|Review||Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972)||Director||Bob Clark (billed as “Benjamin Clark”)|
|Writer||Bob Clark (billed as “Benjamin Clark”)|
|Cast||Alan Ormsby, Valerie Mamches, Jeff Gillen, Anya Ormsby, Paul Cronin, Jane Daly, Roy Engleman, Robert Philip, Bruce Solomon, Alecs Baird and Seth Sklarey|
“A fraud, a cheap, plastic fraud. Ha! Satan, you phony. You liar! You sorry sot! I paid my money and I expect my merchandise. You cretinous clown. You don’t have any power. Petty panderer! Cheap chiselling con artist! Two-bit, penny-ante potion peddler!” – Al
Theatre director Alan (Ormsby) leads his acting troupe, whom he continually refers to as his “children”, to a graveyard on a remote island to perform a necromantic ritual in order to raise the dead. Before said ritual commences Alan manages to get his jollies by performing a practical joke on them. At first it seems the ritual is a bust and Alan then has his workers bring Orville, the corpse that had been dug up, to the cabin they’re staying in for a tasteless ceremony of sorts. But then the dead start to rise and the living have a survival fight on their hands.
Director Bob Clark (1939-2007) made a trio of horror films between 1972 and 1974 that have really cemented him as one of horror’s greats. “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things” was his first feature and it’s an unabashed rip-off of George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) that was made on the cheap in Florida by Clark and a bunch of his friends. At first glance the viewer might get struck with a few undeniably amateurish showings such as inconsistencies in lighting where the film is either overly bright or very dark, a constant flow of dialogue that feels made up on the spot and a campy acting style by newcomers.
But aficionados in the horror genre (i.e. horror buffs) will notice something much bigger at play in what is really a terrific debut from Clark. True; there’s no denying the technical side leaves a bit to be desired but I’m still very impressed with the overall look of the film despite it being overly bright on occasion. The constant foggy surroundings and eternal darkness really help in creating a mood that’s the epitome of a slow-burn that really pays off in the final third. The seemingly endless ranting by Alan and subsequent wise cracks from his acting troupe actually aid in building the mood and the characters come very much alive in a short period of time. Although Ormsby is the true star of the piece there’s some very nice characterizations displayed through pithy comments and above average quality of dialogue and delivery from the rest.
All the bantering and antics from the cast has been something that many reviewers have slammed the film for and point to it as being filler material until the dead start to rise. While that may be the case I’ve found that, even with repeated viewings (multiple), those scenes are an integral part of creating the eerie mood. Long winded as they may be; scenes like the ritual in the graveyard, first by Alan and then by Val (Mamches), are filled with excellent dialogue that’s both funny and a bit unsettling and the gradual easing into utter sleaziness when Alan, more or less, starts to fondle Orville the corpse and hint at something more do create a one of a kind ambiance. This truly is a film like no other.
It’s also very era specific. When Alan is trying his best to unsettle his “children” Jeff (Gillen) mentions that they hopefully don’t piss off some hippie cult leader and that’s a big reference to the Manson murders which were a kind of a goodbye kiss to the Flower generation in some respects. The nihilistic ending is very keeping in tone with the grittiness of 70’s filmmaking and while this film’s spiritual father was socially conscious of the Vietnam war then possibly “Children” is a bit evoking the end of the hippie/free love era.
But setting aside all possible interpretations; “Children” really delivers with the scares and suspense in the final third. The journey to the final third is something that divides a lot of viewers but I continue to find the film a fascinating time capsule of low-budget filmmaking by some very talented individuals who went on to great things. Next up for Clark (and Ormsby as he was the screenwriter) was the terrific “Deathdream” (1974) and then the masterpiece that is “Black Christmas” (1974). Ormsby (who handled the excellent make-up effects for “Children”) co-directed with Gillen the deliriously wacky but excellent “Deranged” (1974) starring Roberts Blossom as a thinly veiled incarnation of real life murderer Ed Geins. All these other titles are also highly recommended. But it all started with “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things”.