I had very high expectations for the 1976 film Who Can Kill a Child because it invariably makes it onto lists for “the most disturbing films of all time.” It begins with a very long, very strange, and largely unnecessary montage of stock footage suggesting just how cruel and hard the world can be for children. I suppose it’s intended to prepare us for the film’s “radical” dénouement that children can be just as evil as adults. This is the lesson learned by Tom and Evelyn, an English couple of the stock “way over their heads in a foreign place” variety, who decide to vacation on a remote island off the coast of Spain. To their horror, it’s been overrun by a group of vicious children who have killed off all the adults. The real “twist” in the story, I guess, is when Tom and Evelyn come to the painful, gut-wrenching, drama-inducing decision that (gasp!) they might just have to defend their lives (and Evelyn’s unborn baby) by shooting some of the little buggers. Maybe I’m jaded. Or maybe I’ve seen Lord of the Flies and Children of the Corn way too many times, but I just didn’t find this to be all that disturbing. It’s terrible, sure. A damn shame, absolutely. But it’s not nearly as subversive as the film (and the freakin’ hour long debate between Tom and Evelyn) suggests. There are far more disturbing stories featured every week on Law and Order SVU.
On the other hand, I didn’t expect much at all from 1961’s The Innocents, but it’s a smart, subtle and creepy little gem of a ghost story. Deborah, a young, prim and proper governess is hired to watch over a mansion in the remote Sussex countryside, as well as its two occupants, the recently orphaned Miles and Flora. In typical gothic fashion, it turns out that the house has a dark history, including a sordid love affair between the former governess, and a mysterious, mean-spirited valet, both of whom died under bizarre circumstances before Deborah’s arrival. Deborah soon suspects that the couple have returned from the grave to haunt the mansion and exert some sort of powerful, evil spell over the children. It’s never entirely clear whether the mansion is literally haunted, or if the children are simply playing a harmless game, or if they’re really under some sort of evil spell, or if they’re actually the ones somehow behind all the mansion’s strange occurrences, or if Deborah is simply imagining the whole thing out of loneliness and frustration. It’s hard to tell if we’re supposed to be afraid of Miles and Flora, or afraid for them. It’s equally hard to tell if Deborah is sympathetic in her role as caretaker and guardian, or if she’s so repressed and anxious that she’s projecting her insecurities onto the children. It’s a disconcerting depiction of just how ambiguous the relationship between child and adult can sometimes be. The Innocents builds a pervasive sense of dread and unease through such old-fashioned film techniques as atmospheric cinematography, carefully designed minimalist lighting, and the uncanny performances by child actors Pamela Franklin (who would grow up to star in The Legend of Hell House and The Food of the Gods) and Martin Stephens. Together, they manage to depict childhood as something both charming and also eerily unsettling.