Let’s face it. Kids are suspicious even under the best of circumstances. Whether willfully evil (The Bad Seed, Children Of The Corn, Village Of The Damned), ill/dead (Night Of The Living Dead, Pet Sematary), or possessed/demonic (The Omen, Ringu), homicidal kids have been around a good, long time.
And so we come to Tom Shankland’s 2008 movie The Children (a recommended addition by Erik S. in the comments). Lainey and her family go to visit her sister, Chloe, and her family over the christmas holiday. Before they even get into the house, Lainey’s youngest, Paulie, starts coughing. As any cinephile can tell you, a cough in a movie is never just a cough. As Exhibit A, I submit Mildred Pierce.
Paulie immediately starts acting strange, banging the same keys over and over on a toy xylophone that he won’t part with. It’s quickly made clear that this is linked to some kind of virus that only affects children. There’s also some familial and sibling tension among the adults. It is a family function after all, and as Donkey says in Shrek The Halls, “christmas ain’t christmas ’til somebody cries.” Facts.
Warning! Spoiler-heavy territory ahead. If you plan on seeing The Children, stop right here.
Much of the focus is on teenage Casey. She cops the stereotypical “over it” attitude and is naturally at loggerheads with her parents. Of course, she’s also the first one to put two and two together. Most of the other characters are two-dimensional, unlikable, and reek of privilege. The ineffective husbands are mere caricatures: the dope-smoking uncle who is way too attentive to Casey, and the fast-buck dad trying to suck his in-laws into some kind of MLMS. You will not mourn their passing. Trust me.
Speaking of passing, there’s relatively little gore here. I mean, some, but we’re by no means awash in it. Two words though: garden claw. That’s all you need to know right now. Instead, Shankland puts in a fine effort cranking up the tension just through the sinister “something’s off” nature of the kids right from the first act. Oh, and if you like creepy foreshadowing, pay attention to the state of they kids’ toys as things progress.
Should you find you have a nagging sensation that this seems somewhat familiar, you may have seen the 1980 version of The Children. I’ve found nothing in which Shankland mentions this movie, but come on. A school bus drives through a toxic yellow cloud, and the kids on the bus become black-nailed homicidal zombies who, well, microwave everyone they touch.
There are five kids, adults that can’t come to terms with the reality that these kids are killers, and a standard “uh-oh” ending. They’re not interchangeable plots, but the similarities certainly stand out.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Casey’s age is never clearly established. This is important in the closing shot. Casey has just witnessed the final two gruesome deaths and then vomits. If she’s still a kid, does she have the virus? Or is she just sickened by what she’s seen?
She and her mother become surrounded by local kids but manage to flee by car. Cut to Casey with a look on her face that could be trauma, could be homicidal rage. No way to tell. Again, uh-oh.