Gavin Whitaker takes a very deep dive into the infamous 1983 shot-on-video British horror, Suffer Little Children...
I first read about Suffer Little Children (1983) in Kim Newman’s book Nightmare Movies, where it was pinpointed as the “absolute rock bottom” of British horror cinema, and “one of the cheapest, worse projects ever packaged.” Lending Suffer Little Children the kind of notoriety that might not immediately make you want to go out and see the film but does cause you to keep a mental note of its title. Of course, anyone renting Suffer Little Children on video in 1985 would likely have been under the impression that Newman was in the critical minority when it came to the film. Indeed, if the VHS box is to be believed, the critics were overflowing with praise for, “an extraordinary good horror movie” (Time Out), with “first-rate effects and images” (Video Trade Weekly). Quite a coup for a film Newman described as “a home movie shot on video at a theatre school in Surrey,” the type of production that it’s hard to believe the likes of Time Out and Video Trade Weekly would even take notice of, let alone be blowing critical kisses at.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve banged the drum for the hidden merits of Suffer Little Children louder than most over the years, but “first-rate effects” isn’t exactly something I’d credit the film with. To put this in context, Suffer Little Children was made around the same time as John Carpenter’s The Thing was released, and a year after Rick Baker won an Oscar for An American Werewolf in London. In that kind of company, describing the special effects of Suffer Little Children – a levitating plant pot, a ‘possessed’ desk that clearly has a crew member under it – as first-rate, seems highly generous. It should be mentioned that Suffer Little Children’s distributor, Films Galore, was spending around £13,000 on advertising in Video Trade Weekly at the time. Something which, dare I suggest, may have been a factor in Video Trade Weekly proclaiming Suffer Little Children “an essential item in any video shop.” We all have a price.
The entire making of Suffer Little Children feels straight out of an episode of Minder. Thatcher-era entrepreneurs attempt to capitalise on the popularity of horror films on VHS, by cheaply shooting their own horror movie on videotape, starring unknown children. Only for it all to blow up in their faces when the police, the local vicar and the press get involved. Right people, right time, just the wrong location. The Arthur Daley of this story was Alan Briggs, a veteran of the music business who had run ‘The Fair Deal’ a rock venue and the closely connected ‘People Records’ label, whose output consisted of live recordings by local talent. Every Sunday afternoon Briggs would put on Community Talent Competitions at the venue. “The winner got a ‘live-recording’ gig on the main stage,” explained Briggs. “We just sold locally, using high-speed cassette-copiers.” The Fair Deal also played host to gigs by The Clash, UB40 and Motorhead, but fell into debt and shut its doors in late 1982. Briggs then hooked up with Margaret ‘Meg’ Shanks, a drama teacher based out of Kingston-Upon-Thames, who rented rehearsal space at several theatres around Wimbledon. Shanks’ students ranged from thirtysomethings to as young as eight. Finding solid information about Meg Shanks’ career outside of Suffer Little Children is certainly a challenge. The only other connection to film I’ve been able to trace for her is as casting director on Knights Electric (1980) a short film from the New Wave era of music about a bunch of girls being bothered by a gang of punk wallies during a night out at a funfair. Distributor Brent-Walker released Knights Electric as a supporting feature, sending it out to cinemas with Inseminoid (1981) and Brimstone & Treacle (1982). Shanks was paid £1,337.50 for her work on the film.
Knights Electric had benefited from being shot on 35mm and boasted a soundtrack featuring big-name acts of the day (The Pretenders, Madness, Gary Numan) but three years later Suffer Little Children was an altogether more humble affair. Made, as admitted in the end credits, with “no money, just determination and guts”, its greatest strengths would turn out to be Briggs’ flair for promotion, and the unstoppable enthusiasm and DIY attitude of Shanks’ students. Glamorous isn’t a word that comes to mind when you hear about the making of Suffer Little Children, the shooting location was an abandoned house in a terrace row of similarly empty houses in New Malden. “A spooky, derelict mess,” according to crew member Paul Newbery. Aside from director Briggs and producer Shanks, the entire cast and crew appear to have been made up of Shanks’ theatre school wannabes and their mates. Essentially the kids did everything from conceiving the plot of the movie, to the camerawork, lighting and general heavy lifting. “I remember the whole experience being bloody hard work but fun,” claims Paul Newbery. “I was helping clear the garden which was an absolute mess and I picked up this carrier bag and out spilt a massive bagful of maggots.” The kids’ low budget inventiveness also impressed Briggs, who later recalled that after discovering the house used for filming lacked the staircase that the script called for, several of Shanks’ students merely hot-footed it over to the next house, tore out the staircase, passed it over the fence and voila! A staircase was installed at the filming location.
