UK | 2008 | Directed by Tom Shankland
Logline: Two families unite at an isolated country house to welcome in the New Year only to find their four children have become infected with a parricidal-inducing virus.
In the crisp country retreat of a lovely country house Elaine (Eva Birthistle) and husband Jonah (Stephen Campbell Moore) arrive with grumpy teenage daughter Casey (Hannah Tointon), anxious Miranda (Eva Sayer) and Paulie (William Howes), who’s a little green around the gills. There’s an enthusiastic welcome from Elaine’s sister Chloe (Rachael Shelley), husband Robbie (Jeremy Sheffield), and their kids, broody Nicky (Jake Hathaway) and 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 horror and terror still to come.
The premise is very simple, yet utterly devastating; one family visiting another to celebrate the New Year in the rural English heart of winter end up with all their children infected with an aggressive, unknown virus, who then turn murderously against their parents. It’s a nightmarish scenario, and Shankland, who also wrote the screenplay, handles the increasing chaos consummately.
The story is courtesy of Paul Andrew Williams, who wrote and directed The Cottage and Cherry Tree Lane. Shankland directed the dense psycho thriller WAZ (aka W Delta Z), which had its fair share of intense horror moments and was drenched in the thickest atmosphere this side of Hell’s Kitchen, but The Children, whilst intense and atmospheric, is a lot more resonant and memorable, dripping with dread, flickering and twitching like a fever dream, and, most interestingly, feels – and even looks – like a tale of domestic disintegration straight out of the late-70s, even though it's contemporary-set.
After the younger kids have been put to bed, and Chloe has embarrassed Casey in front of her mother, the dynamics between the children shifts. Paulie, who had vomited upon arrival, has become withdrawn, staring vacantly out the bedroom window, and now wee Leah coughs and splutters, wiping away a dark viscous substance from her mouth onto her pillow (cue: microscopic close-up of nasty swarming bacteria).
The next day, during a snow fight and sledge run down the soft hillside beside the house, trouble, disaster and tragedy snowball. The seemingly self-involved adults, including Casey, are stretched to the end of their tether, and become helpless, even stupid and useless, against the sly and deadly machinations of the children. While the frosty rays of the sun pierces through snow-capped forest canopy, the isolation becomes overwhelming.
Director Shankland has garnered an excellent cast, and skillfully coaxes and manipulates convincing performances of varying levels of intensity from the four younger children. The standout though is Tointon; despite her petulance and mischief, it is her plight the audience feels most empathy for, and which the movie steadily narrows in on.
The elliptical editing that occurs sporadically throughout the movie contributes to the oppressive atmosphere of feverish unease, contrasting against the tranquil images of the surrounding forest and lonely shots of the children’s abandoned toys. The moments of brutal violence pack some serious punch, and whilst not lingeringly graphic, they’re still horrendous (watch out for the ocular horror!) But most notable is Shankland’s use of close-ups and extreme close-ups, and coupled with Tointon’s large expressive eyes, gives the movie a distinct Euro-horror edge, reminding me of Dario Argento and Sergio Martino.
The Children is an eerie, apocalyptic tale, the scope of which only becomes terrifyingly clear in the closing minutes. The ending is open and frayed, at the time possibly for sequel’s sake, but thankfully none was made, as the movie’s engulfing darkness is more powerful left as it is, and adds more fuel to the fire that 2007 and 2008 were arguably the two best years in international horror of the new millennium.