Movie Discussion: Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? [¿Quién puede matar a un niño?] (1976)

  • Monthly Theme: Evil Childrenquienpuedemataraunniño-poster
  • The Film: Who Can Kill a Child?
  • Country of origin: Spain
  • Spanish title: ¿Quién puede matar a un niño?
  • Alternate titles? Island of the Damned (U.S./Canadian title), Death Is Child’s Play (U.K. title), Island of Death (U.K. video)
  • Date of Spanish release: April 26, 1976
  • Date of U.S. release: June 1978
  • Studio: Penta Films
  • Distributer: American International Pictures [AIP] (dubbed)
  • Domestic Gross: ?
  • Budget: ?
  • Director: Narciso Ibáñez Serrador
  • Producer: Manuel Salvador
  • Screenwriter: Narciso Ibáñez Serrador
  • Adaptation? Yes, from the 1976 novel El juego de los niños by Juan José Plans.
  • Cinematographer: José Luis Alcaine
  • Make-Up/FX: Juan Antonio Balandín
  • Music: Waldo de los Ríos
  • Part of a series? No.
  • Remakes? Yes, as 2012’s Come Out and Play.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? No.
  • Other notables?: No.
  • Awards?: Critics Award at the 1977 Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival. Best Actress [Prunella Ransome] at the 1976 Taormina International Film Festival.
  • Tagline: “They don’t know it yet, but their vacation paradise will be a nightmare.”
  • The Lowdown: Tom (Lewis Fiander) and his pregnant wife Evelyn (Prunella Ransome) are Brits vacationing in eastern Spain. Overwhelmed by the chaos of the local festivals, they decide to rent a boat and visit a remote island a few hours off the coast. Once they arrive there, they find that the island is curiously deserted. The only people they encounter are children who will not speak to them. Soon, Tom and Evelyn discover that the children have brutally murdered all of the adults on the island, and that they are next… Can they escape before the hordes of murderous kids get them?

If you haven’t seen Who Can Kill a Child? our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.

Sean: ¿Porque tu hacer eso?

Kristine: Umm…

Sean: That’s what Tom yells at the little girl.

Kristine: That’s right. Tom is such an asshole.

Sean: But gosh, doesn’t he come off better than Evelyn?

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Paul and Linda McNaff

Kristine: Hell yes. I was just about to say. Tom may be a dick, but Eve is ridiculous beyond all belief.

Sean: I really feel like that couple is the true monster in the movie. Tourists. Bourgeois. White. Colonialist.

Kristine: Oh, I agree. Always screaming at everyone, “Come!”

Sean: I know. But for all Tom’s rudeness, at least he’s a doer and not someone who just flounces down and complains about being hot.

Kristine: True. Though who takes their pregnant wife on a rustic adventure vacation? Oh, wait, an ass who doesn’t want to have the baby.

Sean: But Evelyn’s ignorance really grated on me. “Gracias? Is that what they say?””La Dolce what?” “Fillumi?”

Kristine: Sean. Sean… What about, “What’s that? A piñata, you say?”?

Sean: I know. I was like, ‘Bitch, please.’

Kristine: Please, bitch!’ I am going to start screaming in my boyfriend’s ear: “ARE YOU HAPPY?!?!?!?!?!?”

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Gingham reckoning

Sean: This would be a completely different movie if there wasn’t an ethnic/cultural divide between the protagonists and the locals, right?

Kristine: Yes, I agree. And I think it speaks to the title. Who can kill a child? Someone of a different race/culture/station, that’s who. I have to say that I truly hated the intro with the footage of various war atrocities and genocides with PSA-voiceover and stats.

Sean: Right. I had forgotten aboutthe mondo-style opening and I literally watched the entire thing from behind my hands, barely able to look, upset and enraged.