Conceived during a three-month period in 1983, and shot during Spring 1984, the plot of Suffer Little Children is largely confined to the deteriorating walls of Sullivan’s Children’s Home, whose very foundations are set to be rocked by the forces of rock n’ roll and the devil. The unwanted ragamuffins that call the place a home idly play in the cramped day room or chase each other around the corridors (‘bitch’ is a popular insult among the girls). The chaotic situation is just about kept in check by staff members Maurice (Colin Chamberlain) and Jenny (Ginny Rose). In terms of fashion and personalities, Jenny and Maurice are about as polar opposites as Bucks Fizz and The Smiths. Jenny is a cheery, surrogate older sister to the kids whose fluorescent, pastel-coloured dress sense alone makes her a standout in the fuzzy, colour bleached, shot-on-video world of Suffer Little Children. On the other hand, Maurice gives the impression of having been born wearing a cardigan. Maurice is twenty going on forty, moustachioed, bespectacled and a painfully reserved introvert, who rarely maintains eye contact during conversations.
The mundanity of a Sunday afternoon at the children’s home is interrupted by the arrival of a mute child on the doorstep bearing a letter: “Please take care of Elizabeth, she can’t speak. This is the right place for her.” Unbeknownst to Maurice and Jenny, Elizabeth is a Satanic force to be reckoned with and has Carrie-like telekinetic abilities. Unlike Carrie, Elizabeth is no victim. The moment one of the other kids puts a foot out of line, by asking Jenny why Elizabeth can’t speak, Elizabeth shuts that shit down right away, willing a door to slam into the other girl’s head. A malevolent blast of heavy metal music, which accompanies just about every horror movie incident in the film, plays over a crash zoom on Elizabeth’s face…Evil Liz means business. As Elizabeth, Nicola Diana manages to maintain an aura of cuteness and innocence about her, while still making for a creepy, deeply unsettling central figure. I’m sure no young actress ever aspires to be described as creepy and unsettling, but that is what the role required, and that is certainly what Nicola Diana brings to it. All the more impressive, when you discover that she was an 11th-hour replacement for the role. The original Evil Liz – who was even younger than Nicola Diana – having been pulled from Suffer Little Children by her parents after they began to have second thoughts about their offspring appearing in the film. Can’t imagine why.
Liz’s sad, mournful demeanour and disability, allow her to escape the finger of suspicion as paranormal incidents begin to pile up at the children’s home. Basil, another one of the children, takes a tumble and ends up a bloody mess at the bottom of the staircase. Evil Liz induces two of the other girls, Jules and Carol, to have a nightmare – seemingly influenced by Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies – that sees the two girls being menaced by the undead, who have risen from their graves in the garden of the children’s home. The scene ends surreally, with Elizabeth beckoning the two girls and the zombies to a picnic. Thereafter, Jules and Carol act as Liz’s flunkies. Forever shadowing their shorter boss in the manner of Napoleon or Al Capone, and taking the heat for Elizabeth when Maurice and Jenny interrogate them about Basil’s accident, with aptly, a poster for Rebel Without a Cause in the background. At breakfast Jules and Carol mock Jenny behind her back, using the kind of language that carries considerably greater shock-value coming from children than it does adults: “Stupid bitch,” and “She don’t know a fucking thing.”
