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The Nostalgic Attic: Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things (1973)

27 October 2013

Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things (1973)

"I peed in my pants!"

I have a couple of films I like to watch around Halloween. Not always every year, but as often as I can. There are some obvious titles that many horror fans go to without fail; John Carpenters Halloween, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, to name but a few. Those definitely qualify on my top ten horror films of all time, but they aren't the first films I turn to at this time of year. Nope, when the leaves are turning brown and the sound of fireworks grows steadily over the days, Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things usually pops into my head.

Leading a theatrical troupe onto an island at midnight, Alan (Alan Ormsby; writer of Deathdream, Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile) has some funny ideas about what constitutes entertainment. Telling constant stories about the horrid past of the island inhabitants, including the disturbing fate of the previous graveyard caretaker; he is hellbent on rattling the actors in his company. They have only just landed when he unveils the true purpose of their nocturnal trip: to dig up a corpse and raise the dead, with the help of some satanic rites, of course. Some of those in the party seem OK with this plan; Jeff (Jeff Gillen; co-director of Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile) has no problem digging up a grave. Others are not so enthusiastic, however. Val just wants to leave, and kooky Anya (Anya Ormsby; Deathdream) reckons that messing with the dead will lead to no good.

Luckily for them, it all turns out to be an elaborate prank on the behalf of Alan; the corpse is in fact their acting friend in disguise. The real corpse from the grave has been stashed, along with the caretaker, and Alan decides it's time to get up to some black magic. Using a Grimoire, he recites some passages and uses the dried bloody of an infant to try and ressurect the dead. He has little luck, and is mocked by Terry (Jane Daly; Deathdream) who performs her own version of a ritual. Alan demands that the real corpse, by the name of Orville, be taken back to the run-down cottage near the graveyard. Here they continue to insult the dead by having a wedding between Alan and the corpse, but little do they realise that shit is about to turn nasty. You see, the dead have decided that they DO want to rise from their graves, and begin to tear apart anyone they can get their hands on. The cautionary message is in the title, folks, children really shouldn't play with dead things!

I got my first introduction to Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things in the late 90's, when I saw the trailer on the Exploited release of 'Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile'. Something about it seemed so lurid and trashy, and for once the film delivered what was promised. The acting is uneven, but I've seen a lot worse. The script is stuffed full of duff jokes: some will make you smirk, others will make you cringe (my wife cried,"This is awful!" at least three times whilst I was re-watching it). The film is dark and grainy; sometimes you can barely make out what is happening on screen. The same goes for the scratchy sound. None of that is really surprising, as it was shot in 11 days for approximately $70,000. What is surprising, though, is how effective the film is.

What the film lacks in technical brilliance it more than makes up for it with the bag loads of atmosphere it has to spare. From the opening near-cryptic scenes of ghouls attacking the caretaker right through to the claustrophobic climax, the film builds a sense of forboding that many filmmakers tend to leave out of zombie films in favour of gore and bloodletting. Slow motion is used effectively, and goes well with the electronic-noodling score and discordant sounds. The moments (slow-coming as they might be) when the zombies do finally burst free from the earth seem well ahead of their time, and are the kind of shots that have been aped in everything from Return of the Living Dead through to Michael Jacksons Thriller. And here-in lies the ace-in-the-hole; the excellent make-up effects. Created by Ormsby himself, they are some of the crumbliest and most imaginative zombies seen that side of Zombie Flesh Eaters. They really do lift it beyond its zero budget roots, and coupled with the atmosphere created by the director, leads the film into a genuinely terrifying climax.

The director is a fairly well known chap by the name of Bob Clark, who went on to make several other classic horror films before hitting it big. The man had a very varied career; his early credits include the underrated Deathdream, and the seminal slasher Black Christmas. He found great success with writing and directing the first two Porkys films, before going on to make his other seasonal masterpiece, A Christmas Story. The 90's and beyond were less kind to him, with sour films such as Baby Geniuses and, ahem, The Karate Dog sullying up his CV, but sadly he was killed in a car crash in 2007, and was unable to regain that lost glory. He had in fact been working on a remake of Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things at the time.

Sure, the film attempts to make you laugh plenty in the first half with its camp antics, and fails more often-than-not. But that shouldn't stop you picking this one up if you have yet to see it. It's a low budget gem that not many die-hard zombie fans are willing to give a chance to. Don't make the same mistake and give it a whirl if you fancy a change of pace from The Exorcist on October the 31st.

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At 28 November 2013 at 12:20 , Blogger Wes M said...