Kristine: I, too, watched the opener from behind my fingers, totally pissed off. I hate that opening not just because it was gruesome and hard to watch – it was also irrelevant to the film. It gives the false impression that the point of the movie is going to be that the children are killing adults as retribution for being war-mongers and/or to protect themselves against future atrocities. Which is a decent conceit, but nothing in the actual movie proper suggests this is actually the case. There are tons of good reasons for children to fear and hate adults, but none of them are really explored in the movie. Sure, Evelyn and Tom are jerks, but what about all the other adults that are offed by the children? Show, don’t tell, Sr. Ibáñez Serrador.

Sean: I asked my boyfriend, “Is it morally reprehensible to repurpose Holocaust footage as an intro to your grindhouse movie?” and he was like, “Yeah, pretty much.”

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—–

Kristine: My bf said that same thing, that it was exploitive and not appropriate. I told him to wait and reserve judgment, because maybe somehow it was justified in the film. But nope.

Sean: Well, I feel like they put that footage there in order to, like you said, suggest that the children have in some way sensed the levels of atrocity and violence in the world, and that their rampage is a reaction to that. But I agree that it’s a morally stupid opening considering the movie that follows (which I love). The opening tries to politicize the movie in a way that both felt disingenuous and creatively lazy.

Kristine: Agreed.

Sean: Plus, remember in their hotel room when Tom and Evelyn talk about the headlines coming out of Vietnam? And he is bothered by the geopolitics of war, and Evelyn’s response is, ‘Honey, that’s in Asia. What do we care?’? I felt like that was a savvier way to contextualize the movie than that abhorrent opening. Especially considering how Tom then tells the story about the character in La Dolce Vita – “a man, wise and peaceful, married with two children, loved his wife, no real problems” – who kills his children to “save them from the world of the future.”

Kristine: “La Dolce what?”

Sean: “Fellimini?”

Kristine: Ha!

Sean: One thing I will say about that hotel conversation. I found her comment about Italians being fascists (the grounds on which she dismisses Fellini’s work) really interesting, because this movie is takes place in Spain in 1976. General Franco has been dead less than a year – the country won’t even ratify a Constitution until 1978. This is literally a country transitioning from a fascist dictatorship to a Western European-style democracy.

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Bed by Pottery Barn. Corpse by evil babies.

Kristine: That is interesting and didn’t occur to me. Even still, the overall conceit of the movie did not work. Which is too bad, because I actually think the set-up is pretty good. I love the island setting and all the scenes of horror that take place in the blinding sunlight, which actually escalates the tension (á la the terrifying chase scene that open 28 Weeks Later). As you know from our discussion of Inside, I hate it when movies use pregnancy as an easy way to escalate tension, but it works here.

Sean: So you didn’t like the movie?

Kristine: I have mixed feelings.

Sean: Can I ask something?

Kristine: Can I kill a child? Yes.

Sean: Did you think the movie would ‘go there’ with actually killing the evil kids?

Kristine: No, I didn’t. And I think the fact that Tom does kill so many of the children is important and one of the things I liked about the movie.

Sean: I think this is the best “killer kids” movie by about a light year. What else did you dig?

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Queer bait

Kristine: I loved the little fisherman kid, the one with the tackle box that Tom rudely tries to rummage through. I still want to know what is in there – human fingers? toes? testicles? I loved his Dee Dee Ramone hair. Actually, he had a Dee Dee Ramone face, too. He was my favorite of all the killer kids.

Sean: Hee.

Kristine: The human piñata party with the sickle was truly upsetting and horrible and shocking, in the best way.

Sean: Right.Tom, what is that?!’ ‘It’s a murder, Evelyn.’ ‘A schurder, you say?’

Kristine: If only Tom had been that candid with Evelyn. The way he withholds the truth from her really pissed me off. Okay, I also loved the scene when the children bust into the switchboard room to get the blond lady. All we see is a few of their bodies from the neck down, but man is it scary.

Sean: Yeah.

