Killing a child on-screen is definitely one of the taboos in mainstream cinema. The common perception is that showing such an act is so upsetting to an audience that they will be turned off the movie. The people who made Who Can Kill A Child? (1976) didn’t care about this particular cinematic taboo as the film proceeds to transgress it over the running time.
The opening montage lays it on thick by documenting how children have been abused and killed during war throughout history. It all comes across as heavy-handed and drags on for far too long, but once the story kicks in, the film gradually builds narrative momentum. A woman washing up dead on a popular Spanish beach turns out to be an ominous bit of foreshadowing. The local authorities quickly realize that she didn’t die from drowning but from several knife wounds!
Tom (Lewis Fiander) and his pregnant wife Evelyn (Prunella Ransome) are on vacation in Spain. The first third of the film is important as it not only introduces the two protagonists but also presents them as ordinary people on holiday. They do all the usual tourist things, like take in the sights, watch fireworks and take pictures of their gorgeous surroundings. It is this normalcy that lulls us into complacency, which will then be turned on its head in the film’s second act. It also gets us to identify and empathize with this couple so that we care about what happens to them later on.
Tom and Evelyn decide to visit an island off the southern coast. They are first met by several children that seem friendly enough except when Tom gets a little too nosey with one child’s fishing gear and the tyke gives him a dirty look complete with accompanying foreboding music. As they make their way through the village there’s a noticeable lack of activity. In fact, aside from the children on the dock there’s no one around. They go into a bar and it looks like the inhabitants left in a hurry some time ago.
Pretty soon the lack of life becomes downright unsettling. This isn’t helped by a young girl that appears briefly before Evelyn and who takes an unusual fascination with her unborn child. This scene is made uncomfortable by the sound of the unborn child’s heartbeat playing loudly on the soundtrack along with some creepy music.
Once Tom and Evelyn arrive on the island, director Narciso Ibanez Serrador establishes a tense, slow burn as they investigate the village, offering up little moments that create an almost unbearable feeling of dread as we sense that something isn’t right with this place and it keeps us on edge until the kids surface. The first real indication that something is horribly wrong occurs when Tom spots a young girl beating an old man to death with his cane. When Tom confronts her, she just giggles gleefully and runs away. This is only the beginning of the nightmare that Tom and Evelyn will encounter. Then, the film shifts gears to a white-knuckled battle for survival as the vacationing couple must try to find a way to escape and avoid these homicidal children.
Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome are believable as a nice couple whose lives are turned upside down when they land on an island where the balance of order is out of whack. The actors do a fantastic job of portraying the increasing fear that their characters experience as they realize what has happened on the island. This fear soon turns to sweaty desperation as they struggle to survive, their very lives at stake.
The child actors are surprisingly effective. They look adorable and innocent but their eyes look a bit dead, suggesting something not quite right. The glee they display in killing an adult is particularly chilling. There’s one scene, in particular, where one of the killer children converts another one by intently staring into her eyes for a few moments that is quite powerful and achieved through simple camera setups and judicious editing proving yet again that when it comes to horror less is more.
Serrador does an excellent job of gradually ratcheting up the tension as Tom discovers what happened to the adults in the village and it turns out to be quite chilling in nature. What also adds to the tension is that we only know what the couple does and find out things as they do. In doing so, we share in their growing dread. In some respects, Who Can Kill A Child? is a riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of The Birds (1963) only with children. Serrador’s film doesn’t offer an explanation as to why the children are behaving so irrationally – they just are, which makes it that much more unsettling. The film offers some tantalizing clues and heavy-handed symbolism but no definitive answers.