Fantastic stuff JP, I'm glad this is a favourite of yours because I've had to battle for this film over the years by folks who just don't get it. We probably discovered the film around the same time, in my case in the mid-90's in a Movieland depot which opened in Cork for one glorious summer selling thousands of mostly post-cert ex-rentals culled from videoshops across the UK (inside sleeves stamped with "Property of Mr Video Crydon. Please Rewind the tape" etc). A great summer for a young Horror fan who wanted to see everything. Anyway, among the stacks of schlock Horror I came across something called Revenge of the Living Dead, packaged in a generic cartoon sleeve, but for the princely sum of 5 Irish pounds (2 tapes for 5 quid, bought with Paul Naschy giallo A Dragonfly for Each Corpse), it was mine. It was in fact Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, and I absolutely loved it. I think it's one of the great Horror movies of the 70's, certainly along with Living Dead At Manchester Morgue, one of the great atmospheric zombie movies of the decade. Two other things I love about the film - Carl Zittrer's eerie electronic score (and his great score for Deranged) and actress Jane Daly who's really really cute. All this has put Deathdream in mind, and I gonna grab a screening of the Blue Underground disc at the weekend for sure. Black Christmas will hold for another 3 weeks. Finally, I'm hoping Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things will find its way to Blu-Ray some day, a tall order given the condition of the film, but if the BFI can put out Andy Milligan, anything is possible !

At 28 November 2013 at 13:47 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Yeah, for me it was with the Xploited tape as mentioned, but it would have been the late 80's, and I'm damned sure I was paying more for my tapes than that! What a great catch for 5 quid.

But you are right, it is a highlight in a great decade of horror. There aren't many other films that feel like this, or Deathdream. Never say never on the blu ray, who knows what could happen! Deranged had its HD premier this year, so it's not beyond the realms of possibility!

I have yet to dig into my Living Dead at Manchester Morgue Blu Ray, and you have got me in the mood for that now.

At 7 June 2014 at 20:19 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

I dearly love this movie - check out my introduction to it - near the end of my trick or treating years - if not the last year I came home, doffed my costume (not even sure what it was) and sat down with all my candy poured into a HUGE bowl. As I munched away I watched the 11 o'clock movie - something horror - then, still jazzed on all the sugar - stayed up for the late show - which was an uncut airing of Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things. I fell in love with the movie that night, then didn't see it again for years. I do own it on disc now, thankfully. Many years later I worked with Bob Clark - twice - once on a TV movie that ended up being called something like Secrets from the Rose Garden. The other time I worked with him was on the sequel to A Christmas Story. I'll save the bulk of my stories for my behind the scenes production work series over at my blog - but I did talk at length with Bob Clark and his first assistant director Ken Goch, who had been working with Clark since those early days. It was amazing!

At 9 June 2014 at 02:34 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Craig, I can imagine that being the absolute best time to watch this film - midnight on Halloween! Perfect! It definitely would stick in your head long after that alright.

That's fantastic that you got to work with Clarke! I don't expect you to spill any beans here, and will eagerly await your posts on it on your blog. I had no idea that there was a sequel to A Christmas Story, which is (unsurprisingly) one of my favorites.

At 9 June 2014 at 03:33 , Blogger Wes M said...

Craig we look forward to hearing those stories... This comment has unearthed my own memory of first seeing the film, probably in the very early 90's. I see I mentioned this already in my earlier comment, but too elaborate further - I actually ended up buying the film on VHS twice, although not by design - the first edition of the film I picked up was under the title of Revenge of the Living Dead, the second under the Children Shouldn't Play... title. I'm thinking both editions were unauthorized, but check out these two VHS covers - the Revenge of the Living Dead is truly an eye-sore - what possessed me to buy this I can't say, but the second edition has one of the oddest looking sleeves I've encountered in my years of collecting - that particular tape is long gone much to my eternal regret...

At 9 June 2014 at 07:50 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Wes, I've never seen those VHS covers before, both do look unauthorized, especially the second one which is downright creepy!

At 9 June 2014 at 11:04 , Blogger Wes M said...

Isn't the Children Shouldn't Play... sleeve one of the weirdest sleeves ever ? The title doesn't even appear on the cover, and the creature has a slightly Gigeresque bent... The Revenge of the Living Dead sleeve is just atrocious. None of the screenshots on the spine and back are actually from the movie and the cover looks like it was cut and pasted from those ads for Halloween masks you'd often see in the pages of Fangoria...


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