Evidently a troubled production (credited director Sean MacGregor shot barely half the film), this interesting, unnerving, sometimes-awkward, sometimes-inspired exploitation movie breaks a major screen taboo by depicting children as sadistic killers — but also has other things on its mind. It’s one of a group of post-Manson films from around 1974 (cf: Frogs, Seizure) in which house parties full of wealthy, venal, corrupt middle-class folks (often in thrall to a caricature patriarch who represents ‘the Man’) are invaded and attacked by an irrational menace which brings out the worst in them. Here, a spectacular pre-credits minivan crash sets free six inmates from the children’s ward of an asylum for the criminally insane. Led by a little black boy who obsessively plays soldier (Tierre Turner), they slog through the snow to the isolated lodge of ‘Papa Doc’ (Gene Evans), who runs a chain of nursing homes and spends his week-ends bullying relatives and hangers-on. Even after a few murders, the adults aren’t quite willing to believe the kids are responsible for the growing pile of corpses until a ruthless last-reel massacre breaks all these ‘people toys’ and sets the children off in search of more fun.
Whereas the Village of the Damned children are alien and other killer kid movies (Would You Kill a Child?, The Children, Blood Birthday, The Plague, The Children) feature possessed zombies or expressionless ‘bad seeds’, this pack are simply insane. They squabble, get bored and botch things like real kids, which makes it even tougher on the grown-ups – in the other films, the threat comes from monsters who look like children; here, they really are kids, and so the grown-ups are credibly reluctant to fight back and then credibly embittered and vengeful when a few more of them have been killed. Though it has moments of transgressive violence, from the mass beating of a doctor with farm implements (in an ultra-slo-mo, red-lit scene that seems to go on forever) to a naked slut (Carolyn Stellar) being simultaneously drowned and nibbled by piranha (!) in the bath, the really creepy material is quieter. A weird, mismatched relationship springs up between twelve-year old pretty boy David (Leif Garrett) and a podgy, ineffectual, bald Harvey Beckman (Sorrell Booke), with the kid just acting wrong (fingering Harvey’s wife’s blouse on a bed, he frankly asks ‘do you think this colour brings out my eyes?’) and the older man mistakenly triggering the boy’s rage by being patronisingly encouraging as David blunders at chess and (fatally for Harvey) wood-chopping.
Also oddly unforgettable is Sister Hannah (Gail Smale), a bespectacled, androgynous, tall child who dresses in a nun’s habit and plausibly claims to be the novice in charge of them – though she (or perhaps he?) is one of the more vicious killers. The murders are bloody, if not always well-staged – but there are effective ‘uh-oh’ moments like the discovery that not only are the guns missing from the wall-rack but all the knives have gone from the cutlery drawer. Other business – with a simple-minded handyman (John Durren), Harvey’s alcoholic wife (Shelley Morrison) and Papa Doc’s daughter (Joan McCall) and her boyfriend (Taylor Lacher) – feels like sub-soap padding to set up the characters’ variously horrible demises, but even these scenes now get by on the fabulous 1970s clothes, decors and attitudes on view. William Loose, king of stock music cues and a veteran of The Donna Reed Show and several Russ Meyer movies, provides a memorable score that alternates Lalo Schifrin-style ‘70s funk with eerie, fractured variations on the children’s tune ‘Nymphs and Shepherds, Come Away’.