Who Can Kill a Child Blu-ray Review (originally published 2018)
An English tourist couple rent a boat to visit the island of Almanzora, just off the southern Spanish coast. When they arrive, they find the island apparently empty of adults. There are only children, who don't speak but just stare at the strangers with eerie smiles on their faces. The English couple soon discovers that all the island’s children have been possessed by a mysterious force – a kind of madness which they can pass from one to another – which makes them attack and murder their elders, who can't defend themselves, because, of course, nobody can kill a child… (From Mondo’s official synopsis)
Spain, like Italy, got a late start making horror movies. This belated beginning was largely due to the region’s long-standing political struggles, which ran throughout the early years of motion picture filmmaking. The last and largest of these conflicts was the Spanish Civil War, which ended in 1939, when the fascist-led Nationalists rebels defeated the democratically elected Republic. Generalissimo Francisco Franco was instated as the leader and ruled an oppressive, totalitarian regime from 1936 until his death in 1975. During Franco’s reign, Spanish cinema (all of their art and entertainment, actually) fell victim to strict, government-imposed censorship. This censorship, however didn’t entirely stop other countries from importing horror entertainment and the genre slowly grew in popularity.
The onset of Spanish horror began in the early 1960s, when restrictions were slightly diluted and gothic/fantasy terrors were finally permitted. This era was fronted by professional weightlifter turned actor/writer/director Jacinto Molina Álvarez’ (aka: Paul Naschy) gothic monster movies, Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead series, and the black & white mod-horror of Jess Franco. Then, decades later, thanks to Jaume Balagueró, Álex de la Iglesia, Alejandro Amenábar, and Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, Spanish horror had a resurgence, similar to the one Korean and French genre filmmakers enjoyed at the beginning of the new millennium. Between these periods, however, Italian and North American horror overshadowed their Spanish counterparts and a collection of unique movies were left forgotten outside of the most ardent genre fanbases. Among these were Agustí Villaronga’s In a Glass Cage (Spanish: Tras el cristal, 1986), Eloy de la Iglesia’s The Cannibal Man (Spanish: La Semana del asesino, 1972), and Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? (Spanish: ¿Quién puede matar a un niño?, 1976).
Serrador cut his teeth on television throughout the ‘60s, before making his feature debut with The House that Screamed (Spanish: La residencia, 1970): another under-the-radar Eurohorror classic that recently made its Blu-ray debut (via Scream Factory.) After that, he went back to television, where he became popular as a presenter, until it was time to unleash Who Can Kill a Child?, after which he returned to work on television. Unless I’m misunderstanding his imdb.com page, this means that he only made two theatrically-released movies and both are among the best Spanish horror movies of all time. If that isn’t an interesting track record, I don’t know what is.
Who Can Kill a Child? constantly threatens to step over the top, but Serrador takes pains to keep it from feeling exploitative. I don’t consider exploitative movies inherently [i]bad[/i], but, given the subject matter, it’s incredible that he’s able to be deeply upsetting and brutal without entering into the gory realms of many of its ‘70s era Eurohorror counterparts. The film’s steadfast seriousness and Serrador’s patience for slow-burning suspense are important beyond its lack of exploitative tone, because any killer kid movie – even the good ones – tends to be inadvertently funny. Here, the homicidal children are less like the rabid religious fanatics of Fritz Kiersch’s Children of the Corn (1984) or the squirmy ghost boy of Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On (2002), they have more in common with conscience-free, unstoppable forces of nature, like the flesh-eating zombies of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1969) or the single-minded, titular creatures of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Serrador purposefully evokes specific sequences from both films in order to hammer home the comparison. Like Hitch’s mundanely psychotic birds and Romero’s tragic living dead, his mysteriously maniacal children are frightening because they’re otherwise so banal.
Who Can Kill a Child? shares a superficial kinship with Wolf Rilla’s Village of the Damned (1960), something that the American distributors clung to when they renamed the movie Island of the Damned (some territories referred to it as Island of Death). Along with Mervyn LeRoy’s The Bad Seed (1956), Rilla’s film ended up being the touchstone for almost all modern killer kid movies, spawning one official sequel, Anton M. Leader’s Children of the Damned (1964), a 1995 John Carpenter remake, and countless imitators, my personal favorite of which is probably Joseph Losey’s greaser vs. superpowered kid combo, These Are the Damned (aka: The Damned, 1962, based on the 1960 novel Children of Light by H.L. Lawrence). Another obvious influence on Serrador and co-writers Juan José Plans & Luis Peñafiel was William Golding’s celebrated social parable, Lord of the Flies (pub: 1954). Golding’s novel was not written specifically to be a horror story, but is such a substantial cultural benchmark that it seems to be the basis for every story about children who are freed from adult influences. Who Can Kill a Child? is a somewhat unique version of Golding’s tropes (at least for its time), in that it avoids being too dependent on social parallels by removing all of the children’s explicit emotional motivation (or really any motivation besides violence). This may be the film’s biggest contribution to the killer kid pantheon, as it paved the way for future zombified child movies, including Max Kalmanowicz’ The Children (1980), Mik Cribben’s Beware: Children at Play (1989), and Tom Shankland’s The Children (2008; same title, different movie).