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Picture Mommy Dead

Kristine: I also loved that scene with the fisherman’s wife on the beach, addressing her children (who have just been “turned”). The camera pans up and we see the child army en masse descending upon her from the cliffside. So scary. I was also scared of Lunes, the creepy little girl who caresses Evelyn’s tummy for like 20 minutes. Before I knew that the “kill the adults” drive was transmitted via intense stare, I totally thought that girl was going to rip the fetus out with her teeth. Which leads me to the best scene in the whole movie: the fetus killing Evelyn from inside the womb.

Sean: Yeah, the fetus death is pretty intense and effective.

Kristine: Also, when that little boy with the sweetest smile ever is about to shoot stupid Evelyn in the head and then Tom takes him out with the machine gun. I was agog. All of Tom’s scenes fighting the children were really good and exciting. Especially the showdown in the streets, when Tom is appraising the wall of children, and he actually looks sad and empathetic… and then he mows them down with the machine gun (which he immediately tosses aside – DUMMY). I love that scene because it actually shows some realistic action for a change, and I also loved how the children tend to their fallen comrades. The one boy who ends up being a leader in the plan to travel to the mainland – he is holding his dead friend’s body and staring after Tom in utter befuddlement and pain. Like, how could this man have killed his child friend? That whole scene was very well done. And then when the police boat arrives and they shoot and kill Tom for assaulting the children? ¡Sí! And it just gets better and better as the children raid the boat for guns, murder the cops, and celebrate with a joyous beach party. ¡Viva anarchy! I also thought the shots of the dead children floating in the ocean were shocking and, in answer to your earlier question, totally necessary.

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Teenage bloodbath

Sean: Wait, so what didn’t you like about the movie, besides the mondo opening? Because it sounds like you liked a lot of it, right?

Kristine: Yes. The opening really started the movie off on the wrong foot for me. The unlikability and stupidity of Tom and Evelyn made it hard for me to care about their fate. I agree with your point that they are the real monsters, but that didn’t lessen my irritation while viewing. Those two things may not seem like much, but they detracted enough that I can’t completely endorse the movie.

Sean: Gotcha. I think the smartest thing these filmmakers did is to direct the kids to just behave like kids. To not try and “be creepy”(for the most part).

Kristine: Yes, I totally agree.

Sean: The range of emotions they’re capable of – like you said, that they register grief and confusion and shock when members of their group are killed – makes them scarier, to me. And I guess I just really love that there is no real attempt to explain what is happening or how it is happening. The children’s killer instinct seems like it could be supernatural in some moments, or psychic in others, or a biological contagion in others… But the movie just lets it be relatively ambiguous.

Kristine: You’re right. Sorry to beat a dead horse, but I really wish the director had restrained himself and not tacked on the fucking intro. I liked how the kids didn’t style themselves using the social constructs of the adult world – meaning, no official leader or bureaucracy. I’m comparing them to the killer kids of Children of the Corn, say. Again, anarchy versus fascism, right? It’s kind of hard to see the children’s actions as all that evil, considering they seem to be getting along just fine. They’re happy as can be sans adults.

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The truth about boys

Sean: But the movie does hint that they’re perverse. Like how the girls don the bloodstained clothes of that murdered woman and then Tom finds the boys peeking at her boobs and sort of toying with her body… suggesting who knows where they’d take things had Tom not interrupted them.

Kristine: I felt like both those scenes were showing a natural, if not always pleasant, childhood drive to explore adulthood. The girls with wearing the grownup clothes and prancing around and the boys with the adult female body. Creepy as hell to watch, but not necessarily perverse. As upsetting as it is to bear witness to, I think that a group of non-homicadal boys might very well do the same thing with a dead woman’s body. Like you said, the children act like real children, and real childhood is not always pleasant. This does bring up a question. What happens when these kids become adults? Do the youngeer ones kill the older ones?

Sean: We don’t know anything about how this society of killer children might evolve, but I trying to imagine the answers to the same kinds of questions. I decided that once they grow up, they choose to reproduce and, once the baby is born, the parents are ritualistically sacrificed.