Inadvertently acting as a further distraction from the real cause of the home’s problems is the arrival of Mick Philips (Jon Hollanz), a Leif Garrett type teenage rock star, who grew up at the home. Mick finds himself tangled up in Evil Liz’s machinations when he pays the place a flying visit. Predictable as clockwork, Maurice cynically views Mick’s presence as an excuse to sell records and gain free publicity, while expressing parental concerns to Jenny: “What if he starts offering around drugs.” The sweary, rock n’ roll attitude of Mick’s roadie Hustler (Mark Insull), does nothing to put uptight Maurice at ease. All the kids go wild for Mick, mobbing him at the door and the hallway, all except Elizabeth, who recognises a good guy nemesis when she sees one and shoots him dirty looks from the sidelines. These scenes are a rare example of where the semi-improv nature of Suffer Little Children’s dialogue and the inexperience of the younger cast, actually works in the film’s benefit. The kid’s giddy behaviour and inane questions (“Are you a vegetarian, by chance.”) feeling like a believable, on-the-money encounter between star-struck young pop fans and their idol.
As you might expect from a film conceived by its own, very young cast, there is a degree of wish-fulfilment and childhood play-acting to the roles in Suffer Little Children…the famous rock star, the cool leather-clad roadie, the girl with the mischief-making supernatural abilities, plus the children’s home setting that sees the kids free of parental control and running riot. Briggs’ own background as a rock music promoter no doubt came in useful with regard to the Mick Philips sub-plot. Yet for my money, Briggs’ greatest gift to the production on the musical side has to be the film’s theme tune-vocals by its star Ginny Rose – it should be on the playlist of Halloween parties everywhere. “Are you afraid to close your eyes at night…I’m gonna creep up on you while you’re dreaming…there’s no one who can save you left insight…so suffer…suffer…suffer little children.” It certainly goes down a treat at the party scene in the film itself, even Maurice lets his hair down and contributes some unsurprisingly embarrassing dad dancing. Evil Liz can’t resist the chance to play party pooper though and breaks up the party by using her powers to cause a violent fracas between the kids.
Suffer Little Children is nothing if not generous when it comes to passing the narrative baton around. Showing its roots as a show-reel project for Shanks’ students, with lots of inconsequential chit-chat from secondary characters, that a more commercially minded movie might have been inclined to snip. The two dinner ladies who work at the children’s home are the main offenders in this respect, thanks to their chin-wags about the washing and their horror scopes. Although the Cockney duo do occasionally redeem themselves with their comic relief banter: “When I asked you to separate some eggs, you put one of the table, one in the fridge and one in the cupboard.”
The burgeoning romance between Mick and Jenny also tends to eat into the running time. The fact that Ginny Rose was Meg Shanks’ daughter, offering a likely explanation for Suffer Little Children’s keenness to shine a light on her acting and singing talent. The character whose plight lends Suffer Little Children a surprising emotional resonance between horror movie incidents though is Maurice. An inarticulate, socially awkward man, who you sense cares deeply for the kids, and possibly harbours romantic feelings for Jenny, but prefers to bury himself away in the home’s paperwork than voice his emotions. Nevertheless, this isn’t lost on Mick, who perceptively points out to Jenny: “He’s protective of you as if you were someone special to him.”
Maurice might not be an obstacle in Jenny and Mick’s romance, but Elizabeth is an altogether different matter. While Jenny and Mick are off on a date at New Wave nightclub ‘Cloudbusters’, and Maurice hides away from the world behind his typewriter, the kids take advantage of vigilant eyes being off them by congregating in the attic, worshipping Elizabeth in a candlelit ritual. Liz’s powers cause one of the men at the club to plant a kiss on Mick. Then when Mick brushes the unwanted admirer off, the entire club erupts into a riot, intercut with Elizabeth’s smirking, strobe-lit, face. Shanks student, Neil Longley, had already been in the film, but this didn’t stop him being recalled for the Cloudbusters sequence. “I played a zombie and a gay bloke that started a fight in a bar,” remembers Neil. “About 8 years ago I was in Ibiza with my daughter, and we were invited to her friend’s dad’s house. The guy’s best mate took one look at me – when I was 46 – and said ‘Didn’t you play that gay bloke in that movie?….unreal.”
