Sidewinder’s View: “Island Of The Damned” (1978), AKA “Who Can Kill A Child?” (1976) [SPOILERS]

The story takes place along the coast of Spain. Main characters are a married couple on vacation, both British, with the wife is six or seven months pregnant. Husband rents a boat so they can travel four hours from the mainland to an island he visited when he was in college.

Arriving at the village on the island, they find that it’s almost abandoned, with only young kids running around– swimming, fishing, laughing, playing games, laying around, pretty much oblivious to the husband and wife. Adults? Nowhere to be found. And the kids really aren’t talking.

Walking around the village for a bit, the couple realizes something’s wrong, it’s like all the grownups just up and left.

Eventually, they find out from the one surviving adult they’re able to talk to, that, last night, all the kids on the island woke up at the same time and began a coordinated mass slaughter of all the adults. Now it’s the next
day and the battle, if you will, seems to be over. Looks like the kids won.

Considering the oldest kids we see appear to be no more 11 or 12, it’s safe to assume they wiped out all the teenagers, too.

So what we have here is a totally spontaneous uprising of young kids driven to mass murder by some mysterious, unexplainable collective psychosis.

The kids in the movie barely speak. For the most part, the girls just giggle and grin, the boys are mostly sullen and quiet, but they all engage in the same calculated, murderous behavior towards any adult they can find…but only once the kids have formed into a large, homicidal mob armed with knives, clubs, etc.

So the tourist couple spends the last part of the story trying to find a way off the island, being chased around by these maniacal children.

At the end of the movie, we have a small boatload of kids sailing off to the mainland. Why? So they can find, as one kid tells another, “more children we can play with”.

The closing credits start to roll as the boat full of malevolent kids sails away to infect the rest of the world’s children with this collective, homicidal, telepathically-transmitted psychosis.

So there you have it. Island Of The Damned, aka Who Can Kill a Child?– the director’s original, preferred title. A title I hate.

It’s a Spanish production from 1976, with the two leads played by British actors speaking mostly English. The movie’s based on the 1970 novel, “The Games Of Children”, by Juan Jose Plans. Who Can Kill A Child? is a title the director came up with and I really don’t care for it in the least.

First of all, that’s a tagline, not a title.

Second of all, it just has an unpleasant ring to it, kind of queasy and for me it’s a turnoff.

Thirdly, it doesn’t do justice to the movie. It may be what the movie’s about in part, but there’s no mystery to it, no intrigue.

So the movie got released in 1976 in Spain under that title. Released in the U.S. by American International Pictures in June 1978, under the title Island Of The Damned. Much better, in my opinion.

With the killer kids connected by telepathic link, it’s somewhat reminiscent of Village Of The Damned, so the title change might make it out to be some kind of sequel, which it’s not, but really, when you put some thought into it, the title change is not just a cynical cash-in on a classic Horror title (though I’m sure it was, knowing AIP’s marketing style).

The AIP re-title actually does apply to what’s going on in the movie. For those reasons, I refer to the movie by that title. I just find it more palatable, more mysterious and more descriptive of the film itself.

Certain amount of gore in the movie, but it’s not that graphically violent. I love the island setting, the performances by the two leads– Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome–, the score by Waldo De Los Rios, the sometimes surreal tone of the movie, there’s some great atmosphere and suspense, some truly mind-blowing melodramatic shock moments.

That said, even among ’70s B-grade Horror movies, this is a niche item. Not for all tastes– subject matter is very dark; the way the movie ends, even more so. This is one of the most, if not THE most, nihilistic Horror movies I can think of. Not that it’s without purpose, though, and I’ll get to that later.

The movie takes its time setting up the situation and the relationship between the two main characters; they don’t even get to the island ’til around twenty/twenty-five minutes into the movie.

Once they’re on the island, more time’s spent on exploring this near-ghost town village, trying to find out, where is everybody? Why are these kids all so weird-acting?

There’s a leisurely pace while the film establishes the setting, the premise, the sense of isolation, as it builds this feeling of dread for what’s lurking around every corner. But when this psychotic mob of kids are finally out for blood, trying to kill this guy and his pregnant wife, the pace really picks up.

The way the kids assemble into a mob, stand there and wait for the main characters to make a move so they can swarm in and attack them, this aspect of the film has some reviewers comparing the movie to The Birds, only with innocent-looking-but-murderous little kids instead.

The movie’s one of my all-time favorites. That said, the film is not perfect. Having only seen a portion of the AIP version about 25 years ago on late-night cable, the version I’m referring to here is the original Spanish version, the director’s preferred version, which, unfortunately, is the only one, as of yet, available on video.

And, now, just what it is that makes the film imperfect…

There’s an opening credit sequence– which, I’m almost positive AIP cut from their release– it’s about 8.5 minutes’ worth of footage of dead children. Actual corpses. Victims of 20th century war and famine.

You might expect to see this in a documentary on the subject, but not a B-Horror film, even from the 1970s, especially not at the very beginning of the movie. To me, it crosses the line into bad taste.

