Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Child (USA, 1977)

This late-career Harry Novak release, The Child – aka Zombie Child, Children of the Night and Kill and Go Hide – is an odd find indeed. A super-low-budget film – according to popular (and most likely true) legend, it was shot on short ends (that is, re-canned film stock leftover from other productions) – the film features a cast and crews of total unknowns, most of whom seem to lack any ability of note. For a film produced in the US with a fully US crew, the film has a surreally Italian feel: one could easily imagine that some Italotrash master – Bruno Mattei, for example – made it while on vacation in California, for it shares the unbelievably lousy post-dubbing, notably bad acting, inanely elliptical plot development and overall shoddy production common to so many of the Italo-trash horror films that were foisted upon the unsuspecting public as "American" productions during the Golden Age of Grindhouse. But no, The Child is a 100% Californian independent film by an American director – Robert Voskanian – who, like most people involved in the project, has never made another feature film since. (Scriptwriter Ralph Lucas, however, did supply the screenplay to Planet of Dinosaurs [trailer] the same year that he wrote The Child.)
On the University of Chicago website, the film is referred to as "a sublime Gothic classic." The terms "sublime," "Gothic" and "classic" are all extremely malleable and, actually, not necessarily wrong when talking about the film. Not only does narrative follow the traditional Gothic concept of a single woman without family who goes somewhere remote to tend the child of a family with a secret, but the film as a whole is sublimely bad and thus, likewise, is a true if under-appreciated classic of bad film.
But to say the last doesn't mean that the film has no redeeming qualities – some redeeming aspects of The Child are the noteworthy beauty of the lead actress, Laurel Barnett, and the transcendental surrealism that infuses more than one scene and some of the dialogue – it just means that the film needs to be taken with a huge grain of salt to be appreciated. Of course, it is possible that less salt is needed the better the quality of the film transfer; the quality of the DVD we viewed was wretchedly dark and murky, thus castrating the concept of "cinematography." But while a better transfer might make the film more visually pleasant, it won't improve the acting, and that is what perhaps does the film the most damage.
The Child, which seems to be set around 1940 in the middle of rural Buttfuck Nowhere, has a streamlined if somewhat schizophrenic and bizarre plot. A young woman named Alicianne (Laurel Barnett*) returns to the rural region of her birth to become the live-in housekeeper of an unpleasant, widowed farmer (Frank Janson) who lives with his mostly silent adult son Len (Richard Hanners) and his obnoxious pre-pubescent daughter Rosalie (Rosalie Cole). Rosalie is an anti-social loner with telekinetic powers whose only friends are the zombies inhabiting the nearby graveyard where her mother is buried; when the zombies aren't out and about eating animals in the woods, they do the bidding of their young friend and violently mutilate and kill those she feels are responsible for the death of her mother. This includes the slightly batty neighbor Mrs. Whitfield (Ruth Ballan), the thieving Asian gardener (Slosson Bing Jong) – whose presence would indicate that WW II had not yet started or was long over – and, eventually, her own father. Alicianne and Len try to escape, but end up trapped inside a nearby mill where Len valiantly tries to fend off the killer zombies as Alicianne collapses into a screeching, quivering and totally helpless mess...
Though the zombies are always lurking in the background throughout the whole movie, the first half definitely has a more supernatural and threatening feel, while the second half flips into 100% pure zombies on attack. Thus, the last half of the film definitely brings to mind the much more successful classic Night of the Living Dead (1968 / trailer / full film), which works in every way that The Child fails. To put it simply, Night is a good and scary film; The Child is not.
Although a roadkill of a movie lacking even one real scare, in the end The Child is also relatively difficult to totally hate for, as big of a fuck-up as the movie is, it is not entirely unredeeming: unfailingly grim, it also often achieves an unusually unreal otherworldliness and, as mentioned before, is likewise interspersed with some truly leftfield, totally bonker interludes, scenes and dialog that are undeniably memorable. The soundtrack "music", by computer-game music composer Rob Wallace, is likewise from outer space: it alternates between a relatively routine piano score and an excessively grating, atonal moog-dominated aural attack that brings to mind the worst of the "computer music" LPs once so prevalent in undiscerning, low-grade thrift shops.
The Child – another bizarre, bad film that should have been better than it is while simultaneously actually being better than it is. Fans of early gore – as in: no CGI – will definitely find the film satisfying, as will purveyors of cinema obscura. Everyone else might be well advised to watch something else... like the original Night of the Living Dead, perhaps.

*Laurel Barnett, by the way, contributed a piece on her experiences while filming The Child to the book Gods in Polyester, or, A Survivor's Account of 70s Cinema Obscura (Succubus Press / 2004). What she said, we know not, but it would surely be interesting to read...

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