Gathering with family & friends over the Holiday Season is both a blessing and a burden. It’s heartwarming to reconnect with long-separated loved ones, huddled up in a shared warm space, sheltered from the bitter cold just outside the house. Family can also grate your nerves after an extended period locked in that domestic prison, especially with enough young children running around, spreading germs and chaos at top volume. Kids can be cute, but they’re also a nuisance & a terror to anyone who’s looking to have a quiet moment of relief from familial stress. The 2009 British horror cheapie The Children understands that terror deep in its bones and builds its entire story around the evil & the chaos screaming children bring into the already stressful environment of a holiday get-together. It’s not one of the most tastefully considered or slickly produced Christmas-set horror films I’ve ever seen, but it does capture that exact kind of domestic, familial terror better than almost any film I can name, save maybe for The Babadook.
Two adult siblings gather their families together for a Christmastime reunion. The adults drink cocktails & gab downstairs while their children play with a mess of toys in the bedroom. One moody teen finds herself caught between those two realms. Bitterness over petty drama involving financial decisions, parenting techniques, and so on make for a partially tense affair, but the adults do an admirable job of putting on a calm face in an uncomfortable situation . . . until the children get involved. For unexplained, seemingly supernatural reasons the kids upstairs become physically & mentally ill in a way that makes them murderous monsters. Using whimpers of “Mommy” &”Daddy” and loud bursts of playtime chaos as a distraction, the children start killing off their parents & other adult relatives one by one in brutal mutilations they either frame as accidents or the doings of the unruly teen. The Children poses its titular tykes as bacteria-filled Petri dishes of pure evil, a chaotic force of Nature that breaks down familial, Christmastime decorum into a violent mess. By the time their victims can decide if they’re even acting strangely or if they’re just “testing boundaries” the way all children tend to do, it’s already far too late.
Stylistically, The Children attempts to accomplish a lot with very few resources to back up its ambitions. Its sets & production values are limited, but it does what it can with quick cut montage edits, weirdo children’s toy sculptures, microbial Nature footage, and practical effects gore to terrorize its audience. Its children-as-monsters premise isn’t exactly a one of a kind in the horror genre; similar ground has been covered in works as wide-ranging as 1956’s The Bad Seed and 2015’s Cooties. It’s the specificity of the Christmas setting, where adults are bottled up in a cesspool of familial stress and the chaos of children whining or at play only adds to the real life terrors that surround them, that makes The Children such a uniquely effective picture. Its slick editing & brutal gotta are what allows it to succeed as a dirt cheap horror production, but the universally recognizable stress of trying to hold your shit together in the face of children-at-play chaos is what makes it special, especially as a Holiday Season genre entry.