Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Closing the Curtain

Film: Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things
Format: Streaming video from Hoopla on Fire!

One of the better ways to get an audience interested in a movie is to have a title that really tells the audience what to expect. There’s absolutely no mistaking what you’re going to get with a film called Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things. This is not going to be a drawing room comedy or a cute rom-com. No, we’re going to be dealing with dead bodies almost certainly coming back to life and causing problems for the “children” too dumb to let the dead rest.

The main thing different from the film title and the film is the nature of the children. We are not going to be witnessing 10-year-olds playing with body parts. Instead, this is going to be the story of an acting troupe wandering in a graveyard at the behest of their director and owner, Alan (Alan Ormsby, who co-wrote the screenplay). Alan is arguably the smuggest wanker to appear in film in the 1970s, and I realize that is saying a lot. One of the ways that he demonstrates how much more important and awesome he is compared with his actors is that he calls them “his children.”

Essentially, the plot can be summed up pretty quickly. Alan takes his troupe into a graveyard with the intent of performing a ritual to raise the dead. He plays an initial trick on everyone with the help of a couple of other people, and then they perform the ritual. It doesn’t look like it takes initially, but of course, it does and the dead rise as zombies. And, as per the established canon of George Romero, these aren’t Voodoo zombies who act as ghoulish servants, but actual flesh-eating ghouls. And, people naturally get picked off, or eaten, until the end of the film. That’s pretty much it.

One of the best features of the movie is also one of the most annoying, and that’s Alan. It’s really easy to suggest that Alan’s smugness, constant arrogant laughter, and over-the-top theatrics are an exaggeration or an extreme caricature. I assure you, as someone who has a Bachelor’s degree in English literature and who did some acting in college, Alan is right in line for a lot of the people who walk around in that world. I know people who used to go out of their way to drink what an author did while reading their work to make it more authentic. I once watched a poet friend break up with his girlfriend at a party and then count on his fingers to the right aesthetic moment to run after her, barefoot in the snow. Alan is a complete wanker, but I’ve known people who are a lot like Alan—mediocre clowns who are convinced of their own genius, mostly because they’re mildly more clever than the people from their 500 population home town.

This is also true of proto-Goth girl Anya (Anya Ormsby, Alan’s wife at the time). Anya spends time lying in a coffin because death is beautiful and wants Alan to treat the body that they unearth with respect for the same reason. I’ve known a lot of Anyas as well.

However, Alan is also the focus of a great deal of the film, and that makes it very frustrating to watch. There’s no pleasure in Alan; there’s just reality. And because the zombies don’t actually rise up and start doing anything until the third act of the film, this means we’ve got more than a full hour of Alan being a prick to everyone and Anya freaking out about the treatment of a corpse as the only entertainment on offer.

This puts me in a strange position. For as many qualities of film that this has in common with Manos: The Hands of Fate in terms of some screenplay elements, line delivery, and overall sensibility, there’s a weird connection to reality here as well. But that connection comes at the expense of it being incredibly annoying. Alan is a character who needs a punch or ten to the face. So, while Alan is very real, he’s also someone who is not fun to spend time around.

It's also worth saying that once the dead start coming back climbing up out of the ground, this gets genuinely good. You have to get through 65 minutes of nonsense to get there, but once that happens, this is a genuine horror film that is as good as most zombie films of the era, and honestly better than most. Interestingly, while these aren’t fast zombies, they’re also not particularly slow—they movie at what feels like normal human speed. Another interesting difference is that the zombies don’t seem to pass on the affliction—they were magically raised, and both kill and devour, but don’t infect.

It's also more or less true that no film could really live up to the title. The expectations are just too high for any horror fan. There’s no way anything could ever be better than what you imagine this is going to actually be.

Why to watch Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things: A top-10 all-time title.
Why not to watch: You have rarely encountered a character as awful and smug as Alan.


  1. Replies
    1. The last 20 minutes is great, but it's hard to justify the first hour to get there.