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CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy

 

The Children (of Ravensback) Max Kalmanowicz 1980

Why Some Species Eat Their Young

Way before Roseanne Barr was cracking wise about eating her children (which, when you think about it, is waaaay too close to the realm of possibility to be taken lightly), my mother used to tell me that she could understand why some animals devoured their offspring at birth. I think this was meant to communicate some sort of disappointment or frustration stemming from something I did or didn't do, but all it really did was conjure up an image of my mother nibbling on an infant, which I found consistently amusing.

Had I been paying closer attention to the movies I was watching at the time, I may have gotten an idea of what she really meant. Specifically, were I coherent (read: sober) enough as an 8-year-old to consider the subtext of the horror cheapie The Children, I may have watched my back when mom was around. As it was, however, I was too busy painting my fingernails black in magic marker and shuffling toward the adults in my neighborhood asking for hugs, which probably says a lot about the man I grew up to be.

The Children is the deliciously sick story of the wee town of Ravensback, which - due to an untimely nuclear spill - finds most of its children transformed into black-nailed zombie monsters whose hugs turn adults into steaming mounds of hamburger. Naturally, when I saw the film as a youngin' on Commander USA's Groovy Movies, that's exactly what the film meant to me. Only having seen the flick again as an "adult" am I able to see just how sick and nasty this movie really is, and how much clever social commentary bubbles just beneath the surface of what might easily be dismissed as a hokey scare film.

Which, of course, it is. Boasting horrible acting, an obviously limited budget (which translates to: few locations, few lights, few extras), and long stretches of absolutely nothing (the opening scene, probably intended to be suspenseful, is laughably boring; several other scenes of people walking around in dark houses and cellars looking for the missing kids are obvious time-fillers), The Children is too uneven to achieve true classic status, but the punch it packs from its more macabre setpieces more than make up for its shortcomings.

Classic moments include the creepy, atomically-enhanced rugrats hugging a variety of grownups into braised beef, a genuinely disturbing scene where one of the creepy kiddies stalks and smokes a normal toddler, and multiple sequences in which the terrible tots get their nuclear appendages chopped off by well-intentioned adults. Yes, children being dismembered - in graphic, loving detail. Seeing as how I would sooner choke on my own vomit than spend more than 90 seconds in the company of a child, I may not be the most impartial reviewer for this film, but I just can't get enough once the sheriff and Mr. Freemont start blasting at the kids with a shotgun and hacking them up with what looks like a samurai sword (a common staple of any Massachusetts home). Irresponsible? Maybe. Tasteless? Probably. Delightful? Definitely.

But again, those quick to dismiss (celebrate) the film as a textbook on how to slaughter children should look more carefully: what exactly is the movie saying about the adults in this town?

Let's see here… first, we have the Shore Household. Mother Dee Dee lounges around topless smoking grass while her bodybuilder friend Jackson lifts weights. When Sheriff Billy Hart (a thinly-veiled reference to his role as the moral center) drops by to tell Dee Dee that the schoolbus was found, engine running and kids missing, near a graveyard, Dee Dee giggles about how her daughter Janet is always skulking around and obviously wouldn't have noticed if the kid had been floating in the pool for the past several days. The Gould-Button household is similarly creepy, with the aggressive, controlling Dr. Joyce keeping the wan Leslie Button in a drugged, etude-playing stupor while she suns her yams on the front lawn with the family Doberman. This household is quite intriguing: are the women lovers? Joyce certainly is a bit masculine, and it's never addressed or explained why two grown women with different last names would live together in a house with one of the women's little boys. The fact that he will soon kill them is not altogether surprising, considering how incredibly unpleasant they are (sorry, ladies).

This brings us to my favorite household, the Freemonts. The Freemonts seem patently incapable of keeping anything together: their car is broken down, their younger child is sick, and Mrs. Freemont is something of an emotional minefield that may or may not be exacerbated by the fact that she is incredibly pregnant, and a painter. In what is probably the most shocking moment of the film (no small feat in a movie that shows the murders of a half-dozen children), good ol' Cathy, swollen as a tick, plops herself down on the couch in front of the television, lights up a cigarette, and after inhaling deeply, pats her belly and mutters, "Sorry."

This is the essence of the story: the selfish older generation, having polluted the air with their dirty nuclear waste and alienated their children through disregard and emotional damage, sees their very offspring transformed into an army of exterminating angels who punish them for their transgressions. It's worth noting that the sheriff, arguably the most noble adult, is apparently without children, and therefore the only one able to see the horror that is being unleashed upon his community for what it is. The rest of the adults are lazy, mean, or just plain annoying, and either prone to fits of temper or emotional histrionics that bear a stark comparison to the stoic, affectless faces of the children.

And the children are the real stars here: dressed in their school clothes, they are creepy, relentless menaces, and anyone who has issues with "needy" types will shudder when they see the kids open their arms to give their parents killer hugs. The tykes are truly used to their greatest advantage throughout, and some of the images (especially the reflection of three smiling kids against the shop window) are striking and very eerie.

Add a nice score (a lot of which composer Harry Manfredini would cannibalize for his Friday the 13th score later that year, and then cannibalize it 7 more times as he scored all but two of the sequels), some nice moving camera, a sense of rural sprawl that lends an air of fatality to the events (it doesn't really seem like there is much hope for these disconnected folks from the beginning), and a decidedly (and deservedly) downbeat ending, and you've got a tidy little shocker that holds up surprisingly well considering its modest origins. Appearances by several genre repeat offenders also help (Gale Garnett, Mad Monster Party; Joy Glaccum, The Prowler; Suzanne Barnes, Girls Nite Out; writer Carlton Albright would go on to write and direct the nasty cannibal flick Luther the Geek, which I also love). And really, who wouldn't love a film that ends with the birth of the first genuine goth baby?

Rating (out of 5):