The cover for Lionsgate’s The Children (2009) touts that it is “From The Makers of The Evil Dead Trilogy,” so I was expecting Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Spiderman, Drag Me to Hell) attached as a producer or in some similar capacity. While the acclaimed director had nothing to do with the actual making of the movie, he and longtime collaborator/producer, Rob Tapert, are responsible for singling out efforts from the horror genre they deem worthy of a wider audience through their Ghost House Underground label.
All I knew going into this independent UK flick was from the synopsis on the back cover. Two families gather in a secluded house in the English backcountry for a low key Christmas celebration when a “flu-like” virus infects the four young children causing them to turn deadly. Mayhem ensues and stress builds as the parents fight to survive while trying to figure out exactly what is going on and, more importantly, who to blame.
I will not say that nothing happens for the first third of the film, but it becomes increasingly agonizing (in the best sense of slow building tension) as anticipation mounts. Conventional holiday fare (meals, presents, etc.) and talking up home schooling or new business ventures pass the time while the little tikes are initially shown to be far from angelic being moody and a bit spiteful as kids can be (though this may be lost on the adoring moms and dads, especially the pair who do not believe in corporal punishment). And stuck in the middle is teenage daughter Chloe, bored out of her mind. Based on what little I expected from the plot, I found myself getting more and more nervous every time a child coughed or cut his or her eyes at being told to finish supper. Unsure how the awaited havoc would manifest, I was on the edge of my seat waiting.
No definitive explanation is given as to what causes the violent transformation beyond brief hints of symptomatic vomiting, coughing up blood and glimpses of some vague genetic themed imagery. These mysterious circumstances engender the uneasy atmosphere exceedingly well, so when the first fatality occurs (with just enough gore to not fully gross you out but let your imagination go to work), the adults construe it as a horrible accident. At this point, the emotional floodgates open with chaotic behavior, recriminations and much screaming and crying that do not relieve tension but rather get you more amped up as the thrills escalate to the bloody end.
Part way through I found myself carrying on a heated monologue with my television wondering how the teenage daughter was the only one clued in to what was transpiring. Then it dawned on me this is specifically the desired effect as the parents are mired down by blindness to their untainted little cherubs perpetrating evil deeds (with a playful glee that is downright creepy). This point is driven home late in the film as a mom is forced to choose between “murdering her baby” and being the next victim.
Of course, we would be disappointed without a requisite share of bloodshed (including a breaking bone that I could not avert my eyes from fast enough), but beneficially there is no resorting to shadowy hidden threats or slapstick violence (ironically one of Raimi’s Evil Dead signature gestures), and the few inclusions of quick visual cuts, with accompanying dissonant sound effects, work well enough to increase anxiety and thankfully do not overstay their welcome. If I had a complaint, it is the abundance of sharp objects that the camera conveniently hovers over to foretell their eminent use (this tried and true technique is also brought in for an unbuckled seatbelt).
Qualms aside, without recourse to a big budget or overdone FX, The Children delivers psychologically infused horror with its hidden weapon being merciless tension that will jangle your nerves raw. Kudos to director Tom Skankland and his child actors (I am guessing the average age is around ten or eleven) for performances that embody adolescent innocence with a disturbing mix of malevolence.
If I did not know better I would swear Lionsgate’s 1080p AVC encoded Blu-ray transfer is minted from a 1970’s or 80’s source based on the softness that pervades the image. By no means unwatchable, but along with a flattened contrast, there is a definite lack of sharpness that you do not expect from a recent cinematic effort. While primaries are heavily boosted lending a stylized element to the visuals as they play against the stark winter setting, it does not overcome the absence of fine object detail most noticeable in close-ups.
The consistent grain structure implies no obvious use of DNR so I do not know if the image’s overt smoothness is a limitation of the low budget or a purposeful artistic choice. Additionally I detected a bit of color banding at rare moments that may be attributed to the moderate bitrate encode on the single layer disc. However, the visual quality throughout is decent enough if not outstanding and not something to dwell on as your time will be spent anticipating the film’s ample scares.
Though not packing the demo level spit and polish of soundtracks like Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell, the English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is integral to the The Children’s success. There is a great use of low level drone to enhance the sinister atmosphere and when the violence commences, all the slashing of knives, bones snapping, pounding on doors, etc. comes through with precise clarity, resonance and directionality. The rears are engaged as needed but never distractingly so and though several of the leads sport heavy British accents, I had no issues deciphering dialog. Overall a really nice lossless audio presentation that indispensably adds to the nerve rattling effect. No other audio dubs are provided but optional subtitles are available in English (SDH) and Spanish.
A smattering of short extras are included that cover much of the on set production but little of the inspiration for the movie/script and no commentary. The video supplements are all AVC encoded with bitrates above SD levels. Yet the video quality is definitely not HD caliber with overall softness, jagged edges and much shimmering to the image and audio quality that is somewhat weak.
The Making of the Children (19:34) – Rather than a comprehensive “making of” effort, all the actors plus the director, producer, assistant director, special FX artist and stunt coordinator weigh in on filming certain key sequences from the movie. The featurette has a vague diary like feel with many time lapsed montages from production.
Deleted Scenes (5:45) – Three scenes with only one being truly deleted while the other two fall into the extended/alternate category. The deleted one deals with the death of the family cat which was better to be cut and the remaining two really do not add that much to make them standouts.
Working With the Children (5:04) – The short entry introduces the occupation of a “child wrangler” which is fairly self-explanatory and informs how the director worked with this child stars. I was thrilled to see the kids being themselves (i.e. happy and joking) instead of malignant horrors.
Shooting on Location (3:41) – Details about the house where the movie was set with the most surprising being that it is a real abode with a family that lived there during the shooting. The owners provide amusing comments about how unrecognizable their residence became while the film was being made.
Paul Hyett Talks Prosthetics (4:54) – The FX artist talks about wound design in gory detail.
Snow Set Design (6:31) – Shows how the fake snow was applied for the outdoor scenes that were not actually shot in a winter wonderland. There is a company, Snowbusiness, which specializes in the application of a biodegradable substance that cinematically passes for snow.
Inside Tom Shankland’s On-Set Lair (8:21) – The director gives a tour of his home base during filming which includes many inspirational pics from artists and films plus personalized drawings from his child stars.
Trailer (1:31) – The theatrical trailer that plays up the pointed themes.
The Children is not perfect horror but is one of the better entries in the genre I have seen in a long time. Ghost House Underground made a great choice with this low budget UK scare fest that proves you do not need big bucks to deliver bloody kills and ambiance so ominous as to be unbearable at points. I definitely found myself much more creeped out by the unrelenting cerebral unease than from the anticlimactic scares that populate many modern fright flicks and am curious to check out more choices from the Raimi/Tapert label.
Lionsgate brings The Children to Blu-ray with video that does its job but is nothing to write home about and audio that just keeps bringing the scares. The extras are decent (and worthy of your attention) but not as comprehensive as I would like with no commentary or background on the inspiration of the film. I highly recommend this a blind buy for horror buffs or anyone inspired by tension inducing films.
– Robert Searle
Shop for The Children on Blu-ray at Amazon.com.