By the time the adults put two-and-two together, Liz is breaking the fourth wall, speaking the film’s title, “SUFFER LITTLE CHILDREN,” straight to camera, which acts as a rallying call to the troops. In a sequence on which the majority of the film’s notoriety rests, the kids – now totally under Liz’s control – arm themselves with knives, hammers and wooden stakes, then violently turn against the adults. It’s what Suffer Little Children has been building up to, the sedate, dialogue-driven tone of many of the earlier scenes leaving you unprepared for the hyperactive burst of energy that has been held back for the finale. Screaming, yelling and heavy metal assault you on the soundtrack, Liz uses her telekinesis to hurl inanimate objects in Maurice and Jenny’s direction and forces one of the dinner ladies to repeatedly stab herself in the leg. The adults make a mad dash to the attic, where Elizabeth is held up with a Satanic ritual in full force (the kids chanting “Come, devil, come.”). Most of the adults wind up bloody messes at the hands of the kids, but Mick somehow finds his way to the attic, only to be crucified by Liz’s minions.
It is impossible to discuss Suffer Little Children and not let the cat out of the bag over what has to be one of the most unique, bizarre, unexpected plot twists ever seen in a British horror film. Apropos of nothing, the crucified Mick is suddenly resurrected as Jesus Christ, complete with crown of thorns. Not to be outdone, Elizabeth transforms into an adult woman (played by Nicola Diana’s real-life mum), and a crazed, strobe-lit battle between Jesus and Nicola Diana’s mother commences. C’mon admit it…the second coming of Christ in New Malden…nobody could have seen that coming!
It has to be said that Jesus’ behaviour in Suffer Little Children does strike you as being…um…a little out of character. Surely the good and proper Jesus thing to do would be to save the children’s souls and restore their victims to life; Jesus after all being quite famous for that kind of thing. It seems though that not even Jesus was immune from the 1980s mean spirited streak, as he points, zaps the kids with energy and causes them to freak out and be consigned to oblivion on the attic’s strobe-lit floor. Evidentially no wimpy, goody two shoes ‘they all lived happily ever after’ ending would cut it with the kids who made Suffer Little Children. Their ending finds everybody either dead, covered in blood or screaming hysterically…which of course is how all good horror movies should end.
For a glorified home movie, made on a budget of around £7,000, Suffer Little Children managed to blow into the British consciousness in a major way throughout 1984/85. Amateur horror films had been around for decades beforehand but rarely troubled anyone outside of film societies and the filmmakers’ nearest and dearest. Arriving at just the right time and place, Suffer Little Children was born into a newfangled video industry that was hungry for low-budget horror. In spite of its budgetary shortcomings, Briggs’ film attracted the attention of Palace Video, only for them to be pipped to the post by Films Galore, a company that had enjoyed success in the distribution side of the video industry, and were now looking to begin putting out product of their own. “Palace were about to sign the deal but we got in there first,” boasted Film Galore’s George Goody. “I’m confident that Suffer Little Children is going to become the most sought after video in any library in a few short weeks.” The film’s profile was raised further by a publicity launch held at the swanky Dorchester Hotel, a bash partly paid for – according to Briggs – by the parents of the child actors. Comedian Freddie Starr was roped into being part of the film’s publicity drive, with one Suffer Little Children cast member finding herself sitting on Starr’s lap. Positive notices also came from The Surrey Comet newspaper which praised the film as a local success story, and Meg Shanks as an enabler of young talent. The cosy relationship between the filmmakers, the VHS distributor and the press wouldn’t last for long.
By the time the story made the national papers, the moral finger waiving had begun. “Vicar Rap’s Evil Video,” claimed The Sun newspaper.
“A vicar slammed yesterday the making of a horror video called ‘Suffer Little Children’ as offensive and dangerous. The video is being made by the Meg Shanks Theatre School, Kingston, Surrey, but local Vicar Rev Peter Rich said: “like the path from soft to hard drugs the journey along the road of supernatural evil can be an insidious one with horrifying and life-destroying results”. The video’s producer, Alan Briggs said: “The man is a cretin who hasn’t even seen the script. It is a strong anti-Satanism film”.
Clearly never a man to mince his words, in later years Alan Briggs was equally blunt about Films Galore honcho George Goody: “A complete lunatic,” according to Briggs, who claimed Goody boasted of “travelling around the universe in space ships with aliens who had become his friends.” Whatever else can be said about George Goody, he couldn’t be accused of not getting behind Suffer Little Children. As well as promising to finance future Meg Shanks productions – Star Child, Fairly Soon, The Wimp (‘a horror/thriller about a psychopath’) and The Soho Triangle (‘a cross between The Long Good Friday and The Triad’) – Films Galore blitzed video industry magazines with advertising for Suffer Little Children, hyping it as the most controversial horror film of the decade. “The Evil Dead scared you, The Exorcist haunted you, this film you will remember for the rest of your life.” It’s estimated that the money spent on the advertising campaign for Suffer Little Children, exceeded the film’s actual production costs.
