Films about murderous children are nothing new. Tapping into parental anxieties over not doing enough to protect their children and giving absolute evil a face of relative innocence has led to some of the greatest stories in the horror canon. Classics like The Bad Seed (1956) and Village of the Damned (1960) paved the way for mainstays like The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976), which in turn has led to more nuanced fare like Here Comes The Devil (2012) and Goodnight Mommy (2014).
Even amid so many great “evil child” movies, The Children (2008) stands out. This is a film that is often noted for its visceral, unsettling themes and shocking violence (if often implied rather than actually seen). Yet, if that were all there was to it, it wouldn’t be the hidden gem that it is today. Setting the scene during a frazzled holiday season would normally entail a comedy of errors that brought the family closer together, but filmmaker Tom Shankland chose instead to go into tense family dynamics that emphasize how misunderstandings can define relationships, which makes for an unforgettable horror film.
The Children begins with a couple, Elaine and Jonah, taking their kids to a family get-together over the holidays. Elaine has a teenage daughter from a previous relationship, Casey, and she and Jonah have two children together, Miranda and Paulie. They are visiting Chloe, Chloe’s husband Robbie, and their children, Nicky and Leah. The kids are all behaving wildly, running around and yelling with excitement, in a way that will be familiar to most people who have ever attended a family gathering. However, as Elaine and her family pull up to Chloe and Robbie’s isolated house in the woods, Paulie shows clear signs of illness that goes mostly ignored by his parents.
The rushed, disjointed dialogue does more to set a tone of in-the-moment tension than it does to inform us of the past. That said, there are some things that can be gleaned from the interactions over the first half of the film. For instance, though we don’t know the specific reasoning, Chloe notes that she hasn’t bothered to invite her mother, indicating strained family relations. Meanwhile, Jonah has prepared an elaborate business plan for Robbie to consider, but Robbie is completely disinterested in hearing him out and finally shoots down the proposition casually over breakfast. The power dynamic that establishes, and the fact that they’re visiting Chloe and Robbie’s beautiful home instead of the other way around, gives us a clear idea of the class dynamic at play.
Casey is the pivotal character in the film, and her relationship with Elaine is at the center of the story. Casey feels that she’s been roped into a family gathering where she is treated like she doesn’t belong. She doesn’t interact with her stepfather at all, and he ignores her in favor of his own children. We learn that she’s gotten a tattoo of a fetus near her bellybutton, calling it a “self-portrait”, and sharing the knowledge that her mother had attempted to abort her. Her dad is never mentioned, but it seems that Elaine was forced into motherhood before she was ready for it. Casey’s uncle-by-marriage, Robbie, flirts with her, and Casey is excited to have anyone actually pay attention to her. Chloe willfully ignores Robbie’s highly inappropriate interest in Casey, but later turns on Casey the moment she’s given an excuse to do so, indicating that she saw more than she had ever been willing to admit. When things start going wrong, Casey’s small rebellions, such as smoking pot and planning to flee to a party with her friends, are blown out of proportion and used to villainize her.
The children all become very ill and start behaving oddly, crying and throwing hysterical fits. Though they themselves seem enraged, uncomfortable, and confused, their actions become openly malicious. The family cat goes missing. Miranda has a violent fit in the middle of breakfast and in the chaos that ensues, Robbie suffers a fall orchestrated by his own kids and suffers a deadly head wound. Paulie coaxes Elaine up a jungle gym only to kick her back down. They actively attempt to turn the adults against Casey as she realizes that the children are attempting to kill them. She tries to shield her mother from the others, but the seeds of mistrust towards her have already sprouted. The rest of the film is full of energized, chaotic horror as most of the adults scramble to act in self-preservation rather than working with each other while Casey tries to protect her mom.
The violence of The Children is often praised for not actually showing most of its disturbing moments, and it’s true that the sleight of hand does indeed serve the movie well. Yet, that is not to forget that we do see many graphic, on-the-screen horrors. Indeed, The Children pulling back at times mostly just stops the film from becoming a no-holds-barred gorefest. What is most compelling about the violence in this movie is that it uses ordinary items to carry it out. There are no guns, and knives appear only briefly. The adults are destroyed by simple, everyday objects, such as children’s scissors, a sled, and a jungle gym. Knife-wielding children would have steered the film into ridiculousness, but going the opposite direction made the story only that much more chilling.
On top of everything else today, watching The Children will take on a new meaning for audiences who have watched the people around them staunchly refuse to take basic precautions to ensure the safety of others. The fact that the virus spreads through a small holiday gathering is disturbingly prescient concerning where we find ourselves today. One recurring factor of the film is that the adults are completely unprepared to handle any of the problems that they encounter here, which will be sadly relevant to viewers today. Elaine and Jonah know that Paulie is sick, but they shrug it off and bring him anyway, throwing caution to the wind by assuming it’s nothing more than a little bug. This adds a disturbing level of realism to what could have been a campy horror comedy but in truth turned out to be one of the most upsetting films of its decade.
Though this is certainly anything but a fun-filled holiday romp, The Children does expertly use the frazzled spirit of the holidays to communicate a sense of inescapable fear. The focus on Casey, and the film’s ability to sympathize with her despite her flaws, creates an atmosphere in which we see everything as it’s happening while the other characters within the story are inhibited by their own limited perspective. It’s brutal, it’s visceral, and it communicates something a little bit unpleasant about the holiday season, but The Children has only become more relevant with time.
Sara Century is a featured writer for Manor Vellum. Sara is a horror writer, a critic, a reporter, a filmmaker, and an artist that has written for many publications and platforms. She is the co-host of the Bitches on Comics podcast as well as the co-founder and editor of the Decoded Pride anthology which focuses on works of queer speculative fiction.