When discussing the influencing texts & spiritual descendants of the 1970s grindhouse shocker Who Can Kill a Child?, the tendency is to focus on the Killer Children aspect of its plot. Seen as a gory follow-up to the shrewdly economic British chiller Village of the Damned and an early telegraph of the Stephen King-penned Children of the Corn, Who Can Kill a Child?’s lasting legacy has been rooted in bringing extreme 1970s ultraviolence to an otherwise well-worn Killer Children horror subgenre. Indeed, that is a large part of the film’s appeal as a gradually escalating creep-out. Its tale of British tourists being swarmed by an entire island of genocidal, adults-slaughtering children (as if they were Romero zombies instead of wide-eyed tykes) is incredibly harrowing. As its title suggests, though, most of the horror of that scenario is that at some point the cornered adults must fight back to ensure their own survival and, c’mon, who can kill a child? Just look at their innocent little faces! The British tourists eventually get there after much reluctance & inner turmoil, but there is a recent spiritual descendant to Who Can Kill a Child? that found adults who were much more enthusiastic about the prospect. Apparently, parents are the most enthusiastic child-killers we have around, especially when they’re played by Selma Blair & Nicolas Cage.
Both the adults-massacring phenomenon of Who Can Kill a Child? and the children-killing phenomenon of Mom & Dad (starring Blair & Cage as murderous parents) are unexplained supernatural events with ambiguous origins. The killer kids in our Movie of the Month are somewhat contextualized as exacting revenge on the adults of the world for the way children are always the ones who suffer most in times of war & famine, but the source of their newfound telepathic abilities and infectious killer instinct remains unexplained. Similarly, the widespread epidemic of crazed parents everywhere murdering their own children in Mom & Dad is visually linked to broadcasts of menacing static over television & radio, but the source of those broadcasts is never fully detailed – to the film’s benefit. However, the reason why those parents find it so easy to kill their own children once the static sets them off is much clearer here than the adults-slaughtering impulse of Who Can Kill a Child?. Before any supernatural event occurs in Mom & Dad, the familial relationships between parents & children are already hateful & combative. The film is first & foremost a satire about familial resentment in American suburbia, where passive-aggressive conflict, barely concealed racism, and disgust with teens’ bodies & sexuality are thinly paved over with epithets like, “You’re part of a family. That means you love each other even when you don’t love each other.” All the static broadcasts really do is chip away at that social convention to reveal that, of course, your family are the people you want to kill the most.
Selma Blair & Nicolas Cage are the exact kind of broad, over the-top actors necessary to make a horror comedy about parents who resent & murder their own children a fun romp instead of a vile slog. Their cartoon-level showboating is also necessary to match the filmmaking energy of Brian Taylor, who pushes his hyperactive sugar rush aesthetic from the Crank series to amore purposeful use here. Still, no matter how many deliriously over-the-top novelties are to be found in Mom & Dad—Nic Cage singing “The Hokey Pokey” while destroying a billiard table comes to mind—the underlying familial resentment that fuels its parent-child fights to the death remains palpable throughout. Blair & Cage play “successful” adults who find their manicured, suburban lives with The Right Career & The Right Family bitterly unfulfilling. Their light banter in early domestic scenes with their children barely conceals the family’s seething hatred for each other as they lie, cheat, steal, and insult their bonds into tatters. All the static phenomenon does is externalize the violence that was already threatening to explode under the surface. Who Can Kill a Child? is a much more somber, focused, and daringly explicit film in depicting its child-on-adult violence, but it never fully justifies its central premise with a clear reason or sentiment behind its Killer Children phenomenon. By contrast, Mom & Dad’s thematic justification for intergenerational violence is all too clear, uncomfortably mirroring the underlying resentment of all American households in a deeply ugly light. Despite its grindhouse-70s opening titles sequence, however, Mom & Dad is not nearly as willing to commit to depicting violence against children onscreen as Who Can Kill a Child? is, which almost makes its glibness with that violence land with less heft.
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, our look at its more muted predecessor, Village of the Damned, and last week’s assessment of its influence on Children of the Corn.