Groovy Doom specialize in showcasing the “classic eras of horror, sci-fi, cult, and exploitation”. Between their site and their Facebook page, you can expect to see lots of vintage newspaper clippings and press releases for films ranging from as far back as the 40’s up to the slasher heyday of the 1980’s.
When not writing for his site, Bill also publishes the zine Drive-In Asylum, which can be purchased on eBay or direct from his Etsy shop. I highly recommend it.
Bill has been a great friend and supporter of ours, so I’m more than excited to welcome him to this year’s line-up. For his 1st Halloween Horrors entry (hoping to see him join in every year from here on out), Groovy takes a look at the ethereal 1977 chiller, The Child.
THE CHILD: Halloween apparitions run wild in a cut rate masterpiece way off the beaten path!
By Bill Van Ryn
An old woman is alone in her big, spooky house in the middle of nowhere. The wind howls in the trees as she sits reading in a dark room, illuminated by a single light. Outside, the camera prowls the grounds of her isolated home, causing her leashed dog to go berserk. Finally she looks out the window, and she sees the leash lying on the ground, empty. From somewhere nearby, she hears the dog yelp and howl in pain.
This is just one of several eerie high points in the obscure 1977 horror oddity called The Child. Rickety in construction, threadbare in plot, and possessing one of the dodgiest dub jobs I’ve ever heard, The Child nevertheless pulses with a sinister and fascinating energy that ultimately transcends its bargain basement origins. Its story offers a peculiar mixture of horror tropes such as ominous old houses, psychic powers put to deadly use, dark wooded areas where strange noises occur, disturbed children with murderous intentions, and zombies that have risen from a misty cemetery, using all these familiar elements to create something distinctly original. The low budget aesthetics seem to be rooted in childlike horrors and fantasies, like a carnival dark ride or Halloween walk-through haunted house come to life. Jack-o-lanterns, animated scarecrows, and crumbling, skeletal ghouls all make an appearance, while the audio design often ends up sounding like an old fashioned radio play or an album of spooky stories and sound effects, making it essential Halloween viewing.
Pretty young Alicianne Del Mar travels to the rural farm of the Nordon family; she’s been hired by Mr. Nordon to take care of his 11-year-old daughter, Rosalie, whose mother has just recently passed away. We know from the start that Rosalie is evil because we see her carrying a kitten in a basket into a cemetery at night and handing it over to an unseen creature hiding behind a gravestone. The third household member is Rosalie’s older brother Len, who is around Alicianne’s age. Rosalie and her father seem particularly weird, while Len is just quiet and seems embarrassed by their weird behavior. There’s a gardener, too, although he only must have been on set for one day because he’s hardly in any of the scenes. None of these adults seem to understand that Rosalie is telekinetic; she uses the talent secretively, frightening unsuspecting people; kooky neighbor Mrs. Whitfield reveals that several borders she had taken in were frightened off by frightening and unexplained events that always seemed to be connected to Rosalie. But Rosalie’s little “games” are escalating, and she has started to use her power to control a group of creatures that roam the woods, crusty ghouls that Rosalie refers to as her “friends”. It’s never clear if Rosalie is causing the zombies to appear, or if they were already there and she’s just manipulating them, but she uses her ghoulish “friends” to attack people she perceives as being responsible for her mother’s death, i.e. every other person in the movie. It doesn’t take long for our damsel in distress Alicianne to be next on Rosalie’s death list.
The Child was produced by legendary producer/distributor Harry Novak, written by Ralph Lucas (Planet of Dinosaurs), and helmed by one-time director Robert Voskanian. It features a cast of unknowns, and it was shot largely on leftover scraps of film known in the business as “short ends”—labs that processed film would usually charge by the foot, so if a reel was not completely used, the remaining unexposed film would be trimmed from the rest of the roll to save money. These short ends were available to filmmakers at a low cost and, if they were obtained directly from a lab, were often free as long as you would agree to pay to have the film processed there after it was finished. Most scenes in the film appear to have been filmed completely silent and then dubbed later, and judging from the results, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the actors were given no more than an afternoon to read their lines. The filmmakers have ambitiously made the film a period piece set in the 1930s, and it contains a number of glaring anachronisms, particularly in the wardrobe and hairstyle departments.
This is enough to turn some viewers against any movie right from the start, and that’s unfortunate because there are unique pleasures to be had within its creaky reels. Voskanian seems to understand the limitations of the film and works around them by making the movie dreamlike and going for the bizarre; there’s no need to worry about day-for-night shots that don’t come off very well, or people wearing 70s clothes in the 1930s, if the movie could be a dream anyway. Aside from our vulnerable heroine, none of the characters in the film behave like ordinary people, nor are any of the locations immediately identifiable. In order to achieve a sense of isolation, the two houses that serve as the film’s principal locations are filmed from low angles, obscuring any neighboring homes and giving us little sense of relationship to the surrounding areas. There seems to be miles and miles of rambling woods behind the homes, there’s a suitably creepy old cemetery, and the climax takes place in an old wooden mill or workshop attached to an oil well. The sound design is especially claustrophobic and cheap sounding, although that’s not a bad thing at all. Many of the sound effects are lifted from the same library as those used on Disney’s “Chilling Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House” LP, especially the ethereal, spooky wind sound that seems to constantly be heard in the film (even when the weather seems bright and sunny). The music is largely an overwrought piano virtuoso careening wildly between a mournful variation on the theme from Love Story to a mishmash of discordant hammerings similar to Kier Dullea’s failure of a piano recital in Black Christmas. Trilling synth sounds complete the dissonant effect. It’s not exactly the kind of score you’d expect in a film like this, and that’s part of its otherworldly charm.