Films Galore got the attention, just not the kind they were craving. In January 1985, the obscene publications squad raided the Wandsworth offices of Films Galore, seizing the master copies of the film. According to press reports at the time, Films Galore employees were forced up against the walls and into the spread-legged position, terrifying several children who were also present. The case was then handed over to the DPP and considered for prosecution under both the obscene publications act and the protection of children and young persons act. The irony is that, by the lawless standards of the early video industry in Britain, Films Galore had been trying to play by the book. Submitting the film to the BBFC in December 1984, and reportedly receiving notification of the cuts the censors had asked for, just a day before the police raid. The DPP situation left the filmmakers and their distributor in the frustrating situation of knowing they had a likely hit on their hands, but thanks to the master tapes having been seized, without an actual product to release. Depending on who is telling the story, the number of advance orders for the £24.95 video was either 8,500 or 10,000. “Everyone is trying to promote films for the British film industry,” Briggs complained to the press, “and here we have bureaucrats holding up a film that will make number one in the charts.”
Briggs and Films Galore were not prepared to take the police’s actions lying down and began barking back at the authorities. Films Galore threatened to sue the DPP for loss of earnings, only to themselves be sued by Video Trade Weekly. The BBFC were threatened with a protest outside of their office by the Suffer Little Children cast and found themselves being stiffed by Films Galore after they failed to pay the BBFC’s classification fees for Suffer Little Children. As the story snowballed, star names found themselves dragged into the controversy, with Richard Attenborough and Hollywood legend Charles Bronson both being publically asked to come to the film’s defence. After three nail-biting months, the DPP decided against prosecuting Suffer Little Children and the film was released on the 19th of April, 1985. The fate of Suffer Little Children’s master tapes is one of many mysteries still surrounding the film. Were they ever returned to Films Galore? If they were Alan Briggs never saw them again and the disappearance of the master tapes remained a particular source of bad blood between Briggs and Films Galore.
In a way, Suffer Little Children was the tabloid press’ perfect victim…scenes of devil worship, the taboo use of child actors, onscreen juvenile delinquency, a blood-splattered ending…you can practically hear those hack journalists rushing to their typewriters to alarm the nation’s curtain twitchers with tales of Satanic panic and video violence. “People would stop Meg in the street and call her a demonic witch,” Briggs recalled in 2017.
To the censorious, Suffer Little Children must have visualised all their worst fears about the video industry’s corrupting influence on the young. Incriminating itself with scenes of children dabbling in the occult, shouting expletives and arming themselves with household implements in order to commit senseless acts of violence. Now, young, impressionable people weren’t just watching Video Nasties, they were making Video Nasties of their own. Suffer Little Children really was The Blair Witch Project of its day, its amateur, anti-professionalism, unknown cast and general refusal to look and behave in ways that people expected movies to look and behave all contributed to its sinister mystique. A mystique, of course, aided and abetted by its own publicity department.
The opening voiceover in the film stating that Suffer Little Children was in fact: “a reconstruction of events which took place at 45 Kingston Road, New Malden, in August 1984. These events were never reported in the press. The house is now derelict and scheduled for demolition,” a claim repeated on the VHS box. Ludicrous as the idea that a film – which, keep in mind, culminates in the second coming of Christ – could be based on real events might now seem, it speaks volumes about the climate of the Video Nasties furore that such utter guff was taken seriously enough for the police to raid the offices of the VHS label and for the producer of the film to be harangued by the public and accused of witchcraft. Unlike The Blair Witch people though, the makers of Suffer Little Children were never able to monetise the controversy they’d created.
