Killer kids have been in cyclical fashion ever since The Bad Seed (1956), as little Rhoda found that the best way to eliminate family problems was to eliminate the family; from that was born the blonde moppets in Village of the Damned (1960) and an attempt to attach a sci-fi explanation behind the killings. Onto the turmoil of the ’70s then, as a political and philosophical bent was applied to Who Can Kill A Child? (1976), with lingering and devastating results.
WCKAC? was released in its native Spain in April, and rolled out to various parts of the world under different titles thereafter: Trapped, Would You Kill A Child?, The Hex Massacre, Island of Death, Billy’s Got a Sickle and He Looks Kinda Mad, and most commonly Island of the Damned were all used to sell a film that is pretty hard to sell. This is a film filled with kids killing adults and adults returning the favor; tap dancing in a minefield would be a softer sell.
But that title and the film’s protracted Mondo prologue create a somber mood that’s hard to turn from: we open with nearly 10 minutes of an ominous narrator showing us newsreel footage from Auschwitz, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and others with the slaughter and devastation inflicted upon children. A somber start, to say the least.
Once that’s over, we’re on to the narrative. A married and expecting English couple, Tom and Evelyn (Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome) travel to Spain for a vacation. Their goal is to hit up an island off the coast that Tom had visited several years before. The couple rent a boat, and after four hours at sea, they arrive at their destination. It’s a little quieter than Tom remembers it, however. A lot quieter, to be frank. There are no people in the town at all; that is, except for the children. Laughing, playing, running, without a care in the world and wanting nothing to do with the visitors—for now. Soon, as Tom and Evelyn make their way through the deserted town front, they’re faced with an inescapable truth: all of the adults are dead, and only the children remain, bloodied, smiling, and ready to play more games.
Who Can Kill A Child? is the truest version of this film, just as writer/director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador intended; “truest” in the sense of supporting the theme that Serrador has set up: the evils of mankind lay waste to the innocent, and the narrative that follows is that reckoning. Take away that prologue, though, and it becomes a slightly different film.
I originally saw this in or around 1981 in the theatre under the title Island of the Damned after AIP scooped it up for redistribution. The version I saw didn’t have the prologue; what I witnessed was a straight-up killer kid movie. No less frightening, to be sure, but it was missing the solemnity that the audience feels with the extra footage. A pall, a sense of impending doom is cast with the prologue—you know retribution is at hand, and deserved.
But the film manages to get Serrador’s message across even without it: the loss of innocence. All children of war are forced to grow up regrettably fast (if they get to grow up at all); Serrador posits a world in which the victims become victors, the ghosts of every battle playing childhood games before laying waste to their elders in a sacramental lament. Evil begets evil, and karma wears the gruesome smile of a winsome child.
WCKAC? dances under the bright Spanish sun, pulling the poison into the light to expose and kill it; cinematographer José Luis Alcaine (The Skin I Live In) gives Serrador a beautiful canvas to splay his twisted morality play across the screen. These picture postcards hold the moldy stench of regret in every tattered corner: for the lost and the forsaken.
But the forsaken have a way of breaking through anyway; Serrador gives his children the outward appearance of normality, seemingly benign and naive—yet their actions are shown to be anything but. One shouldn’t need a warning with a horror movie titled such as this is, but the viewer needs to make peace with what happens; kids will die and they will kill—willingly, through a mass hypnosis, some psychic sea change without explanation. 15 years earlier, it would have been radiation; 20 later and it would have been a remake of a 35-year-old film. (There aren’t a lot of colors in this particular sub-genre palette.)
Fiander and Ransome are responsible for making us believe in the unthinkable, and their journey from confusion to fear and anger is palpable; Serrador eventually puts them in a Night of the Living Dead corner that is as distressingly bleak and ironic as it is tense. The craft sells the story, lifts it from its roots, and plants it somewhere even darker.
Who Can Kill A Child? is a film that ultimately asks us what price we’d pay for peace in the name of idols and gold. The answer is hidden behind a smile and a sickle, but it’s there.
Who Can Kill A Child? is available on Blu-ray from Mondo Macabro.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE SNAKE WOMAN (1961)