Friday, September 10, 2010

Could You?

I like to try and keep some sense of order on this site when I can so that I don't just bombard potential followers with one thing after another. I like building up history and importance around certain films because one of my firm beliefs, indeed one of the reasons I started writing in the first place, was because I believe that horror films are one of the best lenses through which to view contemporary society. You could say fiction (especially historical fiction) or diary or documentary (though that's a more recent development) but I do think that horror films are the best way to explore the effects of society on a troubled mind. And what causes those minds to be so troubled is all too often a massively repressive government, a harsh religious conditioning or personal tragedy. So when General Francisco Franco takes over Spain and murders maybe 50,000 people who oppose him ideologically and continues to run the country for some thirty years after this, running rough-shod over human rights and treating the country like one big serving staff, it's bound to make speaking up infrequent. Or if you were a young man growing up in Uruguay in the 50s and 60s and saw the economic downturn yield student and labour protests that led to mass robbery and violence, such a thing would probably have left an indelible stamp on the way you relate to fiction. The former is most definitely what inspired Juan José Plans' novel The Children's Game, released in 1976. Less easy to determine is which of the two dictated Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's decision to adapt the novel into a movie that same year. While I know that Serrador was born in Uruguay, information about his adolescence is scarce. He directed television in Argentina as late as 1962 but by 63 he was in Spain doing the same thing. He moved back and forth between the two countries for much of the late 60s and early 70s so I'm not at all sure I know just what country he was condemning when he adapted Plans' novel but it's a safe bet that he was more than aware of how badly Franco had fucked the Spanish people. And so a man with a few TV horror movies under his belt set about making his second theatrically released film and for nearly six years after the fact he either couldn't or didn't want to make anything. It's not hard to see why. I've seen the movie a few times now and I'm still reeling from it for while it starts harmlessly enough Who Can Kill A Child? is one of the most powerful movies ever made and one of the most terrifying indictments of a government ever committed to film. So maybe it interferes with the order of things around here but this is a movie that means to offend and you can't take your eyes off of it for a second and I'd be doing you a disservice if I didn't get a big sign and point you in its direction. But I'll say this, reading this might spoil some of it for you so please, please, please go see it first. My words cannot do justice to the experiencing of seeing this in a dark room.

Who Can Kill A Child?
by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador
After an opening that consists of photos of malnourished and tormented children throughout recent conflicts, we find ourselves on a sunny beach in the Spanish town Benavis where a blonde haired boy of probably five years of age discovers a dead woman floating in the shallows. The ambulance drivers notice that she has four stab wounds in her chest and at least three more on her legs. Just as the ambulance drives away married couple English Tom and very pregnant Evelyn come in on a bus. They're here for an annual festival but also because Tom used to vacation around Benavis as a child. Specifically he remembers visiting the island of Almanzora and he wants desperately to go back. Their trip is ominous from the get go. On TV Thích Quảng Đức is burning himself alive, memories of civil war linger even among the festivities and just after Evelyn gets out of the water everyone on the beach is rushing to the sound of a whistle. Though we know very well what they're all so fascinated by, Tom and Evelyn don't hang around to find out. If they did, maybe they'd think twice about heading to Almanzora. But the next day they rent a small boat and three hours later they've docked. Some kids are hanging out at the dock and they're more than happy to help the couple tie their boat down but then Tom gets too close to one of them. He asks the boy what he's using for bait on the end of his home-made fishing pole and when he tries to look in the boy's basket he closes it so fast Tom almost gets his fingers shut in the lid. The boy simply stares daggers at the interloper until Evelyn calls him away.

