(This article was originally published on Ginger Nuts of Horror in May 2020)
Depending on your sources, the seventies were fucking lethal.
If you grew up on the output of the Children’s Film Foundation, your childhood was one where gangs of plucky children (and a maximum of one household pet) banded together to foil nefarious moustache twirling rogues, who sought to steal bullion and/or close youth centres. And where you would occasionally get to encounter a youthful Keith Chegwin pretending to be Robin Hood.
The other – if you believe the COI films from the seventies – showed a far different green and pleasant land. This Britain was markedly more ominous, noticeably beiger and greyer, and was mostly comprised of condemned buildings, disused quarries, fizzing power-stations and lethal or disfiguring death-traps disguised as innocent looking farms.
The COI (or Central Office of Information) was the UK Governments marketing and communications agency between 1947 and 2011, responsible for campaigns, advertisements and short films about issues that affected the lives of British citizens.
Children of the Eighties may well remember the BBC docudrama Threads as being one of the most terrifying (and formative) experiences of their childhoods. Children of the seventies, such as myself, may well shudder as they recall some of the output of the COI from that period.
The spectral form of the Grim Reaper (who sounded suspiciously like Donald Pleasance) haunted the edges of every British lake, pond and quarry. Un-gridded Grain Silos lurked like insatiable monsters, swallowing crying dolls whole in mere moments. Electricity Pylons existed solely to ensnare kites, tempting their owners to scale their metallic lattice frames and suffer a shocking fate. And, in the name of all that is holy, NEVER return to a lit firework.
But, perhaps most chilling of all, was the short film Apaches.
Directed by John Mackenzie – who later went on to direct the considerably less violent and harrowing The Long Good Friday – Apaches follows the (mis)adventures of six children, playing Cowboys and Indi Native Americans, from the days when kids used to play that and not just Fortnite.
Our group are like proto-Final Destination Kids, children blissfully unaware that they are in the opening scenes of a particularly gruesome episode of Casualty, youths so ill-fated that Edward Gorey could have written a book about them; K is for Kim – all squashed to shit, T is for Tommy, drowned in a pit…
To briefly interject, I have been accused in the past of rarely having happy endings in any of my stories. I would like to excuse this in some way, laying some of the blame of my nihilistic habits on short films such as Apaches. Films like this, and its COI ilk – including Lonely Water, Drive Carefully Darling, Building Sites Bite, The Finishing Line, Never Go with Strangers, and the spine-chilling Grain Drain – were the equivalent of Edwardian cautionary tales. Just like in real life, horrific things can happen to the careless and unwary. And these films do not shy away from these gruesome outcomes, hammering it home to young impressionable minds such as mine.
It all starts innocently enough, with the six children playing. Danny is the leader of the titular Apaches, insisting that his friends all call him Geronimo. The local farm, in scampering distance from their homes, is their playground. It is a pastoral maze of sheds and barns, an ideal landscape for their pretend Cowboy games.
It looks like great fun – we’re lulled into a false sense of security, watching them squabbling amongst themselves before they’re caught up in their fantasies, one of the two girls (squaws) in their party hitching a ride on the back of a tractor trailer as though she were ambushing a steam train.
Even watching it now, nearly half a century after initial release, your stomach physically lurches
when the tractor turns suddenly and Kim is thrown under its wheels, her panicked scream cut abruptly short. The camera lingers uncomfortably long on the broken toy rifle and the spattering of fresh blood lying beside it.
My wife had never seen Apaches before, and visibly grimaced at the scene, letting out an audible gasp. And she has seen A Serbian Film.
Even with Kim gone, the farm continues to be their playground (Parenting standards have obviously improved a great deal since the late nineteen-seventies). Even when their numbers are so diminished that they are forced to play Starsky and Hutch instead of Cowboys (with some hilarious attempts at Californian accents), the children seem oblivious to danger.
The audience, fearing the worst, is not quite so lucky; every shed and outbuilding a makeshift tomb, every haybale secreting at least three pitchforks, every puddle a six-foot-deep quicksand pit.
Tommy loses his balance and falls into a slurry pit, drowning in moments. Robert is crushed by a falling gate, a huge grid of metal left carelessly leaning against a wall. Danny, playing on a tractor, accidentally disengages the handbrake and is crushed in a ditch, thrown under the farm machinery like a ragdoll.
The absence of each child is marked by the simplest of gestures; a name tag being peeled from a coat hook in a cloakroom, the contents of a school desk being emptied into a satchel etched with biro. Between each death scene, we can see a dinner party being prepared. It is only towards the end that we realise – with some inevitability and dawning dread - that the party is a wake for a dead child.
A party with Veal and Ham pie, too. Danny’s favourite. The silly dead idiot.
The worst death of all is Sharon. Considering that none of the children are actors – each has a lone IMDB credit for Apaches – they are all utterly convincing, and Sharon’s fate is the worst of all. Passing around a bottle of some unknown substance that they have found in a shed, with them all pretending to celebrate a recent victory, each child pretends to take a sip. Sharon forgets, and swigs a mouthful of the unknown liquid before spitting it out in disgust.
The last we hear of Sharon is from outside her bedroom window, her light flicking on as we hear her screaming out in dying, pained agony.
The six-year old me was fucking glad that he did not live anywhere near a farm. I lived quite near some pylons, but rarely flew kites, so felt safe in that regard.
Looking back on these films now, it is astonishing quite how brutal they were. I’m surprised children of my age ever dared leave the house, but – to the credit of the Central Office of Information – I’ve never once faked pretending to drink from a random bottle of liquid I’ve found in a farmers shed, which makes me infinitely smarter than Sharon. Daft cow.
Sleep well. That stomach-ache will pass.
“My mum and dad, it's a nice party, quiet, but nice. My cousin, Michael, my granny and granddad, all family are there for the party. I wish I was. I wish I was there. Honest.” – Danny, Apaches
The BFI have the entire short film hosted on their website, should you so dare; https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-apaches-1977-online
It’s also just been released in a lovely Blu-ray compilation of other COI films, which can be purchased from the BFI at https://shop.bfi.org.uk/dvd-blu-ray/documentaries/the-coi-collection.html
Lonely Water, probably the most terrifying safety film of all, can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZWD2sDRESk