Serrador may have eschewed Lord of the Flies’ layered analogies, but he still clearly wanted to make some kind of political statement. Instead of leaving that statement easily read within the subtext of the story, as Romero had done (and there’s plenty of subtext to go around), he opted to frontload the picture with a grim, found-footage travelogue of atrocities throughout the ages, focusing heavily on the toll that war has on children. It is austerely presented, minus the typically exploitative tone seen in Italian Mondo productions or the Faces of Death movies. And it goes on for eight minutes, without any indication of the more stylish and definitively fictional film that is about to follow. It’s a borderline insane choice for an otherwise relatively mainstream thriller. US distributors saw fit to immediately cut all of it, but Serrador’s willingness to alienate his audience right out of the gate is respectfully brazen. The real-world’s problems loom heavily over the rest of the movie, though they’re only directly referenced a few more times at the very beginning of the doomed tourists’ journey. While considering this central theme of children being exploited and driven to commit violence, it seems necessary to mention that Serrador’s final film, Blame (Spanish: La culpa, part of 2006’s Películas para no dormir TV series), is one of the most flagrant anti-abortion horror movies I’ve ever seen. It’s pretty anti-lesbian, too, so it’s probably safe to assume that Serrador became more conservative in his old age.
As far as I can tell,Who Can Kill a Child? was never released on VHS in North America, not even under the alternate Death is Child’s Play or Island of the Damned titles. There were tape versions in the UK (under the title Island of Death) and Japan, but the film was practically lost until Dark Sky’s DVD release in 2007 (there were subsequent discs released in the UK, Spain, and Japan). For its Blu-ray debut, Mondo Macabro has gone back to the original negative for a complete 4K restoration. The Mondo disc offers significant upgrades in overall detail, cleanliness, and clarity. The biggest improvement is the simplest – a lack of compression artifacts. The Dark Sky transfer is pretty good for an SD source, but it is rife with edge enhancement and pixelation noise that has been entirely erased here. Personally, I still slightly prefer the Dark Sky disc’s yellower, more abrasively bright palette, because it conveys the sun-baked intensity of the film’s locations so well, but I can concede that Serrador and cinematographer José Luis Alcaine probably intended something closer to the Blu-ray’s more natural and consistent palette. Besides, I didn’t even notice the difference until I compared the caps for myself.
Technically, Mondo is offering four different audio options here, including the original entirely Spanish dub, an international mixed English/Spanish dub that maintains all performance languages (i.e. whatever actors were speaking on-set to each other is preserved), an alternate version of that track that dubs almost all Spanish performances into English, and the Island of Death cut, which offers a different version of the all-English dub. Every one of these choices is presented in uncompressed, 1.0 LPCM mono. The menu system makes this all a bit confusing, because you must pick a “version” of the movie for each track, but, really, there only two versions of the film – the original cut and the aforementioned Island of Death cut, which is about ten minutes shorter, because it skips the gruesome stock footage intro, then snips little bits here and there to speed things along for impatient American audiences.
Like Italian films of the era, most Spanish genre output was shot without sound and dubbed in post, so there is no ‘original’ dialogue track. In this case, some scenes seem to have been shot with synced sound and the cast appears to have dubbed themselves. Serrador himself has said he prefers the mixed language track, despite it being largely English, because it maintains the language barrier between the English tourists and locals. With this in mind, I watched most of the film with the initial mixed language track engaged (which is referred to as ‘English language version’ in the menu system). The lack of compression ensures that there aren’t any notable distortion issues, even though volume levels are punched-up compared to the DVD’s lossy track. The most substantial buzzing occurs due to recording limitations and crowded nature of the single-channel track. Still, there’s plenty of aural depth and natural ambience throughout all four tracks. Waldo de los Ríos’ rather typical romantic and horrific harmonies are tinged by the main credits’ unforgettably eerie, circus-like melody, which is hummed by children – either the homicidal ones, the victims of war, or both.
Commentary with Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger – Things begin with a new Mondo Macabro exclusive commentary with the editors of Diabolique Magazine and hosts of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. Given the commentators’ podcasting history, it’s not surprising that this track has the tone and pacing of a podcast, rather than a typical, ‘fast fact’ expert/critic commentary. Both women come well-prepared, but allow for a relatively organic discussion about the film, which helps them to keep the discussion lively and engaging.
Version Española (46:17, SD) – This made-for-TV retrospective roundtable (the show itself is called Version Española: Clasicos Populares) was recorded in 2001 and features Serrador, cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, and critic José Luis Rebordinos. The discussion touches upon Serrador’s television appearances, but mostly focuses on Who Can Kill a Child? from technical and thematic points of view and in terms of its international reputation.
Kim Newman on Killer Kids (14:43, HD) – The always amiable genre expert/critic explores the evil child subgenre.
Mondo Macabro trailer reel (11:10, SD)
Dark Sky archival DVD extras:
Child Director (9:13, SD) – Serrador delves further into the making of the film and the political messages he was trying to convey.
Who Can Shoot a Child? (16:07, SD) – Alcaine talks about his early life and career, before giving his impression of the film’s production.[/list]
Double-feature trailer (with Lucifer’s Curse) and radio spots under the alternate title Hex Massacre
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.