UK DVD Review: Who Can Kill A Child?

Posted on May 31, 2011 by Ben

Who Can Kill A Child? (AKA ¿Quién puede matar a un niño?/Island of the Damned) (1976)
Distributor: Eureka
DVD Release Date: 23 May 2011
Directed by: Narciso Ibáñez Serrador
Starring: Lewis Fiander, Prunella Ransome
Review by: Ben Bussey

A comfortably middle class English couple, with two children at home and a third on the way, take a trip away from it all. Leaving their existing offspring behind, Tom (Fiander) takes Evelyn (Ransome) to visit an obscure Spanish island, Almanzora. Escaping the hectic coast of the mainland, the peace and quiet they find in Almanzora is at first a welcome relief. But it isn’t long before quiet gives way to too quiet; and even less time before that gives way to outright panic at the shocking truth. Slowly but surely Tom and Evelyn realise the only people alive on the island are the children. And where did all the adults go? Yes, you guessed it… the kiddies killed them all. To avoid the same fate, Tom and Evelyn must fight to stay alive, which may mean kill or be killed. But who can… well, the title says it all.

With (amongst others) Ils, Eden Lake, The Children and F, contemporary horror has seen quite the resurgence of that thorny killer kids subgenre. Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s film has been cited as pioneering this subgenre, and it isn’t hard to see why. Toeing the line between sleaze and sophistication the way so much European horror of the 70s does, Who Can Kill A Child is as likely to provoke debate today as it was on release. On the one hand it’s a largely efficient, atmospheric and entertaining chiller; on the other hand, it will almost certainly push the boundaries of taste and decency too far for some, even hardened modern fans, for it tackles that one taboo that never fails to set off a red light. Be it Boris Karloff throwing a little girl in a river, or all those things that need not be repeated from A Serbian Film, the suffering of children on film will always cause a stir.

Let’s sidestep that for now, though, and consider the film purely as an exercise in stylised horror. In the DVD extras, cinematographer José Luis Alcaine speaks of the film being inspired by Night of the Living Dead and The Birds; these, plus Assault On Precinct 13 (made in the same year), were indeed the films that I was most reminded of. It’s the same basic set-up: normal people thrown into a very abnormal situation, in which they are under attack for no apparent reason by those they would not ordinarily regard a real physical threat. And as in Hitchcock, Romero and Carpenter’s films, no explanation for the situation is given, and rightly so. In this manner of nightmare movie, the whys and wherefores are of no real importance; all that matters is how the protagonists react, and for the most part the actions of the bemused English couple are believable and compelling, helped by strong performances from Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome.

Where the film is more troublesome is in its pretences toward social relevance. If the action kicked off right away with Tom and Evelyn, there would be very little to complain about; however, Serrador chooses to open with a seven-minute psuedo-newsreel, showing real life footage of various regions of the world afflicted by war, disease and famine, subjecting the viewer to numerous genuine images of dead or suffering children. To say that this is utterly gratuitous, crass and exploitative would be quite the understatement. Sorry to dig up the whole Serbian Film debate yet again (though for the record, I completely respect Marc’s reasons for not watching it), but in many respects Who Can Kill A Child is truly guilty of the charge that A Serbian Film has had levelled against it; feigning a socio-political message to justify sadistic content. Spasojevic’s film does not (repeat does not) at any point show children actually being hurt. Serrador’s film does, and in putting this footage front and centre it casts an ugly shadow over all that follows.

Still, Who Can Kill A Child is hardly unique among films of its time for taking certain things a little too far, and if we can accept or at least overlook this pretentious excess there is still much about the film to appreciate. It’s stood the test of time better than many of its era, conjuring a genuinely tense and bleak atmosphere, and for the most part it is intelligently written and performed. Bypass your good taste faculties for a little while and you might just enjoy yourself. And the DVD Eureka have put together will do a nice job of putting it into context, with interviews with Serrador and Alcaine from the 2007 Dark Sky region 1 DVD.

%d bloggers like this: