The Children (2008)
Rated R for disturbing bloody violent content, terror, language, and brief drug use
Score: 2 out of 5
The Children is a film that boasts a talented cast, good production values, and solid tension and scares... so why didn't I like it? It wasn't the premise that turned me off, seeing as how I enjoyed the similar "kids turning evil" flick Cooties a few weeks ago. It wasn't that anything didn't work on a technical level, because everything did (though the characters' West Midlands accents were thick enough that I had to turn on subtitles to understand them -- not the film's problem, given that it was made for British audiences). And you definitely can't say that this film didn't try, because it did. Ultimately, I think it comes down to the writing. The pacing was all off, running too long before things really get going, and while none of the characters were truly bad, none of them left much of an impact either, with their early development never really factoring into the story past a certain point. And while the ending tried to be spooky, all it really did was leave me scratching my head with the twist that it offered up. There's a lot to like in this movie, but not enough to make up for its faults.
The film follows Lainey and Jonah, a married couple who both have children from previous marriages -- Lainey's teenage daughter Casey, and Jonah's younger kids Paulie and Miranda. The five of them are heading into the countryside to spend Christmas with Lainey's sister Chloe, her husband Robbie, and their two kids Nicky and Leah. Chloe and Robbie are a pair of flakes, obsessing over vaccines and healthy food and planning to open a business specializing in traditional Chinese medicine. Lainey and Jonah, meanwhile, appear to be a happy couple on the surface, but Casey, who's planning on heading out to meet an old friend of hers in town, doesn't really like Jonah, and he shows signs of being a bit of an asshole. All this gets pushed into the background, however, once the kids start getting sick -- and it ain't just the flu. They're actively attacking their parents in ways designed to kill them, and when Robbie winds up dying in a freak sledding "accident", Lainey, Jonah, Chloe, and Casey must band together, figure out what's wrong with the children, and survive their craziness -- if they don't tear each other apart first.
Like I said, this film's two elements -- a drama about a dysfunctional extended family spending a Christmas vacation together, and a horror film about the kids in that family turning evil -- both work well enough on their own. The adults are all either sympathetic or realistically flawed, and their actors, picked from British TV series, all do really good work. Likewise, when it becomes a horror film in its second half, this movie is actually pretty scary at times, doing a good job juxtaposing its British Christmas environment with the violence on display. I liked how the kids, even though they've been driven to kill by some sort of illness, are never portrayed as zombie-like -- their bizarre behavior initially appears to be that of just bratty children, albeit with the mean streak turned up. Even in a film that implies a lot more than it shows, the special effects were still nasty enough to make me cringe. And the manner in which the arc of one character in particular was wrapped up was enough to leave a proper note of ambiguity hanging over the ending.
It was in the other attempts at ambiguity, however, where I started having problems. The film alludes to several different origins for the children's illness -- Chloe surmises that it came from Lainey and Jonah's kids, hints are dropped that it may have had something to do with the quack "medicine" that Chloe and Robbie were feeding their own children, and the ending implies that it's something native to the area, possibly supernatural in origin. The thing is, by giving legitimate clues for all of these origins, it left a confusing mess in its wake, one that threw the movie off the rails during the last five minutes as we get the final twist that it had to offer. I was left wondering what the hell was going on, but not in the good sense, where lack of information breeds fear of the unknown. Rather, it was a case of contradictory information that made important parts of the story difficult to follow. Furthermore, I never really felt the connection between the first half of the movie, which is a Christmastime drama where kids start getting sick and acting out, and the second half, which was a pure horror film. The development of the characters and the progression of their arcs pretty much ceases around the halfway mark as they start running and hiding in fear. It stands in contrast to something like From Dusk Till Dawn, where, even with a far more sudden and jarring shift from a Tarantino-esque crime drama to a vampire horror movie, it retained continuity with its characters and completed the arcs they'd been given early on.
The Bottom Line:
Overall, while I liked parts of this movie, in the end I just could not get into it. All the pieces for a great horror film were there, but they felt disorganized, and it just did not work as a coherent whole. This is definitely just a rental.