Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things - A Review

Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things
Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things
Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things is a much-vaunted, classic horror film by one of the true greats of the genre, Bob Clark (billed here as Benjamin Clark).  Best known for his comedies, Porky's and A Christmas Story, Clark also helmed some of the greatest underground horror classics of all-time.

While many layman reviewers decry this a "bad" movie, and claim it has a crawling start, neither is exactly true.  Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things is not a great film, by any means, but Clark's talent is evident at almost every level, and fans of both independent cinema and B-raters will find something (albeit different somethings) to please them.

I actually enjoyed the first half more than the latter, as Clark's true ability shines through.  The dialogue is clever and funny, the colors are stunning, the blocking is smart and fluid, and the framing and cinematography is years beyond its time.  The latter half of the movie showcases great makeup, but suffers from a number of factors, including disjointed pacing, a lack of tension, and (for whatever reason) a breakdown in the aforementioned successes.  It comes across as anticlimactic, although general viewers seem to appreciate it more than I.

Though sometimes heavy-handed, the acting is strong and the characters are interesting and well-painted.  While Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things never quite reaches the level of literary "foreshadowing," there are lots of visual queues leading up to the climax that should keep intent viewers engaged.  One image in particular stands out: That of the corpse's too-red fingernails, which seems to suggest both a lust for life and murderous intent without a word being uttered.

One of the great finds is the introduction of the camera as first-person POV -- a trick that was once attributed to John Carpenter for Halloween, but later accredited to Clark for Black Christmas (which I kind of reviewed here, and discuss this topic a bit more there). 

It is a single shot, a short sequence, which occurs early-on in the film, but cannot be mistaken for anything else.  (Some film historians point to earlier films which used a similar trick, but those films never assumed the camera was the menace, which is key in this debate.)  There can be no more question: Bob Clark "invented" the first-person camera-as-killer POV cinematic angle.

Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things is an admitted rip-off of Night of the Living Dead, but Clark's directorial brilliance elevates it to heights few would have imagined.  It is a mishmash of several sub-genres, including (of course) the zombie flick, as well as the Devil Flick, and a simple moral tale... but then, on that last point, aren't they all?

A few more quick notes: Evil Dead owes this movie a debt of gratitude, as do several others. Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things also features two openly gay characters who, though merely supporting and somewhat stereotypical by today's standards, seem pretty cutting-edge for the time in which this movie was made.  This is also a great transfer -- I've seen this movie before on VHS and the quality was horrible! You can tell the film was bad but, despite the flaws, it's a real treat.  Clark was working on having this movie remade at the time of his death.

There are far better films out there, but if you're a true horror fan, you owe it to yourself to see Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things.

© C Harris Lynn, 2010

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