An accident at a nearby nuclear power plant releases a thick radioactive fog that drifts through a small country community. A bus full of school children returning home from school drives through the fog and is later found abandoned on the side of the road by Sheriff Hart. The sheriff, along with the town physician, Dr. Gould, search the immediate area but do not find a trace of the missing children and driver. Suspecting the children were kidnapped, the sheriff orders his deputies to erect roadblocks and stop all traffic in and out of the town. After Sheriff Hart departs, Dr. Gould notices a group of children in a nearby cemetery and looks for Tommy, the young son of one of her patients, who was on the school bus. In the graveyard, Gould discovers the charred body of the bus driver. While she examines the corpse, young Tommy slowly approaches her, his fingernails black from radiation exposure. The irradiated boy hugs Dr. Gould, burning her to a crisp.
In town, the sheriff begins to question the residents to determine whose children were on the bus and did not return home. Returning to town, Hart notices a friend, John Freemont, broke down on the side of the road and gives him a ride home. As the two men leave, they fail to notice little Ellen Chandler, one of the missing children, wandering near the woods. The little girl returns home and hugs her relieved parents, burning them to death with her touch. Across town, more deaths occur when Paul Mackenzie returns home and kills his sister and father with a fatal hug.
When they arrive at John’s house, John informs his pregnant wife, Cathy, about the missing children and she tells Hart that she saw the abandoned bus when she drove through the fog on the way home from the obstetrician. The discussion is cut short as Hart is dispatched to Dr. Gould’s house and John accompanies him. As they head to Gould’s home, Deputy Timmons, also sent to the area, encounters three children on the road. When Timmons approaches the children, the trio burns him to death with their embrace. Upon arriving at Gould’s home, Hart and John enter the residence and discover the burned corpse of one of her patients, as well as the body of a burnt Doberman in the closet, but no sign of the doctor.
After departing Gould’s home, they find one of the missing children, Janet Shore, on the road and pick her up. The child, apparently uncontaminated as her fingernails are clear, passes out in the back seat of the police cruiser as they drive her home. At the Shore residence, Hart and John discover her mother missing and the burnt bodies of her father and their drug supplier in the backyard. As they survey the scene, Janet’s fingernails darken to black, and she attempts to attack Hart before fleeing from the area.
Arriving back at Freemont’s, they see a television news reports concerning missing children in the tri-county area and possible issues at the power plant. Outside, Cathy sees their missing daughter, Jenny, approaching the home. The contaminated girl attempts to hug her mother but flees when she sees Hart and her father come outside. They chase the girl into the barn, where she grabs her father’s hand, severely burning it before Hart can pull him away. Janet also joins Jenny and is repeatedly shot by Hart, but the bullets do not affect her, forcing Hart and John to retreat to the house.
Three more children arrive at the Freemont’s and begin to lay siege to the home. Hart attempts to keep the kids away from the house with a shotgun, but the bullets do not stop them. As they battle downstairs, John’s young son lets his friend Paul in through a window, and the contaminated child burns him to death. Cathy discover’s her son’s burnt body and is pursued through the house by Paul, who tries to hug her. Desperate, Hart uses a sword to chop off Paul’s hands. Once he amputates Paul’s hands, the fingernails return to normal, and Paul dies.
Now knowing how to kill the deadly children, the duo arms themselves with an ax and a sword. Cornering the children in the barn, Hart hacks them all to death, including Johns’s daughter Jenny. Returning to his patrol car to radio for help, he is attacked by Ellen, who still lives after having one of her arms cut off. The girl burns Hart to death before John hacks her other arm off, destroying her. Hearing Cathy scream, John rushes into the house and finds her going into labor. He successfully delivers the baby and watches in horror as the infant’s nails start to turn black.
The Children is a very uneven film that combines elements of zombie and ecological horror films with variable success. Made a few years after the scare at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, the story attempts to capitalize on that fear by having a radiation leak be the cause of the children’s condition. The ecological horror theme was popular in the late 1970s and warned about the effects on the environment by pollution and indifference. A common thread in these films is that the future generations will pay the price, which is echoed in The Children by having only the children, even the unborn, being affected by the radioactive fog.
While the basic concept of the movie is quite good, the script itself is terrible. Throughout the film, there are many incomprehensible moments that detract from the story. One of the minor instances occurs at the beginning of the movie. Sheriff Hart discovers the school bus pulled over on the side of the road and abandoned, yet just drives past it and not investigating an obviously odd situation. Continuing with this theme of incompetent authority, the script includes a scene of Deputy Timmons allowing a drug dealer to enter the town through his roadblock, in violation of Sheriff Hart’s directive. He does this after calling the local junkie, who orders him to allow the dealer to come to his home. How anyone would believe the local junkie’s orders supersede the sheriff is just unbelievable. The scene seems to have been written to introduce some comedic elements into the film, which can be good to release tension in horror movies. Unfortunately, it has a damaging effect on the film by destroying any credibility in the authorities, in particular in one of the heroes, Sheriff Hart.
Another problem pertains to the children themselves. In an attempt to emulate the zombie films, which maintains the only mode of death is to destroy the brain, the irradiated children are immune to gunshots and can only be dispatched by removing their hands. While creative, it makes no sense why removing these parts, specifically both of them, proves deadly to the children and not anything else. The impact of the deadly nature of the children, able to kill by their touch due to their radioactive contamination, is even lessened by the script, which includes a scene of a boy following his terrified family members around with his arms outstretched to hug them. The whole episode is comical and destroys any horror and shock built up in the scene. The closing image of the infected infant, which is intended to shock the audience, can be telegraphed from a mile away, especially after learning about halfway through the movie that Cathy drove the VW seen at the beginning in the fog.
The best aspect of the film is its musical score by Harry Manfredini. Manfredini engages in some self-plagiarizing with this movie, using similar musical themes that are found in his much superior score for the same year’s Friday the 13th.
Running Time: 90 minutes
Martin Shakar, Gil Rogers, Gale Garnett, Shannon Bolin, Tracy Griswold, Joy Glaccum, Jeptha Evans, Clara Evans, Sarah Albright, Nathanael Albright, Julie Carrier, Michelle LeMothe, Edward Terry, Peter Maloney, Jessie Abrams, Rita Montone, John Codiglia, Martin Brennan, J.D. Clarke, James Klawin, Arthur Chase, Suzanne Barnes, Diane Deckard, David Platt, Ray Delmolino, Michael Carrier
Producer – Carlton J. Albright, Max Kalmanowicz; Director – Max Kalmanowicz; Written by – Carlton J. Albright, Edward Terry; Music – Harry Manfredini; Special Makeup Effects Artist – Craig Lyman