It was with great trepidation that I approached this review. I'm not the first to review these two films, especially this one: Andrew and Nathan had the pleasure of examining it earlier. (Nathan will argue with the "pleasure" part of that sentence) SmokeyXDigger in the Reader Review section of the B-Movie Message Board had a similar problem. Even the proprietor of the Video Vault of the Damned, Dante's Inferno and All-Night Video Store, admits that it's tough going - and he's seen Megaforce!!!!
So when I realized that this was fated to be one of those blasted duplex reviews, my heart sank, because I realized I had to do the compare-and-contrast with Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things. I had a copy, of course: it sat, still wrapped in plastic like some dreadful unwanted Laura Palmer, in the ever-growing pile of crap cinema that sits by my desk, crooning to me, moaning "Watch Me! Review Me! Make esoteric digressions on your personal history!" By golly, it can be quite interesting, being me.
Also have to say, the misgivings were for nothing. Why? History, he said archly. History.
The movie opens in a clichéd enough fashion - a mysterious figure with a shovel stands at a graveside at night. The cemetery's caretaker approaches the figure... and I mean, really - would you do that? Especially if the figure in question is wearing a cape and top hat. Am I the only person on Earth who saw Dracula vs. Frankenstein? Or Blood Diner (coming soon, I promise)? As our unfortunate caretaker discovers, figures at graveside with capes and top hats also tend to have fangs.
Once the caretaker is out of the way, the figure is joined by another fellow in vampire drag. They finish exhuming the corpse, and the original figure lies down in the emptied coffin, as his fellow shovels dirt back into the grave. (This is done from the point of view of the coffin, and the sound of dirt hitting the lid from the inside is pretty unnerving)
Enter next a boat from the mainland, disgorging a bunch of actors - rather, actors playing actors. They are Alan (Alan Ormsby), director and leader of the troupe; Val (Valerie Mamches), slightly older than the others and way more Jewish; Paul (Paul Cronin), the leading man; Terry (Jane Daly) the ingenue; Jeff (Jeff Gillen) the Odious Comic Relief; and Anya (Anya Ormsby), the designated Creepy Girl. Alan has brought the gang out to this island getaway for some sort of conceptual theatrical game, or just to seek thrills; he explains the island was once a resort, but fallen upon hard times, and is now used as a Potter's Field for the nearby city. Pointing out the graveyard, he tells them that over the past year, many criminals and vagabonds have been buried there.
Alan is domineering and downright cruel in his leadership, especially when anybody shows any resistance to his excesses, He is quick to threaten actors with the loss of their job, or to inform Paul that he is "merely meat that I use to dress my set." Trust me - Alan was an only child. The only one allowed to talk back to Alan is Val, and it is increasingly obvious that this is because the two are former lovers. Under Alan's instructions, our walking spam break into the caretaker's cottage, which has been boarded up for some time. (Odd, though - houses that are boarded up usually have the boards on the outside, no? Not that this - or the movie's very title - should be giving us any ideas about what's coming, no....)
The first caretaker, Alan informs his flock, murdered his wife and children and is currently in a mental institution. "Why didn't they get another caretaker?" comes the inevitable question. "They did. He hanged himself." (Wow, think I, Stephen King totally ripped off this movie for The Shining!) (not helping this feeling is Alan's earlier statement, "Come children - Uncle Alan is going to curdle your blood," which - given Alan's goatee - is eerily prescient of the trailer for Maximum Overdrive, in which King stared at the camera and assured us, "I'm going to scare the hell out of you!" After watching Maximum Overdrive, I checked. The hell inside me was still firmly in place.)
Alan then has Jeff and Paul open the chest they've been packmuling all over the island, removing shovels, lanterns, a blue "necromancer's robe" and a grimoire - a large, apparently ancient book of magic spells. Donning the robe, Alan has them set out to the cemetery. His goal: to awaken the dead. And since there are no probes from Venus, barrels of toxic nerve gas or experimental high frequency insect repellent machines around, he's just going to have to do it the old fashioned way, and has the two actors dig up a grave while he flips through the book for the proper spell.
Thing is, they've dug the grave the two ghouls disinterred earlier, and the creep in the coffin doesn't take too kindly to Jeff trying to pull him from the casket. While the two struggle in the grave, Terry runs screaming into the night, only to be intercepted by the caped figure that has been following them all night....
