Having children is one of those bourgeois activities that leave me baffled, like playing golf, eating sushi, or watching Downton Abbey. Although I remain on speaking terms with friends who, regretfully, choose to have children, there’s no denying the gulf that separates the baby-haves and the baby-have-nots. And there’s nothing like the chill that grips me when couples my wife and I have known for years, and who always claimed they would remain child-free, suddenly announce: “We’re going to have a baby!” From that point on all previous conversations about how annoying kids are will be forgotten, to be replaced with the silent assumption: yes, but ours are different. At such moments I turn to horror films for solace, and while Village of the Damned, The Brood, and The Omen all help, there’s only one film that truly captures the experience of being trapped in a world of children and those who adore them.
Who Can Kill a Child (1976) is a relatively obscure Spanish horror film directed by Narcisco Ibanez Serrador, but it should be much better known, and not only by people like me, who are sick of having to pretend to be awed by how wonderful children are. It is a challenging, confrontational work that raises difficult questions concerning overpopulation, inequality, and the nature of evil. The film tells the story of an English couple vacationing on the Spanish coast as they enjoy their last weeks of freedom before a very pregnant Evelyn gives birth to their third child. Distracted by the noise and crowds of Benavis, where a festival is being held, they rent a boat and go alone to the island of Almanzora, which they find strangely deserted, except for occasional bands of vacantly smiling children, who grow increasingly threatening, and eventually homicidal. While the premise is admittedly unoriginal, if tantalizing, the power of the narrative emerges through its sense of quiet unease, complex character development, and provocative intrusions of topical and historical sound bytes into the film’s otherwise eerily isolated world.
Taking its cue from the Mondo Cane films—those pseudo-documentary films of the sixties and seventies that shocked audiences with their depiction of violent rituals and grotesque behavior from around the world—Who Can Kill a Child’s opening credit sequence runs over a disturbing montage of twentieth-century atrocities, beginning with the Holocaust and spiraling through numerous wars and civil conflicts, in each case emphasizing the overwhelming toll on children. Disturbingly, the sound of children’s laughter can be heard over the grim stock footage, as well as a child humming a haunting melody reminiscent of Krzysztof Komeda’s indelible theme to Rosemary’s Baby. As the death roll finally reaches its height, we cut to black and white footage of barely clad children crouching in the dirt, which seems to signal another abject image of orphaned destitution until the camera pulls back, transforming to bright color footage of a beach crowded by leisurely European tourists. This striking contrast underscores the film’s later meditations on the thin borderlines between comfort and chaos.
As Evelyn and her husband Tom later enjoy the spectacle of a local parade, they discover that their camera has run out of film and duck into a shop. As they wait for the clerk to bring their rolls of Kodak, they turn to a television on the counter, broadcasting footage of a massacre in Bangkok. When the clerk returns, he shrugs and observes: “The world is crazy. In the end the ones who suffer the most are the children. From war: the children. From famine: the children.” It is an observation that will echo in the English couple’s minds as their vacation continues. After making this morose speech, however, the clerk smiles and says: “What a lovely day to take pictures!” In the following scene, disturbingly enough, Evelyn wades in the ocean while Tom tries to snap her picture. The thin membrane between the first world privilege that safeguards their “lovely day” and the disorder that lurks beyond their borders is suddenly broken by an ambiguous disturbance in the distance, a disturbance that is later revealed to be a body washing ashore. These early scenes are loaded with many such moments of horror lurking just beyond the vacationers’ perception.
The answer to the question of why a film that is about to present us with packs of homicidal children is so preoccupied with reminding us how vulnerable children are in a treacherously unstable global economy remains ambiguous, but some hints seem to be given in the conversations between Tom and Evelyn on the night before their boat trip. As they walk down a crowded street, Tom asks, “Would you like to sit down?” and she replies, “Where, it’s so crowded.” Looking down at her pregnant belly, he observes: “Well, we’re not helping the situation, are we?” Later, as Tom broods over the events of the day, he recounts a story from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita about a man who kills his two children, his wife, and later himself. When Evelyn asks why, he answers, “I imagine he was trying to save his children from the future.” This prompts his wife to mention that they were almost going to “kill this one,” pointing to her belly, and asks if he’s glad they didn’t. Tom doesn’t seem entirely sure, and he equivocates that they had two children already, before reassuring his wife as they go to sleep. Such scenes suggest a certain parallel, if not complicity, between their household population and the rest of the world’s. Overpopulation, the film indicates, is a problem we like to project onto other countries when it often happens under our very noses, and it is our privileged, first world children who are going to leave the largest carbon footprint, and consume the most resources, indirectly fueling the violent conflicts that hover around drought and famine like flies.
All this might seem like a rather ponderous set-up for a horror film, but what is astonishing is how deftly these elements are woven into the fast-paced establishing shots. Soon we find ourselves on the island of Almanzera, where we enter a very different reality. From the raucous crowds of the mainland we shift to an almost silent, dreamlike space reminiscent of Val Lewton’s great noir-thrillers of the 1940s, like I Walked with a Zombie, and Isle of the Dead, but with one significant difference: while classic horror films use darkness as their medium of fear, Who Can Kill a Child uses light, an almost blinding, stark Mediterranean light, as relentless and omnipresent as the increasing sense of menace to which it seems tied. Like a mischievous child, the film plays hide and go seek with the violence lurking just behind every corner. One particularly disturbing scene shows Evelyn calling Tom’s attention to an old man huddled in a doorway in a distant angle of a narrow but brightly lit street. A girl appears in the distance, smiling pleasantly as she walks towards them. Once she reaches the old man she looks happily to her right at him, though we still can’t see anything more than his arm holding a cane. After smiling guilelessly towards the couple, whose point of view the camera shares, she turns to the man again, seizes his cane, and sets to beating him violently to death, though we only see the evidence of this from the increasing amount of red visible on the cane as it repeatedly rises and falls and the girl laughs with glee.
Such moments of barely concealed horror parallel the couple’s reluctance in admitting the children’s monstrousness, a reluctance shared by another adult whom they encounter, who tells them the story of how the children suddenly changed. As he describes how they killed his wife, he notes with amazement that nobody moved to stop them, because, of course, “who can kill a child?” It is an understandable reluctance that the English couple have a hard time getting over, putting them in even graver danger. As the film progresses towards its harrowing conclusion, it forces the viewer into the uncomfortable position of the protagonists: though the children are often shown blank-faced and coldly malevolent, there are also many scenes where they are depicted as infinitely charming, seemingly innocent. When they nevertheless show themselves capable of horrendous violence, we are tempted to ask, along with Evelyn, “Isn’t a normal child incapable of killing another human being?” When we recall how violent the 1970s were, this line has a disturbing historical resonance. It’s sad to think there was once a time when adults could be so innocent as to ask such a question.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.