Best thing you’ll see all week: Come Out and Play

, | Movie reviews

In 1976, a Spanish director named Narciso Serrador made a movie called Who Can Kill A Child?, but with the words in Spanish. It opens with ten minutes of newsreel footage about the atrocities visited on children in the 20th century, from the Holocaust, to starvation in Africa, to the then ongoing conflicts in Southeast Asia. ‘What the heck kind of movie is this?,’ you might wonder. Then the movie proper starts and you’re watching a moody mystery/horror thriller about an English couple vacationing in Spain who happens upon a mysteriously depopulated island. It turns out the children have slaughtered all the adults. Basically, a Children of the Corn before there were any Children of the Corn.

So what was the point of all that newsreel footage? Serrador suggests that these homicidal children are an evolutionary response to the atrocities of the modern era. Children suffer the worst during war, famine, and upheaval. So the children on this island have developed a preemptive homicidal tendency as a survival measure. And because people who don’t commit atrocities have a built-in reluctance to kill children — as per the title of a movie — the children can get away with it. The movie ends with the English couple successfully dispatched (the pregnant wife is actually killed from within by her unborn baby). The children appropriate a Coast Guard boat and sail to the mainland to infect the children there. It’s the end of the world! Roll credits.

After the jump, it’s been long enough! Let’s remake this thing!

Come Out and Play is a mostly faithful remake of Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? It dispenses with the newsreel footage, entirely sidestepping Serrador’s premise. Which is probably a good idea. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening had the same premise, except it was plants turning murderous as a protective evolutionary measure instead of children. Hilarity ensued. The concept worked as a Spanish anti-war polemic in the 70s, a sort of horror movie Guernica for Vietnam, but this remake is playing more to the zombie fiction crowd. The kids turn murderous because, hey, infectious disease! For a more subtle and disturbing treatment of this concept, I highly recommend Tom Shankland’s The Children, from 2008, which he co-wrote with the brilliant Paul Andrew Williams (London to Brighton, The Cottage, Cherry Tree Lane).

Come Out and Play was directed by someone who really wants you to know his name, but only one of them. The title card lists the movie as “Makinov’s Come Out and Play”. Just “Makinov”. No first name. The final frame reminds you that it’s “A Film by Makinov”, dropping each letter one at a time in big capital block letters, as if he were spelling out his name for you to make sure you get it right on the marquis for the premiere. This is Makinov’s first movie, and I can cut him (her?) a little slack for the vanity, because it’s mostly well done. It wisely duplicates the mood of the original, converting the English couple in Spain to an American couple in Central or South America. And it knows enough to cast two good actors in the lead roles. As the husband, Ebon Moss-Bachrach is a combination of dorky and protective. The early scenes of him bumbling around trying to rent a boat are strangely captivating. Who is this guy? Is he up to no good? What’s he doing here? Vinessa Shaw as the pregnant wife has been through arguably worse mistreatment in Alexander Aja’s Hills Have Eyes remake, so she knows how to endure a horror movie convincingly. They’re really good together, and it’s a key element to making the movie work. If you’re going to have a borderline ridiculous premise — killer kids! — you need good actors to help sell it. For other examples, see Citadel, Ils, and Eden Lake.

One of the problems with this remake is the very zombie movies it’s emulating. Starting with Night of the Living Dead, eight years before Serrador posed the question, the idea that children might be infected and you might therefore have to actually kill a child is a staple of zombie mythology. Zombie mythology, and of course Children of the Corn, nearly renders this movie obsolete. We’ve been conditioned to accept that if there are children among the rampaging murderous horde, they’ll have to be killed as well. That’s established in the opening scene of the most successful series on AMC. So Come Out and Play isn’t nearly as subversive as Who Can Kill a Child? Sure, sometimes kids are evil. You’ve seen The Omen. You do what you have to do.

The supposedly shocking scene of the husband machinegunning a crowd of children is actually pretty tame, and I can’t help but think Makinov is pulling punches. The finale seems more like roughhousing than actual violence, particularly in this remake. It’s as if the filmmakers are understandably reluctant to get too graphic with the idea of children being hurt. But Makinov does have something up his sleeve that wasn’t in the original. In the 1976 movie, the husband comes upon a bunch of boys undressing a woman’s corpse. It’s a disturbing scene for a number of reasons, and Serrador just lets it sit in your imagination. What were they doing? Why? In place of that scene, Makinov resorts to more explicit gore, juxtaposed with the idea of the children playing. It’s disturbing enough that it gives this otherwise faithful remake an identity of its own as a sly variation on the usual zombie movie.

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