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Movie Review: Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972) (aka Halloween Roundup V)

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It’s instructive, I think, to note that the director of Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Bob Clark, gave us A Christmas Story (1983), which is, along with It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), among the greatest Christmas movies. But he has also helmed two Porky’s movies, as well as Rhinestone (1984), Loose Cannons (1990) and a couple of Baby Geniuses movies. Yikes.

But Clark’s checkered career is only the tip of this nasty little iceberg. Children Shouldn’t … may boast a great title in a genre that prides itself on titular extravagance–consider The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Gave Up Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1963)–but I’m afraid that’s not enough. I’ll admit I watch movies like this in part for the unintentional humor, but I have such a genuine affection for horror and SF films that, as much as I enjoy Mystery Science Theater’s smug jibes, in the end they seem too easy. And I don’t feel I have to lower my sights to appreciate low-budget films. Most fans agree that these movies are of the hand-made variety, so it’s OK if a few seams are crooked, so to speak. And besides, to judge them by Hollywood fare marks a surrender to imposed “standards” that Hollywood itself is hard-pressed to live up to. Just ask anyone who’s seen Battlefield Earth (2000). No, as many others insist, the Grade-Z genre pictures of the 1970s and before mark a true independent movement; by being cut off from big budgets, they had to rely on actual creativity and imagination.

Unfortunately, though, Children Shouldn’t …, well, doesn’t. Have any creativity or much of an imagination, that is. I admit it did have just enough budget to produce Night of the Living Dead-style makeup effects (although Night‘s effects do look better, in large part because they’re in B&W. See? Budget isn’t the problem). And it had an intriguing story: An egotistical theater director (played by Alan Ormsby, who also wrote the screenplay and the one for Paul Schrader’s remake of Cat People; how’s that for a tangled web?) and his troupe go to a cemetary island, play with dead things, and naturally get more than they bargained for. There’re just enough ideas here to get us through set-up, chills, and The Goods–that is, zombie massacre/just desserts. But I had the instructive experience of watching this last night with someone who has little patience with low-budget horror films, and her silent disapproval and impatience with it all influenced my own reaction. And I must admit she was right. Children Shouldn’t … is annoying, tedious, inappropriately hysterical, and self-indulgent. In a bad way.

Let me stress that low budgets and mediocre acting are NOT the problem. The semi-independents of the 1940s and ’50s–Val Lewton, Ida Lupino–produced some real gems; and of course any number of filmmakers–George Romero, Tobe Hooper, Chris Kentis (Open Water, 2003), the Blair Witch phenomenon, to name the famous few–have done remarkable work with little time and less money. And let’s not forget documentarians and animators, from Errol Morris to Mike Judge, who began their careers on the proverbial shoestring. So “quality” at the surface level is not the issue. Just look at Roger Ebert’s list of Worst Movies. Most of them are Hollywood pictures with huge budgets. I agree with him that what we need to see on screen are living breathing imaginations at work.

Which is where Children Shouldn’t … falls apart for me. It didn’t trust its premise enough and was too self-indulgent, spending much of its overly long (almost 90 minutes) running time hammering us with character “development” and “conflict,” when all it needed to do was establish the mood, sketch out the characters, provide space for three short speeches–one for the egoist, another for the rebellious actor, a third for the submissive one–and keep hinting that things are going wrong. Then fifteen minutes of mayhem at the end. Clark only gets the last right; but by then we’ve been bored and frustrated by the need for his cast to chew up their particular corner of the scenery.

Maybe the real problem is timing: Right before Children Shouldn’t … I watched Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (1943), about bored intellectuals in NYC who become Satanists. The director, Mark Robson, needed only 70 minutes to immerse us completely in a world dominated by a jaded disregard for life, where suicide hangs–literally–in the air, a constant promise and threat, and where no one wins. The movie kills three people in an almost casual manner that is both despairing and subtle, all in the service of a Poe-like concentration on its “single effect”: the dreadful inevitability of death. I will at some point devote a separate posting to The Seventh Victim; I bring it up now only to remind we lovers of low-budget horror that one needs talent as well as desire, vision as well as determination. Look at poor Ed Wood. I think Tim Burton gets it right in his biopic: he portays Wood as a man completely dedicated to something for which he had no talent. The so-called “turkeys” that resulted were foregone conclusions, and although they might not deserve our scorn, I don’t think they can be praised. I’m afraid I have to say the same for Bob Clark’s debut film. (NOTE: Believe it or not, someone seems to be backing a remake of Children Shouldn’t … . I look forward to being proved wrong.) ED/PUB:LM

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About Paul J. Marasa

  • Xoynx

    Oh, lighten up! Yes, the acting ranges from poor to hilariously bad (although Valerie Mamches has a good moment or two), and yes, the dialog suggests that the script was ghostwritten (so to speak) by a couple of kids in a clubhouse after reading lots and lots of mouldering EC comix–but beyond that, it’s a fine li’l film. The makeup was credible, and the sound effects were quite creative: I’ve never heard loons used to such disturbing effect.

    But what makes this movie shine is the direction. The idiot kids time and again tempt fate, and the camera zooms in on what your experience with B-movies tells you will be the subject of explosive action…and nothing happens. Over and over, you’re teased to the brink of jumping out of your seat and screaming, ‘Enough! Just kill ‘em already!’ Imagine if a couple of teens were having sex in the woods in a ‘Friday the 13th’ movie, with the ‘cha-cha-cha’ soundtrack blaring and a hand-held camera’s POV–then the sated kids got dressed and walked merrily away, hand-in-hand. Brilliant pacing redeems ‘CSPWDT’, condensing all the action into the final moments of the film.

    The fact that nearly everyone who’s seen this movie saw it on TV yet were still scared is solid evidence that this movie is a must-see for mature (i.e. patient and forgiving) fans of low-budget macabre. It’s not Shakespeare–the title gives that away–but it’s a terrific early effort by a talented director.

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