I had never heard of director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador until I read an interview with director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) sometime late last year in which he discussed some of his own personal favorites when it came to the horror genre. The title of the movie in question didn’t ring any bells either, which was somewhat unexpected given the amount of love he heaped on it; I wondered how I never heard of it, primarily since I had been exploring horror films heavily over the last year. A quick online search showed that Who Can Kill a Child? had been next to impossible to locate in the States until a DVD was released via Dark Sky Films back in 2007. Further research showed that the film had distribution issues in other countries outside of my own; apparently, it took close to 40 years for the film to get a proper release in the United Kingdom, and when it finally came out, the movie had various titles, ranging from Island of the Damned to Would You Kill a Child?, oftentimes with its content heavily edited. Soon thereafter, I brought the film up to the resident horror expert here at Film’s Okay (I Guess), Adam Baldwin, and had a conversation sprinkled with laudatory comments seemingly confirming the greatness of the cult title, and making it abundantly clear that I needed to track the film down and watch it.
Let me go ahead and get this out of the way: Who Can Kill a Child? is not for everyone. If the title scares you a little, I can promise you that the unpleasantness the namesake brings you is only a tiny fraction of what you will come to endure in its 1 hour and 51 minute runtime. Any doubt that the film isn’t for the faint of heart or weak of stomach is laid to rest during the opening credits as the director treats his audience to 8 long, horrifying minutes of newsreel footage from around the world, documenting historical events in which children suffered greatly due to the hubris of adults. Juvenile victims are shown from the Korean and India-Pakistan wars—areas where napalm scars and malnutrition are commonplace—hell, even Auschwitz makes an appearance, with bulldozers filling holes in the earth with human remains. When friends or acquaintances ask me how I can watch violent films, oftentimes I reply by saying that I know what I am viewing is fake, which allows me to distance myself from the images I’m taking in. No matter how gruesome the action gets, I always know that the blood is from a squib, or sadly, in this day and age, a terribly rendered computer effect. Conversely, I can’t bring myself to watch those shows on the Discovery channel that show people being operated on. That’s too real and the sight of someone cutting flesh—even for medical purposes—makes me cringe and walk out of the room in a rapid fashion. I tell you this so you have some idea of how hard this opening was for me to watch; most of the time, I had to focus on the credits, never before had I been more interested in who the executive producers on a film were. That being said, the opening is tremendously effective, especially when taking into account the soundtrack accompanying the images is nothing more than children laughing and playing, unquestionably the most haunted lullaby to ever hit this set of eardrums. The tone had been set; would the movie be able to live up to it?
Tom (Lewis Fiander) and Evelyn (Prunella Ransome) are a likeable English couple that decides to take a vacation in Spain—she is 6 months pregnant with their third child and he is a professor of biology. The pair have come to the town of Benivas in hopes to rent a boat and set out for the island of Almanzora for some much needed R&R. Their destination is remote—its 4 hours by boat—a paradise where beaches are free of the sea of bodies that greeted them in Benivas. Most tourists choose not to visit the island, making it a popular choice for duo like Tom and Evelyn, wishing to take part in a secluded getaway. On their approach, the island appears to be practically deserted; only children are seen, laughing and playing on the docks, but it becomes apparent that they are on edge when they see the couple exit their boat. Tom, having been to the island before, remembers that most of the town goes to the other side of the island around this time of year to participate in a fiesta, so they assume nothing is amiss, choosing to ignore the mischievous smiles and, in some cases, icy stares from the children. Once they make their way to the interior of the town, the husband and wife find not only the stores and hotels empty, but the streets as well. Suspicions begin to rise and are confirmed minutes later when they witness a heinous and violent act perpetrated by a young girl when she mercilessly beats an old man with his own walking stick. Panic begins to set it. With the entry point to the island blocked off by demonic children, the pair must find an alternate route of escape, all the while avoiding kids who wish nothing more than to play their twisted games with them.
What follows their discovery is shocking and unexpected, leading up to a climax that answers the question posed in the film’s title without wimping out one iota. Serrador takes the “killer kid” genre—one that typical is weighed down by cheese—and plays the situation straight, eliminating the guilty pleasure aspect typically associated with this style of film, helping it stand along side The Omen and Eden Lake as the best this cinema niche has to offer. It tackles its chosen theme head-on and examines the morality of defending oneself against children in a violent manner. It should come as no surprise, but several characters remain unable or unwilling to raise their arms in a manner that would hurt or kill a child, even if the child in question is coming at them with a sharp pointy object and their lives are, without a doubt, in mortal danger. And this is what makes the movie work; after all, this is something that most good (maybe even bad—even the most hardened of criminals mention a certain code they live by, and harming kids is a regular tenant) citizens can relate to, few of us would ever wish to hurt a kid, no matter the circumstance. This helps to make the climax of Serrador’s film all the more chilling, heightened by the fact that the audience never gets an explanation as to why the children started to behave in such a fashion in the first place, it’s all left up to our imaginations. Much like Hitchcock’s The Birds or Romero’s Night of the Dead, Who Can Kill a Child? stands as a benchmark in the unexplained horror genre.
Technically speaking, Who Can Kill a Child? is extraordinary. The pacing of the film may turn some viewers off, but those who are patient will be rewarded by a film that knows which strings to pull when, creating a slow build in tension that becomes almost unbearable. The performances are top notch all across the board. The actors look uncomfortably hot throughout, sweating profusely under the hot Mediterranean sun, and the cinematography from José Luis Alcaine (Pedro Almodóvar’s regular DP) is beautiful and captures the sun-drenched Spanish locales in a way that enhances the isolation the characters feel and the script calls for. Serrador made the wise decision to shoot the film on location using all natural lighting, helping to turn his film into a memorable daylight horror effort as well. The movie itself still feels modern outside of a few dated fashion choices and the technology on the island, while archaic, fits since most of the story takes place in a corner of the world that would certainly be behind the times when it comes to modern conveniences.
Serrador made only one other horror film, La Residencia, a.k.a. The House that Screamed, which is also reported to be fantastic. I suppose I will need to track that one down now as the cinematic voice on display in Who Can Kill a Child? is impressive and warrants further investigation into the director’s filmography. This underseen gem is (at long last) starting to bust through the cinema underground with famous directors such as Eli Roth, Quentin Tarantino, Alfonso Cuarón, and Guillermo Del Toro singing its praises whenever they get the chance. A shattering exercise in tension, Serrador’s uncompromising effort stands as one of the best horror films of the ‘70s, not an easy list to crack. Here’s to hoping it finally gets the recognition it deserves.