Color, 1989, 93 mins. 44 secs.
Directed by Mik Cribben
Starring Michael Robertson, Rich Hamilton, Robin Lilly, Lori Tirgrath, Jamie Krause, Mik Cribben
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1), Troma (DVD) (US R0 NTSC)
The history of killer kid movies since the days of The Bad Seed and Village of the Damned has always skirted on the edges of what's acceptable, with films like Devil Times Five, Children of the Corn, Bloody Birthday, The Children, Mikey, The Good Son, and especially Who Can Kill a Child? unsettling viewers with the prospect of how far they'd go to defend themselves against pint-sized homicidal maniacs. Of course, the concept was mostly the stuff of wild fantasy until school violence became an epidemic starting in the late '90s, which pretty much put a fork in the idea except for the occasional out-there variant like Orphan. One of the cheapest and craziest of the killer kid movies mostly flew under the radar when Troma released Beware! Children at Play in the late '80s, even clearing out a Cannes showing of Tromeo & Juliet by running its outrageously violent trailer beforehand. The New Jersey-shot film marked the sole directorial effort for movie jack-of-all-trades Mik Cribben, who'd worked on everything from the prestige art film Hester Street to the slasher classic Nightmare and twisted adult films like The Naughty Victorians and The Defiance of Good. The film still doesn't have a great reputation to this day, which may be due to both its unusual tone and pacing as well as the fact that, until Vinegar Syndrome's 2022 Blu-ray release, it's always looked like garbage on home video.
When a father and son camping trip goes horribly wrong thanks to a bear trap and leads to murderous cannibalism after the rations run out, the stage is set for a decade-long string of mysteries around a small country town where rumors of demons abound among the religious populace. While on a road trip with his family, testy writer John DeWolfe (Robertson) meets up with his brother-in-law, Ross (Hamilton), a sheriff whose daughter has gone missing. Since we see a particularly salty Bible pusher get whacked in half with a scythe as soon as John pulls in, it's clear that the cannibal kid plague is spreading rapidly with the incredibly inept parents either unable or unwilling to do much about it. As the body count piles up, it's clear this will only end in tears -- and a lot of blood.
Though it certainly has its pacing and acting issues, Beware! Children at Play manages to surprise with its unpredictable body count and its absolutely outrageous climax, which will remain unspoiled here never fails to leave first-time viewers' jaws stuck to the floor. If ever there was a film that was worth sticking with for the payoff, this would be the one as it manages to be both utterly tasteless and hilarious at the same time with a cavalcade of transgressive (but mercifully unconvincing) practical effects mayhem. There are some other nasty bits scattered around through the rest of the film, too, with enough murders to keep you marginally invested in an investigation that you're already ahead of every step of the way. To this day the film hasn't really been distributed much outside of the usual Troma circles, and they didn't even bother trying to slip it through the U.K. at the height of the video nasty panic (or any time since). In 1998, Troma made this one of its first DVDs out of the gate with a mediocre transfer from the same master used for VHS, with extras including a Lloyd Kaufman video intro (1m34s), a Troma tour and intelligence test, Radiation March, PSAs, merchandise pitches, and a brief video statement (3m54s) from Mik Cribben about how he was inspired by Combat Shock and made the film for about $200,000.
Not surprisingly, the Vinegar Syndrome region-free Blu-ray vaults way past that ancient DVD with a fresh 2K scan from the 35mm original camera negative that looks immeasurably better in every possible way. The awkward open matte framing has been corrected here to a more focused 1.85:1, the color scheme improves considerably, detail increases throughout... you name it, this one stomps all over the old disc. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 English mono track is also in much better shape (with optional English SDH subtitles provided), and that crazed score has never sounded better. The old Cribben video is ported over here, but you also get him in a new commentary track that has a ton of dead space but does offer some decent info about the creation of the score, the problems with using generators to shoot out in the middle of nowhere, the involvement of Street Trash's Jim Muro, his methods of directing the adult and child actors, and other little challenges along the way. "Why I Don’t Have Children" (51m6s) is a very in-depth making-of documentary featuring interviews with the cast and crew including special effects directors Mark Dolson and Mark Kwiatek, actors Lori Tirgrath, Thatcher Long, Anthony Cartinella, and Peter Riga, and composer Herschel Dwellingham (who pretty much steals the show here), with the participants chatting about the original shooting title of Goblin, their recruiting into the production, the eventual cult following, and the execution of the very DIY-level gore effects. Finally Cribben turns up for a new interview (15m32s) about the original 30-page treatment of the film ("the gory parts"), his attempts to shop it around, and the experience of seeing it eventually seeing it come to life through Troma.
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray)
Reviewed on March 13, 2022