More horror movies come out per month than I have numbers for. Plot that out over a year and the number of titles becomes sheer cacophony. There is so much mediocrity in the world that a film must be either bolt-of-lightning brilliant or sack-of-hammers stupid to stand out amongst the din. The year is 2009. We've seen all we're going to see, right?
Tom Shankland thinks otherwise. Tom Shankland proves otherwise.
I'm not prepared to declare The Children "bolt-of-lightning brilliant," but it certainly is the most invigorating piece of horror I've seen since [REC]. That may not seem like a ringing endorsement, considering Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza's Spanish powerhouse is barely two years old, but if one considers the hundreds upon hundreds of horror movies that have risen and fallen between the two, I'd call that a pretty strong compliment.
From the title alone one can gleam the conceit behind Shankland's film. No one ever names a movie after the component of the story that goes smoothly. Something is wrong with the children. We don't know what, the movie doesn't know what, but something is going to go wrong with the children.
Set in a relatively isolated house in the woods (though not under improbable circumstances considering the English countryside locale), Shankland and Williams' story focuses on the Christmas reunion of two sisters and their respective families, each with a brood of their own. As explained, the title offers enough explanation as to what is bound to happen than this review should, so I'll avoid breaking down the build-up except to say there are lots of children running around, and one of them seems ... sickly. Carnage of the best degree ensues. End of explanation.
That's not to say the film is without depth. Each of the adults is a fine tuned character plucked from the real world (not unlike the strong, realistic family dynamics that supported Alexandre Aja's The Hills Have Eyes), not a stereotype out of a screenwriting handbook. They have vices and virtues and understandable concerns about their roles and responsibilities as family leaders, which makes their hesitation to battle their weapon-wielding offspring not only believable, but essential to the horror. The Children is more than a story of kids killing adults, it's a scenario that'll play to the "What if?" buttons of any reasonable adult.
Shrouded in a near-perpetual score designed to keep the viewers' senses on edge, The Children keeps the adrenaline on a steady drip with no reliance on misdirection. Though there are a few (perhaps intentionally) jarring narrative road-blocks that are employed to amp the tension up, but that I think the film would have been fine without them. The rest of the movie has some of the best editing one can expect to find in horror these days. The camera never full on shows the child-adult, adult-child violence (as it shouldn't), instead Shankland, no doubt assisted by a mindful editor, unravels scenes with an incredulous sense that nothing can get worse than what's already happened. And yet it does.
What makes The Children so strong is the unerring faith Shankland has placed in an intelligent viewer's ability to extrapolate what is both shown and not shown. Style aside, which brilliantly alternates between sensory deprivation and overload when necessary, all the director need play on are an audience's assumptions based on the title. The suspense then spirals outwards from said basic expectation to unexpected shock. Confidence and a lack of loud, obvious moments bestow the film with an almost meditative quality, one generally found in '70s and '80s horror that went out with the '90s.
Those that want full scale mayhem or even full scale answers to their mayhem need not apply. The Children, like [REC], is solely a 'premise and execution' kind of horror movie, reminding once again that a film need not have a high concept script to be original. Nor, and this is my favorite part, does a horror movie have to turn off the lights to be scary.
Ahhh, horror in broad daylight, gets me every time.