Kristine: Love it. We need to write a script for the sequel.

Sean: I take your point above about the ‘natural’-ness of the children’s behavior, but I still think the film includes that scene of the boys molesting the dead body in order to suggest that the children themselves are unwholesome… Plus, the human piñata scene? That’s included to stress that the kids are not simply killing adults to make the world a better place. They’re sadists.

Kristine: True. But again, I think that might be children in general. Not just these kids.

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Incipient sexuality as deadly phallus

Sean: Ok, because I want to confess that this movie managed to generate an intense hatred for the children in me. Like, when Tom is barreling down on them in the truck, I was like ‘Kill them! Run them down!’ I hated them with their fucking blank faces and I wanted Tom to kill them all.

Kristine: Wow. How outraged were you when stupid Evelyn grabbed the steering wheel and prevented Tom from running them over (and wrecked the Jeep, their vehicle of escape, in the process)?

Sean: In retrospect, I really appreciate that fake out. Only because I think deceives us into thinking that this movie will be conventional and will never dare to show children being maimed/killed, so that later when it does happen, it’s even more subversive and shocking. When that little boy is holding the gun and smiling? When Tom shot him I felt a tremendous surge of joy.

Kristine: I loved that little kid and simultaneously loved Tom killing him. What about when Tom shoves his dead body away from the grate like it’s a sack of potatoes?

Sean: Love the shove. I want to clarify, I am disturbed by my own feelings/reaction. But part of me, watching, was like, “Yeah they are all just perverted little apes!” about children. The movie managed to stoke some repressed and weird bloodlust in me.

Kristine: The movie definitely encourages that response, I think. Although I feel it was tempered by the moments where we see the children taking care of one another and grieving when one of their party was killed. And for the most part I think your dark inner voice is correct – children are violent little apes. I only strike “perverse” and “perverted” from the conversation because I feel like their behavior is natural, not an aberration. Natural does not often equal nice.

Sean: To return to our opening thesis, I do think this movie is subversive in that it’s truly Tom and Evelyn who are the monster. Like, how they’re dressed in those early beach scenes? In bellbottom denim leisure suits? That is not appropriate beach wear.

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That’s what you get for stealing ice cream

Kristine: And their relationship with each other is not healthy. The way Tom lies, ostensibly to “protect” Evelyn, but in fact it endangers her more? The way he uses his understanding of the language to further keep Evelyn in the dark… Plus, you get the feeling he just doesn’t want to deal with her whiny hysteria. How Evelyn distrusts and undermines Tom – grabbing the steering wheel, for example. How instead of fleeing the island the minute Tom realizes something foul is afoot, he assumes his authority as a professional white adult is enough to entitle him to stay there and enough to protect him.

Sean: Exactly. And their comments about Italy/fascism/etc. mark them as colonialist tourists who are hostile to the local culture, I think. They’re bigots, essentially, no matter how much Spanish Tom speaks.

Kristine: I agree. A small thing that bugged me: Tom knows they are in a Spanish-speaking country. He speaks Spanish. Why the fuck does he attempt every conversation in English, before getting frustrated and finally switching to Spanish? Entitled motherfucker.

Sean: They’re just so boorish, so boring, so fuddyduddyish. “I want an ice cream.” “I eat Bimbo bread.” I thought it was hilarious that they wind up scavenging white bread.

Kristine: I actually didn’t know it was a European brand. I thought it was Mexican because you see scads of Bimbo trucks across the border. How about Evelyn being all, ‘You go out and explore the island. I’ll stay inside and have an orange pop’? I know she’s pregnant and all, but geez, she’s not helping relieve her ignorance of the situation. But again, who takes their eight-months pregnant wife to a remote island you have to travel four hours by boat to get to? That doesn’t sound advisable for a preggers, though again, this is the 1970s. I’m surprised she wasn’t chainsmoking the whole movie.

