¿Quién puede matar a un niño? (Who Can Kill a Child?) aka Island of the Damned
(Spain 1976) Dir: Narciso Ibáñez Serrador
Lewis Fiander, Prunella Ransome
“Oh, yes…there are lots of children in the world. Lots of them.”
A year before Stephen King published his short story Children of the Corn in the March 1977 issue of Penthouse magazine, another tale of evil kids on the rampage saw the light of day when this nihilistic euro horror was released into the world, just as Spain was emerging from over thirty years of fascist dictatorship under the Franco regime.
Although the ‘evil child’ sub genre had proven box office gold in the 1970’s with the likes of THE EXORCIST (1973) and THE OMEN (1976) filling studio coffers, Serrador’s entry was decidedly more low key (and low budget) than either and eschewed the religious angle, indeed the film refuses to provide its antagonists with any clear motivating force other than the history of ill treatment meted out to children throughout history.
The closest the film comes to inferring a motive, as well as foreshadowing what is to come, occurs with its unsparing ‘mondo’ credits montage depicting atrocities and ill treatment meted out to children as a result of the actions or apathy of adults.
Cut to (then) present day Spain and we are introduced to holidaying couple Tom and Evelyn, who are expecting their third child. Venturing out for a day trip to a nearby island, they are surprised and perturbed to find the entire place seemingly deserted, save for the appearance of several children throughout the day. These children appear to act strangely and the couple realise that the island is bereft of adults.
Releasing to their horror that the children have murdered every adult on the island, Tom and Evelyn are forced into a fight for survival, one that will eventually face them with the horrifying moral conundrum presented in the film’s original Spanish title.
As previously mentioned Serrador’s film gives no explanation or origin for the children’s behaviour, and the script deftly infers that they possess some measure of mind control (other ‘normal’ children become imbued with the same murderous rage towards adults when exposed to eye contact), and the children’s behaviour suggests they are all part of a collective ‘hive mind’ similar to the alien kiddywinks in John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos, itself adapted into the classic 1960 chiller VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.
This culminates in what is arguably the film’s most horrific sequence when the pregnant Evelyn is attacked and killed from the inside by her unborn foetus. It’s difficult to pinpoint whether there is any clear message behind the film, other than ‘don’t mistreat children’, but the depiction of the children can certainly be read as a warning against the evils inherent in collectivism, whether it be political or religious. It’s hard to believe that this wouldn’t have played at least subconsciously on the mind of Serrador (who also wrote the script under a pseudonym, adapting the novel El juego de los niños (The Children’s Game) by Juan José Plans), given that the film was produced at time of great tumult in Spain when the rule of technocratic fascism was breathing its last after the death of the dictator Franco the year before its release.
Someone coming to the film without prior knowledge of this context won’t be denied the enjoyment of its tight plotting, minimalist direction, and show-don’t-tell narrative approach, though. It can be viewed simply as a great example of stripped back euro horror.The film has inevitably been overshadowed by the more bombastic ‘evil child’ entries in the sub genre, becoming something of an unjustly obscure ‘cult’ movie, although it did get a Mexican remake in 2012, titled COME OUT AND PLAY. It can still be found in DVD and Blu-Ray formats if you trawl the likes of Amazon (I caught it on Shudder a couple of years back, though I believe it is no longer available there). It’s high time an outfit like Vinegar Syndrome, Arrow Video, or Scream Factory treated us to a full restoration of this Iberian horror classic.