1980 produced a variety of horror films (as this week’s amazing pieces are demonstrating); from the dead serious to the utter ridiculous. The Children stands out from the others in the way that it bridges these two extremes. It has some silly moments and some moments that strike some batshit chords, but it comes from a very legitimate fear that was unique to this timeframe. The fear of nuclear energy and the resulting toxic waste was very real towards the end of the Cold War, and The Children is a film that is very of this moment. It is also insanely fun.
As Max Kalmanowicz’s film opens, we see a couple of workmen investigating a possible leak at the Ravensback nuclear power plant. It’s an investigation in name only, as they decide that finding a leak isn’t really worth their effort and knock off early for a beer instead. The leak turns out to be very real, indeed, creating a cloud of toxic fumes that soon intercepts a school bus carrying a handful of local children.
The kids never arrive home, and the empty bus is later found along the side of the road. The parents and the town sheriff, Billy Hart (Gil Rogers), set about trying to locate the lost children and discover what exactly led to their disappearance.
Meanwhile, the kids aren’t so much “lost” as they are “wandering around town, evading capture by their parents.” Only they are not the sweet, innocent children who were introduced to us by singing a cheerful song, praising their kindly bus driver (did anyone actually do that? My bus drivers always sucked). The toxic fog has turned them into mindless, shambling beings that also carry their own nuclear radiation, which they pass on to anyone they touch.
That’s right—this movie is about nuclear zombie children giving radioactive hugs. And it is awesome. Every time one of these kids encounters an adult (often members of their own family), they open their arms wide, greet them with a strangely emotionless smile, and proceed to melt said family member’s skin off of said family member’s bones.
Kalmanowicz’s film (from a script by Carlton J. Albright and Edmon Terry) explores the very common fear of nuclear radiation that was present throughout the Cold War, and does so in a way that skirts exploitation cinema. The fear of nuclear radiation was all too present in the ’80s (even before the Chernobyl accident), but The Children incorporates it in a way that allows the audience to have a bit of fun with the whole scenario.
Especially when it comes to dispatching the villainous children. This movie is not afraid to kill some kids! Chopping their evil, black-fingernailed little hands off seems to be the only way to kill this particular breed of zombie, and Kalmanowicz wastes no time getting down to business. With a freaking samurai sword, nonetheless!
The burned skin makeup from effects artist Craig Lyman is sufficiently gnarly, looking the right amount of both crispy and goopy, as only good radiation burns can. The kids’ monster makeup is a little on the minimalist side (dark circles under their eyes and black fingernails), but it still works, particularly the fingernails. Fans have remembered this movie based on that detail alone.
Since the film spends a lot of time with the adults trying to figure out where their children are (having not yet realized that their kids have mutated into murderous little monsters), it thankfully creates a group of characters that we don’t mind spending time with, even if their behavior is a bit erratic at times. John and Kathy Freemont (Martin Shakar and Gail Garnett) pick the strangest moments to start arguing, and the nude sunbathing / speedo-clad body builder duo of Dee Dee Jones (Rita Montone) and Jackson Lane (John Codigilia) should probably have their children removed by Child Protective Services.
But the actors do a good job of filling the time between these odd moments with depictions of genuine parental concern. As John and Kathy try to figure out what happened to their eldest daughter and keep an eye on their small son, we see their fear slowly grow. What starts out as a simple question of trying to find a missing busload of kids slowly grows. Not only is their daughter missing, but she has become something terrifying. Something mindless. And they have another child to protect, as well as a new baby on the way. Sharak and Garnett tap into the fear that is innate in every parent when they realize that their children have been put at risk and they have no earthly idea what to do.
They eventually learn that not everyone can be saved and that all problems can be solved with a samurai sword. The bonkers conclusion of The Children is insane fun in the darkest way. This movie stands out as one of the crazy AF offerings of the decade and reminds us that not every movie has to be a box office smash in order to be entertaining.
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