolonged state of boredom; instead of intricately plotting a parent’s demise, they’re beset with dissatisfaction, and in the mind of a child, the sudden attack is akin to a loud scream, hurtling a toy against the wall, or a grandly expressive pouting session.
The relative isolation of the estate – cell phones only work near a wood pile – adds to the grim mood, and Shankland creates contrast by first showing the two families laughing, teasing, and being annoyed with each other before the virus starts to boost their aggression, and violence escalates from hits to scratches, head trauma to sadism.
There’s also a bit of dark humour woven into the story, since the host family doesn’t believe in spanking, and good behaviour is rewarded with gold stars on a placard; between the two families, it’s the host that gets the worst of it.
The only way to film such a story was to actually break ground with taboos in British film, and Shankland shows kids inflicting trauma as well as receiving it in equal measure, and that’s something quite startling considering the BBFC’s history during the early years of home video. The mindset of the time was to protect children at all costs, so films clearly aimed at mature audiences were cut or banned just in case the kids might happen to stumble upon them. There is no way The Children would’ve been made twenty years ago, since its dramatic thrust comes from some very dark stuff.
Alliance’s DVD compresses the film and its production featurettes onto a single layer DVD, but the film transfer doesn’t suffer too much. The cinematography by Nanu Segal (Donkey Punch) is first-rate, as is the finely detailed production and set design. The snow effects are completely believable, and Stephen Hilton’s score is a silky mix of electronic textures and chilly discord, much like his first score, Code 46 (2003), co-composed with David Holmes. Just as vital is the superb sound design for the shock stabs and bodily traumas, but the dialogue stems are too quiet at times, making it tough to hear softly spoken dialogue.
Although there’s no audio commentary track nor any details regarding the genesis of the story, the featurettes cover the film’s shooting, the huge estate that served as the primary location, the company that created the snow effects (Snow Business), director Shankland showing his production work room, and working with children.
There’s also a few deleted scenes (including an early reference to what happened to the family cat, and an alternate version of a husband’s break with his wife), and an alternate ending that’s really just a lengthy camera movement revealing more of what we know is already present. The main difference is that it leaves the fate of one character open, as opposed to the existing finale which is more direct.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan