In an unspecified era, the world has been rocked by a mutant strain of flu - a pandemic that, an opening TV news report informs us, has the World Health Organisation baffled as it only seems to affect adults. Unfortunately, in each case it makes the grown-ups suffer flu-like symptoms before turning them paranoid and invoking violent behaviour in them - until death finally takes over.

Fast-forward nine months later, and it's immediately evident that the WHO's efforts to curb the spreading of the virus have failed.

We're in Ireland, and the countryside is far quieter than normal. Buildings stand deserted and uncared for. Gardens are overgrown. The streets are silent. Parentless children move cautiously from house to house, furtively wandering in each one where they search for shelter and food.

In particular, we focus on teenager Evie (Catherine Wrigglesworth) and her younger sister Fran (Emily Forster). They've been aimlessly scavenging for their survival since the death of their father, and then mother (Jennifer Graham), from the virus.

Careful not to mix with other kids for fear of their potentially violent gang mentalities, the girls traipse Nomad-like and hide out at night in any empty building they can find. Their diet has become a routine of tinned food looted from abandoned kitchen cupboards. On evenings, to calm the nervous Fran, Evie reads passages from E Nesbit's classic book 'The Railway Children' - something their mother used to read to them at bedtime.

One night they hole up in a derelict house, only to be disturbed by noises coming from a neighbouring bedroom. Sneaking a peek, Evie spies a red-haired girl being beaten by a gang of teenagers, who then flee the scene. The red-head, Alice (Justine Rodgers), then joins the two sisters and eventually, reluctantly, begins to open up in a bid to earn their trust.

The next night, the gang return to the house. They stick around long enough to enjoy a few chapters of the sisters' book - a solitary source of entertainment, given that the world's media appears to have collapsed - and nick off the middle of the night with all of their belongings, including the treasured book.

Furious, Evie determines to catch up with the gang and get their belongings back. Alice reveals that the gang is led by her sister Kate (Shannon Murphy), and that she has a good idea of where they're headed. This leads her, Evie and Fran to the gang's regular shelter, where Evie strikes up a friendship with handsome Helman (Adam Tyrrell) - much to his girlfriend Grace's chagrin.

As the kids struggle to cope not only with struggling to find a future to carve out in these lawless lands, but also with the haunting memories of witnessing their own parents go insane and then die, the situation grows more volatile as a jealous Grace, her loyal servant Simon, and the loved Helman and Evie seem set on course to clash violently before the week is out...

CHILDREN OF A DARKER DAWN, filmed mostly in Dublin, is very much the brainchild of Jason Figgis. Figgis writes, produces, edits, photographs and directs this low-budget gem; he's fashioned one of the most beguiling, intelligent post-Apocalyptic horror films in some time.

In fact, to call CHILDREN a horror movie almost feels like I'm doing it a disservice. True, it's frequently tense and has a couple of genuinely creepy moments during its quieter early scenes. And the frequent short flashback scenes that each child character suffers are rife with footage of adults turning nuts on their kids, frighteningly so. There's even some communal cannibalism thrown in for good measure.

But a lot of the violence occurs off-screen to be fair, and the pervading things you will take from this film are its dense characterisation and its deep sense of melancholy. Those, and the fact that it's superbly acted by a largely young cast.

A cynic could easily point out that CHILDREN works along the lines of 28 DAYS LATER meets THE ROAD, before progressing into LORD OF THE FLIES. But that's too easy. The allusions to 'The Railway Children' work well, in that the passages of prose do draw interesting parallels to the life these youths have been forced to adopt - and, more importantly, inspire each listener to think back to the final moments of horror as everything they knew and trusted fell apart.

The beauty of Figgis' film is that it concentrates on the very human core of its story - there are no real heroes or villains, just young people struggling to cope with their current predicament while failing to recover from the recent trauma of seeing their loved ones violently degenerate - and this helps it rise above such comparison to become its own beast.

In a way, the odd sense of isolated existence and the sombre suggestion of loneliness as a welcoming for dementia recalled Andrew Barker's criminally unseen A RECKONING. But again, CHILDREN retains its identity by virtue of its focus on the kids as the wayward victims who simply can't process what they've been through, and struggle to work together to the extent that attempts at pulling together will collapse into jibes over hair colour and whether or not guys fancy other females in the group.

With solid performances throughout, an understated screenplay which eschews cheap thrills in favour of food for thought, and a stylish hazy aesthetic that works well within the film's low budget oeuvre, Figgis has made a singular and memorable film that deserves a wider audience.

MVD Visual's subsidiary label Pop Twist's region free DVD presents CHILDREN uncut and in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio in a transfer that has been enhanced for 16x9 televisions.

Shot on HD, the film looks predictably smooth and clean. The presentation here respects this aesthetic, offering a fair degree of image sharpness while rendering colours and blacks in satisfyingly strong fashion.

The English 2.0 stereo soundtrack is also well served for the main part, offering a clear and evenly balanced proposition throughout aside from a few moments of slightly muffled dialogue. I assume these latter moments are symptomatic of how the film's audio was recorded.

An animated main menu page opens the DVD. From there, an animated scene-selection menu allows access to the film via 12 chapters.

CHILDREN is serviced well on the presentation front. A film like this is begging for some good contextual bonus features to elaborate on its undoubtedly interesting background. Unfortunately, all we get is a trailer and music video.

The trailer is admittedly an enticing one. It's peppered with intelligently placed sound-bites from various online reviews, atop a montage of clips from the film which run for just under 3 minutes.

Then we get to the 5-minute music video, which features two actresses from the film singing their self-penned song over a plethora of clips from the feature. This comes complete with a 4-minute introduction from the girls, which also proffers the closest we get to any behind-the-scenes footage for the production.

Both extra features are presented in 16x9 widescreen and are visually on a par with the main feature.

CHILDREN is a thought-provoking, meticulously designed and paced take on the post-apocalyptic horror sub-genre. It shows real promise, not only for Figgis but for the talent young cast he's assembled.

Well worth a look. It's just a shame the DVD didn't offer more insight into the film's making. A Figgis commentary track, in particular, would've been an excellent accompaniment to this most intriguing film.

By Stuart Willis

Released by Pop Twist
Region 1
Not Rated
Extras :
see main review