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Who Can Kill a Child? is one of the coolest discoveries I’ve ever made. It’s a cult classic, but not so much of a cult classic that it’s really a cult classic in name only. At the book shop I work we used to have a ‘cult classics’ display. This display featured such underground titles as 1984 by George Orwell, and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. If we sold DVDs, I’m sure we’d have featured Fight Club (we had the book on there) or Pulp Fiction. But we would not have featured Who Can Kill a Child? There would have been a solitary copy of it, tucked away on a dusty shelf, and the only way you could have discovered it was by pure chance. Although to be honest, that’s a much more pleasurable way to encounter art.
As for me, I found Who Can Kill a Child? on a very legal website, one of those websites defined by its absolute, unquestionable legality. It is not a movie I would have watched had it not been free on this website (as, curiously, were all the other myriad films and TV shows featured on there). Obviously, something is much more disposable if you haven’t made a financial investment in it, and I was contemplating giving up on Who Can Kill a Child? until about half an hour into the film.
It starts with a long-ish, gratuitous sequence of real life footage of children who have had their lives ruined by war. There’s footage from the Holocaust, there’s the famous naked girl fleeing napalm in Vietnam, there’s malnourished, skeletal children from the Nigerian Civil War, bug-eyed, bellies distended. It’s horrible, and unnecessary to make the obvious point that, yes, children are the innocent victims of adult conflict. Once you’ve got through that and the actual movie has begun, a middle class English couple, on holiday before the birth of their third child, amble through the bustling Spanish town of Benavis. They decide it’s too busy for them, and decamp to the isolated island of Almanzora, hoping it will be quieter. It certainly is that, but have you ever noticed that you have to be rather careful what you wish for in horror films?
What I particularly liked about Who Can Kill a Child? is the specific way it draws horror from children. The extended horror film universe is densely populated with spooky youths, but I don’t remember ever seeing a movie where the children took such a, well, childlike pleasure in being evil. I’m determined not to spoil anything significant from this film, but hopefully you won’t be furious if I note that there’s a scene where a child kills an adult. Said scene features a girl, around 9 to 12 years old, battering an old man to death with a walking stick while giggling as if she was playing the most delightful game. It is a striking, troubling moment. It makes the opening sequence of real life horrors seem all the more pompous and irrelevant.
This isn’t a film in which children kill adults for revenge. This is a film in which children kill adults for no good reason. They go mad (and once they’ve gone mad, gain the ability to hypnotise other kids into joining them), and decide that maiming people would make for tremendous hijinks. For me, that sort of violent ordinariness is much more terrifying than the demonic children you find in other movies. It’s more plausible, and rooted in the way children actually behave day to day. They’re just significantly more bloodthirsty than they usually are.
I am very fond of pontificating about how irritating children are. I’m not a fan. Yet I actually have a lot of respect for the killer children of Who Can Kill a Child? Their quiet malevolence and hyena mentality make them formidable, brilliant villains. They don’t behave like absolute fucking idiots, like real children do. They’re not selfish or whiny. They’re a formidable team. They go about the job of slaughtering their parents with a minimum of fuss, while still doing so in a way that seems appropriate for a bunch of 10-year-olds.
Their menace is only enhanced by the fact that you don’t actually witness much of the violence in this film; it’s all done off camera. Even when the girl murders the old man, we don’t witness any stick on skin action. Instead, we get a close up of her delighted face, and hear the thwacks of impact. There’s another great moment where a child tricks her father by approaching him in floods of tears, and then when they disappear round a corner together we hear a blood curdling scream from him. It’s properly frightening. There are times when the film could have been even more frightening had it been more willing to show acts of violence, but on the whole its approach works well. The best horror is always in the unseen, don’t you think? Really lets the mind wander.
As much as the supporting cast of kids are all excellent, Who Can Kill a Child? could still have been a bit silly had it not been for excellent performances from its lead actors, Lewis Flander and Prunella Ransome. They both radiate decency. Their performances are natural and understated, and they come off as a likeable, young-ish couple in a horrifying situation.
I understand that director Narciso Ibanez Serrador was impressed by Ransome but wasn’t such a fan of Flander. I don’t know if that refers to his performance, or whether they didn’t get along, but either way it’s a shame because Flander particularly is so good in this. He has this quiet steel and authority about him, which compliments his urbane demeanour. He’s like a very cool liberal 70s Dad. I’d imagine if you were his child (and weren’t brainwashed into murdering him), you’d feel like he’d be relaxed about you smoking marijuana, but then when he found out he’d actually be quite cross. But he wouldn’t lose his temper, he’d just tell you he was disappointed. Does this analogy make sense outside of my head? Perhaps not.
Anyway, the point is, Flander is great, and Ransome is great, and Who Can Kill a Child? is great. Even the ending is killer; a lot of otherwise good scary movies have not-so-good endings, because a lot of the joy and horror in horror comes from not knowing what the fuck is going on. The dizzying feeling of there being limitless, dreadful possibilities is weirdly addictive. So when the mystery gets resolved, even if the resolution is pretty frightening, it seems underwhelming. But (again, no spoilers) Who Can Kill a Child? ends on such an ominous note, with a particularly exquisite final line, that you’ll be feeling uneasy long after the credits roll.
My knowledge of Spanish horror films from the 1970s is sub par. It’s not like my knowledge of Portuguese horror films from the 1970s, a subject in which I am widely recognised as the world’s leading expert. Who Can Kill a Child? was such a magnetic watch, however, that I now want to do a deep dive into, at the very least, Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s work. Wikipedia suggests he helmed another horror movie in the late 1960s called The House That Screams, and also directed an anthology TV series which I suspect sadly hasn’t been translated into English.
Once all this social distancing is over I can’t wait to drop his name into casual conversation with pals, and then be all like “oh you’ve never seen any of Serrador’s masterpieces? Oh you really must, oh he’s so wonderful, I have wonderful taste, please respect me.” Even if you don’t plan on doing the same though, I still recommend Who Can Kill a Child? I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and it is so worth investing a couple of hours of your time in.