Thursday, January 14, 2021

The Children (1980) review


Martin Shakar (John Freemont), Gil Rogers (Sheriff Billy Hart), Gale Garnett (Cathy Freemont), Shannon Bolin (Molly), Tracy Griswold (Deputy Harry Timmons), Joy Glaccum (Suzie MacKenzie), Jeptha Evans (Paul MacKenzie), Clara Evans (Jenny Freemont), Sarah Albright (Ellen Chandler)

Directed by Max Kalmanowicz

The Short Version: Silly but creepily potent zombie horror featuring small fry that cook whoever they touch after a school bus travels through a toxic cloud--turning them into mindless, black-nailed, radioactive killers. The film has a gruesome streak in that the children kill their parents; while the only way to destroy the contaminated kids is to cut their hands off! If the chilling score sounds familiar, that's because Harry Manfredini used it with slight modification for the same year's FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980). Undeservedly obscure and largely forgotten, THE CHILDREN certainly needs a wider audience watching them.
A school bus drives through a radioactive cloud after a leak at a nearby chemical plant. The toxic mist turns the children into mindless zombies that burn anyone they touch. With corpses piling up in the small town of Ravensback, the sheriff and a family hole up inside a house to fend off attacks from The Children.

Plucked from obscurity by network television, if you ever saw Commander USA's Groovie Movies or Saturday Nightmares on the USA Network in the 1980s, you surely saw THE CHILDREN; where it likely reached more viewers than it did during its theatrical run. 
It's difficult to watch Kalmanowicz's unusual killer kid flick and not be reminded of Romero's iconic farmhouse-set tale of the living dead from 1968. The screenplay by Carlton J. Albright and Edward Terry melds much of Romero's NIGHT narrative using its radiation-infused zombies and further inspiration seemingly being drawn from the living dead girl of the finale--wherein a small child returns to kill and consume her parents. 
In another nod, Kalmanowicz's CHILDREN surround a house and lay siege to it in an attempt to kill everyone inside. Using kids as murderous antagonists is a sub-genre unto itself; and an unsettling one that's ripe for horror. THE CHILDREN has some queasy moments in it even if the premise is a bit too absurd to prevent a snicker or two from getting out.

The plot device of the irradiated zombie kids burning people into bloody pulp is outrageous; and the gory, acidic body burning FX are believably gruesome. Something else that's crazy is the disposal method of the terrible tykes before they turn you into extra-crispy KFC. Much like the "kill the brain, kill the ghoul" of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), you separate the hands from the body to snuff out these pint-sized zombies.
Reminiscent of vampirism, when the hands are severed, the nails return to normal and the kids let out this demonic scream like something has left their body. Elsewhere, the undeniable creep factor collides with silliness when the kids approach their victims--arms extended with big smiles on their faces.
The one moment in the movie where this works at instilling goosebumps is when three of the children are outside a general store and we see them through a window, with big ole grins on their faces. The lady is relieved to see them so she goes outside. The POV changes to the outside and we see the kids reflection in the window. They stretch their arms out like they're waiting for a hug and the lady is killed off-camera. It's a very effective sequence.
Shot mostly on Massachusetts rural locations, the country setting is perfect for the atmosphere of isolation the movie creates. Kalmanowicz and his crew devise some mildly tense moments of fear and dread that are made all the more palpable by Harry Manfredini's nerve-jangling music.
Later that year, you'd hear those same stinging chords, with some modifications, in the slasher sensation, FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980). There's approximately a year and a half gap between the time the film was completed and released. Considering the wild popularity of FRIDAY THE 13TH, it's easy to think the zombie picture recycled the music, but in actuality it's the other way around. Without Manfredini's score, THE CHILDREN would be a lot less noticeable.

If you've seen SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977) you'll recognize lead actor Martin Shakar. He played Travolta's brother in the smash disco drama. It's his best known role, but if you're a Chuck Norris fan, you'll possibly recognize him in INVASION USA (1985) as well. Shakar carries THE CHILDREN in the leading role, giving the film one of a few serious performances it needs.

Co-written by Carlton J. Albright and Edward Terry, the latter started out as the movie's director but was replaced by Kalmanowicz shortly into filming. Terry does have a small role in the picture (see above at left). Several years later, Albright and Terry would reunite for the slasher flick LUTHER THE GEEK (1989). Albright directed while Terry steals the show as the title lunatic with metal chompers he uses to cannibalize and or rip the throats out of his victims.

Alternating between generating moderate suspense and schlock, this 80s TV staple emerging on blu-ray brings back memories from a great decade for horror. The finale is particularly grim and the last shot is a shock moment that's foreshadowed near the beginning of the movie. With its unusual premise and spin on the zombie mythos, THE CHILDREN are worth watching.

This review is representative of the Vinegar Syndrome DVD/Blu-ray combo. Specs and Extras: 1080p 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; newly scanned and restored in 2K from a combination of the original 35mm negative and best surviving theatrical prints; new audio commentary by director; archival commentary by producer/co-writer; new interview with Carlton J. Albright and production manager David Platt; locations then and now featurette; Memories of the Children featurette; Making the Children featurette; The Children: The Musical interview with Stan Richardson; audio of a lost scene; reversible cover art; running time: 01:33:39
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