New Year’s Disaster: How Tom Shankland’s ‘The Children’ Holds Up in a Pandemic-Stricken World

The vibe of family reunions has shifted significantly this year, no question about it. In a country that has been encouraged to stay home for the holidays, the traditional get-togethers for many families have either been called off or are being held in spite of guidelines. Even for families that are still meeting up this holiday season, Covid will likely dominate the talking points of the night. It has undeniably become too large to ignore.

What the pandemic has affected goes far beyond simply cancelling meetups or altering the topic of conversation. Our behavior and reactions to the world have shifted, becoming volatile and impulsive now that many of us are required to limit travel. The breaks that were afforded to us when we just needed to get out of the house for some breathing space are now limited as well, testing our patience with each other in the process.

Most of these situations are not usually considered horror stories by default; there’s a good chance that the supposed “spiraling” we witness in some people from these new rules may just come from things as minor as somebody leaving the toilet seat up one too many times. But the worst-case scenarios are often the kind that you may find in a horror story about people going mad in one specific location. 

2020 has had a number of these already, many of them unintentionally reflecting the state of the world no matter how much we try to avoid it. Films like The Lodge, Sea Fever, Host, #Alive, and Sputnik have either directly or indirectly explored isolation and distancing in some form, which is morbidly fitting for a genre that is most infamous for tackling subjects considered sensitive and taboo. And even in horror pre-2020, some of the most seemingly generic horror flicks now hit a little closer to home than they would have in a Covid-free world.

Take Tom Shankland’s 2008 New Year’s Eve horror-thriller, The Children, as an example of this. Shankland, who is perhaps more well-known to UK audiences as the director of the 2018 BBC adaptation of Les Misérables and the Primetime Emmy Award-nominated series The Missing, wrote and directed this indie horror film set around New Year’s Eve to little fanfare, apart from relatively solid reviews from critics and journalists. The film saw some love from various festivals and awards outlets, including at the Fangoria Chainsaw Awards, but it unfortunately became lost in a competitive sea of horror titles becoming more widely available by the minute with the ascending boom of the internet era.

There is no shame in coming across a low-budget horror film with a vague title at a video store and simply passing right through it to find something else. Though the internet had grown strong in power in 2008, physically seeking this out without many of the mainstream publications offering a review of it did not help the film break out to significant audiences. But today, with the internet now arguably our most reliable manner for finding whatever we need, The Children is only a click away on Tubi for free.

But not only is it more widely accessible to larger audiences, it manages to hit differently than it would have in the late 2000s. In a climate that has now been permanently affected by a pandemic, the chaotic unrest of what is intended to be a peaceful and fun New Year’s celebration becomes uncomfortably tied to the modern era past the 2020s. In a brief, but unruly 85 minutes, The Children manages to address the uneasy and unspoken tension that is commonplace for holiday reunions and bring its ugly truth to the forefront in brutal fashion.

The Children focuses on rebellious and incredibly 2000s teenager, Casey, and her family meeting up with her aunt’s family for the New Year. She comes with her distant mother Elaine, ambitious and slightly tone-deaf stepfather Jonah, perpetually nerve-wracked half-sister Miranda, and unusual loner of a brother, Paulie. That description alone already gives an idea of the kind of tension that will be present at Aunt Chloe’s house for the holidays.

The most outward tension comes from a mysterious illness that falls upon the kids overnight and by the morning of New Year’s Eve, they are either stricken by panic, melancholy, or pained coughs. The pet cat Jinxie is also missing, yet the adults aren’t any the wiser, letting their minor rivalries with each other take precedence over anything else even when the bodies begin to pile up, courtesy of the now-infected children.

In all its low-budget glory, The Children’s use of one main location as the setting for this story helps the stuffiness of the crowded house feel overwhelming, the openness of the outdoors only feeling like a slight extension to a hallway of stress. The conclusion of shit hitting the fan is inevitable, but the manner in how everything will fall apart feels clunky, messy, and chaotic, giving the ordeal an uncomfortable realness despite the goofy idea of kids suddenly turning into homicidal maniacs overnight.

Although the murder is (under normal circumstances) an exaggeration for the purpose to satisfy horror fans, The Children does nail one crucial aspect of the conflict presented here unnervingly well: the unpredictability of family implosion. More often than not, portrayals of families exploding at each other feel telegraphed in movies and shows. It’s easy to anticipate a specific scene as being the one where everything goes out in the open and though this is not inherently a mark of poor quality, it speaks more on the type of knowledge writers may or may not have on these types of situations.

The Children succeeds in this aspect by layering each scene with an underlying and brewing tension usually masked by civility and repression. When the two families begin to turn on each other and within, it never feels out of place since their issues with each other, such as how each couple views the others’ parenting styles, are hinted at during dialogue exchanges that turn polite before things go south. When you harbor an abnormally large amount of bitterness towards something, it will come to the surface with an explosion that can come from anywhere.

Of course, this is nothing new in regards to how families can sometimes act, especially for those who choose to bite their tongues the majority of the time. But in a pre-pandemic world, the façade was easier to keep up. People had plenty of reasons to not bring any of these issues up, whether they be nights out with their friends, going to the movies, burying themselves in their work, etc. But when those options are no longer as clear-cut as they once were, families with major underlying problems are now essentially forced to be around each other 24/7. 

The Children’s main conflict may not stem from the two families staying together for a long time, but the end result of complete implosion feels eerily similar to stories we hear nowadays about couples breaking up, divorcing, or getting into frequent fights with each other now that they hardly have anything to distract themselves from something they could have been ignoring. For as much as we can make fun of joke posts about people losing their minds in quarantine, some of these situations do end with implosion and The Children demonstrates the fragility of our supposed civil outer surface. Life-changing fights can occur at the drop of a dime; the families in the film just happened to have theirs when the kids transformed into little murderers.

Calling this film prophetic is perhaps giving it too much credit when it operates well on its own as a standalone domestic horror-thriller. Despite the strong story at its core, it is equally willing to entertain with this bizarre kids v. adults conflict that yields disturbing and bloody results. If you have a taboo desire to see a film in which nobody, especially “the children”, are safe from gruesome deaths, this will more than scratch that itch of yours.

But viewing this film at the beginning of the 2020s feels as though the premise is brought back down to Earth. The family conflict feels willing to tap into discussions many people would rather die than ever bring up, further loosening our public masks of civility in the process. If The Children has anything that will likely hold up even 10 years from now, it is how it unintentionally became an example of how social dynamics would shift in a year that hardly anybody could predict.

When families settle in for the holidays this year, it’ll be easy to turn sour on a time in our lives that has become overbearing and stressful like none other. But what The Children also demonstrates is how destructive family implosions can truly be. It is very much a worse-case scenario film in that regard. So while ringing in the New Year, it’s important to recognize the fragility and preciousness of true family time. Even when things seem like they are only getting worse, positive companionship of any kind can help us thrive where these two families simply couldn’t.

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