Suffer the Little Children

“He’s not fucking around,” I said to Fiona as the opening prologue of Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? unspooled in our Sony multi-region. Apparently Serrador himself came to believe that this no-holds-barred opening montage of actual death — Auschwitz, India-Pakistan, Biafra, Viet Nam — would have been better placed at the film’s end, and one can see a kind of wisdom in this: how does a horror movie “top” a sequence of actual, documentary infanticide? At the end, he must have imagined, the sequence would have served as a devastating and inarguable summation of his film’s thesis.

Of course, the sequence would have been better not included at all. Any horror movie is going to look trivial compared to actual real-world horrors, and if you’re going to draft atrocity footage in to your fiction film you need to have the best of all possible reasons and even then you may be better implying rather than stating your film’s relation to world events. Several home-video versions of this movie actually deleted the prologue. I disapprove of this because it’s censorship, and against the filmmaker’s wishes, but had NIS voluntarily chosen not to include the montage I’d have liked his film more.

“How the hell did this get made?” asked Fiona from the edge of her seat. I theorised that the seventies were a time when filmmakers experimented with the limits of free expression. Inevitably, one or two of them overshot the mark by a country mile (Pier Paolo Pasolini, I’m looking at you). Serrador’s controversial take on THE BIRDS, with the avian apocalypse subbed out for an onslaught of school-age psychos, their murderous tendencies transmitted like a plague, or a playground rhyme, is one such instance.

Serrador was already the successful director of LA RESIDENCIA, a snazzy, edgy Gothic horror with Lili Palmer, plus he’d helmed an influential shot-on-tape spookshow for Spanish TV, Stories To Keep You Awake. All this, and creating Spain’s top game show, the original of 3-2-1 (I always felt Dusty Bin was a bit sinister. You could never tell what he was thinking.)

Serrador directs the hell out of this thing, getting full value out of the early, pre-creepy stuff where we have nothing but the touristic adventures of our young British couple (Lewis Fiander & Prunella Ransome, both of who really bring it to the later hysteria scenes), and then out of the very creepy indeed scenes of wandering about a Spanish island eerily populated only by smiling kids.

It’s ages, in fact, before our heroes are faced with the awful choices necessary for survival, and even in the run-up to this, the filmmaker is strikingly discreet in his portrayal of child-on-adult violence. We see its effects rather than the horrible incidents themselves. He’s smart enough to know just how much can be believably staged. Not for him the unconvincing zombie tot of PET SEMATARY, wandering confusedly about the set while the soundtrack tries to summon the appropriate mood. His kids are only asked to do things they can do naturally.

“Possibly a case might be made out that children are not human either: but I should not accept it. Agreed that their minds are not just more ignorant and stupider than ours, but differ in kind of thinking (are mad, in fact): but one can, by an effort of will and imagination, think like a child, at least in a partial degree […]” ~ Richard Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica.

Children, of course, are little bastards, as everyone from Clouzot to Peckinpah has shown. But somehow they’re very rarely murderous irl. Serrador’s mental mutation causes the swarms of young to not only fixate on slaying all adults, but to not give a damn about their own safety, enabling them to use force of numbers as the winning argument, heedless of the little bodies accumulating on the hot ground…

Given the immense skill — angles, editing and sound all enhance the creeping anxiety, and then performances step up to the mark to bring us all into a state of desperation — it’s a real shame that Serrador seems to have been effectively ejected from cinema like an unwanted bum. But we’ll be delving into what we can find of his televisual output, because the man was a master. However, ah, questionable, his methods.

6 Responses to “Suffer the Little Children”

  1. Andreas Flohr Says:

    An excellent but very very disturbing movie.
    @ Prologue: I don’t see the connection between the child from the Warsaw Ghetto
    and the children in the movie.

  2. It’s pretty shaky — on the one hand, the movie pushes an idea similar to Hitchcock’s interpretation of The Birds – “The birds had had enough of being mistreated by humans.” This connects the opening sequence to the rest of the film. But it also wants us to see the killer kids as a kind of plague, an infection of violence spread from one to the other, and the kids see the killing as a game, not as revenge or self-defense. So you can’t wholly make sense of it, but that’s arguably part of the power of this and many other horror movies, a refusal to be rational or consistent.

  3. chris kuhrt Says:

    Wow! I was going to ask how you rate La Residencia in the comments section for the P.F. Impossible Film Quiz. NIS’ debut film was shown on TV under its AIP title The House that Screamed for Creature Double Feature Saturday afternoon programming in the US; warping my mind at a tender age and contributing to a predilection for morbid melancholy European horror films. Indeed, it’s a shame that we only have these two Serrador films. He strikes me as a stronger director than some more celebrated figures – certainly better writing and performances than in Argento.

  4. chris kuhrt Says:

    Also, the contribution of Waldo de los Rios’ scoring to both NIS films shouldn’t be overlooked. De los Rios also composed the score to Corruption of Chris Miller directed by Juan Antonio Bardem, uncle to Javier, and starring Jean Seberg. Here’s the opening to La Residencia; sounding almost like a debauched John Barry or Krzysztof Komeda:

  5. chris kuhrt Says:

    Can’t wait to read your exploration of his TV work. One of the episodes of Stories to Keep You Awake appears to be an adaption of W. W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw. It will be hard to top Bob Clark’s Deathdream but would love to see it!

  6. He adapted Fredric Brown, too. Very curious about that. So far I’ve only found one TV thing with English subs, though.

    La Residencia is fab. I wrote something about it here: https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/the-forgotten-narciso-ibanez-serrador-s-la-residencia-1969

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