In an interview on the DVD, the director says he tacked this on the front of his movie to imply that perhaps the kids in the movie were doing what they were doing out of revenge for all the violence adults have inflicted upon children throughout history, y’know, wars.

Early in the film, the director has a cameo as a shopkeeper watching news footage of modern-day combat violence, when he actually says to the husband and wife something like “In war, it’s always the children who suffer the most violence”. Which, obviously, is the same point that he felt he just made with that awful 8.5 minute montage, which not only turned my stomach, but it pissed me off.

There’s just something repulsive about selling your B Horror movie with images of actual dead kids.

Whenever I watch the movie now? I start it past that opening credit sequence. I just find it gratuitous and grotesque. It belabors the point– a rather dubious and thinly drawn point, I might add– and, worse, the montage throws a big wet blanket over the movie.

Judging by the reviews I found online, a lot of people just tune the movie out and shut it off before the opening credits are even done. It’s one of those parts of the film, much like the director’s preferred title, that just seems clueless to me, totally out of touch.

It’s almost what I would call “anti-audience”, like the director’s saying, “Go ahead, just try to enjoy my movie. I dare you. Here’s more dead kids. Go ahead. Enjoy”.

Fortunately the rest of the movie doesn’t come across as heavy-handedly as the opening credits.

It’s never really explained “why” these kids are doing this. We’re given a hint as to how they’re spreading this psychosis– we’re shown sort of a telepathic link established between the murderous “possessed” kids and the few “unpossessed” kids they encounter later on.

We see the contamination, if you will, occur when the normal kids’ happy expressions just drop and take on the same serious, unblinking, almost hateful expressions of the killers, but it’s never explained what the transformative process is– y’know, whether it’s some influence from outer space, a supernatural occurrence, the vengeful ghosts of
history’s murdered children possessing them, or whatever.

I like the ambiguity. Because why this is happening doesn’t really matter. It’s the horrific fact that it is.

And when you contemplate what happens beyond where the storyteller chose to end it, and you start to wonder, what are the ramifications of this anarchy, for the winners and the losers.

This is where the director lost touch with the material and stuck that awful montage on the front of the movie, because he focused on justifications for the kids’ murderous behavior…

…whereas I’m looking at the behavior itself and its resulting implications. Not only what has happened, but what will. Just thinking about how awful and apocalyptic the movie’s scenario really is.

These kids are so myopic and fanatical, they don’t realize that, in bumping off the adults, they’re doing themselves in at the same time, only
difference being the rate of extinction between the two groups.

So what’s the point of all this nihilistic mayhem and murder, all the gloom and doom? Kids murdering adults to achieve a playground paradise– what’s it about? What’s it saying?

We know what the director wanted the story to be about, but I’m not convinced he pulled it off. So far I’ve been unable to pin down an English edition of the novel, so I’ve no idea what the original author had in mind.

To look beyond what happens after the movie’s closing shot, of the boatload of murderous kids headed for the mainland, is to realize that, no matter who wins this horrific battle, children versus adults…everybody loses. Everybody.

What else could you possibly have in a world where suddenly nobody gets to live past the age of 12? Where all those 12 and under function as a collective homicidal attack force bent on societal domination. Where the only way the grownups survive is through means of genocide or mass quarantine. A world where pregnancy itself becomes a death sentence for mothers from their own unborn children?

What’s all that going to result in? Extinction of the human race. Spiritually. Morally. Ultimately, literally.

If the kids win this battle, you get the same result, only by a slightly different route.

Procreation issues aside, with no adults in the world, you’ll have no doctors, no new medicine being produced, no knowledge of how to continue generating electricity. Who’s going to produce the food for these kids? Who’s going to ensure distribution of that food? Who’s going to keep the heat on? Somebody has to do that work.

In the movie, we see the one kid fishing at the dock, but otherwise, these kids just want to be kids, they want to play. That’s it. Anyone standing in the way of that– basically, anyone older than 12– well, they’re going to ruin our fun, these kids seem to be saying, so, y’know what? They gotta be killed.

But if they bump off everybody over the age of 12, what do they get in the first year alone?

Massive casualties, due to starvation, disease, infection, misadventure, infant mortality… There are going to be severe consequences due to what these kids have ‘achieved’, y’know, this all-recess-all-the-time, playground paradise. And the day the kids hit that magic age of 13, guess what? They’re dead.

This is what a ruthless pursuit of heaven on earth, “Utopia”, leads to: Mayhem, Misery, Extinction.

That’s what the movie’s about.

It’s not about vengeance. It’s a cautionary tale.

Not about the violence done against children in war, famine and otherwise, but about the horrific, bloody-minded pursuit of Utopia.

Not about the identities of those pursuing it so much, but about the futility of the aim itself.

The irrational, bigoted, self-centered radical pursuit of a heaven on earth, which, if truly effective and all-consuming, offers the victors not paradise, but extinction.

And, that’s my pseudo-intellectual take on Island Of The Damned.