Elaine and her husband Jonah take their two kids and Elaine’s eldest daughter, Casey, to visit Elaine’s sister Chloe and her husband Robbie, and their two children at their isolated country home over the New Year’s weekend. They’re not even through the front door before Elaine’s son, Paulie, throws up outside. Chalking it up to car sickness, Paulie’s mother shrugs it off, sure that he’s fine and looking forward to having a good time with her family. But as the hours tick by, Paulie begins acting strangely and his bizarre behavior seems to be slowly spreading to the other children. The adults initially pay their behavior no mind, but when the children start exhibiting excessively violent tendencies, they’re forced to face the possibility that something is very wrong with the kids…. That is, assuming they don’t turn on each other first.
The Children, not to be confused with the film of the same name from the 80s, is a British horror/thriller from 2008. The movie follows the fine tradition of other similar “creepy killer children” films seen in the horror genre, by filling the screen with cherub-faced munchkins and then having them stare at everyone menacingly, as if they’d just been promised, and then later denied, their favorite cookie for dessert, and they are now officially done with your lying BS. But while a lot of those films either like to make the kids feel either otherworldly, supernatural, or just flat out turn the tikes into zombies, The Children takes a different approach and explains away the kids behavior as suffering from some kind of disease. It’s a nice change of pace, but despite the excellent use of the creepy kids and fairly solid story, it does manage to fall into a few genre traps that keep it from being awesome.
I gotta give the film credit though, visually at least it’s a lovely production. The movie starts off fairly early with building atmosphere, slowly and subtly building up the creep factor until everything comes to a shocking and disturbing head. Just the cinematography alone is quite impressive. The entire movie is constructed with well-framed shots and stunning vistas showcasing the snowy, desolate isolation, which just makes all the shots of the blood slowly seeping into the white, powdery snow all the more eerie. And I was also rather thankful for the film’s almost complete lack of night time footage. It’s a bit of a rarity in horror films these days, but almost all of the horror happening on screen takes place in well-lit locations. For once I didn’t have to squint at the screen or pause to turn the brightness on my TV up just to see what was going on. It was a wonderful feeling.
Another thing the film does well, at least in the beginning, is that while it’s building up all that tension, it’s also spending that same time establishing it’s characters and their interpersonal relationships. We get to learn all about the adults and their various levels of smugness. We get to learn about teenage Casey and her contempt for her step-father and desire to be elsewhere. But more importantly the film actually spends some time fleshing out the personalities of the younger kids, instead of just treating them like evil, nameless little plot devices. It’s an excellent way to build up the tension, as it lets the viewer clearly see how their personalities are slowly but clearly changing over time, even while their own parents seem blissfully oblivious to it.
But unfortunately, once the first death occurs the film starts to lose all that goodwill by running headlong into familiar horror traps, most of which consist of characters making very stupid decisions. Or really, I suppose I should say, the parents making very stupid decisions, because that description does not extend to Casey, who seems to be the only one who can clearly see what’s going on. The movie attempts to gloss over much of the parents actions by trying to explain away their inexplicable behavior as simply the result of them being in denial, because of course what parent would want to believe that their six-year-old had suddenly become murderous, but that still doesn’t explain away all their choices. It gets so bad that watching them continually screw up takes out all the tension the film was surely aiming for, and instead just becomes frustrating to watch.
To make matters worse, the movie wants to make you feel bad for these people, as if we hadn’t just spent half the film watching their smug display of self-satisfaction with their lives and their child-rearing methods while they let the four younger kids run amok, while simultaneously ignoring the sullen teenager. After one of the parents accidentally kills one of their own kids, even knowing the horrible pain and shock they must be in, you really don’t end up feeling all that bad for them. Because by that point it almost feels like a foreseeable outcome after they’d spent close to an hour letting the kids run around and do whatever they wanted. Hell, even before anyone dies, one of the kids quite literally cuts their father with a knife, intentionally, and all the adults just let the boy run off to play, consequence free. No one even bothers to take the knife from him. It was like they were all but asking for a tragedy. So when one of the adults finally gets killed, their behavior and their actions leading up to that makes it hard to feel too bad for them, especially when it’s clear that they could obviously have overtaken the little snots if they’d wanted to, knife or no knife. I mean, come on. They’re all less than 10. The disease only made them malicious, it didn’t give them any powers, super strength or make them unkillable machines. They’re still just a handful of small kids. It wouldn’t have been that hard to knock them out, disarm them and tie them up.
I mean, seriously. One good swift kick to the face would have taken them out.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum is Casey, who seems to be the only one willing to even try to fend off the little brats. At least when it comes to Casey, the movie does a much better job of making her a sympathetic character. It starts off treating her as the typical sullen, rebellious teenager, but once things start going south, Casey’s true colors emerge and she nixes all her plans of sneaking away for a few hours and does her best to try to protect the rest of the family from the malicious little miscreants. And she does a damn fine job of it, too, easily shoving the kids or kicking them away, all while the adults essentially stand around with blank expressions and drool oozing out their mouths. The girl is clearly a Walking Dead or survival horror fan, and knows what’s up. Only problem is, the adults are so blind to what’s happening right in front of their eyes, that they fail to realize the significance of her actions and end up blaming Casey for everything that’s going on. Because when it comes to the sport of mental gymnastics, it’s much easier to deflect blame from the offending party and onto the defiant teen than it is to believe that the screaming kid coming at you with a pair of bloody scissors could ever do you any harm. It’s like the ultimate form of denial and scapegoating.
Sure, my kids just tried to kill me, but somehow this is all YOUR FAULT!
In the end, I still ended up liking The Children, but not as much as I’d hoped I would after reading so many glowing recommendations. It’s a fine movie to be sure. It looks and sounds lovely, and the effects are intense and bloody without being too graphic, which fits perfectly with a lower budget film such as this. Even the acting is impressive, especially coming from the younger cast members. But parts of the end and the lack of believable logic coming from the adults just ends causing more frustration than tension. There’s only so much that can be explained away by “extreme circumstances.” After that things just start to become annoying. But if you can overlook some questionable leaps of logic and some obnoxiously puffed-up parenting, then this could be a fun winter-themed horror/thriller to add to your watch-list.
The Children is available on a variety of streaming services.
It is also available on DVD and Bluray.