Release Date(s)1989 (March 29, 2022)
Studio(s)Troma Entertainment (Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: C-
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: B
In the annals of cinematic horror history, the cannibal subgenre has provided a wide variety of unforgettable experiences, including challenging confrontational films like Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, and brilliant satires like Antonia Bird’s Ravenous. It’s also produced plenty of films that have been forgotten by all but the most ardent of fans, and Beware: Children at Play definitely falls into the latter camp. The only directorial effort from cinematographer/camera operator Mik Cribben, Beware: Children at Play is a no-budget independent production that was a negative pickup for Troma Entertainment, and it’s an odd duck, even by their standards.
The screenplay was by Cribben’s schoolteacher friend Fred Scharkey, based on a short treatment called Goblins that Cribben had acquired. (In what may be a running theme here, Beware: Children at Play ended up being Scharkey’s only screenwriting credit.) Scharkey freely cribbed from Beowulf, and in case the allusions weren’t clear enough, he has one of the characters actually spell them out. The story in the film involves a small town in New Jersey where children keep disappearing, and adults keep dying. It all involves a cannibal cult which has as much in common with the Manson family as it does with Beowulf, and a group of actors who you have likely never seen in much of anything else (there’s that theme again).
Beware: Children at Play concludes with a five-minute sequence that has to be seen to be believed. It makes the entire film worth watching, though more so for the concept than for its actual execution. If you’re going to violate a taboo that most horror filmmakers won’t touch, then you might as well grab all of the gusto that you can get. Beware: Children at Play is hardly the first film to violate this particular taboo, but let’s just say that it’s one of the most thorough. In Lloyd Kaufman’s book All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned from The Toxic Avenger, he said it was the most extreme film in the Troma catalogue, and the trailer alone caused walkouts when it played at the Cannes Film Festival. Kaufman being Kaufman, he’s probably exaggerating a bit, but there’s no doubt that the finale won’t sit well with everyone, regardless of how clumsily staged that much of it is.
Mik Cribben served as his own cinematographer on Beware: Children at Play, shooting it on 35 mm film with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for theatrical screenings (though it ultimately went straight to video after Troma acquired it). This version uses a new 2K scan of the original camera negative, and the results are really impressive. Everything is sharp and detailed, with very little in the way of damage aside from some fleeting scratches. There's at least one shot with noticeable density fluctuations during the close-up at 42:25, but it's easy to miss if you aren't looking for it. The grain always looks natural, and since the bit rate runs consistently high throughout the film, it’s well-managed by the encode. The grain levels do vary a bit from scene to scene, but that’s an inevitable result of the fact that film was produced on a variety of different stocks—Cribben accumulated the raw film by buying short ends from other productions (a common practice in low budget filmmaking). The contrast and black levels are both excellent, and the colors look accurate, even though a few of the flesh tones may push a bit too red. Despite a few minor nitpicks, it's hard to imagine Beware: Children at Play looking much better than it does here. Cribben may not have had a sure hand with the actors, but he definitely knew how to handle film stocks, and the results speak for themselves in this presentation.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. It's a clean and undistorted track, with clear dialogue. There's just a touch of excessive sibilance here and there, but nothing that's too distracting.
Vinegar Syndrome's Blu-ray release of Beware: Children at Play includes an insert with new artwork from Richard Hilliard on the front, and Troma’s original artwork on the reverse. There’s also an embossed slipcover available directly from Vinegar Syndrome, limited to the first 5,000 units, that features the Hilliard artwork. The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary with Mik Cribben
- Why I Don't Have Children (HD – 51:06)
- Brand New Interview with Mik Cribben (HD – 15:32)
- Archival Interview with Mik Cribben (Upscaled HD – 3:54)
Mik Cribben’s commentary is a fairly sparse one—he really could have used a moderator to prompt him whenever he lapses into lengthy silences. Still, his memories are clear when it comes to Beware: Children at Play, so there’s interesting information here. It just takes patience to get to all of it. He gives details about the music, the script, the camera work, the effects, and more. He’s pretty self-deprecating, too, especially when talking about his performance as Farmer Braun (he says that he had to direct his own movie in order to be allowed to act). Amazingly, he manages to sit through the entire slaughter scene at the end of the film without saying a single word about it. Maybe he was stunned into silence.
Why I Don’t Have Children is a making-of documentary that features interviews with actors Lori Tigarth, Peter Riga, Thatcher Long, and Anthony Cartinella; effects technicians Mark Dolson and Mark Kwiatek; and composer Herschel Dwellingham. (While Cribben participated in the other extras, he’s noticeably absent here.) Everyone explains how they became involved with the film, and then they share stories about its production. Interestingly, most of the actors had been unaware that the film ever got released at all, until they discovered it years later on home video. Dwellingham defends his efforts in writing the score, saying that he thinks his music holds up because he was working on a good film. He closes the whole documentary by stating emphatically that good is always good, and bad is always bad—which is a true enough statement regardless of how you may feel about the film. The Brand New Interview features Cribben sharing his own thoughts about making the film. He explains the writing process, casting, production, and distribution with Troma. He reveals that while the actual budget was $200,000, only $30,000 of that was in cash; the rest was covered by the barter system. (All of the effects in the film were produced for about $500 cash.) The Archival Interview is a vintage promotional video with Cribben giving a condensed three-minute look at the production of the film.
The phrase “low-budget horror” may conjure up images of material that looks as cheap as it actually was, but films like Night of the Living Dead and Phantasm have proved that it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of money to make a horror film look good; just some basic professionalism. Mik Cribben certainly wasn’t in the class of filmmakers like George A. Romero or Don Coscarelli, but for all of the amateurishness in front of his camera, he remained a professional behind it. Thanks to him, Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray for Beware: Children at Play looks better than anyone could have possibly imagined that it could.
- Stephen Bjork