Ghost House Underground, the production company created by frequent collaborators Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert, was launched in 2008 to help give more exposure to a few lesser-known horror films from around the world. The first batch arrived last October, releasing a collection of eight titles on DVD. There are only four films this year, but each arrives on both DVD and Blu-ray: 'Offspring,' 'Seventh Moon,' 'The Thaw,' and this one, 'The Children.'
Evil kids have been the antagonists in so many horror movies over the years that I've simply lost count of them all. It isn't surprising really, as the hell spawn from our loins do have the means to make excellent killers. Think about it, they're small and can squeeze into places where a normal sized adult can't fit. The pitter-patter of tiny footsteps doesn't make a lot of noise, so they have stealth on their side, too. But most importantly, their innocence has yet to be tarnished by the the outside world, so any thoughts of a child turning deadly on a grown-up never crosses our minds.
The 2008 low-budget U.K. horror 'The Children' carves another notch on the ever-growing list of movies featuring tykes wreaking bloody havoc, as a mysterious flu-like virus sweeps through a vacationing family's blessed little angels and transforms them into despicable little devils. For a B-movie, the film is surprisingly tense, gory, and slickly directed, plus with all the H1N1 panic in the news lately the timing couldn't be better.
The film opens with a family of five coming to the end of a long drive in hopes of spending a festive winter holiday in the remote English countryside with their relatives. Instead of greeting his Aunt Chloe (Rachel Shelley), Uncle Robbie (Jeremy Sheffield), and cousins with a kiss, though, little Paulie (William Howes) says hello by vomiting all over their yard. Of course, Paulie's parents Elaine (Eva Birthistle) and Jonah (Stephen Campbell Moore) just shrug it off as car sickness and think nothing else of it. Eventually, some of the other children begin acting a bit crankier than usual as well, but again nothing too alarming. By the time teenager Casey (Hannah Tointon) notices something is wrong with her siblings and cousins, it will have become abundantly clear that these kids aren't alright.
After a horrific tragedy mortally wounds one of the parents it turns their universe completely upside down, especially when the accident appears to have been deliberate. Whatever has infected the children has unlocked a ruthless urge to kill, and those unaffected must find the strength to overcome the moral dilemma of harming their own in order to survive.
'The Children' has a pretty basic premise, but in the skillful hands of writer/director Tom Shankland he molds it into a novel and refreshing film. While this isn't exactly a "scary" feature, Shankland trowels on the tension so thick that the result is a totally disturbing experience. The gory scenes he stages are creatively done in such a way that they don't overshadow anything else in the picture, but when these segments happen they still hit you and hit you hard. Then, rather than throwing in the typical genre clichés for no rhyme or reason, he uses them to lead us down paths with one sole purpose--to fool us. 'The Children' has shocks galore.
As for the performances, I have to say I found them slightly better than I expected for a film like this. The kids give off creepy vibes well before things go completely haywire. Just the way they glance back and forth at each other with icy looks is chilling, adding to the slow-building feeling that everything is about to blow. There were only a handful of times where I thought a line or emotion felt forced, which isn't bad considering most of the younger ones have never acted before. The older ones, particularly Hannah Tointon and Eva Sayer (as Casey's younger sister Miranda) give the strongest performances and even outshine the adults.
Speaking of which, the bizarre behavior of the parents will also likely drive some viewers bonkers, but in this case I think it actually works to the film's advantage. A lot of people don't always act in a rational manner to begin with, and when a major trauma is stacked on top (along with the realization of your own flesh and blood have gone psycho killer), it's bound to have a severe impact on the psyche. Then toss in the unknown effects of the sickness, and it makes virtually any reaction plausible.
'The Children' may not quite reach genre classic status, but for a low-budget horror film it sure hits a lot more than it misses. The film is teeming with suspense, lacks typical clichés, and Shankland has plenty of style in his writing and direction. By not fully explaining what's going on, and cleverly inserting ambiguous clues allowing viewers to speculate the events in the film, he has put together a decent little flick that assaults the senses and stimulates the mind. As far as I'm concerned, any movie that forces the viewer to think hard about what they've just watched is a success in my book.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Lionsgate presents 'The Children' on a single-layered BD-25 Blu-ray Disc in a standard blue keepcase. The U.S. version of the Blu-ray is reported to be region-free and therefore should function properly in all PlayStation 3 and standalone players.
I don't have a copy of 'The Children' DVD on hand for comparison's sake, but the Blu-ray's lackluster 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 (1.85:1 aspect ratio) encode certainly doesn't boast the trademarks we've come to expect of high-definition.
As soon as the movie begins, visual issues are noticeable immediately. The film opens at night, revealing weak blacks levels and poor shadow delineation, which in turn tends to make the image flatter overall. A higher contrast seems to be a contributing factor as well, but the upside is it does enhance the vibrancy of the yellows and reds. Fleshtones are a bit pale and soft, with little in ways of detailing and texture. While clarity never reaches greatness and certain areas indoors do appear murkier, the sledding scenes at the height of midday have a few moments of attractiveness. There are some minor instances of artifacting and banding, but I didn't pick up on any edge enhancement, macroblocking, or strong bouts of digital noise. 'The Children' is obviously hampered by its low budget, so in all fairness this Blu-ray is probably the best it'll ever look.
'The Children' come out to play with a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. As with the video, this mix is a rather mediocre one likely with the budget to blame.
The main culprit here unfortunately is uneven dialogue. Sometimes it comes through clear and intelligible, while other times (during whispers and intense scenes especially), words are often difficult to decipher. It wouldn't be so bad if we could just crank up the volume, but doing so only throws off the balance in other areas. Surround usage is pretty active, as there is plenty of directionality and discreet ambience, even if it isn't top-tier quality. Stephen Hilton's score is nice and drifts to the rears, too. The bass is potent, giving the many well placed jump-moments some added muscle. If it wasn't for the inconsistent vocals, 'The Children' would have a decent sounding little package.
The disc also includes optional subtitles in English and Spanish.
The Blu-ray for 'The Children' includes all of the supplements found on the DVD release. All of it is presented in standard-definition, but most the content is actually interesting and highly informative. If you enjoyed the film, be sure to check out this collection of goodies.
'The Children' is not a perfect film, but writer/director Tom Shankland does what he can to create something fresh and tense, and leaves nearly all of the horror clichés checked at the door. While the Blu-ray offers mediocre audio and video, the supplements are at least interesting and informative. So if you appreciate horror films of all shapes and sizes, then definitely give 'The Children' a chance... it just might surprise you.