My Horror Movie ProjectPart 1: Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things (1972)
As visitors to Contains Moderate Peril may know, I enjoy writing about horror films. But sometimes I get stuck trying to decide what to take on next. To break the current logjam, I have concocted a movie review assignment that will last until (at least) the end of the summer. It has two rules:
1. Each film selected must be one that I have never seen before.
2. Each film must come from a different decade.
Since horror films have existed since the Silent Era, there is plenty of material to choose from. Will I discover lost gems, or a series of forgettable flops? Come along for the ride and we will soon find out …
Entry #1 – Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972)
What is the deal with director Bob Clark? The quality of his output is so wildly variable it is hard to get a handle on him. He is the creator of the keenly observant, beloved holiday classic, A Christmas Story (1983). But his biggest hit was with the widely reviled teen peephole sex comedy, Porky’s (1982). His production of Murder by Decree (1979) is cited in many Top 10 Lists as being one of the best Sherlock Holmes creations put on film. Yet he has the distinction of having been nominated twice for Razzie Awards for Rhinestone (1984) and Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2 (2004).
This bi-polar trend continues with his early horror films. Deathdream (1974), his look at the effects of the Vietnam War on an American family, is a highly effective low budget piece of work that is well worth seeing. But right now I can’t write about a film that I’ve previously viewed. So I thought Children, which pre-dates Deathdream by a couple of years might be worth a look.
Let me say right off that I don’t believe in the category of films called So bad they’re good. For me, a movie either works, or it doesn’t. So, even discounting the fact that the budget was $70,000.00, and that it was produced in two weeks, I can’t wish Children away to the cornfield of camp. I’ll give it to you straight. In concept and execution Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things is a staggering stink bomb of a movie.
The broad outline of the film shares a lot with the original Evil Dead (1981). A group in a remote area read passages from an occult book which unleash a fatal demonic onslaught from the “other side”. One of that film’s strengths is the way director Sam Raimi purposefully creates unrelenting intensity throughout the picture. Children makes the fatal error of not even introducing the zombies until the last 20 minutes of the movie. Instead, Clark attempts comedy, offering us a theater troupe whose bullying leader Alan (Alan Ormsby) is equal parts preening megalomaniac and frat boy jokester. He drags the actors out to a remote island for a night, submits them to an elaborate graveyard prank, then forces them to bring a corpse (dubbed Orville) back to the house for more fun and games. The only thing worse than the endless, unfunny bickering among the characters during the entire first hour of the movie, is the performance of Ormsby. He chews the scenery with a suffocating intensity, sucking the air out of scene after scene.
Making a decent horror film is hard enough. Trying to blend comedy and horror is a more delicate affair. A script that calls for a victim of Alan’s graveyard joke to repeat six times, “I peed my pants!”, or the idea that staging a gag wedding ceremony with an exhumed corpse would strike comedic gold land embarrassingly wide of the mark.
When the incantations finally take hold and the dead rise, Children does achieve a little momentum. Sure, the staging of the zombie attack on Alan and Company is so imitative of Night of the Living Dead that George Romero could file suit, and some of the makeup effects look like they came from a box of Quaker Oats, but who cares? At least Clark is not trying to be funny anymore.
After a rather brief siege, the corpse posse comes out on top, giving Alan his bloody comeuppance. In typical 70’s style, nobody survives. The zombies commandeer Alan’s boat to sail off into the night as the credits roll.
How is it that a movie as abysmal as Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things can be followed close behind by one as good as Deathdream? It is mostly the same production team, even some of the same actors. There’s no explaining it. In the end, I guess it’s just another example of Bob Clark being Bob Clark.
For my first entry for my little project I may have, as the Old Knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade says, “chose poorly”. No matter. It’s on to a new film from a different decade, hopefully with better results.