Fantasia 09 Review: Whose Watching ‘The Children’?

27 Jul

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The Children (R) 84 min. Directed by: Tom Shankman. Written by: Paul Andrew Williams. Starring: Hannah Tointon, Eva Birthistle, Stephen Campbell Moore, Jeremy Sheffield, Rachel Shelly. Cinematography: Nanu Segal. Original Music by: Stephen Hilton.

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I’m a little conflicted about Tom Shankman’s  Brit thriller, The Children. Running only 84 minutes, the first 20 minutes are a little too sedate and clunky, and the last 20 too overtly shock-centered. Those 40-some odd minutes in the middle though, after the film has revved itself up, are nothing short of terrifying. It isn’t very often I’m unsettled by a movie, and even less often that one actually manages to scare me. But like it’s older cousin, Descent, this nasty bit of creepy kid horror intensifies to the point that even ominously structured glimpses of day-to-day life become anxiety-inducing. Forget Orphan, Joshua, The Good Son, or any of those recent milque-toast dramas about bad seed progeny chasing their unwitting parents. The Children reaches all the way back to the The Bad Seed and Ray Bradbury’s short story, The Small Assassin and draws on a deeply-buried fear of those small versions of ourselves we give our lives to trying to raise.

Structurally, it begins like almost any other horror film, with an extended family taking a winter holiday vacation. Two sets of parents, their assorted small children, and a teen daughter are sharing  a cabin for New Years. The adults romp about, interacting divisively with one another and largely ignoring their young charges. Teenage Casey sulks about the premises, trying her cell phone and relating clumsily with her clueless stepfather and questionably sketchy uncle, who keeps popping in on her at odd alone moments. None of this early milieu is very interesting. It’s only when Shankman starts focusing his lens in on the much younger children, whose fractured dealings with one another  mirror and amplify their parent’s dischord, that the film starts building a palpable sense of dread.

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The feeling of something wrong is in the air. It’s there lingering on the taut notes of Hilton’s score and in the hovering, sinister camera-work of Segal. Shankman juxtaposes the tensions of the frustrated adults with the frantic chaos of the minors, leaving Casey swimming the uncertain gap in between. The advances of her uncle and the cold shoulder of her stepfather do more to target the cracks in this familial unit than the more mundane scenes of the couples bickering. When the noose starts to tighten, and we glimpse the kids standing unannounced in shadowy doorways or peering off dead-eyed into the wintery forest, that looming fog of impending doom drifts down and settles on everything. We notice little bits of information, like the remnants of a slimy residue on a child’s pillow, or the sudden vomiting of the group’s youngest member but we don’t yet have enough information to put them together.

The tour-de-force sequence is a dinner time meal where the children are personified like Hitchcock’s birds; squawking, malevolent hungry creatures who shriek in maddening unison. There is nothing overtly malicious or supernatural about whats happening in the scene, but it takes everything the film has been building towards and shakes it violently. Shankman starts making all of the creaking interpersonal relationships take on meaning, and we are confronted with parents who are insufficient at the business of parenting. They don’t seem to know anything really about the little people that share their genes, and in that suggestion is the genesis of an alien thought. How much do they really have in common? When the children begin to plot something, is it the result of an external force or has it been there the whole time, like the Bradbury story, gestating and growing from those first moments in the womb?

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Like I said before, this is one scary movie in the middle section. I was uneasy once it was determined that the strange and staring children were up to no good. This moment comes in the form of a horrific sledding accident that looks suspiciously like it was staged. The snow covered in darkening patches of deep crimson, and the tykes screaming and crying in either genuine terror or feigned fear create a form of cinematic aggression. We feel riled up, not quite ourselves; revulsion and distrust at the angelic faces on the screen stick in our mind like a sand grain on the iris. And then, just as the movie had me curling up in my seat, absolutely NOT wanting to see what was hidden inside of that yellow tent in the backyard, it moves into familiar horror territory and breaks the spell.

It’s not that I don’t like the film’s closing section but it doesn’t sufficiently fulfill the promise of what came before. The Children initially works not because it’s bloody and unpleasant(although it is) but because it is so skillfully managed and so bold in following the strands of true irrational fear. No one wants to think they should distrust their child and no one wants to consider that they may share nothing in common with their own offspring. In the odd, disaffected performances of the child actors and the manic hysteria of the adult performers, The Children finds an unnatural rythym. I found myself drawn in by it and concerned for the individuals on the screen despite the fact none of them were likable or had given me much reason to care. The emotions at the heart of the story run deeper than that. Well, they do until it all boils down to creepy chases, scissors in the eye socket, and numerous gory deaths that aren’t limited to the adults.