By the time the film was released, the tabloid outrage had become yesterday’s fish and chip wrapping and the publicity Suffer Little Children garnered after its release, tended to deflate the controversy, rather than add to it. “After 86 minutes locked in a darkened South London stockroom,” wrote The Guardian. “I was left with the burning question, ‘just what is all the fuss about.’” The makers of Suffer Little Children had gotten the shaft from the British authorities, but the goldmine remained out of reach.
If you’d been a child actor in the 1980s, who would you rather have been, a posh little twerp in a do-gooding Children’s Film Foundation production, or one of the Suffer Little Children cast who got to swear, chant, “Come, devil, come,” and throw gore around in their film? They were the cool kids. When the film began to shock and offend the nation’s tabloids, the kids from Suffer Little Children must have felt like they’d joined the Sex Pistols.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the film was in a state of limbo, forgotten by the public, known only to VHS dupers and British horror aficionados and long vanished from the video shelves. Films Galore having crashed and burned in June 1985, with debts in the region of £80,000, and the BBFC and Video Trade Weekly listed among their creditors. Personally, I’ve always felt that Suffer Little Children is a great ideas film, it’s just the execution that proves a deal-breaker to many. Whenever I’d try and turn people onto the film during that period, I’d always throw in the proviso that you need to have a high tolerance towards low budget filmmaking to get anything out of Suffer Little Children. Go into it with prejudices against cheaply made, shot on video productions and make no mistake, Suffer Little Children will destroy you.
Out of all those early British shot on video productions like G.B.H and Death Shock, Suffer Little Children is the hardest sell of that particular, unholy threesome. G.B.H (1983) tries to overcompensate for its shot-on-video origins by offering more punch-ups, car chases and shoot-outs than any ‘real’ movie. Death Shock (1981) is little more than wall-to-wall sex, which let’s face it will always make punters turn a blind eye to technical shortcomings and bad acting. Of the three, Suffer Little Children is the least cinematic, and most claustrophobic of the bunch, rarely escaping the confines of the children’s home. A reluctance to venture outside this location likely being motivated by fears of equipment being stolen from the abandoned house they were shooting at, or worse still squatters taking control of the place in the filmmakers’ absence. Paul Newbery remembers being tasked with guarding the equipment while the rest of the crew made a ‘school trip’ to shoot the Cloudbusters scene. As I say, though, if you can look past the filmmaking here is, to put it politely, as rough as a butcher’s dog, there is so much creativity, out of left field ideas and eccentricity at play in Suffer Little Children…the zombie picnic, Evil Liz and her menacing, dirty looks aren’t forgotten in a hurry, ditto the second coming of Christ.
In fairness, put yourself in the mindset of a 1985 audience here. Video renting was relatively new and your average punter’s idea of movie-going would still have entailed a night out at the local cinema to see a Dirty Harry, Star Wars or James Bond film in all its big-budget, big-screen glory. To go from that kind of experience to renting G.B.H or Suffer Little Children, would have been a massive culture shock. To dive deep into 1980s nostalgia nerd-dom and quote a line from Back to the Future, “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet, but your kids are gonna love it.” Well, they’ll buy it on DVD, at least.
Seeing Suffer Little Children on the DVD shelves of HMV was my big, out-of-body experience of 2017. Of all the films from the pre-cert VHS era, this was one that appeared destined to be consigned to the past. Like Ghetto Blasters, Space Invaders and Roland Rat, Suffer Little Children is so explicitly tied to the 1980s, it’s hard to think of it having a place in the modern world, but there it was sharing shelf space with all the brand new, crystal clear, shot on digital 21st-century horror movies. In terms of picture quality, Suffer Little Children will always be the ugly girl in school that nobody wanted to date, yet the shot on video production values and dated technology the film was made on, which were once seen as a deal-breaker, now have become selling points during the renewal of interest in shot-on-video horror movies that we are going through now. Maybe, like 1980s culture in general, we’ve sufficiently moved on enough that even once vilified relics from the 1980s are now afforded nostalgia from people who were around back then and exert curiosity over those who weren’t. Not bad for “one of the cheapest, worse projects ever packaged.”
One rumour that has attached itself to Suffer Little Children over the years is that around three hours of footage was shot for the film. A likely exaggeration, in light of the fact that the film was made in around 14 days. Nevertheless, what was released by Films Galore in 1985 does tend to resemble an ‘edited highlights’ package and not without good reason. “It was cut to bits, from 90 minutes to 68, I think that was the final running time,” claimed Briggs. “While we were trying to make the cuts in a narrative manner, Goody just had somebody go in and chop great chunks out with no sense of story, or time, or even anything resembling skill.” Goody’s butchery left its scars on the released product. There are numerous name checks of, not to mention phone calls to, a Dr Stokely in the film. A character who is meant to be trying to discover why Elizabeth can’t speak, as well as caring for the injured Basil. The role is prominently billed in the end credits too, yet Dr Stokely barely appears in the released version of the film, save for the closing few seconds. Suspiciously also curtailed is the storyline about the two dinner ladies, one of whom simply disappears entirely towards the end of the run time. The other makes an appearance in the climactic massacre, but in a bedridden, incapacitated state which goes unexplained.
By far the biggest mystery of Suffer Little Children has to be the swimming pool incident. In the 1985 video release, at least, you see the children leaving for a trip to the local baths then later hear many references to several of the children nearly drowning and speculation from Jenny that Elizabeth was responsible. However, this seemingly important scene is a noticeable no-show in the film. Since the master tapes have long since disappeared, any missing or stray footage from Suffer Little Children is likely to stay that way. Briggs’ own VHS copy is all the releasing label, Severin, seemingly had to work with for the 2017 DVD release. I don’t think this is widely known, but the Severin DVD is in fact a different edit of the film than was released during the VHS era. A close comparison of the two versions revealed enough differences – some minor, others significant – to warrant a mention here. So, this is what I’ve found.
- The 1985 VHS release opens with the credit “FGL Films Presents,” which is missing from the 2017 DVD release. One assumes the version committed to DVD dates from before Films Galore Ltd was involved with the film.
- The opening credits are slightly different in the VHS and DVD releases. In the VHS, the credits appear in larger lettering and a different font style to the DVD version.
- The DVD contains an additional shot of Jenny rifling through her handbag in the opening scene, which is missing from the VHS release (the shot appears immediately before one of the girls asks Jenny if she can stay up late to watch a film on TV).
- In the VHS release, the shot of the note Elizabeth brings to the children’s home (“Please take care of Elizabeth, she can’t speak. This is the right place for her.”) plays while Jenny is reading the note. In the DVD release, the shot of the note appears later on in the scene, after Jenny has handed the note to Maurice, giving the impression that Maurice is reading the note, even though the hand holding the note is clearly female.
- In the zombie dream sequence, the VHS release includes an additional shot of Elizabeth, just before the two other girls begin to explore the garden. The shot is missing from the DVD release.
- The dialogue is far more audible in the VHS release. One common complaint about the DVD release is that the sound mix often buries the dialogue under the music tracks. While many online reviewers, whose only history with the film is the DVD release, jump to the conclusion that the original filmmaking conditions are to blame for the poor sound, the dialogue that is obscured in the DVD release is a little clearer in the VHS incarnation.
- The DVD release contains footage of Basil spitting up blood at the bottom of the staircase, which – presumably due to censorship – was missing from the VHS release.
- After Basil’s accident, the VHS release contains a scene of Maurice and Jenny interrogating Elizabeth about what happened to Basil, which is missing from the DVD. It’s hard not to question why Maurice and Jenny are trying to get answers from a character who can’t actually speak. Even so, the scene does also contain a chilling moment when Jenny speculates on Elizabeth’s background (“I can’t help but think that her parents must be pretty unique, wherever they are.”). Making its absence from the DVD release regrettable.
- The Cloudbusters club sequence is slightly different in the VHS and the DVD release. In the VHS release, Elizabeth’s supernatural powers are shown to be the sole reason for the party-goers mobbing Mick and Jenny. While the DVD release includes unique footage of the club’s MC announcing Mick’s presence to the rest of the club, which is depicted as the reason for Mick and Jenny being mobbed by the crowd.
- After the Cloudbusters incident, the VHS release includes footage of Mick and Jenny walking up the steps of the children’s home and entering the hallway. The DVD release is missing this footage.
