Stirring in every memory of homicidal tykes, from “Village of the Damned” to “Barbarella,” but remaining utterly its own in flavor, Brit chiller “The Children” has cult attraction written all over it. Impressive sophomore outing by writer-director Tom Shankland, following his stygian crimer “WAZ” (aka “The Killing Gene”), is a low-budget horrorfest elevated by clever, claustrophobic direction and a nicely lean storyline by Paul Andrew Williams (“The Cottage”) that slowly grips like a vise. Ambitiously wide pre-Christmas release grossed poor returns in Blighty but has potential offshore juice and a red-blooded future in ancillary.
Right-on middle-class parents Elaine (Eva Birthistle, “Ae Fond Kiss”) and Jonah (Stephen Campbell Moore) visit her equally right-on sister, Chloe (Rachel Shelley, “Lagaan”) and husband Robbie (Jeremy Sheffield) at the latter’s remote country house over the Christmas holidays. Elaine’s sulky, kohl-eyed daughter, Casey (Hannah Tointon), would rather be with her teenage friends, but her siblings, young Miranda (Eva Sayer) and Paulie (William Howes), mix OK with Chloe and Robbie’s offspring.
Amid all the sisterly hugging and smart New Age family talk, small tensions are gradually introduced between adults and anklebiters, plus a hormonal crush Casey develops on her handsome uncle. By the next day, the kids start to act seriously weird, with small outbreaks of violence escalating into full-fledged murder.
Script cleverly plays on the parents’ natural reluctance to chastise their kids or believe they’re capable of killing. As first Jonah, and then Chloe, flee the house, thinking Elaine and Casey have gone off their rockers in trying to warn them, the children go on a rampage.
By using plenty of closeup camerawork, and editing that leaves much to the imagination, Shankland maintains suspension of disbelief until the very end, aided by Stephen Hilton’s highly atmospheric score and Nanu Segal’s cold lensing of the snow-covered location and neighboring woods.
Beyond vague hints that the area is haunted — shifting radio frequencies, etc. — and that the kids have contracted some kind of murderous flu, nothing more is explained. Pic is a pure exercise in horror and, in an age where everything seemingly has to be explained in logical terms, none the worse for it.
Casting is on the nose, even down to the tiny tots, though on a dramatic level, Birthistle and Tointon are the standouts, with the latter coming through strongly in the second half. Tight running time is just right.