Sean: Yeah, Tom and Evelyn are terrible in almost every imaginable way. But I guess that makes me want to argue against the idea that their unlikability is a problem with the movie. I am going to be controversial and liken this to all the negative criticism that Girls gets (the characters are unlikable), when its clearly meant to be social satire. I’d argue that this movie is also meant to be very dark satire, and very much about the mixed catharsis of seeing the locals annihilate the naff tourists and also of seeing children treated as alien enemies.

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Jason Voorhees’ 6th birthday party

Kristine: So, the movie purposefully gives us no one to root for?

Sean: Right.

Kristine: I like to root, but I think you may be right in your assessment.

Sean: What’s smart about that choice is, I think the movie presents Tom and Evelyn as unoffensive enough that many viewers will root for them, and will identify with them, and will care about them – and that’s one of the movie’s wicked tricks. Because it’s only upon deeper reflection that you realize they’re horrid. And that, if you see yourself in them, you might be sort of horrid and complicit with their wealthy, white sense of entitlement.

Kristine: No worries there, I do not relate. Well, except for Evelyn’s whining. I can whine like a champ.

Sean: “Tom, where’s the potatoes?”

Kristine: Yep.

Sean: “Tom, I want a fresh cocktail immediately!”

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Ginger blues

Kristine: That might be an actual quote from my past vacations.

Sean: There is still an incredible amount of power, I think, in Evelyn’s death scene, even though she’s such a problematic character. That’s why I love this movie – it holds Tom and Evelyn up for critique, but it never trivializes their feelings or experiences. That death scene is legitimately horrifying, even though she’s been so wretched to spend time with.

Kristine: I have to say that I was so over Evelyn at that point that I didn’t feel one iota for her. I’m awful, I know. I was more moved by Tom’s unjust death, even though it was awesome at the same time. I was sadder about the local dad who is lured by his daughter into the alley where the murderous child army lay in wait, even though it was obvious to all what was going to happen – including the dad himself. Speaking of that scene, I think Tom could have a done a little more to try and save that guy beyond softly saying, “Please, stay here.”

Sean: But when Evelyn is like, “Oh, they’re up there. They’re laughing… They know what I’m carrying… Tom, he’s one of the them!” I was really moved by how she turns on a dime from empathizing with the children to being completely horrified and against them. She’s beating on her own stomach in that scene.

Kristine: Trying to kill her own baby.

Sean: Yeah, her hypocrisy is laid completely bare.

Kristine: Exactly. Her entire moral compass goes into a tailspin when it’s about her.

Sean: The movie is pretty merciless with Tom and Evelyn, but also never out and out condescends to them. Evelyn feels a moment of total and complete alienation from the fetus she’s carrying. I thought that was pretty subversive and gripping and moving.

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Osh Kosh B’Gore

Kristine: Which I think is not uncommon for mothers, but it is socially unacceptable to discuss that. As is the feeling that children are alien, are vicious and amoral monsters.

Sean: Exactly. The “horror” of pregnancy is allowed to be expressed through the tropes of the horror movie. This is where horror as a genre allows for things that are ‘unsafe’ for any other genre to deal with openly. This is where the genre is transgressive.

Kristine: Right you are. I have a question that may be trivial, but it nagged me throughout. Did you notice how the adult victims all had similar vertical facial lacerations? Like scratch marks? Starting with the woman floating in the ocean by the beach at the very beginning of the movie. What was that about?

Sean: Huh, you’re right. I’m not sure what the deal is there.

Kristine: I couldn’t figure it out.

Sean: Remember when Tom and Evelyn go to the other side of the island and meet the Spanish mother and we see her scolding and slapping her kid as the grandmother laughs?

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: The movie takes this little ‘ordinary’ moments and recontextualizes them. All of a sudden, a mother disciplining her child takes on this very dark tone. It suddenly becomes motive for revolt, for murder.

