Narciso Ibañez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? (1976) is arguably the best Spanish horror film ever made. It’s also a classic of 70s horror, but you’re unlikely to find it on many ‘best of’ lists, from either fans or critics. This is mainly due to its half-hearted distribution; saddled with a number of other titles - including Island of the Damned and Death is Child’s Play - and shorn of up to half an hour of footage, Serrador’s film surfaced briefly on the drive-in circuit before slipping into obscurity. It did occasionally appear on television, however, and grey-market VHS copies circulated among fans of cult and horror cinema. Through this limited exposure, the film acquired a growing fan base, although it wouldn’t receive an uncut release in the USA until 2007. Finally, in 2011, Who Can Kill a Child? is being released in the United Kingdom.
Young biologist Tom and his heavily pregnant wife Evelyn (Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome) are on holiday in Spain. They decide to visit Almanzora, a small island off the coast. It isn’t necessarily the best place to go - there’s no doctor, no telephone and it takes four hours in a boat to get there - but they want to get away from the tourists. When they arrive, the island appears to be deserted, except for a handful of children. The shops are open, but empty, and it’s obvious no one has been there for several hours. Tom follows a group of giggling children into a building and finds them playing a game in the courtyard, swinging long poles at an object above their heads. But it’s not a piñata hanging from the ceiling - it’s the battered body of an elderly man. As Tom struggles to imagine what has happened on the island, he and Evelyn encounter one of the locals, hidden upstairs in the hotel. He tells them that the previous night the children took to the streets, laughing and playing, going from one house to another. Screams of pain and horror followed, as the children began killing every adult they could find. It’s time for Tom and Evelyn to leave, but will the children let them escape?
Like Village of the Damned (1960) and Children of the Corn (1984), Who Can Kill a Child? pits adults against children, this time working from the template established by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Unlike those films, Who Can Kill a Child? doesn’t dilute the horrific premise by making his children aliens or religious maniacs controlled or directed by a supernatural entity. The children of Almanzora were, until the night before, completely normal. Even now they’re behaving much as children should - playing, giggling, running around the town having fun. It’s just the nature of the ‘fun’ that has changed. Following Hitchcock in The Birds (1963) and Romero, Serrador provides no real information that might help to understand or explain the events taking place. Tom and Evelyn have better things to do than speculate about why the children have slaughtered the adults.
Serrador’s only serious misstep occurs almost immediately. As a prologue to his film he attaches 10 minutes of real-life footage depicting various wars and man-made humanitarian disasters, always stressing the number of children who died in each instance. This establishes the continued victimisation of children by adults (accidental or otherwise), opening the door for the children of Almanzora to turn the tables. Unfortunately, footage of concentration camps and African famines makes for an uncomfortable way to begin watching what is essentially a frivolous form of entertainment. Thankfully Serrador avoids such ham-fisted moralising for the rest of the film. When Who Can Kill a Child? gets going, it’s a masterpiece of atmosphere and a deeply unsettling, original experience, and one that deserves to be seen by a much wider audience.
Eureka’s new Region 2 edition carries the same content as the US Dark Sky edition, using the same high quality, uncut print and featuring documentaries about the director and the cinematographer.