The village turns out to be just as quiet as Tom remembers. In fact it's too quiet. There's no one running the ice cream stand and when they try to serve themselves they find it's all melted. There's no one running the local cafe or the supermarket and when they arrive at the only inn in the center of Almanzora they try to make themselves at home but there's no one at work and all the rooms are empty. The only people they do see are children, unless you count the dead body on the floor of the supermarket that Tom walks right past without noticing. Tom and Evelyn catch glimpses of people, like the girl who comes into the cafe where Evelyn sits waiting for Tom to get back. Curiously all she does is touch Evelyn's very pregnant belly and stare at it. Then there's the house with the shutters that close just as Tom walks past. He goes up to investigate and finds nothing, but the second he leaves something very much like the sound of children giggling escapes from the corners of the room. Then there are the phone calls. Someone keeps calling the hotel and then either just breathing heavily or speaking in panicky German. When Evelyn goes out and sees an old man running away down an empty street, the only adult they've seen since arriving on Almanzora, Tom is the one who finally gets it. You see the old man isn't running away from the tourists but from a little girl who beats him over the head with his own cane when she finds him. Tom rushes over and tries to help but to no avail. The most he can do is lay the old man in a stable while he thinks of what it all means but just a few seconds after he walks away, some more kids find the body and...let's just say you won't soon forget what they do to him. The questions are many at this point but only one thing is certain, the odds of Tom & Evelyn surviving with their sanity are slim to none.
That the coat of arms, national anthem and flag that served as national symbols of Spain under Franco's reign are now banned should tell you something about his legacy in Spain; the new government owed it not only to the many dead Spaniards who'd been killed in action or flat out murdered for standing up for a cause its people believed in (and voted for and elected legally) to completely dishonor his memory, but to everyone one else who died for the same reason alongside them. The Spanish Civil War is one of the only times in history that commies and sympathetic parties from literally all over the western world came to the aid of single country. World Wars I and II were about fighting a scourge that ostensibly threatened nations (Anyone who thinks that this was the only reason would perhaps also be interested in a bridge I'm selling. It's all part of my "The Civil War was fought over Slavery because Columbus discovered America" sale) but this was one country trying to maintain its democratically elected government and by association its freedom and sanity. And people, not armies, came from all over Europe to fight Franco's army. Unlike the Nazis the Frente Nacional weren't voted in, they had simply seized control when they lost and then quelled all opposition, then ruled with an iron fist until Franco's death in 75. George Orwell, who wrote the book Homage to Catalonia about the experience, was one of the many foreigners who came to help those loyal to the Popular Front; Richard Nixon lamented Franco's death, calling him an ally and a friend to the United States. That's about as good a summation of the arguments on either side you'll ever need. So while it's possible that Serrador was calling upon his experiences in Argentina or Uruguay, I find it far more likely that he had recent Spanish history in mind when he made his second and final theatrically released movie. I also think he knew exactly what he was doing. Unfortunately Juan Jose Plan's The Children's Game is either out of print or was just never released in English so I don't know whether or not it was just a straight-up horror story or if it really was a kiss-off to Franco but one thing's for sure: Who Can Kill A Child? is easily one of the boldest and most terrifying metaphors/movies ever made.

