Who Can Kill a Child?

Yes, the title got me.

I knew almost nothing about Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's 1976 movie ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? except that it was a horror movie, and I figured a horror movie with a title like that ought to at least be interesting.  And it is that.

The film has had other titles over the years -- Island of Death, Death is Child's Play, Lucifer's Curse, Los Niños, etc. -- but Who Can Kill a Child? is apparently the original one, and is the one used on the 2007 DVD from Dark Sky Films, the edition I watched.  It's provocative, but it's also perfectly accurate for the movie.

The story is fairly simple: a nice British couple visit Spain and travel to a small, secluded island the husband had visited twelve years before.  When they arrive, the island seems deserted.  The husband says the people often went to festivals on the other side of the island.  Eventually, he and his wife discover the truth: the children of the island have, for mysterious reasons, killed almost all of the adults.  And enjoyed it.

The film would be a somewhat routine (if surprisingly well directed, acted, and filmed) story of demonic children and people trapped somewhere dangerous if Ibáñez Serrador didn't have more on his mind than just shocking an audience.  He did have more on his mind, though, and it is that more that makes the film fascinating -- fascinating both for its content and for what seems to me to be a contradiction between its construction and its theme.

Who Can Kill a Child? doesn't begin right off with its story.  Instead, the first ten minutes presents images of dead or dying children in concentration camps and war zones.  A voiceover tells us that in war and in disasters caused by humans, children are the greatest victims.  Millions and millions of children have died because of adult actions.

From this disturbing black and white imagery, we move to the bright sunlight of Spain and a happy British couple, Tom (Lewis Fiander) and Evelyn (Prunella Ransome).  Evelyn is pregnant with their third child.  They enjoy their time in a coastal city, but it's noisy and crowded, so they head off to the island Tom, a biologist, spent time on more than a decade before.  The sunny happiness slowly gives way to sunny anxiety, until Tom and Evelyn discover the secret of the children.  The last third or so of the film is thus all about their attempt to escape, and, naturally, that escape raises the title's question, since it's clear that the only way to escape is to kill some kids.

From the opening sequence and from some statements Ibáñez Serrador has made, it's obvious that part of his intention is to make us realize how hypocritical we adults can be about the killing of children -- most people believe it is absolutely wrong to kill children, but in war children are "collateral damage" and even in peacetime millions of children die from easily-preventable illnesses, so obviously we don't really believe it's unforgiveable to kill them.  In Who Can Kill a Child, the childrens' behavior is never definitively explained, but there's some talk of evolution and adaptation, and in an interview on the DVD, Ibáñez Serrador seems to indicate that, for him, the explanation is that the children have realized (subconsciously, maybe even genetically) that the biggest threats to their existence are adults, and so they are wiping out the threat.  From the opening sequence, Ibáñez Serrador seems to want us to understand that it is in some way or another understandable that children should want to kill adults, since adults kill them so wantonly.

That would certainly be a provocative theme for a movie to develop, but this movie does not really develop it.  Our sympathies as viewers are focused on Tom and Evelyn, while the children are not the least bit sympathetic except for the fact that they are children.  Though she spends at least half of the movie trying to prove she is utterly ignorant of the world and everything around her (presumably because the only way Ibáñez Serrador could think of to make the film long enough was to make at least one of the characters really stupid so lots of time can be spent explaining things to her), Evelyn is by the last part of the movie someone whose welfare we have begun to care about, and Tom seems like a nice enough guy.  The story has mostly been presented through their point of view, making their interpretation of the world is the one the spectators identify with.  What suspense there is in the movie comes from our not wanting them to be harmed.

We don't have any access to the children's inner lives at all and very few of them are named or even differentiated from each other for us.  The boys behave like sullen, petulant brats and the girls giggle and cry, and so all of the children are little more than the most annoying stereotypes of annoying kids.  When Tom and Evelyn are driving all over the island in a Jeep, we're cheering for Tom to just plough through the kids who stand in his way.  Go, Tom, go!  Splat, kid, splat!

Maybe this is the point -- we, the spectators, are put in the position of rooting for children to be killed.  But if Ibáñez Serrador's point is that we should recognize that it would be rational for children to want to kill adults, shouldn't our sympathies instead be with the homicidal kids?  The children in the movie are nothing more than sadistic little demons.  Wouldn't Ibáñez Serrador's point have been made more profoundly and more complexly if we had been brought to see the little demons as sympathic and justified, while the adults deserved their fate?

In the interview on the DVD, Ibáñez Serrador says he thinks the one mistake he made with the film was putting the opening sequence at the beginning rather than the end.  Ending with those scenes of atrocity would have certainly been jarring, and might, indeed, have worked better: we would have been happily cheering on the killing of children, maybe a little uncomfortable at the thought, but nonetheless content that it was all "just a movie" and then we would have had proof that no, in fact, our willingness to kill children is not confined to killing the demonic ones in movies.

Or the effect might have been for us to be annoyed at the false analogy, and to see the film's manipulations as exploitative, sensationalistic, and ridiculous.

Whatever our conclusions about the film's theme, though, it's nice to see a horror film that's thought through the purpose of its violence, even if a bit more thought might have led to a more complex and rewarding experience overall.

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