- The DVD release omits three, lengthy scenes. A scene of the children having breakfast, a scene of the children leaving for the swimming pool, and a scene of Maurice doing paperwork at the children’s home (while the noise of the commotion at the swimming pool plays over the soundtrack). All three of these scenes are present on the VHS release, and appear in between the scene of Mick and Jenny discussing Basil’s accident and the scene of Jenny drying her hair and explaining the swimming pool incident to Maurice.
- The ‘Satanic’ voiceover that plays over scenes of children attacking adults towards the end of the film is far more audible in the DVD release, whereas in the VHS release it is significantly muted and buried under the music. Maybe it’s because the VHS release was my first port of call for Suffer Little Children, but I tend to favour the VHS edit in this regard. The voiceover just feels out of place – given that it is a male voice that is meant to be coming from Elizabeth, a young female character – and all in all rather hammy and clichéd.
- Where the DVD does have the upper hand over the VHS is of course when it comes to the gore. In the VHS much of the violence in the climactic bloodbath has been removed (a knife going through a character’s mouth) or reduced (the stabbings of Maurice and Hustler, Mick being crucified by the children). Thankfully, all the once missing gore has been reinstated for the DVD.
In his interview on the DVD release, Briggs claims that Films Galore rush-released an unfinished, uncompleted version of the film onto the VHS market, but if anything it’s the DVD version that appears to be an earlier edit of Suffer Little Children. The VHS release correcting audio issues, continuity mistakes (e.g. the shot of Elizabeth’s note) and implementing the cuts that the BBFC asked for. So, there really isn’t a definite version of the film out there. If you want to see the gore intact you need the DVD release. If you want to hear what the actors are saying and see four scenes that never made it to DVD then be prepared to dig deep into your pockets for a copy of the 1980s VHS in order to complete the Suffer Little Children experience.
Meg Shanks would go on to marry Alan Briggs, and in later life became a sex therapist. “During shooting, we loathed each other,” recalled Briggs in 2012, “but we got married that December and agreed never to work together again.” Alan Briggs made at least one other movie, Ghetto Wars (1986), a Mad Max-style tale of “violence and scantily clad women in a ruined city where the only laws are the ones you need to survive.” The filming conditions don’t appear to have been any better than Suffer Little Children, Ghetto Wars was filmed around what was left of London’s docklands by the mid-1980s. Briggs remembered, “working a day ahead of the bulldozers that were tearing it all down at the time.” Ghetto Wars had been conceived by the heavy metal band Venom, but plans for the film came apart when Briggs’ cast – which included professional minder to the stars, Pat Callahan, and Page 3 girl Monica Ramone – struggled to record their dialogue. “It fell into limbo when the actors proved useless at accurately dubbing,” recalled Briggs. “Studio time ate up the budget till we couldn’t go any further.”
In 1987, it was announced that Briggs was working in association with the IVS video label on an ambitious plan to develop two TV series and several movie projects, including Genocide (“a post-nuclear shocker”), Jamaica Love, Zombie Island, and Street Law. None of which came to fruition. In 2015, Briggs briefly resurfaced with plans for what was either going to be a sequel to or remake of Suffer Little Children, relocated to Leith, a project that faltered before even the rehearsal stage. Sadly the Facebook pages of Meg Shanks and Alan Briggs are now archived and indicate that both are now deceased. The two main players in this story may be gone, but Suffer Little Children lives on to corrupt young, impressionable minds on DVD and Amazon Prime, over the incidents that befell 45 Kingston Road, New Malden, Surrey in August 1984.
“As far as I know none of us ended up on a remote Scottish island devil-worshipping and certainly none of the women bore any babies named Rosemary,” remembers Paul Newbery. “It gave us ‘kids’ our first chance to be involved with a film and taught me to a certain degree a level of teenage responsibility that no ‘youth club’ could attain.”
Special thanks to Kev (The Movie Samurai), Neil Longley, Paul Newbery, The Hellfire Video Club and Barney Broom, for their help and assistance with this article.
Share this article or save to read later
- Of Dogs, Dreams and Doom: The Appointment (1981) August 3, 2021
- [Review] The Crows August 3, 2021
- [Review] Paths Best Left Untrodden August 2, 2021
- [Review] Fantasia Film Festival 2021: Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break August 2, 2021
- 2:22 – A Ghost Story: An Interview With the Playwright, Danny Robins August 1, 2021