The central thesis of most of Spanish horror & fantasy (everything from Guillermo Del Toro's childhood trilogy Cronos, The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth to The Others to Shiver to The Orphanage to The Nameless, even the totally bug-eyed Anguish) is that our actions will have catastrophic effects on our children and that, by and large, childhood is stolen from children unfairly. The only other movie I can think of that tackles this thesis with comparable bravery is Victor Erice's gentle-hearted The Spirit of the Beehive which had to skate by on implication because it was released while Franco was still alive. Guillermo Del Toro made the point explicitly by setting The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth during the Spanish Civil War (they work just as well as political texts as Ken Loach's excellent Land & Freedom). But Erice's film was declawed with good reason and Loach and Del Toro had the gift of working some forty years after the General's death. Not that that detracts from the power of their work but I make this point simply to say that Narciso Ibáñez Serrador must have had a professional death wish, if not an actual one by making Who Can Kill A Child? just one year after Franco kicked the bucket! Imagine Pasolini making The 120 Days of Sodom the year after Mussolini was killed and that still doesn't quite put you there. Franco died of natural causes and it was another six years before democrats took over and led Spain into something resembling normalcy. That people can comfortably vacation in Spain today is kind of amazing. People like to theorize a lot about what Germany would have been like if Hitler had won. In Spain, he did, and for years school children were told he'd been sent by God to save the whole country. Serrador (and probably Plans) reasonably got to wondering just what the hell that does to kids. Spain was already one of the most heavily religious countries on the planet, so if they'd already had the fear of god drilled into them, one more name wasn't going to make much difference. But when you convince kids that someone who was STILL ACTIVELY KILLING PEOPLE WHO OPPOSED HIM was not just to be respected but paired with fucking god, you were asking for kids to grow up thinking that murdering dissidents was an order handed down by god almighty and that's pretty much what happens in Who Can Kill A Child? Kids just start killing adults for no reason; the only thing we ever see that resembles a cause is when the boy with the fishing rod simply stares at some kids from another part of the island. Seconds pass and those kids are now part of the fold and they presumably then head inside to kill their own parents. The teachings of a government kept in power by silencing those with the power to do oppose and teaching children (unconsciously, explicitly and implicitly) that the way to adulthood and reason is through torture, murder and death. This is what makes Who Can Kill A Child? not just a horror classic, but one of the most astonishing films of all time. And because this was a genre film he was able to escape the critique that would have accosted a more direct approach to the subject matter, which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that real power lies in horror.
Stripped of its context, Who Can Kill A Child? is still unquestionably one of the most gut-wrenching horror movies of all time and along with The Exorcist, Dawn of the Dead, Shivers, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I Spit On Your Grave, The Devils, The Wicker Man, Alien, Mark of the Devil, Blood on Satan's Claw, Nosferatu The Vampyre, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, Phantasm, Vampire Circus, The Hills Have Eyes, Black Christmas, The Brood, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and maybe a combined strike for Jaws & Duel, represents the vanguard of 70s horror. And of those movies only Alien, The Devils and The Exorcist match or best its intensity; none of these films can compete with its pitch black center and die-hard convictions. It's easy to distance yourself from the events of The Devils thanks to its period setting, Derek Jarman's lavish and baroque set design and Ken Russell's operatic direction. The Brood comes close but ultimately even that has a sunnier outlook. After all that was about a relationship that had festered and died. Who Can Kill A Child? is about an unstoppable force of which a couple is but one casualty. In fact only the flawed films I like to label Cinema Paranoia (The Crazies, Rabid, I Drink Your Blood) come close to matching this movie's bleak thesis and not a one of them is as well made or frightening as this. What Who Can Kill A Child? reminds me most of for it's first forty-five minutes is one of Val Lewton's horror films (though don't go expecting a lot of shadow play, Serrador was more of a realist). Like Cat People or I Walked With A Zombie it's set-up is just a display of lives in transition, people with problems but who have the potential to live happily. Like the Reeds of Cat People, Tom and Evelyn are making a commitment and something outside of their control conspires to bring them apart. Like those films it's early scenes have a kind of lyrical beauty and ease to them; Serrador and Jacques Tourneur were equally adept at depicting married life; It's almost a shame to see them give way to the later tension. And once it establishes not just how normal Tom and Evelyn are but how happy they are (the scene where they shout and kiss in front of the fireworks is hard enough to watch the first time just dreading what's to come. A second viewing makes the scene downright heartbreaking), that's when Serrador strikes. The movie is all unrelieved tension; it's like a rattlesnake, eying you, waiting for the moment when you're closest and then strikes, but not always where you expect it to. The remastered version with the soundtrack revamped makes it clear how much it used loud noises and abrupt, dissonant musical cues to its advantage. Having spent as much time as he had in Television, he'd honed his direction skills and manages to establish a lot using very little. And then of course there are the images he creates.

I've seen a lot of killer child movies but none that have capitalized quite so much on just how terrifying they can be all on their own. The Brood and The Village of the Damned alter the kids' appearance and The Bad Seed dresses its villain up as a caricature but these are just kids who spend most of the movie smiling coyly and relentlessly. Serrador wrings so much fright by just grouping them together as in the scene on the other side of the island or the climax which is one of the few times I actually found myself biting my nails wondering if he was actually going to fucking go there!?! that I was amazed no one had done it before. Seconds before we learn the answer to the above question we get maybe the best still frame in the whole film. But what really gives that scene its power is the end of the previous night. Not only do we get a glimpse of how far Tom is willing to go to protect his family, but we also get Serrador's most troubling and exhausting scene. I'll only say that it's what finally flips a switch in Tom's head. That scene comes after more than an hour of nonstop tension and you get the sense that everyone has had it. Lewis Flander and Prunella Ransome are good throughout; I buy them completely during the early festivities and rooted for them for the whole film but these last scenes are simply flooring. The fear of realization in Evelyn's eyes is one of the most awful things I've seen an actor convey. What makes it worse is that you don't know whether to believe her. You don't find anything half as genuine and truly scary in 99 out of 100 horror movies.
And while it is both a poignant metaphor and a masterfully directed horror film I guess the one thing I forgot to address was the title question. If you found yourself surrounded by murderous children, could you do it? If your life or the life of your loved ones was at stake, could you do it? This is a rare film that asks the same thing of its audience as it does of its characters. I love The Exorcist but in the end what ultimately does it leave up to you? Dawn of the Dead's central thesis lends itself to a question of this sort but it's nowhere near as prescient. None of the other great horror films of the 70s leave you with a question that burns itself into your subconscious in quite the same way. So while it may colour outside the lines every now and again, the dialogue is a touch heavy handed during the first night in Benavis and the editing is a little iffy at times I don't think I can ask much more of this asks so much of me, of all of us.

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