The Children (2008)

Well, this one's going to be hard as hell to rate. On a technical level, The Children is an extremely impressive movie. It's well-shot with atmospheric visuals, effective jump scares, and a really unnerving premise. The central conceit, that children turn on adults, is executed so convincingly I'm honestly unsure whether to credit the film's editing or the performances of the young actors for selling the kids as terrifying, deadly, and remorseless.

And if reading the last paragraph made you a little sick to your stomach, you may already have an inkling of the "but" coming up. Just because you can show something in a movie doesn't necessarily mean you should. I kind of feel like I just watched a new form of exploitation being invented.

Okay, "new" is an overstatement, and not just because the actors playing The Children's young antagonists are now old enough they might have kids of their own. While the details of the premise have changed, the central idea is in part recycled from Children of the Corn and similar tales. The idea of evil kids has been explored for ages, but this... this takes things a lot further by fixating on the horror their parents go through making one impossible decision after another and paying the price for trusting and loving their kids.

The story and characters are pretty barebones. That's not a criticism: this is the kind of movie built around primal fears, so the characters mainly exist for us to experience those fears. I'll lay out the basic idea, but I'm not going to bother going through each kill or the way things escalate - it's just not all that relevant to what we're here to discuss.

The POV character is Casey, a teenage girl being dragged against her will to spend New Year's with her extended family. In addition to Casey's mother, stepfather, and two half-siblings, the movie features her aunt and uncle, who have two children. For the most part, that's it for characters.

When they arrive, Casey's half-brother throws up, ostensibly from motion sickness. Over the next day, we see the other young kids display minor signs of illness of their own and - more troublingly - exhibit odd behavior. The grown-ups initially write this off, but Casey is disturbed. Then "accidents" start happening to the adults. When things escalate to the point where they're clearly not accidents, Casey's aunt and stepfather suspect her of murdering her uncle and one of the kids who dies attempting to murder Casey's mom, who already sustained a broken leg. Casey's mother is in shock from the experience and unable to describe what she saw.

Casey's father strikes her, locks her in an upstairs closet, and takes off with her stepsister. Casey and her mother fend off the remaining kids (lethally, at times). They take the remaining car and start to drive away, stopping when they find Casey's stepfather's car crashed. Casey becomes ill and throws up, which by now has been established as a sign of infection. A whole bunch of kids, presumably from the neighborhood, show up, as well, and stare menacingly as she and her mother drive away. The movie ends with a close-up on Casey implying she's probably turning, though it's ambiguous enough to leave open the possibility she was just sickened by the sight of her stepfather dying in the snow.

Beyond that, the movie's light on answers. Even the virus apparently causing the kids to go evil is left open-ended: the sickness might be incidental. There are a handful of moments implying some supernatural connection has developed between the kids, and an illness wouldn't explain why they're suddenly competent murderers, knowing precisely how to trick their victims and kill them. The movie also features ominous shots of the woods, so a more conventional (by genre standards) haunted reading isn't out of the question.

Again, the cause isn't the point. The movie's about the fear; it's trying (and succeeding, I think) to be a sort of nightmare come to life.

Regardless of whether you interpret the cause, the movie's tone is absolutely invoking that of a ghost story, a long-standing Christmas tradition in Britain, where this was made. In addition, the New Year's holiday, through its associations with eras ending and beginning, plays into the idea of a new generation sacrificing the old.

You could also make a case the movie's holiday setting ties into associations between the season and children, albeit in a darkly ironic context. Obviously the movie is concerned with children (it's the title, after all) and the reverent way adults view their offspring. A recurring theme in the movie concerns the way those same children defile that idea, implanting toy "babies" in their victims. Likewise, Casey claims her mother attempted to abort her, and that she was unwanted, a character beat resolved when that same mother is forced to choose to kill her other daughter to save Casey.

Again, this is a pretty messed up movie.

Whether this is worth seeing rests almost entirely on your response to its premise. Personally, I had a hard time watching, despite finding the tone and style both impressive and engaging. Part of me thinks a movie built entirely (and very seriously) on ideas and images this disturbing needs some justification for existing stronger than "being creepy," but I acknowledge a great deal of that reaction is likely due to the fact I'm a father of a young child. If you're a huge fan of the genre and not instantly repulsed by the concept of kids turning evil and being killed by adults in defense, you might find quite a bit here to appreciate. But if your gut is telling you to steer clear, do yourself a favor and listen.