Either by intent or by sheer circumstance, the film takes on a nightmarish quality due to the unexpected ways these elements of sight and sound come together, as well as the director’s sense of style. The photography and editing are also distinctively odd and disorienting; the film communicates well enough with the viewer, but never once does it seem to be taking anywhere in the real world. Instead, it’s going on in another time period, in a morbid dreamland that allows this perfect supernatural storm to occur. Shots filmed with a stationary camera are intercut with moving handheld footage, disorienting the viewer. Brief insert shots convey a sense of dread: shadowy, lumbering figures cresting a rural road at dusk, the post that previously held a scarecrow is suddenly empty, zombies are constantly glimpsed momentarily, ducking behind trees and tombstones.
A lot of the film’s effectiveness could be due to the forced restraint of the low budget–if they’d had a lot of money, the filmmakers may have been tempted to show more than they do. I wouldn’t compare this film to a blockbuster like Jaws, but the same theory applied to that film when Spielberg cut many of the shark scenes because the mechanical shark was not convincing enough to be on screen for too long. Instead, The Child has a more restrained, gothic feel to it, and makes use of more understated terrors. A menacing sequence occurs while Rosalie is having a Halloween party—despite the fact that we don’t see any other children—and Alicianne is in the house alone for a moment. The lights suddenly go out, and a jack-o-lantern begins to levitate and follow Alicianne around the dark room, its flame reigniting every time Alicianne tries to blow it out. She knows Rosalie is doing it, and screams at her to stop, but she doesn’t quite understand how it could be happening. In a movie that ultimately features a number of grotesque gore effects, this kind of attention to suspense and suggestion is refreshingly distinctive, and reminiscent of older horror films like The Cat People.
At one point, Alicianne follows Rosalie on one of her nocturnal visits to the graveyard, catching up and confronting her among the tombstones while a heavy mist swirls around them. It’s supposed to be the middle of the night, but the scene was obviously shot in broad daylight, something that the director doesn’t even try to hide—as if to make sure we understand he doesn’t care about the sunlight, he even includes a brief insert shot of the sun shining through bare trees. After Rosalie leaves Alicianne alone in the cemetery, she is joined by Len, who holds her and starts whirling around and around with her until he morphs into a scarecrow. The director cleverly alternates between showing the characters in a static camera shot and stalking them with a handheld. When Alicianne wakes up in her own bed, we’re never really sure if what happened was real; she seems to have been having a nightmare, but she finds a few pieces of straw in bed with her. The scarecrow bit is one of the film’s more unexpected and fascinating ideas, and there are a number of ghostly insert shots of it walking around, glimpsed only for a few seconds at a time (credit for the elliptical editing in the film is shared by director Voskanian and co-producer Robert Dadashian).
The gory payoffs in the film are shocking and well done, and the mutilations performed by the ghouls are good enough to get some decent screen time instead of brief cutaways. These are not flesh-eating zombies, they’re more like vicious animals that attack people Rosalie doesn’t like. They seem to go right for the face, and there are two explicit glimpses of characters who have most of their face ripped off, as well as one with a bloody, gaping socket where an eyeball used to be. The living dead themselves are ghastly looking things, more Fulci than Romero, and it’s easier to forgive them being kept offscreen for so much of the movie’s runtime once they’re brought into the light during the finale.
Speaking of Fulci, The Child often looks like an Italian import. It’s got that dream logic of an Italian film, as well as typically grisly attention to the zombie creations, and I already mentioned the awkward dub job. It’s so uneven, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that some of the actors didn’t really dub their own lines. The lady who plays Mrs. Whitfield is the worst offender; she speaks most of her dialogue in a singsong falsetto, like she’s voicing the role of a talking cat in a children’s puppet show instead of a woman in a horror movie. Laurel Barnett as Alicianne is appealing in the film, because she’s the one that seems most like a real person in the middle of a bunch of weirdos; although she emerges as the film’s only survivor, her character doesn’t earn it at all, choosing to hold her hair and scream most of the time while others rush to her rescue. She’s a terrific screamer, too. Richard Hanners as Len is one of the film’s ciphers; the character is aloof, and Hanners has a concerned expression on his face in almost every scene. Strangest of all, his deep voice is totally incongruous with the other characters and sounds as if he were recorded on different audio equipment than the rest of the cast. Frank Janson as Mr. Nordon is probably the most authentic, doing a fairly decent characterization of a rural farmer from the 1930s. Rosalie Cole is stiff and unnatural as the little girl, sometimes speaking as if there’s a period after each word she’s saying–look up the trailer and soak in the way she tells her father “I don’t have to tell you ANYTHING.” True, she’s not Tatum O’Neal, but the character is a cipher anyway, and there’s not much for her to carry.
The Child wouldn’t be all that memorable if it was not such a unique mixture of old horror and new horror, balancing its moments of explicit gore with unexpectedly old-fashioned ideas; just like how the visual anachronisms in the film bring about a collision of the 1930s and the 1970s, the movie itself lives a dual life of 1930s suggestive horror and 1970s post-Romero Grand Guignol. In fact, the biggest mistake I made when I initially sought out this movie in the late 90s was expecting it to be a “zombie movie”. It does owe a debt to Night of the Living Dead, but it also channels Carrie, The Innocents, and The Bad Seed . Best of all, it takes these borrowed ideas and molds them into something original and intriguing. It’s worth repeated viewings, especially if you’ve seen it once and written it off. Look at it again with an open mind, and try not to be uptight about the bad performances on the dub track. It’s the perfect freaky world to immerse yourself in on Halloween.