It’s perhaps a surprise that we’ve had to wait over forty years for an ‘answer film’ to ¿Quién puede matar a un niño?/Would You Kill a Child? In the interim, Narcisco Ibáñez Serrador’s killer kids shocker has been remade and had variants like The Children, but it’s taken until now for someone – writer-director Brian Taylor, one half of the Neveldine-Taylor team (Crank, Gamer, the Ghost Rider sequel) – to invert the premise and deliver a movie in which adults are overcome by a compulsion to murder their children. The seeming trigger is a white noise signal that comes over TV and computer screens and a few lines hint that this might be a terrorist attack — the contemporary equivalent of Night of the Living Dead’s Venusian radiation. Furthering the Romero connection, comics writer Grant Morrison homages that eyepatched useless expert from Dawn of the Dead as an unhelpful pundit talking about the phenomenon on a news show. There’s obviously a lot of thematic meat to chew in the generation gap conflict, and the film spends an introductory reel establishing that teenage Carly (Anne Winters) and her kid brother Josh (Zackery Arthur) are sulky and a pain to live with, and depicting the early-onset middle-age disappointments of Mom Kendall (Selma Blair) and Brent (Nicolas Cage). Indeed, the fairly brief (83 minutes) running time still pauses for a couple of illustratory flashbacks to give both parents breakdown scenes even before they’re driven mad – Mom sobbing when her gentle attempt to get back into employment is rebuffed, Dad assembling and then trashing a pool table in the basement.
Though this is sold on its premise – which is as much the hook as, say, that of the similarly-scaled first Purge movie – the first act indulges in some quite effective misdirection. At school, while Carly is being led into bad ways (pilfering from Mom’s handbag to buy pills) by her trashier friend (Olivia Crocicchia), a crisis builds ominously in the background, with a succession of students being called to the principle’s office … and a crowd of apparently concerned adults gathering outside the school fence, kept back by armed, hostile security. Only when one boy climbs the fence at the urging of his mother only to be bloodily stabbed by her with car keys does it become clear that the danger isn’t on the grounds – a biohazard or a school shooter – but outside, and the cops are trying to keep the students safely out of the hands of their murderous but not obviously insane parents. Taylor might have modelled his script on The Purge, since this follows a similar structure as the first half is expansive – showing a lot of little stories of kids assailed by grown-ups and carnage spreading through a neat suburb – but then the main characters, plus a black kid (Robert T. Cunningham) who has fled from a drunken father who doesn’t seem to be much more abusive than usual, are then cooped up in a house which is trashed by the conflict. Carly, who becomes more responsible when fighting for her life and looking out for her brother, retreats to the cellar and Mom and Dad set aside their marital bickering to unpack the tool kit and work on getting at their offspring. An interesting, effective wrinkle is that the craze doesn’t turn the parents into zombies – aside from the fact that they’re bent on slaughtering their children, Mom and Dad are their usual half-way inept selves, with Mom being better at trying to seem reasonable as she tries to talk her daughter out of her refuge while Dad is prone to frothing rages. Early on, in a throwaway, it was established that Carly was grumpy at having to be home for dinner with her grandparents … setting up a welcome last-reel complication as Dad’s Dad (a wonderfully-cast Lance Henriksen) and Mom (Marilyn Dodds Frank) show up on the doorstep with filicide in mind.
The depiction of family life is so disenchanted that it seems that the signal hasn’t really rewritten a basic human instinct to protect one’s young but enabled the acting-out of basic murderous impulses. Cage, at his most manic, frets about having had to abandon his own wild youth – cue flashbacks to high-speed sex in a classic car – to become a machine parts salesman who falls asleep in front of internet porn in his office, while Blair is subtler as someone who could easily be the lead of an indie feminist movie, approaching the project of killing her kids with homemaker practicality. For many, the takeaway from this film will be that Blair ought to be getting plum roles in higher-profile movies – if anyone wants to reboot The Last Seduction, she could knock that out of the park. It was probably inevitable that the contrasting powerhouse players in the title roles would dominate the film, but Winters is a little on the bland side as the de facto lead – Crocicchia’s more horrible teenager would have made a better match with Cage and Blair – and Arthur isn’t given much character aside from leaving toys around for Cage to trip over in sight gag pratfalls. The action isn’t amazingly well-directed, either – though there are a transgressive moments, especially in a sub-plot about Kendall’s sister giving birth to a baby she has an urge to kill, with an unsettling shot of hate-filled fathers peering into a room full of newborns.