What is The Children about?
Elaine (Eva Birthistle), and husband Jonah (Stephen Campbell Moore) arrive with petulant teenage daughter Casey (Hannah Tointon), anxious Miranda (Eva Sayer), and sickly Paulie (William Howes). There’s an enthusiastic welcome from Elaine’s sister Chloe (Rachael Shelley), husband Robbie (Jeremy Sheffield), and their kids, broody Nicky (Jake Hathaway) and young, shy Leah (Raffiella Brooks). It’s a handful-and-a-half of loud, nervous, disruptive energy for the parents, but that ain’t nothing compared to the chaos yet to come.
After the young kids have been put to bed, the adults finally get to relax and enjoy a little grown-up time. Meanwhile the dynamics between the children has shifted. Paulie, who had been throwing up, has become withdrawn, and now Leah coughs and splutters, wiping away a dark viscous substance from her mouth onto her pillow (cue: microscopic close-up of nasty swarming bacteria). Later after midnight Paulie awakens, shuffles out of the bedroom and lingers over his sleeping parents, staring with vacant, frightening intent.
The Children Review
Tom Shankland directed the dense psycho-thriller WAZ (2007, a.k.a. W Delta Z), but The Children is a lot more resonant and memorable, flickering and twitching like a deeply-etched nightmare, and, most effectively, vibing in look and feel like a tenebrous tale of domestic disintegration and claustrophobic dread straight out of the Euro mid-70s.
The screenplay is by director Shankland, from a story by Paul Andrew Williams – the talented writer/director behind the crime-caper London to Brighton (2006), black comedy-horror The Cottage (2008), the decidedly vicious home invasion Cherry Tree Lane (2010), and more recently, the brutal revenge tale Bull (2021).
Indeed, it’s a simple, horrifying premise; one family visiting another to celebrate the New Year in the country, in the cold heart of winter, soon discover their children are infected with an aggressive, unknown virus. It’s a diabolical illness that systemically turns all the kids murderously against their parents.
Shankland has garnered an excellent cast, and skillfully works against the old film industry adage of never working with children and animals by eliciting convincing levels of intensity from the four younger children. The stand-out performance, however, is Hannah Tointon. Despite Casey’s adolescent troublemaking, it is her situation that rings the most truth, and the movie narrows in on her plight. Tointon is terrific in the role.
The sporadic, elliptical editing contributes to the movie’s oppressive atmosphere of oneiric unease, as does the frosty imagery of the surrounding forest and the children’s abandoned toys. There’s the parents’ creeping fear and the escalating tension and suspense as the children inexorably transform from the hapless innocents they once were into insidious, infected little terrors. This kids vs. adults trope has been used many times before, but rarely so creepily.
Soon enough extreme violence rears its ugly head and it packs some serious punch, and those viewers squeamish about ocular horror should take heed.
The Children is a very eerie, apocalyptic tale, the scope of which only becomes terrifyingly clear in the last few minutes. Despite the ending being left open, a sequel has never been made, and I’m thankful for that. The horrors of this ilk are best left engulfed by the darkness of the cosmic unknown, it makes for a more atmospheric and powerful piece of cinema, and The Children is one of the best of the last twenty years.
It’s a shame then that Tom Shankland hasn’t made another horror feature since, instead directing television episodes for a multitude of mostly mediocre shows.
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