Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things

1971, US, Directed by Benjamin Clark
Colour, Running Time: 76 minutes
Review Source: DVD, R2, Anchor Bay; Video: Anamorphic 1.85:1, Audio: DTS

Night of the Living Dead
was, as most reasonably knowledgeable film fans are aware, responsible for drastically altering the landscape of zombie cinema through transformation of the sub-genre from folkloric curiosity to something altogether more terrifying. In its wake followed outings directly influenced by its impact and success as this transformation continued its periodic evolutionary steps beyond the film’s first sequel right up to the present day, where the undead devils have now often learned to sprint faster than their living counterparts. But going back to the period between 1968 and 1978 (where Dawn of the Dead made its own indelible indentation) there were some interesting works being produced around the globe that pretty much had Night… to thank for their existence while possessing enough qualities to propel them to positions of value in their own right. Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (i.e. immature teens shouldn’t mess with black magic and corpses, as we all know from personal experience, natch...) is one such piece that’s survived to be noticed through the last three decades but continues to attract completely varying opinions.
The narrative ideas of the film clearly owe a lot to Night… where a group of people become trapped in an isolated house against a relentless onslaught of the rotting dead, although reciting the story in a little more detail goes something like this: self-proclaimed creative force Alan hires a troupe of young adults/wannabe actors to travel to a small island for a night’s fun interfering with the black arts via rituals and the like, something that’s almost exclusively designed to provide him with some amusement thereby breaking up what must be ongoing personal boredom with the more mundane aspects of life. Following some embarrassment at the apparent failure of his expression of satanic rites one of the troupe shows Alan how it 'should' be done, everyone laughing before the budding director forces them to take a corpse from the cemetery back to their cabin for a bit more tomfoolery. Some of them go along with it, some are understandably perturbed, but Alan heads further down the road of pushing taste to its boundaries for the sake of attention and the sheer amusement of revelling in other people’s distress. Then the graves outside begin opening up - it seems Alan’s ritual (or the corrected one that followed it) was a success after all, and within minutes a horde of the walking dead approaches and surrounds the cabin in a thirst for vengeance. Where Night… was very straight faced in its dealing of the material the tactic here is somewhat different: the first half of the film takes a persistently facetious angle as it presents its characters to us, most of whom are wisecracking teens that are endearingly lacking in pessimism. Heading the group is Alan (actually Alan Ormsby, one of the scriptwriters and special make-up effects artists on the crew - this sort of thing happens in low budget productions…). Alan is possibly the character that makes or breaks this film for most viewers due to his relentless arrogance and obnoxiousness. And it goes on and on to a point where viewers might wonder if anything horrifying (beyond the barrage of verbal gags) is ever going to happen. That’s why, for me, this film is actually successful - when the shit does hit the fan its impact is multiplied. It goes from comic to dark in one very swift turn and the contrast lends the nastier second half an edge it might not otherwise have had - sort of a similar effect to that of Shaun of the Dead, or American Werewolf, though not quite in the same class. It’s the stuff that gets on everyone’s nerves that ultimately aids the payoff, if people can just see past the things that are getting on their nerves of course… For this reason the film works much better on multiple viewings. The show-stopping corpse rising sequence is something that Night… never had and it’s remarkably executed, having an air of the sinister and uncanny about it. The teens’ comedic and dramatic interactions up until that point turn to disbelieving terror as the final third spirals upward to a chilling climax and a final shot that hints at something apocalyptic on the horizon.

This has been consistently available in one form or another for years. In the video age it would surface time and again with the crafty re-titling tactics of small video distribution companies that would trick fools like me into repeatedly buying the same film (Revenge of the Living Dead for example, neither title nor (extremely bad) cover artwork bearing resemblance to the real film it was selling). There was a DVD from VCI in the US that then became the most acceptable way of viewing Children… for a long time (in the post laserdisc era of course), but its non-anamorphic, dark and fairly indistinct picture was not entirely desirable by modern standards. Anchor Bay UK then released this disc on review and improved things in some respects: we had a clearer anamorphic transfer, multiple (and unnecessary in the case of DTS 5.1!) sound options, and a commentary by Alan Ormsby. (Incidentally the sound design of the original film is absolutely brilliant - psychedelic and completely insane!) The problem with the AB disc was that it consisted of a shorter version of the film; the ball was well and truly dropped on that one. Finally, after a brief transfer hiccup that involved the discs being temporarily recalled, a marginally more definitive edition was put out later on in the US by VCI again: anamorphic enhancement for the full length version (approximately 87 minutes), another commentary, and several short featurettes. It’s a monumental shame that Anchor Bay could/would not obtain the full version for the UK disc as it would have resulted in the best overall presentation. The source material will only allow image quality of a limited standard with a film such as this so it must be considered that it might not look stellar even if (or more hopefully, when) it gets a HD overhaul. Nucleus (UK) have more recently released Children... as a double DVD bill with Bob Clarke's subsequent film, Dead of Night. All in all, this movie is a minor cult item that can bring rewards to the more patient viewer of the macabre.

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