It's the season of goodwill and middle-class couple Jonah (Stephen Campbell Moore) and Elaine(Eva Birthistle) travel through the snowbound woods with the kids for a long weekend with Elaine's older sister Chloe (Rachel Shelley), her husband Robbie (Jeremy Sheffield) and their children.
Chloe welcomes her guests into her country home, where the adults chat excitedly while the kids run wild through the house playing. All except Elaine's eldest, petulant teenager Casey (Hannah Tointon) who wants to be anywhere but with her parents, and her youngest, Paulie (William Howes), who feels sick after the long journey.
The four youngest kids are sent to bed after a short while, Casey being allowed to sit up with the adults as they relax over drinks. While the mood is kept light, it is possible that Casey is attracted to Uncle Robbie - so much cooler than her own Dad - and Chloe appears to be aware of some kind of chemistry between Robbie and Elaine.
All ends well at the end of the night though, for the adults at least. Elaine and Jonah retire to their bedroom where they laugh at their hosts' expense before rutting. Chloe and Robbie chill out after tidying their lounge. Casey meanwhile finds a spot at the foot of the garden where she can get a mobile phone signal, and calls her friend begging her to come and save her from the Christmas from Hell. Oh, if only she knew what was to come ...
The minor observations continue into the following day as the two families play in the snow, where petty rivalries between the men simmer beneath their outward camaraderie. Of course, Jonah would not be happy if he knew Robbie was letting sexy Casey smoke with him in his greenhouse ...
But it's not long before Paulie's fever takes a more sinister turn, and the other kids begin to feel a little peculiar too - all seemingly down to a strange fungus-like puddle that makes it's way onto their toys and pillows without their knowledge.
After twenty minutes of exposition, THE CHILDREN moves into more overt horror territory and remains in this mode for the remainder of proceedings. As such, it's difficult to give much more plotline away without being accused of divulging major "spoilers".
Suffice it to say, some nicely eerie build-up scenes in the earlier moments develop a keen sense of impending horror in much the same way that the pre-set-piece scenes in THE OMEN films did (as with those films, Stephen Hilton's oddly gentle score helps tremendously, as does Paulie's incessant hammering on a xylophone - you just KNOW something bad is going to happen). Once the initial tragedy happens, the pace heightens and never lets up for the final hour of mildly repetitive thrills.
Photographically the film is a triumph. The soft yellow hues of interior scenes are a nice contrast to the bright white exterior scenes, director Tom Shankland (WAZ) making great use of the snow swept woodlands. The ploy of blood seeping into white snow is a striking visual effect, although is perhaps a little overused in the latter half.
Performances are universally strong. The grown-ups are not only plausible but surprisingly likeable, aided to no end by a screwed-on script by Shankland and Paul Andrew Williams (THE COTTAGE). The dynamics of the couples are very astute, and the actors take to these roles with commendable ease.
Better still are the kids themselves. Howes is a revelation as the sick Paulie, never overplaying his role. Shankland is savvy enough to have the kids look a picture of innocence even when lashing out, and this makes their presence all the more sinister. The deliberately blank expressions on the child actors are chilling, saying more than a paragraph of dialogue ever could.
Tointon has a difficult role as the sole "in-betweener". But she plays it extremely well, cruising a character arc that sees her progress from bored kid, through teenaged temptress and murder suspect, to the eventual emotional thread of the story.
The first fatality is a truly shocking and violent scene. It sets the film's stall out well. However, this is perhaps a mistake. The film never truly lives up to this initial jolt and, save the odd annoying flash-edits akin to visions suffered by protagonists of Asian horror movies, the only horror remaining is derived from samey scenes of people barricading themselves in rooms.
Things build toward a well-executed if not wholly unexpected finale, one that while sufficient is disappointingly perfunctory: it's the ending you'd have guessed upon if this were a 30-minute teleplay. For a film, something more could have been reasonably anticipated.
But despite a plot that loses it's way after an intriguing build-up (the promising asides to tensions between the couples is soon discarded), THE CHILDREN is definitely worth seeking out for a first half that grows steadily in discomfort, and the great interaction of the believable characters. It's just a shame when the moment Casey's tattoo is accidentally exposed to her parents is more engrossing than when Elaine is being chased by her own fucked-up kid.
The film is presented uncut on this Blu-ray disc in anamorphic 1.78:1. Presented in a 1080p resolution via an MPEG4-AVC signal, the film looks solid enough with smooth detail and sharp foreground features. Blacks are strong and grain is minimal. A lack of shimmer is welcome, while occasional softness may infuriate the HD bores. The outdoor scenes are, of course, the highlight of both the film and the transfer.
Colour schemes are accurately rendered and, overall, while not a textbook BD presentation the film is strong enough to overcome the minor quibbles above.
English audio is presented in serviceable 2.0 and 5.1 mixes. Unusually for a Blu-ray disc, there is not the option of subtitles.
Pop-up menus include a static scene-selection menu allowing access to the film via 12 chapters.
An excellent collection of bonus features begin with "Killing Kids: The Making Of THE CHILDREN". Presented in standard definition, this is an enlightening 19-minute look behind the scenes, with plenty of intriguing stunts footage and some interesting words of wisdom from Shankland and producer James Richardson.
A "Locations Featurette" is 4 minutes that takes time to interview the family that owns the home the film was shot in, as well as Shankland being on hand to discuss location scouting in more depth. It shouldn't be interesting, but it is.
"Paul Hyett Talks Prosphetics" is next, wherein the FX artist talks at ease on a beige sofa about his convincing work on the film. It's not an overly explicit film, granted (the film is actually rated 15 - it's the extra features that warrant the 18 rating on the cover), but he's clearly put a lot into this project regardless. Fascinating, but short at only 5 minutes in length.
"Snow Set Design Featurette" reveals, among other things, how some of the snowflakes were created by CGI. This gives some idea of how much goes into the preparation of even the most seemingly natural scenes, seeing the crew lay out huge white canvas sheets on the grass and blow ice over it. An interesting 6 minutes, where David Johns is the only name you need to know.
"Tom Shankland's Lair" is an 8-minute invitation into the hotel room where the director stayed while shooting the film. It's not quite the vanity project it sounds, and does exemplify how much he lived and breathed his work during the shoot.
"Working With Children" is a 5-minute featurette that gives Shankland and the adult cast members a chance to praise their young colleagues, while also offering chats with the little sprogs themselves. Shankland also speaks of the potential pratfalls of working with kids. By now, it had come apparent to me that Shankland wears the same jacket and Led Zeppelin T-shirt in most of these extras. They were either all recorded on the same day, or he's one smelly man!
Finally, we get some deleted scenes. 6 minutes worth of stuff, some of which is pretty cool (the death of the family pet, for example), but all of which has understandably been excised from the final cut.
Extras are completed with standard definition trailers for BRONSON, TWILIGHT, WAZ and THE ESCAPIST.
The Blu-ray disc is a solid one in terms of presentation of extras. And the film, while perhaps not a classic, is another fine British horror in a decade where home-grown talent continues to do us proud. Not on a par with WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? Then, but leagues above BEWARE! CHILDREN AT PLAY ...
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Contender Entertainment Group|
|see main review|