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Saturday, December 30, 2023

New Year’s Nightmare: ‘The Children’ Is One of the Most Frightening British Horror Movies of the 2000s

While Christmas tends to be the default setting for winter horror, 2008’s The Children makes a good argument for terror around the New Year. Many folks would expect leisure and fun after a busy Christmas. However, the chance for relaxation is out of the question in Tom Shankland’s movie. Something terrible has suddenly happened to the kids, and something even worse awaits their parents.

Spending New Year’s Eve with the ‘rents and their relatives is undesirable for most teenagers, but Casey (Hannah Tointon) will have definitely wished for more boring family time after her younger siblings and cousins turn on her and every other grownup nearby. No one past the age of puberty is safe here. As Casey and her closest kin gather at a remote house in the country — a decision that always proves to be as unwise as it is clichéd — The Children steadily reveals its unusual threat. Shankland, whose script is based on a story by Paul Andrew Williams (The Cottage), had the difficult task of making kiddos plausibly menacing; by and large the horror genre has preferred cheesy over serious whenever this concept occasionally resurfaces. Quite the opposite, Shankland’s second directed movie ended up being one of the most frightening British horror movies to come out of the 2000s.

Reaching the violent child’s play in store is a bit of a crawl. This winter wonderland is first filled with temper tantrums, familial discord and other operating stresses before any blood can be spilled on the snow. Casey is understandably upset about missing a friend’s party back home while her mother Elaine (Eva Birthistle) searches for respect from her judgmental sister Chloe (Rachel Shelley). The four children in tow are also a handful; Elaine’s son Paulie (William Howes) is strangely sick after the car ride. Needless to say, this holiday getaway is awful even before the rugrats go berserk.

the children

Image: Hannah Tointon’s character Casey watches as the adults tend to the children’s first victim.

The audience’s patience is rewarded once it becomes clear that Paulie’s malady is something other than mere motion sickness. An earlier draft of the script was executed more like a zombie outing, but Shankland went with a mysterious contagion that leaves these ankle-biters looking relatively normal. It removes the chance for a fantastical and downright implausible story. Casey’s half-siblings and their cousins undergo an internal transformation after catching an unknown bug — again, the lack of a concrete explanation works in the movie’s favor — yet once the incubation period passes, they look about the same as before. As plenty of parents can agree, a determined child is intimidating enough without the addition of zombism.

A segment of post 21st-century British and European horror tapped into the societal fear of malcontent youths from the lower classes. This subgenre, which was labeled “hoodie horror” as a reflection of supposedly antisocial teenagers and their preferred choice of garment, took off after 2008’s Eden Lake and continued well into the next decade with similarly themed offerings such as F, Cherry Tree Lane (coincidentally directed by Paul Andrew Williams) and Cruel Summer. The Children, however, skipped on the social commentary entirely. The villains here don’t even know the meaning of the word “rebel” as they act on their new impulses. The absence of a reality-based agenda ultimately made certain that Shankland’s movie was less timely.

To criticize the adult characters for their helplessness means forgetting the antagonists are their siblings and offspring. The instinct to protect Paulie and the other children often outweighs the natural fight-or-flight response. So it is realistic for Elaine and the other adults to have these delayed reactions to their bizarre situation. In some cases, they are totally oblivious before getting hurt or, even worse, dying. The moral dilemma at hand eventually entails Elaine having to perform a Sophie’s Choice act — to save one child means taking the life of another. Having Casey in the story makes more sense now.

the children

Image: Elaine’s maternal instinct kicks in as she protects Casey.

Once the little ones remove their kid gloves, they pull off incredible acts of brutality. Their lifelike awareness of the people and places around them factors into a one-by-one approach, first starting with an obvious obstacle. The children readily recognize who is the most formidable among the adults and eliminate him in the first of several delightful set pieces. While it would have been too easy for the preteen actors to overplay their parts and all but spell out their intentions to their prey, Shankland refreshingly has none of that in his movie. The boys and girls play innocent and understated to the very end — thus making their crimes all the more chilling.

Shankland did “the first day of the apocalypse” better than others. Like George A. Romero, the WΔZ filmmaker was smart to focus on a segment of the affected population rather than the whole. The Children condenses a large idea without sacrificing quality or efficacy. The snowy paradise progressively loses its charm as chaos erupts and never goes away. The cast is meager when compared to that of the ultimate example of this sort of story — Night of the Living Dead, of course — but the outcome is the same, if not more cheerless.

Horror, by its very nature, is meant to scare and create unease. There is no denying the genre has gone above and beyond in those regards. Yet, even after all the many transgressive scenarios and unimaginable villains to come out of horror, homicidal kids still feel taboo. The sheer suggestion is enough to make audiences hesitate or maybe simply laugh. It goes without saying, killing children on screen doesn’t read too well in today’s political climate. The fear of exploitation is another concern that this movie navigates better than most. This is far from a hand-holding experience, but Tom Shankland wasn’t only interested in shock tactics. Believe it or not, his movie has a sensitive side to it as well.

The Children is the best of its kind because the movie gives its preposterous pitch considerable thought and never undermines itself. Not an easy feat when playing in this less frequented sandbox of horror.


Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure — a scream is understood, always and everywhere.

the children

Image: William Howes’ character Paulie goes in for the kill.

The post New Year’s Nightmare: ‘The Children’ Is One of the Most Frightening British Horror Movies of the 2000s appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.



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