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Retro Review: THE CHILDREN (1980)

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THE CHILDREN
(US - 1980)

Directed by Max Kalmanowicz. Written by Carlton J. Albright and Edward Terry. Cast: Martin Shakar, Gil Rogers, Gale Garnett, Shannon Bolin, Tracy Griswold, Joy Glaccum, Edward Terry, Peter Maloney, Michelle LeMothe, Suzanne Barnes, Rita Montone, John Codiglia, Clara Evans, Jeptha Evans, Julie Carrier, Sarah Albright, Nathanael Albright, Jessie Abrams, June Berry, Martin Brennan. (R, 93 mins)

In heavy cable rotation in the early '80s and its Vestron Video VHS a fixture in every video store back in the day, 1980's THE CHILDREN remains enjoyably goofy and, in retrospect, looks reasonably professional relative to most regional horror offerings of its era. Shot in Massachusetts on a shoestring budget, the film managed to nab some personnel that had past associations with real movies and other legit gigs: top-billed Martin Shakar, in his only big-screen lead, had a key supporting role in the 1977 smash hit SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER as John Travolta's sympathetic older brother, who usurps his black sheep role by leaving the priesthood and encouraging him, against the wishes of their parents, to pursue dancing; Gil Rogers was a visible presence as a kindly grandfather in a series of Grape-Nuts TV commercials during this period; Gale Garnett was a singer best known for her Grammy-winning 1964 hit "We'll Sing in the Sunshine;" and while Shannon Bolin never had much of a big-screen career, she did recreate her acclaimed Broadway role as Meg in the popular 1958 big-screen version of DAMN YANKEES, co-starring with Tab Hunter and Gwen Verdon. THE CHILDREN also been inextricably linked to the same year's earlier hit FRIDAY THE 13TH, mainly as a lesser-known, distant relative, as it shared a few crew members, including cinematographer Barry Abrams but most notably composer Harry Manfredini, whose score here virtually recycles nearly every cue from the influential slasher hit with the exception of the iconic "ki ki ki, ma ma ma."






The brainchild of producer Carlton J. Albright and his writing partner Edward Terry, who would later team on the grungy 1989 cult classic LUTHER THE GEEK (with Terry in the title role), THE CHILDREN was set to be directed by Terry, who was battling alcoholism issues at the time, prompting Albright to go with Max Kalmanowicz, who logged time as a production assistant and sound guy on several projects (like Larry Cohen's THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER). Kalmanowicz got the job largely because he had enough industry contacts to put together a professional behind-the-scenes crew faster than Albright could. The story, inspired by the then-current near-meltdown at Three Mile Island, is set in the tiny New England town of Ravensback, where a school bus drives through a cloud of green, radioactive mist after a leak at a nearby nuclear power plant (Umberto Lenzi's NIGHTMARE CITY did something similar around the same time, but with a plane). Sheriff Billy Hart (Rogers) happens upon the abandoned bus while on patrol and can't find the driver or any of the kids. They soon start appearing, with pale faces, blackened fingernails, and arms outstretched, turned into radioactive zombies whose lethal hugs incinerate beyond recognition. After being met with general apathy by most parents-turned-victims (including bizarre and unexplored bits like one kid's dazed, codeine-popping lesbian mom and her bitchy doctor lover, the latter aggressively hostile to Hart for no discernible reason at all, and another who lounges by the pool smoking weed while her oiled-up boy toy pumps iron), and finding his deputy (Tracy Griswold) one of the victims of the children's scorching hugging spree, Hart teams up with local resident John Freemont (Shakar), whose daughter was on the bus and has the day free anyway since his car keeps breaking down, his wife Cathy (Garnett) is about to give birth, and their son Clarkie (Jessie Abrams) stayed home from school sick.


Just out on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome (because physical media is dead), THE CHILDREN manages to conjure up a few decent creepy images, like a third-act John Carpenter-esque siege scenario accentuated by shots of the children roaming around the yard waiting them out and looking like a grade-school re-enactment of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (the children were played by the kids of Abrams, Albright, and other crew members, plus the son of one of Albright's neighbors, all helpful in circumventing union and child labor laws). But most of the film's enjoyment is of the unintentional yuks variety, whether it's the discovery that the only way to stop the children is by hacking off their hands, the numerous extraneous plot developments appear at random and are quickly abandoned, how thoroughly unlikable both Cathy (who smokes while pregnant) and John (who's always snapping at Cathy) are, and the amateur-night acting of most of the supporting cast, including Martin Brennan as an obnoxious asshole named "Sanford Butler-Jones," with Albright admitting in the Blu-ray bonus features that he's only in the movie because he was hanging around in an unofficial capacity as the production's coke dealer. Albright also says he and Terry took Kevin McCarthy to lunch at the Russian Tea Room in order to woo him into starring (presumably in what became Rogers' role), but were turned down, followed by a near-agreement from veteran character actor and Broadway Tony-winner John Cullum until he was talked out of it by his wife. As a result, Shakar, Garnett (who has a third-string Brooke Adams thing going on here), and Bolin (who plays the doomed owner of the local general store) were the closest THE CHILDREN got to having big names, but it gets the job done as terrific trash cinema without a Kevin McCarthy or a John Cullum having to come in and class it up.


THE CHILDREN opening in
Toledo, OH on 8/15/1980



Proof that a double feature of THE CHILDREN
and THE VISITOR played at a mall. 




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