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Like the aforementioned Descent–which had me nearly hyperventilating in its claustrophobic cavern sequences–as soon as The Children openly accepts the conventions of the genre it relaxes its death-grip. When the monsters appeared in Marshall’s movie, I was relieved; this was a menace that was purely fictional and the story handled it just as I thought it would. The more nebulous and harder to define fears of the film were pared away in favor of an easily identified adversary. The same is true of The Children; the last third is just another movie about killer kids, albeit very well done and suitably intense. But before that, for a short time, it felt like something much more real. It felt like true blue paranoia.  

The biggest problem with The Children however, is that it never finds anything to replace the terror and chill of it’s midsection. In Descent Marshall moved quickly and cleverly from the scary segments to the brutal action segments without skipping a beat. Watching his female protagonists shed the conventions of civilization and fight for their lives was psychologically convincing and narratively satisfying. The parents of these cracked-up kids revert to utter buffoons and stock horror fodder. They never really want to grasp that this is happening and we have numerous scenes of people doing things they shouldn’t. And still, watch those wide eyes staring out of those round little faces and the film manages to momentarily grab its power back. I imagine that the full-blown horror fans are gonna really dig this one. It’s just a shame it doesn’t quite seal the deal.

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9 Responses to “Fantasia 09 Review: Whose Watching ‘The Children’?”

  1. Lawman July 28, 2009 at 2:00 pm #

    Having seen the trailer for this movie, I’d say that the kids in this movie will likely need a good therapist later in life.

  2. hagiblog July 29, 2009 at 11:55 pm #

    I’m looking forward to seeing this one myself soon but I only glanced through your review. The trailer made me so uncomfortable that I don’t want to know anymore than I already do about it.

    Once I get a review up I’ll be coming back to compare notes!

  3. koutchboom October 2, 2009 at 1:50 pm #

    Better then Joshua!!! WAH!! I love that movie. I can’t wait to see what that director does next, he made this documentary called Hell House that is a must see. Its about a haunted house run by religious nuts.

    I saw the trailer for this as well, the trailer doesn’t really tell you anything. Looks cool.

  4. koutchboom October 2, 2009 at 1:50 pm #

    Also by Descent do you mean the cave dweller movie by Doomsday guy whos name slips my mind right now?

  5. koutchboom October 2, 2009 at 1:53 pm #

    Man Joshua is SOOO GOOD THOUGH! The most haunting movie I’ve seen recently. Yes its a story we’ve heard a million times, but that kid is SO good. And its such a slow build movie, the look that the kid gives at the end is SOO creepy. My wife at first thought, meh it was kind of boring, then she told me the next day she had a nightmare about it. And I was like Eh! EH! Told you that movie was good and effective.

    She just doesn’t like Rockwell. Not yet anyway.

    • Nathan Bartlebaugh October 2, 2009 at 2:07 pm #

      I didn’t care much for Joshua, although I quite like Rockwell. It was the ultimate reasoning and so-called ‘twist’ behind it that I didn’t care much for. It wasn’t terrible, but seriously, what is it with vera farmiga being in films where she is the mother of a troubled kid? Does she play anything else? Running Scared, Joshua, Orphan….

      Hell House is a very intresting movie. As a christian most of it was very sad and some parts were offensive to me (the behaviors of the church members not the docu itself) but I appreciated the way the director did show all angles. The most powerful scene is the father praying over his kid as he convulses and has a siezure and by the time the paramedics arrive, it’s subsided and the guy is just standing there shaking and crying, and telling them he was praying for his boy. Despite his shortcomings and hang-ups he was the most genuine guy among them.

  6. koutchboom October 2, 2009 at 2:00 pm #

    YEah it is that descent, read the rest of the article.

  7. koutchboom October 2, 2009 at 2:04 pm #

    In descent did you ever catch that shot towards the start of the film where you can see the monster?

  8. Nathan Bartlebaugh October 2, 2009 at 2:08 pm #

    I cant remember, you mean the one where the girl sort of haphazardly glances down a tunnel and you get the brielf, almost subliminal image of a humanoid thing licking at a puddle or soemthing?

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