Island of the Damned

One of the most underappreciated cul-de-sacs in horror cinema is the 1950s & 60s British thriller that turned expansive premises with global implications into bottled-up, dialogue-heavy teleplays. Sci-fi horror classics like Devil Girl from Mars, The Day of the Triffids, and The Earth Dies Screaming executed big ideas on constricted budgets in excitingly ambitious ways, even if they often amounted to back-and-forth philosophical conversations in parlors & pubs. It’s difficult to imagine so, but our current Movie of the Month, the 1976 Euro-grindhouse provocation Who Can Kill a Child? has strong roots in one of the most iconic examples of this buttoned-up British tradition – the 1964 chiller Village of the Damned. What’s most amazing about that influence is that the calmer, more dialogue-heavy example of the pair is somehow just as disturbing as its ultraviolent descendent. Even working under harsh financial restraints & systemic moral censorship in a more conservative time for horror cinema, Village of the Damned holds its own against the free-to-shock grindhouse nasties that followed in its wake.

It’s not that Village of the Damned was the only killer-children horror film that could or would have influenced Who Can Kill a Child?. From the classier Evil Children artifacts like Rosemary’s Baby & The Bad Seed to schlockier contemporaries like It’s Alive! & Kill Baby Kill, it’s remarkably rich thematic territory that’s been mined countless times before & since. Still, there’s something about the way the concept is handled in Village of the Damned that directly correlates to Who Can Kill a Child?, particularly in the two films’ opening acts. They both begin with the eerie quiet of a vacated city where the adults have been neutralized (in Who Can Kill a Child? because they were massacred, in Village of the Damned because they were gassed by alien invaders). Both films dwell on the mystery of those vacant rural-village settings for as long as possible before revealing that their central antagonists will be murderous children. Those children may have different respective supernatural abilities (the ones of Who Can Kill a Child? are unusually athletic & muscular while the toe-headed cherubs of Village of the Damned are hyper-inteligent), but they share a common penchant for telepathic communication that leaves their adult victims out of the loop. Most importantly, Village of the Damned concludes with its main protagonist (veteran stage actor George Sanders) making the “heroic” decision to kill a classroom full of children to save the planet, which touches on the exact thematic conflict referenced in its unlikely decedent’s title.

There are, of course, plenty of ways that Who Can Kill a Child? mutates & reconfigures the Village of the Damned template instead of merely copying it (lest it suffer the same fate as John Carpenter’s tepid 90s remake). Instead of the killer children being a set number of alien invaders in a small village, they’re instead a growing number of infectious revolutionaries who can recruit more tykes into their adult-massacring cause – making their eventual escape from their island home a global threat. Since the sensibilities of the horror genre in general has changed drastically between the two films – from teleplays to gore fests – Who Can Kill a Child? also translates the earlier film’s “The Birds except with Children” gimmick to more of a hyperviolent George Romero scenario. Surprisingly, though, the most pronounced difference between the two works is their respective relationships with the military. In Village of the Damned, the British military is a force for patriotic good against an invading space alien Other – who trigger post-War trauma over entire communities being gassed & destroyed. Who Can Kill a Child? is much, much tougher on military activity, framing its entire children’s-revenge-on-adults scenario as retribution for the way it’s always children who suffer most for adults’ war crimes. That makes this gory Spanish mutation of the buttoned-up British original the exact right kind of cinematic descendent – the kind that’s in active conversation with its predecessors instead of merely copying them.

Who Can Kill a Child? is less restrained than Village of the Damned in terms of its politics & its violence, but both films are on equal footing in terms of bone-deep chills—which speaks to the power of the teleplay-style writing & acting of 1960s British horror. Village of the Damned is nowhere near the flashiest nor the most audacious entry in the Evil Children subgenre, but it is an incredibly effective one that plays just as hauntingly today as it did a half century ago. It’s like being locked in a deep freezer for 77minutes of pure panic, so it makes sense that it’d have a wide-reaching influence on films that don’t either share its sense of restraint nor its politics.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the 1976 Euro-grindhouse provocation Who Can Kill a Child? , check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

3 thoughts on “Island of the Damned

  1. Pingback: Bloody Birthday (1986) | Swampflix

  2. Pingback: Descendants of the Corn | Swampflix

  3. Pingback: Who Can Kill a Child? Nic Cage, That’s Who | Swampflix

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