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Spanish hickey

Kristine: When did you first see this?

Sean: A couple of years ago. It had been a ‘lost film’ until it was released on DVD in 2007. So it underwent a reappraisal and re-canonization at the time of that re-release, sort of like what happened to Hausu in 2010.

Kristine: Were you shocked and excited by the the little girl beating the old man with his stick? And then the human piñata scene? That scene made me gasp in horror and delight.

Sean: Um… I wasn’t. I gasped at other things, though. That stuff felt like standard horror movie stuff. It was only later where I started being shocked at where the movie was taking us.

Kristine: Did you laugh?

Sean: I didn’t laugh. I was just like, ‘That’s what evil little kids do.’  That scene where Tom is fighting all the kids on the boat was incredibly tense to watch the first time I saw this. I honestly didn’t know where the movie was going after the first half, and thought it could end anywhere, with anything. I like that feeling, the excitement of not being able to anticipate where a movie is taking you. Very few horror movies are able to truly create that feeling. Remember, this was my whole thesis about why The Return of the Living Dead blew my mind when I first saw it?

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Anderson Cooper’s fetish barn

Kristine: Do you agree with my earlier point that these kids are way better than the Children of the Corn gang? Because they are not aping adult social constructs? And, as you pointed out, for the most part they act naturally, without the “creepy” put-on of most child actors.

Sean: My biggest gripe with evil kids in horror movies is when they’re directed to like, shush creepily and talk in stage whispers and skulk around trying to be scary. It is so dumb and so not scary (I’m looking at you, Sinister).

Kristine: I think the decision to show the aftermath of the boat massacre via the P.O.V. of the police officer is very effective in underscoring the movie’s moral ambiguity. These are real deaths, as evidenced by the small bodies floating in the water and being hauled to land and grieved over by their friends. The kids aren’t supernatural monsters who vanish with a ‘poof’ when they are defeated.

Sean: Yes, exactly. It’s emotionally confusing, the whole movie. Always pulling you in at least two directions at once. I love it for that.

Kristine: I have to agree with you there. I think a lot more of the movie after this discussion with you.

Sean: Yes. And I love the dystopian downer ending where it’s like, “There’s lots of kids in the world to go play with.” Dun dun dun.

Kristine: Oh, the impromptu jubilant beach party after dispatching the police was absolutely brilliant.

Sean: Right? The movie ends on the most subversive note possible. Not only is Franco dead, but the children have overthrown the tyranny of adults. The world is being unmade and refashioned. Anything is possible now.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: Provocative and problematic

The Freak’s Rating: Sleazesterpiece!

3 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? [¿Quién puede matar a un niño?] (1976)

  1. Wow I have never heard of this movie and it sounds AWFUL! In a maybe-good way.
    The Children of the Corn movie is terrible, but the original Stephen King story ROCKS. It has this same vibe – an awful, entitled, whiny middle-class couple bickering and sniping and undermining each other, and you hate them, but their deaths are still ghastly and poignant.

    1. Yeah you should check this out. It’s worth it, if you can get through the grisly documentary footage that opens the thing. Been years since I read that King story, but I have memories of being creeped out… I’ve been meaning to reread Night Shift for years….

  2. Some comments from a 2005 screening via then ‘grey’ market DVD:

    “I got this movie on Ebay some time ago, and finally had a chance to check it out.

    I became aware of it from The Overlook Film Encyclopedia many years ago. I remember reading good things about it. I also knew it was rare enough to take a chance on getting it when locating it.

    It’s pretty good, maybe it can be described as a mixture of The Birds, Night Of The Living Dead, Children Of The Corn (but done right) and Village Of The Damned.

    The violence (and the violence against children and youngsters) is quite disturbing, on the same level as real footage shown on a TV monitor at the beginning of the film.
    The weird thing about it is that I ended up sympathizing with the children, who in real life end up being the victims of violence by adults.

    Probably one of the best horror films of the 1970s. “