...And Alan nearly pops a rivet laughing. The ghouls, you see, are apparently two more of the troupe, Roy and Emma (Roy Engleman and Robert Phillips). "Emma" is short for "Emerson", which is not the first clue we get that these two are stereotypical mincing gay characters, especially if one of the working definitions of "stereotypical" is "cartoon-like". Alan had sent them to the island earlier to set up this incredibly elaborate practical joke... Emma opines that Roy was the only one stupid enough to get in the coffin for the better part of an hour, and I have to agree. The caretaker is bound and gagged nearby, next to the corpse the two had removed earlier... some gray-faced chap named Orville (Seth Sklarey).
Orville is going to be Alan's test case, and is set against his own tombstone while the others anoint the surrounding graves with powdered blood. Alan then reads his precious spell... and nothing happens. After cursing Satan as a Big Fake, Alan gets to be on the receiving end for a while as Val takes off on him ("You lose, Alan!") and proceeds to perform her own Satanic offering, which degenerates into an extended yenta riff, which the other actors find hilarious. Then again, they've been finding Jeff's material hilarious throughout the evening, too, which sort of squelches any sympathy you might have built up toward the characters. If Jeff is upset by Val horning in on his Odious Comic Relief turf, he doesn't show it. Alan, however, is loathe to let the evening end on such an un-Alan note, and has the others drag Orville back to the cottage while Roy and Emma fill in the grave.
At the cottage, all sorts of Stupid Corpse Tricks are pulled, such as Alan marrying Orville (cue unfunny komedic priest bit by the OCR) and Terry being forced to explain to the cadaver why she is a good actress. This eventually leads to Creepy Girl freaking out and asking Orville to forgive them - and then cranking up the Freak Out to 11 when Orville apparently answers in the negative.
Meanwhile, back at the graveyard, Roy attempts to snatch a ring from a coffin unearthed by a tree root, only to have the ringbearing hand snatch back. Either Alan's spell, or his cursing of the devil, or Val's improvised spell has worked quite well (redundancy: ask for it by name!), and the dead are climbing out of their graves at an alarming rate. Emma becomes Chunky Zombie Kibbles-n-Bits, but Roy, though wounded, manages to break away. The zombies follow him toward the cottage, pausing only to kill the still-bound caretaker (bad cricket there, eh wot? Being killed by flesh-eating zombies is bad enough. Having it happen while you're tied up would suck).
Back at the cottage, Creepy Girl's Force Five Freakout has finally incited a mutiny and the actors have decided to leave Alan in the cottage with his beloved cadaver while the rest take the boat back to the mainland (man, when even the OCR tells you you've gone too far, you know you've been dissed). Too little, too late, as the exiting actors are intercepted first by the bleeding Roy, who moans "They're coming!" before retreating into the cottage, and then by a veritable wall of hungry zombies.
So everybody winds up trapped in the cottage, and hey! Good thing all those windows were already boarded up from the inside, eh? And that somebody left a hammer and nails lying around so more boards can be put up? Alan is predictably useless in the face of his fantasy made flesh, and Roy has had the bad grace to die from his wounds, so it's up to Meat - sorry, Paul - to make a run for the boat and get help, while the others draw the zombies to the front of the house by scrummaging with them at the front door. That part goes as planned. Paul, however, runs into the one zombie that didn't get the message about the rugby game at the front door, and summarily gets his guts eaten. Terry, mourning for her stud, gets dragged out the open door.
After solving the whole door-we-left-open thing, Jeff actually has an idea: find a counter spell in the grimoire. Alan manages this, but one of the things necessary to the ritual is returning Orville to his grave. Since the zombies are still massing outside (waiting for Episode II tickets to go on sale, no doubt), that's a no-go - he reads the incantation anyway, and surprisingly enough, the dead start shambling away into the night. Grabbing some weapons, our (snicker) heroes creep cautiously toward the boat, only to find that the zombies were simply hiding around a bend in the path, awaiting their chance. Psyche! Val and Jeff wind up where all bad actors should, in the stomachs of zombies.
