Who Can Kill A Child? (1976)

Who Can Kill A Child? first published by Little White Lies

Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s Who Can Kill A Child? (or ¿Quién Puede Matar a un Niño?) opens with a grim reminder of the human capacity for internecine atrocity. As monochrome newsreels parade the horrifying toll of the Nazi Holocaust, the Partition of India, as well as civil conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and Nigeria, accompanying text reveals the associated child death rates, while a solemn voice-over declares, “As always, the worst affected by the tragedy are the children.” It is all real file footage, with only the occasional muted sound of childish humming and laughing in the background to hint that this is not just a documentary.

A monochrome image of a toddler playing on a crowded beach slowly resolves into full colour, announcing the beginning of the narrative proper while suggesting a continuity, both formal (the lingering black and white) and thematic (the focus on children), with the bleak material from the prologue. A little boy runs gleefully into the waves, only to encounter the bruised and scarred corpse of a woman floating in the shallows – and suddenly we have departed from the very real horrors of the film’s opening to something that is altogether more generic, indeed more akin to the previous year’s beachy blockbuster Jaws (1975). Yet what follows will be not so much Nature’s Revenge as Human Nature’s Revenge.

English couple Tom (Lewis Fiander) and Evelyn (Prunelle Ransome) come to Benavis on the Costa del Sol, hoping for peace and quiet so that they can resolve their issues about Evelyn’s pregnancy – a pregnancy that Tom had originally wished her to terminate. “You wanted to kill him,” Evelyn says, still sounding bitter. It is high tourist season in Benavis, so the pair decides to hire a boat and move on to the more sedate island of Almanzora, blithely unaware of the bodies that have been washing ashore recently. They arrive to find scatterings of children on the island, but no adults – and as the children’s behaviour becomes odder, the sense of unease mounts. “There is”, as Evelyn observes, “something wrong on this island.”

Serrador (who also wrote the script under his regular nom de plume Luis Peñafor) plays out this spooky scenario as a Hitchcockean (children’s) game of hide-and-seek. Even as we viewers are allowed to see and hear more than Tom does – a concealed corpse here, a child’s mischievous giggle there – we also see Tom repeatedly trying to hide from Evelyn what he actually has seen, whether as a gesture of protection or of denial. As the full horror of what is going on gradually becomes clear – and it becomes clear, unusually for this kind of film, in the shadow-free glare of daylight – Tom must address the unsettling question of the title, posed within the film by one of the island’s few remaining adult residents (Antonio Iranzo). The answer, of course, furnished by Tom’s own backstory as well as by the brief survey of twentieth-century history provided in the film’s prologue, is: many of us. The kids are only doing what the adults have always done – although that does not take away from the disturbing impact of seeing sickle-wielding children playing piñata with an old man’s corpse, or prodding and probing a young woman’s half-naked body.

The most obvious reference point for Serrador’s film is Wolf Rilla’s Village of the Damned (1960) – indeed, Island of the Damned was one of many alternative English titles for Who Can Kill A Child? – but George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), with its frenzied siege, its horrific generational conflict, and its harrowing conclusion, has also played its part in shaping the film’s third act. The result is something chillingly creepy and unflinchingly confrontational, as a younger generation enacts vengeance upon its adult ‘betters’ – and while the film’s strong influence can be felt on subsequent features like Children of the Corn (1984), Ils (2006) and The Children (2008), nothing quite beats catching this rarely seen, masterfully moody film, now available for the first time in the UK in its original, uncut form. Just don’t watch it with the little ‘uns – they might get ideas…

© Anton Bitel