The Children (1980)

The Children first published by 

“Sorry,” says Cathy Freemont (Gale Garnett), as she sits in the living room of her middle-class home in front of the television set, taking a long drag from her cigarette. Cathy belongs to what might be called a nuclear family, with her husband John (Martin Shakar), daughter Jenny (Clara Evans) and son Clarkie (Jessie Abrams), and a new child on the way. It is to this big bump in her belly that Cathy addresses her apology, all too aware of the damage that the inhaled chemicals in tobacco smoke can do to an unborn foetus. It is a little scene in the middle of Max Kalmanowicz’s The Children (aka The Children of Ravensback), but it also encapsulates the film’s central theme of destruction bequeathed in a nuclear age by adults to the younger generation.

After a leak, overlooked by negligent staff, at the Yankee Power Company Nuclear Generating Facility, five children from Ravensback go missing, along with their bus driver. When local sheriff Billy Hart (Gil Rogers) chances upon the school bus abandoned by the town cemetery, he sets off to find the children, with help from John and other townsfolk. Billy’s journey takes him through a mismatched community of eccentrics, and a thorny history of local relations that we can only begin to fathom. On the one hand, there are farming folk like the lecherous twin hicks Hank and Frank (Edward Terry, Peter Maloney), the redoubtable store owner Molly (Shannon Bolin, in her last on-screen rôle) or the apple farmer’s nubile daughter Suzie (Joy Glaccum) who wants nothing more than a roll in the hay with the sheriff’s deputy Harry Timmons (Tracy Griswold). On the other hand there are the wealthier set who have moved to the country, like the Freemonts, or like the lesbian doctor Joyce Gould (Michelle La Mothe) who treats – and medicates – her lover Leslie Button (Suzanne Barnes) as a child while inexplicably talking to Hart with seething disdain (that the sheriff blithely brushes off), or like decadent Dee Dee Shore (Rita Montone), who hangs out topless at her poolside with a weightlifting stud (John P. Codiglia) and is visited by chauffeur-driven, moustachioed hipster Sanford Butler-Jones (Martin Brennan) from the big smoke. Though merely sketched in brief vignettes, all these characters are just idiosyncratic enough in their interactions to feel real – while also managing to entertain and intrigue. Together they form a microcosmic mosaic of American society, caught somewhere between the ebbing counterculture of the Seventies and the affluent yuppie-ism of the Eighties.

As these adults work and play, the five missing children return, zombie-like, infected by a toxic cloud of yellow smoke that has turned their fingernails black and driven them to take all the townspeople, one by one, into their deadly irradiated embrace. Faced with a trail of horrifically burnt corpses, a community in rapid meltdown, and sinisterly smiling kids who just want a (high-rad) hug, Billy and John see vengeance being visited upon their town by its own future.

Produced and co-written by Carlton J. Albright, The Children draws on Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? (1976), as well as two very different influences from 1960: Wolf Rilla’s ‘creepy kid’ classic Village of the Damned (1960), and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), from which Bernard Hermann’s stabbing strings have clearly inspired Henry Manfredini’s score. The Children‘s own influence on Tom Shankland’s 2008 film of the same name goes without saying. The obvious low budget of Kalmanowicz’s feature has forced him to focus on character and mood, while keeping most of the grizzly human incinerations off screen – but this only adds to the film’s sense of creeping dread, as an all-American town (with Stars and Stripes visible on the periphery of many scenes) is shown self-immolating. ‘Sorry’ barely covers the transgressive, intergenerational sins on display here, in a topsy-turvy nightmare scenario where familial love is a mortal weakness, infanticide a salvation, and the arrival of a newborn a source of terror.

Summary: Max Kalmanowicz’s low-budget chiller sets a community’s kids upon America’s nuclear family.

© Anton Bitel