Some films receive positive reviews upon their initial release and then don't stand up to the test of time. Others are dismissed or worse, ignored, when they first hit theaters and don't become critical darlings until later on. Then, there are movies such as 1980's The Children, which were bad when they premiered and are still bad today. Troma, a haven for bad movies, invites us to enjoy the unique experience which is The Children, as they've released the film in a new "25th Anniversary Edition" DVD.
The Children takes place in the small town of Ravensback. As the film opens, a school bus carrying five young students and a driver, drives through a yellow fog which has been released from the local nuclear plant. When the local sheriff, Billy Hart (Gil Rogers), finds the bus, it is abandoned on the side of the road. Alarmed, Hart begins to alert the parents of the missing children. As night falls, Hart and parent John Freemont (Martin Shakar) begin to look for the missing kids. To their horror, they discover that the children have become zombie-like creatures whose mere touch can cause severe chemical burns and even death. These now evil pre-adolescents ensnare their victims by begging to be hugged. Having learned the truth, Hart and Freemont search for a way to stop the killer kids!
On a socio-political level, The Children may be one of the most important films of its era. One has to only look at how the children in the film are begging to be hugged (ie: loved) in order to see the relevance of this important work. Made in the years following the Vietnam War and during the height of the Cold War, the film deftly illustrates the loneliness and unease which youngsters of that time felt. The kids are reaching out to the cold, uncaring adults who surround them and once they make that contact, all that they find is death. This is a film whose importance can no longer be ignored...
...OK, I'm just messing with you. The Children is an incredibly crappy low-budget horror movie and if you find any significant subtext in the film, that's only because your mind was wandering during the slow parts (of which most of the film is comprised).
While I am an admirer of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I'm not a big believer in the whole "so bad it's good" school of film criticism. To me, a bad movie is a just that -- a bad movie, and I'd rather spend my time watching a quality product. But, The Children is one of those films which is so bad that it must be seen to be believed. The movie presents itself as a very serious horror film and the end result is an unintentionally hilarious movie.
Listing the components which make The Children a bad movie, also reads as an inventory of why the film would appeal to lovers of sub-standard cinema. For starters, the children simply aren't scary. The only indication that there is anything wrong with the kids is that they have slightly dark circles under their eyes and black fingernails. So, in short, they look like early goth kids. (And their fingernails can change color, so watch out! Pale fingernails can be a booby trap!) To the film's credit, the idea of killer kids begging for hugs is creepy, but it just doesn't work here. (This sort of thing played much better in Tobe Hooper's 'Salem's Lot mini-series.) There is also an odd juxtaposition between the minimal makeup on the kids and the impressive special effects makeup used on their victims. If they could make the corpses look so gross, why couldn't the kids be scarier? Also, there are only five killer kids. Only five? Couldn't we at least get a good half-dozen? The film's finale becomes a siege a la Night of the Living Dead and there is a certain lack of suspense waiting for the five kids to attack the house. This stretch of the film also contains my favorite moment, where the sheriff, having realized that the children are impervious to bullets, slowly reloads his gun.
In the special features included on this DVD of The Children, producer Carlton J. Albright says of director Max Kalmanowicz, "(he) just wasn't a very good director." Well, at least someone is being honest here. The Children wouldn't be half as bad as it is now...or least it wouldn't be 2/3 as bad as it is now if the pacing weren't so slack. I got the feeling that someone was contractually obligated to deliver a 90-minute film, as the movie contains a lot of padding -- shots of cars traveling down roads, people walking, etc. -- all of which negates any sense of suspense. The movie also gives us no real sense of narrative structure or geography, as the children seemingly attack at random and criss-cross Ravenback very quickly. An odd facet of The Children is that most of the characters aren't very likable. Combine this with the unusually high body-count in the movie and you get a film where most everyone dies and the audience doesn't care one way or the other.
The Children is the product of a simpler time in American cinema, where a group of friends could scrape together the funds to make a low-budget horror movie and actually get it distributed to rural drive-ins and theaters in New York City. The Children is also an example of how it took little to no talent to make one of these movies. Ludicrous to a fault, this movie isn't scary, but if you're in the mood to talk back to the screen and make fun of a film, then The Children is for you.
The Children wanders onto DVD courtesy of Troma Video. Earlier this year, Troma asked the public to help it put together this "25th Anniversary Edition" DVD of The Children. (See this thread from the chat forums here at DVDTalk.com.) While I'm sure that Troma was hoping to find a pristine copy of the film, the search clearly didn't go very well. While I'm unaware of the film's original aspect ratio, the transfer offered on this DVD is presented in a full-frame (1.33:1) format. (I can't say for sure if this can from an open matte format.) The print used for this transfer was clearly used in a theatrical presentation, as it still contains its "cigarette burns" and contains some very choppy splices. The image is filled with cuts, scrapes, smudges and green lines running across the picture. There is a noticeable amount of grain on the image. On the positive side, the colors only look slightly washed out, and even in the dark scenes, the action is visible. But, this "remastered" version looks worse than my old VHS copy of the movie.
The Children DVD carries a digital stereo (48kHz/224Kbps) audio track. This track provides clear dialogue and music, but there is also an audible hissing on the track and during the bad splices in the film, there are "pops" on the track. The audio is rather lifeless and dull, although Henry Manfredini's music stands out. Unfortunately, it's also louder than the dialogue at times.
In their efforts to produce a "Special Edition" DVD for The Children, Troma has added some extra features to the disc. We start with an "Audio Commentary" from producer/co-writer Carlton J. Albright. This is a mediocre commentary, as Albright gives us a great deal of information about where the film was shot, who the actors are, and what went into certain scenes, but I got the feeling that he never went beneath the surface to talk about the "real" making of the movie. In an "Interview with Writer/Producer Carlton J. Albright" (7 minutes), he refers to The Children as being "pretty damn good" and relates many of the same stories which are heard on the commentary. Albright is joined by production manager David Platt for the 3-minute "Making The Children" in which the two reminisce about the film and Albright's groggy dog steals the show. Actor Gil Rogers chimes in with Albright for "Memories of The Children" (3 minutes) where the film is referred to as "a really scary movie" as they discuss screenings of the film. By far the oddest extra is "The Children: A Musical", which is an interview with Stan Richardson, an NYU student who created a musical version of the film. This segment includes clips from his show, shot on low-grade video. The DVD also contains the usual array of Troma's self-promotional commercials and trailers.
As I watch a lot of movies, I rarely devote time and energy to truly awful ones, but The Children is a classic which I can watch over and over. Like the films of Ed Wood, the movie is truly awful in an endearing way and is something which I love to spring on friends. The DVD from Troma is very disappointing from a technical viewpoint, but it was interesting to learn that much of the crew from The Children would immediately go on to work on another little low-budget horror film entitled Friday the 13th.