Being a child is an existence oftentimes based on fear. As children, we lack the ability to rationalize what we see and hear around us. We’re quicker to leap to insane conclusions about what happens, and quicker to translate an uncertainty of anything into a certainty that we are witnessing something horrible and supernatural. An adult hears something go bump in the night, and the worst they might think is that a burglar has broken into their home, or a mischievous cat has decided to embark on a bout of late night goofiness. A child, however, is quick to conclude that something far more sinister is afoot. The innocent bump in the night becomes evidence of a ghost, or a monster, or any of the limitless horrid possibilities a childish mind can come up with.
Horror films have a rich tradition of putting us in the mind of a child and viewing circumstances through that lens in order to enhance the experience of being afraid. From Invaders From Mars to Salem’s Lot to It to Poltergeist, the concept of a child in peril is one that is no stranger to the realm of horror. After all, as Stephen King once said, the horrors of adulthood are complex and often difficult to digest, but the fears of childhood can often be distilled down into a single face. And the most recent bearer of this storied banner in horror is Erlinguer Thoroddsen’s 2016 film Child Eater.
Based on the short film of the same name, Child Eater centers on Helen, a young woman who is babysitting a plucky boy named Lucas, who is suffering from the recent loss of his mother. Lucas is insistent that there is a bogeyman in his closet, and (surprise) he is not wrong. In this case, the bogeyman is Robert Bowery, a local serial killer who, decades prior, had the habit of kidnapping children and eating their eyes in order to stave off his own impending blindness. This creature kidnaps Lucas, and Helen is drawn into the conflict to get him back. Nothing too groundbreaking, really, but on the surface, it has potential.
Now I must admit I was particularly excited to finally see this film, and my anticipation was high. Of all the films that played the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival back in October, I think the one I regret missing the most was Child Eater. I’ve got something of a soft spot for these “children in peril” horror films, and I was looking forward to finally seeing it. Perhaps this anticipation is the root of my disappointment, because, unfortunately, I was let down by this movie. While the premise is, at first glance, mildly interesting, it doesn’t really go any deeper than that. Robert Bowery isn’t a particularly scary villain, nor is there anything really all that compelling that makes him stand out from the hordes of horror movie villains. The best thing about the character is the design; think Megadeth’s mascot Vic Rattlehead with a little more flesh on his bones. Everything else though is just…forgettable.
While it is just under an hour and a half long, it feels much longer. Full of half-developed characters you never quite feel invested in, lackadaisical story telling, a plot that feels like parts of it were thrown in on a whim, and dialogue that is just this side of cringe-worthy, Child Eater’s overall mediocrity is exceeded only by its lack of self awareness when it comes to how trite and beat-to-death this formula could be for a horror film. This simple plot could be great; after all, this is essentially a bare bones version of Carpenter’s Halloween. However, what makes Child Eater fall short is its noncommittal feeling. It halfheartedly attempts to build atmosphere, and fails miserably. Shots of the woods on a dreary afternoon just feel lifeless and flat, and those same woods at night just feel murky and pointless. The shots of eyeless dolls that are supposed to be chilling and eerie just come off as laughably cheesy – something that by 2016 should be relegated to a nu metal video instead of a serious horror film. Everything in this movie feels incredibly murky. EVERYTHING. The way it looks, the pacing, the dialogue, the plot. All of it is a mushy mess. We don’t see much of the titular villain, and I’m not sure if this was a deliberate choice on the filmmaker’s part, but either way, it doesn’t really help the film’s lack of atmosphere. While it’s not necessary, I would have preferred some kind of backstory as to who the titular Child Eater really was. We’re given a brief story (the previously mentioned serial killer going blind), but honestly the characters spend as much time explaining the origins as it took you to read that line. It’s just another beat-to-death “local legend that isn’t really a legend – ahhhh!” storyline that could work well, but definitely doesn’t in this case. I don’t need some huge detailed backstory if the rest of the movie is great. A little mystery goes a long way. But again, I can’t tell if this is a deliberate move to use mystique as an aesthetic choice, or if it’s just lazy storytelling. The ending is something right out of Horror Tropes 101 that is supposed to be shocking and pessimistic, but is ultimately predictable and eye-rollingly bad.
I can’t even really recommend this film as a “popcorn” horror film to watch if there’s nothing better to do, because this movie is so boring that doing nothing, or simply watching a movie you’ve already seen, is preferable. It accomplishes nothing, evokes no real feeling of terror or dread, and doesn’t tell a compelling story. Unlike other movies that use the concept of childish fear as a storytelling tool to immerse in the mind of a child and thus enhance our own fear, Child Eater just comes off as childish and juvenile.