First published by EyeforFilm
Kids, eh? Half the time you love ’em, the other half you just want to kill ’em.
Elaine (Eva Birthistle) and Jonah (Stephen Campbell Moore) are heading to the vast country estate of Elaine’s sister Chloe (Rachel Shelley) and brother-in-law Robbie (Jeremy Sheffield) to celebrate New Year – and if the sibling rivalries and economic disparities of these two couples are not already sufficient grounds for friction, they also have four young children between them, as well as Elaine’s older daughter Casey (Hannah Tointon), an emo rebel seething with teen resentment and determined to test every boundary.
No sooner has he stepped out of the car than young Paulie (William Howes) greets his aunt and uncle by vomiting all over the ground, in no time at all Casey and Miranda (Eva Sayer) are winding each other up, and a screaming pitch of chaos, familiar to any parent, quickly establishes itself. It is going to be a long, long weekend, fraught with all manner of homespun tensions.
These may sound like the typical ingredients of a Christmas comedy or a sensitive family drama, but the very title of Tom Shankland’s The Children – an everyday word invested with ominous menace by its accompanying definite article – tells against such expectations, promising something altogether more chilling. Sure enough, it is not mere car-sickness that is afflicting Paulie, and as his illness spreads from child to child with alarming speed, they begin to (mis)behave in a manner that horrifyingly removes all the normal restraints from childish mischief, manipulativeness and malevolence.
“They’re like sponges at this age,” declares Chloe, boasting of her wish to home-school her children – and indeed, while the cause of their altered conduct seems to be a virus, Shankland also suggests these impressionable little ones have been watching and absorbing all the barely suppressed dysfunction in the adults around them: the mutual aggression between Elaine and Chloe, Robbie’s illicit desire for young niece Casey, Jonah’s easy resort to violence and overt preference for his own two children over his stepdaughter Casey and the constant oneupmanship practised by both sets of parents. So even if after a certain point (and this is hardly a spoiler) events shift from the domestic to the apocalyptic, Shankland never allows us to forget that underlying his genre-bound thrills are the sort of human problems that affect every family. The children’s sickness reflects and exaggerates that of their petty, puerile and vindictive parents.
As in his debut, the exquisitely bleak noir WAZ (2007), Shankland distresses his characters and viewers with dilemmas that are not merely moral, but challenge our fundamental genetic programming. This sort of thing has been done before, in Wolf Rilla’s The Village Of The Damned (1960), Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s Would You Kill A Child? (1976), or even Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976) – but Shankland’s careful escalation of tension, his subtlety of characterisation, his economic use of a single time and place, and his relative restraint (in a film that is at times visceral in every sense of the word), all make this a creepy genre treat that is damn-near perfect in its execution. No matter what anxieties we might project onto them, the children are our future – and so this film is just Shankland’s mean-spirited way of wishing the whole world many happy returns for the new year.