Who Can Kill a Child? Nic Cage, That’s Who

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Mom and Dad (2018)

Over-the-top Nicolas Cage performances are often conversationally boiled down to a single moment of absurdist novelty. Entire movies are remembered solely as “the one where Nic Cage yells about the bees,” “the one where Nic Cage angrily recites the alphabet,” or “the one where Nic Cage stares at imaginary iguanas.” By that measurement, Mom and Dad will surely be remembered as “the one where Nic Cage destroys a pool table with a sledgehammer while singing ‘The Hokey Pokey.’” It’s that exact kind of delirious lunacy trash-hungry audiences pray for in every Nic Cage cheapie, a novelty he stubbornly withholds in most of his direct-to-VOD dreck. Admittedly, though, the “Hokey Pokey” scene in Mom and Dad is only a brief diversion (in a movie composed almost entirely of brief diversions). He doesn’t even sing the entirety of the novelty dance song before he runs out of energy, just barking out a few lines in a single angry burst. The absurdist novelty of that moment cannot be undervalued, though; it truly is a wonder to behold. It’s also just one minor detail in a much larger, nastier tapestry of unexplainable violent outbursts. Mom and Dad thankfully amounts to much more than merely being “the one where Nic Cage destroys a pool table with a sledgehammer while singing ‘The Hokey Pokey.’” It’s also a wickedly fun satire about modern families’ barely concealed hatred for their own, a chaotic portrait of selfishness & self-loathing in the modern suburban home.

Cage stars opposite Selma Blair as middle-aged parents struggling to find fulfillment within a traditionalist family unit. Light banter barely disguises parents’ & kids’ seething hatred for each other as they lie, cheat, steal, and insult their bonds into tatters. This tension transforms into externalized violence when an unexplained supernatural event compels all parents of children everywhere to murder their own offspring in an epidemic of blind rage. Some of the widespread fallout of this event is captured in flashes of news coverage and in sequences of blood-splattered mayhem as parents swarm like zombie hoards to pick up their kids from schools & hospital nurseries. Mostly, though, the violence is contained to the suburban housing development where Cage & Blair’s rabid parents live. They chase their children around their home with various domestic objects, hellbent on murdering the ungrateful little brats while still doling out weaponized barbs of parental advice & commands. Meanwhile, memories & daydreams yank the audience outside the chaos of the moment to consider how the self-loathing midlife crises that preceded this bloodbath aren’t actually all that different from the violence itself. These relationships were never healthy, even when they were covered up with a smile instead of the buzz of an electric-powered jigsaw. This is an inversion of the dark humor we’re used to seeing in pictures like Cooties & The Children, where the kids are the otherworldly creatures to be feared. Here, parents are made to fear themselves, especially in regard to their unexamined jealousies & resentments toward their own offspring, who still have their glory years ahead of them instead of bitterly fading in the rearview on the road to selfless familial sacrifice.

Judging by the general negative reaction to last year’s similarly cartoonish home invasion horror comedy The Babysitter, I suspect many audiences will be frustrated by the frantic tone & editing rhythms of Mom and Dad. This is, paradoxically, a hyperactive movie with zero narrative momentum. Individual moments may indulge in the sugary energy of a breakfast cereal commercial and the whole thing is scored with a barrage of playful pop music, but its commitment to tangential asides & abrasive flashbacks often keeps its story static. Fully enjoying Mom and Dad, then, requires a forgiving appreciation of its pitch-black comedic nastiness, a wicked sense of humor where every parent is an untrustworthy monster and no child, neither newborn nor middle-aged, is safe from the malicious creatures who spawned them. I do think the movie plays it a little safe when it comes to explicitly depicting that child-endangering violence onscreen, especially in comparison to the recent cheap-o monster movie Clown. What it lacks in shock value brutality, however, it makes up for in a gruesome tone & worldview. The movie hides behind tongue-in-cheek touches like a 70s exploitation-themed credits sequence & stylized dialogue like “My mom is a penis,” but just under its ironic camp surface rots a charred, bitterly angry heart, one with no respect for the almighty Family Values that mainstream America holds so dear. To be honest, it’s a dynamic I find much more honest & relatable than the Family Above Everything messaging offered in feel-good-films like Coco. Even if you’ve never had a family member chase you down the hallway with a meat-tenderizer, Mom and Dad’s violent, deep-seated resentment is sure to resonate with you on some level (especially if you’re a middle-aged parent with ungrateful teens at home).

Show up for Nic Cage destroying a pool table with a sledgehammer while singing “The Hokey Pokey;” stay for the pitch-black humor about “successful” adults who find their manicured, suburban lives with the right career & the right family bitterly unfulfilling. Nic Cage is literally barking mad in this picture and is destined to steal much of its spotlight, but Selma Blair & Crank director Brian Taylor match his energy admirably at every step. This is a deranged collaboration among that unholy trinity and no family bond, no matter how sacred, is safe in its satirical war path. Mom and Dad may occasionally stumble in terms of pacing or tone, but you have to respect this kind of gleefully taboo social anarchy, especially coming from a comedy.

-Brandon Ledet