Thursday, October 15, 2015

31 Days of Halloween: Children of the Stones (1977)

Today we’re going to look at something enjoyably chilling for the younger horror geeks out there. Now, before you older horror geeks tune out, 1977’s Children of the Stones, unlike many other other younger viewer productions made for scares, isn’t a story that the older set will have trouble viewing all the way through to the end. It never dumbs down its content. The direction and music are still quite effective, and the story could very easily have been only slightly retooled and recast in order to be passed off as a more adult series. Indeed, I’ve heard the thing referred to by some British horror critics as The Wicker Man for the pre-teen and teenage set. As a matter of fact, I still see people who are familiar with it referencing it as still being one of the scariest TV experiences they ever had.

Children of the Stones was a seven episode HTV series out of the UK, but it was aired in America a short time after its original UK air date as a part of Nickelodeon’s dark fantasy and horror anthology series The Third Eye. The series was a wonderful introduction for preteens and teens to a number of darker fantasy stories not seen elsewhere on American television. The various shows included Into the Labyrinth, The Haunting of Cassie Palmer, Under the Mountain, The Witches and the Grinnygog, and, most important for me, Children of the Stones. It scared the spit out of my pre-teen self, but it did it in the best possible way.

Here’s a teaser.
Our story is simple enough. Gareth Thomas (of Blake’s 7 fame) plays astrophysicist Adam Brake. With his son Matthew (Peter Demin) in tow he travels to the isolated English village of Milbury to study the ring of stones surrounding the village. We as the viewer are immediately clued in to how the stones and their “children” are to be connected as they enter the town and almost strike one of the villagers who, for a split second, appears to be a part of the stone circle.

As father and son settle in to the place where they’re staying, a conversation with one of the locals leads Matthew to pull out a curious painting he’d brought with him. As he unpacks it, he explains he simply found it in a shop, unsure of why he wanted it, but now he finds it interesting as the medieval village depicted in the painting resembles MIlbury. It’s just a dark, twisted reflection of MIlbury replete with nightmare imagery and strange symbolism. The effects it has on the villagers that see it as the story progresses become interesting to say the least. The painting and the clues in the story it tells become an important part of the story.

As Adam begins his work on the stones, studying their alignment in relation to the stars and looking into the unusual magnetic energy around them, Matthew begins to explore his new home, meeting the local kids and starting school in the village. It’s through Matthew’s initial interactions with other teenagers in the village that we discover the unusual nature of the villagers. They’re not simply cheery and polite about welcoming new folks, but rather they’re unnaturally happy. Everyone in town save the other two newer families seem eerily cheerful and impossible to anger. Even an act of physical violence against them is met with a smile.

Matthew addresses his concerns to his father, but they’re initially dismissed as his misunderstanding the local people and customs. Initially feeling that he’s on his own; Matthew turns to his two new “normal” friends for help. It’s while investigating the mystery of the “happy ones” that he meets the town hermit, a somewhat mentally disturbed man by the name of Dai (Freddie Jones.) Dai’s issues initially come across as his simply being crazy, but it becomes clear that it’s more a form of shellshock from what’s happened to him over the decades he’s lived in the village.

Slowly the unusual events in the village become too much for Adam to ignore. He finally agrees to leave the village, and he and Matthew attempt their departure only to discover that the stones will not let anyone leave. Facing the realization that they’re trapped, Adam redoubles his efforts at uncovering the mystery of the stones and the nature of the happy ones. New discoveries about the stones, the ground beneath the stones, and about something in the heavens leads them to believe the source behind the dark secrets of the village is the Lord of the Manor, Rafael Hendrick (Iain Cuthbertson.)
The story twists and turns as it rushes towards its resolution. Things get dark before getting darker. Once Adam and Matthew finally succeed they discover that the stones have still managed to keep their secrets in a way, and the very last bit of the final act leaves you with one last stinger to let you know that the end was only the beginning.

Despite that last line, Children of the Stones is a self-contained, one and done story with a clear beginning and ending. It’s also an example of 1970’s British dark fantasy at its best regardless of the originally intended target audience.  

As mentioned above, it’s been compared to The Wicker Man by some critics and fans, but, while that may be a somewhat accurate comparison, aspects of it have always reminded me more of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Part of the terror in the story is one of watching the people around you become something else, seemingly doing so happily, and becoming something you can no longer relate to. The other part of the story is the fear of being pulled against one’s will into conformity, the fear that something unknown will happen to you at a time and place you cannot determine that will change you into one of them.

This actually gives the story the ability to work as effective horror on multiple levels. From the adult perspective it’s simply solid storytelling with classic horror concepts. The unnerving nature of the horror is made greater by the contrast of the darker concepts against the seemingly idyllic surroundings of the quiet, peaceful English village. The inclusion of some 1970’s era new age into the mix also gives it a nice bit of flourish, a feeling reminiscent of classic dark fairy tales.

On another level, the story of isolation, alienation, and unwanted change, seeking to keep one’s identity as well as seeking to fit in, mirrors fairly well the natural feelings of the program’s original primary target audience. Everyone else is strange, seemingly the “other,” and all around you your friends start changing into the “other” as well. The whole time this is happening, people are trying to get you to make a similar change as well. The idea of having feelings of distrust, even distaste, when seeing others happily conforming has likewise long struck a chord with the teenage set.

All of this is wrapped up in a story that unfolds nicely, adding each new layer of the mystery and revealing new secrets and clues at just the right pace to keep the viewer engaged. The writing and (most) of the dialogue is fairly sharp and crisp, and the majority of the acting stands up far better than most programs aimed at younger viewers. The principal cast is comprised largely of seasoned actors who should be familiar faces to fans of classic British programming, giving the series the benefit of a number of solid performances. Certainly both Iain Cuthbertson and (especially) Freddie Jones turn in strong and engaging performances in what are important roles for the story.

On a purely personal level- While this wasn’t my first introduction to horror or dark fantasy, this was a story that stuck with me for a very long time. It also helped to steer my tastes in dark horror fantasy towards what it is today. So, yeah, it’s absolutely a sentimental favorite for me.

Children of the Stones was made available on the US DVD market a few years back by Acorn Home Video. Amazon also sells the Kindle edition of the novelization of the series and a sequel story written by one of the original series creators. An audio version of the novel read by Gareth Thomas was also made available in 2014. 

This is an excellent addition to the horror and Halloween libraries of your younger geek. It’s also a great addition to the video libraries of anyone who remembers it fondly from the long ago days of their own childhood as it is not one of those programs that falls flat when compared to the memories of it.

Jerry Chandler is a serious horror geek with a lifelong love of trying to find books and movies that can scare the spit out of him. When not watching and reading horror, he can sometimes be found helping to make horror with his filmmaking family in NC, Adrenalin Productions. He loves Halloween slightly more than Christmas, and almost as much as Dragon Con. When not writing here, he can be found at his other homes on the web by looking at his own blog, his Twitter, and his Facebook.

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