Horror tales generally tap into the fears and anxieties of society and one set of anxieties that are often tapped revolve around children. Evil children, children being menaced in various ways, turned against their parents and adults, contaminated, changed and so on. There is one issue which films which place children in the role of the monster-the relative weakness of children stops them from being direct physical threats. In many films the natural reluctance of adults, especially those who know them, to attack children often serves to equal the odds (Who Would Kill a Child?) and adults are often reluctant to believe a child is evil (The Bad Seed). When this fails, children are given strange powers (the psychic children of The Village of the Damned for instance) or the adults are isolated against a large number of children (such as the protagonists of The Children of the Corn who find themselves in the middle of nowhere in a town ruled by a cult of vicious children). The creators of The Children tackled this problem by giving its title characters a radioactive death hug!
The Children attempts to not only capitalize on our fears and discomfort around children, it also taps into post Three-Mile Island fears of nuclear contamination. The film opens with two careless workers at a nuclear plant deciding that they would rather knock-off early for a beer than double-check their area for leaks-and of course they missed one. When an almost empty (and thus suspiciously budget-conscious) school bus drives through a strange cloud, something happens to the children. By the time Sheriff Billy Heart (Gil Rogers) finds the bus, the children and the driver is gone. While Heart tries to figure things out, the children, looking like zombies with blackened nails, seek out their former family and friends to give them hugs-deadly radioactive hugs! Can Heart figure out what’s happening and warn the town in time to stop the children from hugging everyone to death?
The Children is an extraordinarily silly independent horror film, shot in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. While killer kids movies can often be incredibly creepy and tap into our anxieties, this film more-or-less lazily subs in “radioactive school children” for the birds in The Birds. Although the origin of the attackers is hinted at, exactly how and why radiation turns the kids into slow-moving, pale, death-hugging machines is a mystery, and, as in that film, a small, idyllic, rural community is besieged by what is normally a harmless part of the landscape. The film also goes over-time in going to the -cide well: we get patricide, matricide, fratricide, and infanticide, but with none of the impact, say, of the infamous cellar scene from Night of the Living Dead. While The Children briefly recalls that film in its final act, with Sheriff Heart joining a squabbling married couple, John (Martin Shakar, Invasion U.S.A.) and Cathy Freemont (Gale Garnett, Mad Monster Party?), in defending an isolated farmhouse from assault by the zombie-like children. What The Children leaves out is any real sense of menace-the kids just hang around outside until it’s necessary for them to, say, sneak in and kill the Freemont’s only unaffected child. After several scenes with maximum squabble and minimum tension, Heart and John simply go out and slaughter the kids wholesale (for some reason the only way to kill the kids is to chop off their hands).
The Children is impossible to take seriously, but does keep an even pace, with few unnecessary scenes and quite a few laugh-out-loud moments. Rogers is woefully miscast as the “heroic” sheriff-he would be much better suited to a small role as a creepy sheriff or red herring. The rest of the cast is up to their less than demanding roles, and the kids seem happy camping it up as killer zombies. The soundtrack by Harry Manfredini essentially recycles his score from Friday the 13th. The special effects on the hugs are effective gross-outs, but the film quickly moves from loving scenes showing off the effects to the kids maneuvering their victims just out of sight (almost as if they know they’re on a budget). There’s one scene with a very over-the-top worst parent in the world, a mother who the sheriff finds lounging around nude with a muscled up man lifting weights next to her, who makes it clear she doesn’t like her daughter and doesn’t care what happens to her, which is clearly there to give the drive-in/grindhouse audience what it wants in the most tongue-in-cheek fashion possible. The Children is a must-see for fans of “so-bad-its-good” movies that don’t mind some limited gross-out gore. Be sure to stick around for the obligatory “it’s not over” ending!