I was still a kid when I discovered Children on one of our regional over the air channels that ran a double feature block of horror movies on Saturdays. The intro to the Thriller Double Feature mixed Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love (the instrumental weirdness in the middle of it) with images from several movies and there were shots that were used that came from Children and the breathy vocals and apocalyptic guitar mixed with the shots of the zombies has always stuck with me.
It is seared into my mind, and I can’t hear the song without thinking of that bumper. When I was finally able to catch the film on a random Saturday, I instantly loved the movie. I didn’t pick up on how strange and funny it was, no, it was the story, the setting, the mood, and the living dead that drew me in and has stuck with me. Even today Children Should Play With Dead Things remains my favorite zombie movie. It was made with so much love, and so much passion that it doesn’t matter what the budget was, or the skill of the actors, it just works for me in ways that other similar films don’t. There has been talk for years and years of remaking the film and, as with all films, I can’t be mad. You can’t get outraged when something is remade because it brings attention back to the original and gives us a chance that we can re-discover our forgotten love. At worst the remake is bad, at best, it may even rise above the original.
That doesn’t mean that I am excited about the remake of Children, far from it, but the least I can do is wait and see. I have to be honest here though and any time a filmmaker has clever ideas on how to ‘update’ an older film and think they can make it have more relevance and impact I feel like you’re better off just making a new movie and not trying to build off of an established one so you can rob that grave.
That’s just me though.
Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things is a 1970’s horror film set on a small island used as a graveyard for the destitute and deranged. We begin the movie with a band of theater actors who have landed on the small island at the prompting of their director, an insufferable egomaniac who lords the fact that he bankrolls their productions over everyone. The group is amiable and loves to tease one another, something the director is not a fan of. He has brough the group there to show them something and to inspire them. He has something special planned, but no one knows what it is. The group wanders through the graveyard and get an eerie feeling they are not alone. They are set to stay there overnight and so the director, Alan, has it planned that they will stay at a small home that the missing caretaker stays in. We find out that Alan has planned to perform a black mass to raise the dead, something his cast are none to keen to have any part in. Alan has a big book he insists has spells that will do what he needs, and he finds a grave and performs his ritual. When nothing happens, the others laugh at him and one of the cast members offers to show him how it’s done, performing a ridiculous parody of his ceremony and mocking the devil at the same time. Alan has the last laugh though as we discover he has a trick of his own up his sleeve, which genuinely scares his troupe. Worse still is that Alan decides to take the body from the grave they’ve dug up and to return to the house with it so he can have his own fun. What Alan and the others don’t realize though is that someone or something was listening to their prayers and has chosen to answer them in the most horrifying of ways.
Children is known by most for being corny, which it is, to a degree, but more it is a snapshot of a time and place. The ‘children’ are theater folks and hippies and the fact that they were all friends and knew one another in real life comes through. Director Bob Clark – famous for Christmas Story and Black Christmas, among others – nails the atmosphere and really wrings every bit of horror out of the location and night. Alan Ormsby, a director in his own right, takes the role of Alan, and worked on the special effects and their minimalism is what makes the dead so creepy. This wasn’t meant to be a gorefest but an old-fashioned creeper and it truly is. As the film ramps up and the tension builds that is when the movie is at its strongest, the sound effects and score really setting the tone. There is a moment when everyone thinks one of the troupe has escaped by going out the back of the house to head to the boat and for help. Then the silence is cut with a moaning that grows and grows and grows and everyone looks out the back and sees their friend being devoured alive as the dead outmaneuvered him in the end.
There is such charm to this film that I will always love it. Where so many zombie movies try so hard to be gloomy and moody and ‘real’ this one just does its own thing. It came out at a time when Night of the Living Dead loomed large over the landscape but this one hews closer to the idea of a curse that brings the dead to life, and these dead have their own rules and reasons. That it is set on an isolated island makes for a contained story and allows things to remain there. That this is a film that relies so heavily on the implied is part of its magic too. There is some blood shown but this wasn’t made to shock – it’s rated PG for goodness’s sake! – but to scare, and it works. The zombies are unique looking and scary and when they come into play, phew, it still gets me.
For fans of horror there are movies that just ‘get’ you. Movies that speak to you and stick with you and become a favorite. They can be bad movies, corny movies, or something that no one else likes BUT you, but that’s all that matters. That’s all that ever matters – whether you like it or not. I adore Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, quirks and all. It is a product of the time, and of the people, and it’s a film with such charm and personality that is rare to find. Those movies, those things that ‘get you’, and that speak to you, cherish them, because they are rare indeed and so is Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, a film far more concerned with the living than the dead, something that’s become a bit hard to find in films about the dead.
4 out of 5
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