My family will attest to the fact that when I am visiting Ohio for Christmas, I always end up watching A Christmas Story at some point. The 24-hour marathon on the Turner cable channels has been a blessing for the holidays, as far as I am concerned. My family recalls the days when broadcast television would play Miracle on 34th Street or It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve. I’ve never held those films in that high regard. For me, Christmas entertainment nostalgia will always rest with Ralphie and crew, and no one else. Not even Frosty the Snowman.
Why in the world am I bringing this up during the Horrorshow? Because today’s film, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, was directed and co-written by Bob Clark, who also directed and co-wrote A Christmas Story. As I write this, I’m having trouble thinking of a pair of films from the same director that are so wildly apart. Strike that. I remember now. George Miller, the auteur behind the Mad Max films, is also responsible for the Happy Feet films. Still, Clark should be happy with winning second prize in cinematic career-spanning extremism.
Every filmmaker has to start somewhere, and it seems most of them start with horror. Things were no different with Clark. Children was his third feature film, from 1972. It looks like it cost about a buck and a half to make, and also about a long weekend to shoot. In Children, a theater troupe headed by the arrogant, affected, and childish Alan (co-writer Alan Ormsby) arrives on an island at night in the shadow of a city skyline. The island is part potter’s field and part regular cemetery. Alan has brought his small troupe to the island so that they may take part in a ceremony to raise the dead. Alan hasn’t told the troupe why they are on the island, nor is it clear if he really believes that the spell he reads over a corpse will indeed bring it back to life. But, he does seem angry when the spell fails.
Of course, the failure of the spell is mere misdirection on Clark’s part. Not long after the troupe and their sullen director leave the cemetery for a caretaker’s cabin on the island, the dead do awaken. And not just the corpse over which the spell was read. The entire cemetery claws its way out of the dirt in search of living flesh.
The overall tone and quality of the film is cheap. But that’s not due to a lack of care or skill on the part of Clark. Children really was filmed on a shoestring budget, meaning there just wasn’t cash on hand for serious production design or acting talent. None of the cast had any significant credits before this film. For many, Children was either their only credit or one of only a handful for their careers. Two of the feature players, Jane Daly and Bruce Solomon, worked in television for decades after Children, however.
Besides co-writing and starring, Ormsby also handled the film’s makeup effects. They’re hardly Oscar-worthy, nor is there the type of gore that comes to mind when one thinks of a zombie flick. Despite the constraints of the budget, Ormsby worked some simple magic. The zombies here look better than those in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, when Romero’s budgetary and time issues kept Tom Savini on a leash for all but the most important shots.
The most effective part of the film, and the scene with the most F/X shots, is when the zombies crawl from their graves. In a film almost devoid of scares, this was a creepy sequence. It was aided by some effective editing and an overpowering electronic score that sounds like panic transformed into music. It is this scene, along with a very satisfying ending, that make this film worth the journey. At other times Children feels like Clark and company were playing at making a film, like it was all one of Alan’s gags.
This is the type of horror film that won’t find an audience outside of those who really enjoy b-movie schlock. It is far below the heights to which cinematic artistry can take a viewer, but it was obviously never Clark’s intention to make something other than a shitty little horror flick. And that’s exactly what he did. Alien: Resurrection may be a better movie than Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, but that flick destroyed a film franchise. Children was part of launching a decent career in film for Clark. That makes this a pyrrhic victory for Alien.