Who Can Kill A Child? (Serrador, 1976)

I’m on a shoot in NJ, so these blog posts might be few and far between for the next three weeks.  Luckily I got a chance to watch Who Can Kill A Child tonight.  This is one of the better horror films I’ve seen in a long time.  Kind of like The Wicker Man meets Village of the Damned.

Two British tourists – Tom (Lewis Fiander) and his pregnant wife Evelyn (Prunella Ransome) visit the small island of Almoranza for vacation.  The island is deserted and, as they gradually uncover a few adult bodies, they realize that the many children populating the area have gone insane and are killing the adults.

I frequently hear Who Can Kill A Child (WCKC) referred to as a giallo.  I’m curious why.  Director Serrador’s earlier film, The House That Screamed, is maybe, from its description (I haven’t seen it) closer to that genre, but there’s so much about WCKC that is counter to that run of slasher films.  For one, it’s not a slasher.  I understand that depending on what country you’re from (Italy or outside of Italy in this case) a giallo can have a different country of origin – those outside of Italy frequently refer only to the run of 60s-70s Italian slashers as such and Italians apparently encompass and embrace international contributions as well.  The fact then that WCKC is a Spanish production may be a moot point.  But more to that point is that none of the trademarks of any of the classic giallos and giallo directors – Bava, Argento, Fulci, Martino, Avati, Bazzoni – are in here.

Waldo de los Rios’ score, while really quite good, is nowhere near as hyperactive as those in the true giallo classics.  There’s no scratchy-voiced phone call-threatener (though there is a mysterious phone call), no black gloves, bravura camera movement, sullen investigator, piecing together of crime via memory, actual slashing, etc.  The time period – 1976 – is right, as is the fact that it’s a somewhat anomalous film for its time.  Otherwise, chalk this up as straight horror.

Categorization aside, what makes WCKC so great is its atmosphere.  This is really a perfect example of a director taking an average script and making it sing.  Serrador’s direction is based around two major principles: silence and dramatic angles.  Almost the entire second act, and probably all-told about 2/3 of the whole film takes place very quietly.  Diegetic sounds – your classic door creaks, etc – fill the soundtrack, but it’s largely, as Tom notes when they land on the island, simply the sound of the gulls and the water.  It’s not even dramatic punctuation with silence, which I’ve talked about on this blog before.  It’s just dominant silence.  As mentioned, the score certainly plays a role, but the aural component of this film is most effective when Tom and Evelyn are in the hotel and nearby and the wind, their footsteps, a phone ringing, a beaded curtain being parted, a television turning off, are the only sounds we hear.

The dramatic angles – and I should say blocking in general – are also gorgeous.  This is one of the best composed horror films I’ve seen.  Serrador and cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine use deep focus to great effect – children creeping in the background, the physical separation of Tom and Evelyn.  Otherwise, tight close-ups, slightly off-kilter frames, and a lot of nice low angles really punctuate the psychological torment going on here.  An early low angle in the first ten minutes of the film, as Tom and Evelyn pull ashore and children sit on the dock, foreshadows this use, and it comes to a climax when husband and wife are trapped in a small room and being bombarded on all sides.  The close-ups and angles in this section are straight-up Wellesian and the tension builds to a boiling point.

Serrador uses a lot of off-screen action as well, sometimes revealing it, other times not.  A child beating an old man, where the violence is off-screen but the result is shown is an effective example.  A later sequence in a church, featuring a few nice dolly moves, also culminates (one of a few climaxes in just that scene) with a nice low-angle reveal of another body.

One of the best shots in the film is also one of the more chilling camera reveals.  Tom and Evelyn have found an adult on the island.  She’s a mother of four.  She takes them in momentarily and gives them a respite but they leave shortly after.  In their wake she calls to her children who have been joined by a few more.  They ignore her.  She calls again.  No response.  The look on her face drops.  Serrador frames her in close-up and slowly the camera starts to boom down and tilt up.  Even before the reveal of the background the camera movement itself telegraphs terror, making those few seconds of anticipation between beginning of move and payoff that much more worthwhile.  The reveal – that several dozen children are slowly descending the hill behind her – hammers it home.

There’s a pretty noteworthy prologue to the film as well, and several ironies that are related and tossed throughout.  The film, with an unknown narrator, opens on stock footage of various atrocities, including Aushwitz and Vietnam.  Scrolling text announces the death toll, and the images focus mostly on dying, mutilated children.  It’s almost something you’d expect to begin an exploitation film in the Mondo Cane vein.  What it does instead is set up a kind of societal/inherited revenge system, that ties in Evelyn’s pregnancy and Tom’s reluctance to have a third child along the way.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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