-Gary Arnold, The Washington Post: “Have You Hugged Your Ghoul Today?” (July 9, 1980, page B6)
A mere twelve days later, life imitated art…
On March 28, 1979, a partial nuclear meltdown occurred at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station (Unit 2)…in Pennsylvania.
The entire country — perhaps the world — was transfixed for days as the nightmarish, fictional scenario presented in the film became a very real threat. Fortunately, disaster was averted and there were no casualties (save for the future of the nuclear power industry). The prescient China Syndrome became a blockbuster film, a generational touchstone, and the fourth highest-grossing movie of 1979.
As a result of the accident and the film’s popularity, the anti-nuclear movement in the United States…err…mushroomed. In May of 1979 (just a month-and-a-half after the incident and the film), over 70,000 dedicated Americans marched on Washington D.C. to protest “unsafe” nuclear power.
Since horror films often deliberately mirror the fears and anxieties of their real life epochs, it was only a matter of time before a canny genre filmmaker picked up the gauntlet and crafted a nuclear-power themed horror movie. One of the earliest of the bunch was a low-budget effort entitled The Children (1980).
If you were a kid when this relatively-obscure film was released (as I was…), the TV commercials likely have resonated in your psyche ever since. The film’s horror imagery seemed…indelible (at least in short bursts). The advertisements for The Children were so terrifying that I didn’t actual see the film itself for years…until I was an adult.
Regarding specifics, The Children opens with a Three-Mile-Island-like crisis. An accident (caused by employee negligence…) occurs at the Yankee Power Company’s nuclear generating facility located near the quiet town of Ravensback, Mass. The reactor leaks a poisonous black substance, and in no time, a school bus filled with innocent children drives through a thick radiation cloud.
Because of this horrible exposure, the children are transformed into black-finger nailed zombie-like monsters. Their very touch causes the immediate incineration of human flesh. After disembarking from their bus, the affected children return home…exchanging hugs from their parents for – as I wrote in my book, Horror Films of the 1980s – “crispy, acrid death.”
Ravensback’s Sheriff Hart (Gil Rogers) teams with a local parent, John Freemont (Martin Shakar), to battle the monstrous children. The only way to stop the radioactive ghouls is to…chop off their hands, the source of their ungodly energy. The children lay siege to the Freemont home, and Mr. Freemont worries about his pregnant wife’s impending birth. Could the same contamination that changed the children, change the fetus in her belly?
In horror movies, children always represent tomorrow; the future. Sacrifice the children and you are killing hope, innocence and the potential for a better day, a happier future. That’s one reason why the demonic possession of Regan in The Exorcist remains so terrifying. If we cannot prevent our sacred children from becoming obscenity-spewing, crucifix-masturbating monsters, what’s to live for, right? The Children works some of the same territory. Here, the sins of the father (unsafe nuclear power plants) are visited upon the children, and the entire future is compromised. As you might guess from my synopsis above, the film concludes with a “sting” that imperils not just a few kids, but the next generation itself, and by extension, the very existence of the human race.
In my aforementioned book, I commended The Children for the gung-ho attitude it consistently evidences; for the courage to remain dedicated to its wacky and admittedly-insane convictions. In other words, the cast and crew really commits to the transgressive nature of the material, even if the first half of the film is undeniably rambling, goofy, dull and virtually incoherent.
Yet by the time of the film’s climax — wherein our “heroes” utilize broad swords and shotguns to chop-up and blow away primary-school-age tykes — such reservations about quality are likely rendered moot. In some important sense, The Children achieves that rarefied horror movie goal: it shatters accepted movie decorum. Audiences just don’t walk into the average horror movie expecting to see children dismembered, or taking shotgun blasts to the gut at point-blank range. So this horror film is not merely idiosyncratic, but deliciously freakish.
Again, you’re not going to see great make-up or special effects in The Children. The acting is pretty terrible. Ditto the editing. The movie lacks the veneer of professionalism you might expect; what you might term “polish.” But that’s all okay, because the movie’s ruggedly haphazard nature permits it to unfold like an unnatural dream; a bizarre nightmare. Harry Manfredini’s score aids in forging a pervasive atmosphere of dread, and there are some good “shaky camera” shots on display as the infected children creep behind tombstones in a local cemetery.
The Children’s finest moment, however, is one of surprising power, delicacy and subtlety. It occurs near the film’s denouement, when the sheriff and Mr. Freemont have the offending children (off-screen…) trapped in a barn. A tire-swing (hanging from a tree) is visible in the frame…and it is still swaying ever so gently. The fact that tire-swing was just recently in use indicates some important fact here: that the monstrous children, for all their destructive power….are still children.
Even as zombified, murderous monsters, the ghoulish children were engaged in the act of play and still obsessed with childish things (like swinging on a swing). It’s a moment of sentiment and realization; a grace note in an otherwise violent horror film. Night of the Living Dead (1968) shocked audiences by shattering many a movie convention (a lead character lapses into catatonia and stays there for the duration of the picture; the hero is not rewarded for his intelligence and resourcefulness…but rather shot in the head; and an innocent child cuts up her mother with a garden trowel). The Children is nowhere close to being in the same class as Romero’s seminal film, but it occasionally rises to that same plateau of hysteria: shocking viewers with not merely the violence the children cause, but the violence carried out against the children in the name of survival.
A superior person may be able to hold in his head two contradictory thoughts simultaneously and still continue to function. The Children holds two contradictory thoughts in its head and continues to scare…thus proving itself superior. Specifically, in The Children, the audience must countenance the idea of the contaminated children both as innocents and as rampaging monsters. That’s a pretty nifty accomplishment for a low-budget, drecky, semi-incompetent movie.
The Children gives the term “nuclear family” a whole new meaning.