Children have always been popular subjects for horror films. They are the symbol of human purity, but at the same time they are a completely different species altogether. They carry a different perspective on the world, and when a child is simply standing in a doorway staring straight ahead, there is something slightly unsettling about him, as if he's looking at something adults fail to notice. Shankland is next in line to turn the little critters into true monsters with his latest film, The Children.
At first sight, this film seems to share some solid ground with that other British 2008 horror flick, Eden Lake. To set all expectations right, these films are very different from one another. Eden Lake works as a social commentary and draws its power from an existing phenomenon in Britain. The hoodies in Eden Lake are kids turned mad, but well within the plausible confines of our modern society. For starters, the kids in The Children are a lot younger. They range from 5 to 10 years old, and form by themselves hardly a threat to the adults. The Children is also more of a straightforward horror film, more concerned with messing up the laws of cinema than it is with commenting on our society. So for all of you expecting a film that rival's the strengths of Eden Lake, its probably best to look elsewhere.
Rather than pick demonic possession for an excuse, Shankland goes with the disease strand. That is, we get two little clues (one character notes that the kids look sick and one shot of wriggly cellular organisms) that some kind of virus has taken a hold of the youngsters. That's about all the explanation and back story you'll get. Annoying if you like your horror well grounded into far-fetched explanations, I personally can appreciate the lack of nonsense trying to explain something that naturally defies explanation. In a rather refreshing move, Shankland hides his excuse well as the kids are complete brats to begin with, nothing like their symbolic value and a lot more like a bunch of screaming, raging toddlers you come across once in a while. What's even worse, there are five of them.
Yet all the strong, good and promising concepts in the world still don't make a good film. Especially horror flicks are all about atmosphere. This is where Shankland succeeds brilliantly. I didn't have much hope after having watched WAZ, his previous film, but with The Children Shankland proves he is capable of creating something with a very coherent, dark atmosphere which settles nicely right under the skin. Shankland's approach is not new but he applies it remarkably well. The first half hour of the film has little happening but already succeeds in building up a very strong tension. There are plenty of scenes where careful shots and a monstrously uneasy soundtrack create an unsettling atmosphere while showing nothing more than simple family scenes, often filled with kids laughter and adult small talk.
Shankland also knows when to switch gears. The film is mostly quiet and slow-paced, but from time to time snappy editing and enervating cross-montages build up the atmosphere pretty effectively. With this the director applies two style elements that give the film a dreadful atmosphere without even showing anything remotely creepy or nasty. Sadly Shankland still doesn't completely succeed into making a real masterpiece, as the film does miss the finishing touches of a true horror gem. The kids are creepy buggers, but they don't do much but plan nasty setups to get rid of the adults, and they just aren't as scary/evil as they could've been. Same goes for the gore, which is pretty graphic at times, especially considering some kids do get their share in plain view, but it still feels a little tame in comparison to recent gore gems.
Once the kids are up and running around trying to kill the adults, the film loses a little of its carefully constructed atmosphere, as the core events don't really fulfill the earlier promises which the film set. It's not that the second half is bad, it's just not as good as it should have been. The ending is pretty much by the book (the we-are-not-a-Hollywood-production book that is) and even though the lack of explanation is certainly refreshing, the clichés start making their way into the second part and soften the film's grip on its audience. Somehow I couldn't stop wondering what any of the big French names would've done with this second half.
Still, The Children is a strong entry in the recent horror hype. It creates a creepy and enervating atmosphere in the first half of the film, almost entirely created by the visuals, the editing and of course the magnificent soundtrack. Once the ball starts rolling it loses a little of its strength, though it never becomes stale or boring. The lack of any far-fetched explanation is also a strong point, the short running time another one. Films like this don't need much more and removing all possible filler just makes the experience all the more pleasant. The Children remains a true horror flick which little extra aspirations, so those of you expecting more from the film might feel a little cheated, though you can hardly blame this film for being released after Eden Lake. A very pleasant surprise.