Alan and Creepy Girl make it back to the house, but the zombies, rather pumped that the old withdraw-and-turn tactic has worked, bust through the feeble fortifications and the last two humans on the island find themselves backing up the stairs as the dead advance. Finally, Alan tosses Anya to the zombies, and there is a brief pause as everybody - Anya and the zombies - look at Alan with that "You Bastard!" look. Then Anya is handed back down the zombie line and Alan continues his retreat to the upper room....
...Which is where he left Orville. Who is now sitting up and looking very pissed about that whole wearing a wedding veil thing. Good-bye, Alan - in slow motion. The End. Well, credits roll while we see the zombies rig out the boat to return to the mainland, the lights of the city in the background...
Now. As I have mentioned, I didn't find the going as miserable as my comrades, and the reason I gave was history. Let's have some.
I first encountered Children during a WTBS all-night Halloween movie marathon. I believe it was 1979 or so; I was in college and was harrumph somewhat enhanced but that doesn't do much for a movie like this, and my memories of it are nothing special. I remember somewhat enjoying it, even with the lengthy setup - which was made even lengthier by my altered state. And it's that setup, altered or no, that causes the problem for most people.
Outside of the initial shock in the graveyard, and the following practical joke, it takes an hour for the film to get to its reason for existence: the zombies. That's an hour of Alan games, browbeaten actors, and Odious Comic Relief. Strong men have blubbered like dot-com executives under less provocation than this. The final twenty minutes is an okay little zombie siege picture, but that preceding hour has usually squandered any goodwill the viewer might have brought with them. The budget is obviously low, but the maxim talk is cheap, but action costs money was likely scribbled in the margins of the shooting script, and the siege is full of oatmeal-inspired makeup and gore effects realized by splashing stage blood on actors - but it's got some dread working for it..
But I keep trying to come up with a movie of similar vintage for comparison's sake, and what I usually come up with is Trog, Joan Crawford's farewell to cinema. Trog probably has no more than twenty minutes of shock and scare scenes in it - the major difference between these two is that Trog's horror material is scattered over the picture's running time - Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things restricts it to the final act, except for a couple dollops of shock that serve to make sure we pay attention through the character development.
Which would be all well and fine were the characters actually developed farther than the broad brush strokes they are given. Alan's a jerk, Val's bitter, Jeff is funny- not - and Anya has been chewing on a (very large) piece of blotter paper. It's an unpleasant mix of two-dimensional people to be stuck with for an hour. Imagine your worst family reunion and you have some small idea. It's rather hard in this post-est society to believe that anybody would tolerate Alan's behavior - but I have to admit that I, as a young actor, endured a lot of abuse from Alan-types, so that portion of the story wasn't too hard to buy into, though my willing suspension of disbelief was really starting to feel the burn when the siege thankfully arrived.
Yet, I cannot bring myself to despise this movie, as do so many others. This is the way horror movies used to be made, with a king-size hunk of exposition at the front to identify what was normal, what was going to be messed by the intervention of dark forces. The dialogue, while not James Goldman, isn't Joe Eszterhas, either.
Director Bob Clark went on to make Porky's and Murder By Decree, not to mention the infamous Baby Geniuses. When he's good, he's good, when he's bad, he's... quite seriously bad. Ormsby, who co-wrote the script with Clark, is also responsible for the scripts on Deranged, the Paul Schrader Cat People and the overlooked Popcorn. These two actually know what they're doing - witness any other number of low-budget genre films from the same time strata, and many will not possess even the slight sheen of professionalism evident here. Yes, all the good stuff is in the third and final act, but all the good stuff is supposed to be in the last act. I can't tell you how many films are not in my Top Fifty because I feel the most memorable moment is missplaced. Hard Boiled never tops its first five minutes, and the best sword fight in The Princess Bride happens in the bloody middle of the picture. At least, in that respect, Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things proves a bit more fulfilling to me in the storytelling than some - *ahem* - others.
Still, they took it a bit far.
Pity the filmmakers didn't lift more than zombie sieges and flesh-eating revenants from Romero's Night of the Living Dead (and don't think I didn't notice that the two young lovers were the first to go - again). NOTLD, while not truly beginning in media res, wasted very little time in plunging it's introductory characters into the nightmare. This movie could have used a little less Children Play and a little more Dead Things.
I swear I went to college with these people.
- January 22, 2002