Joseph Losey, 1963
Starring: Oliver Reed, Macdonald Carey, Shirley Anne Field, Viveca Lindors
Simon, an American tourist on holiday in England, expresses interest in a young woman named Joan and gets mugged by her overprotective brother King — and his gang of motorcycle-riding miscreants — for his troubles. But Simon and Joan cross paths soon after and he convinces her to go on a date with him, a daytime boat ride. An enraged King pursues them and they flee over the sea to a strange island guarded by military personnel. They cross paths with cheerful, yet cold-skinned children who are obviously the product of some experiment. Can they escape King's jealous wrath, get away from the island, and save the children?
No, they can’t, because this is an apocalyptic sci-fi film, one of the very few produced by Hammer Studios. Known in the US as These are the Damned, this incredibly bizarre film is an inexplicable cross between apocalyptic sci-fi, romance-adventure, and the British Teddy Boy/youth gang subgenre. I still haven't really been able to wrap my brain around it, but fans of weird '60s cinema will definitely get a kick out of seeing Oliver Reed interact with radioactive children and struggle against his violently repressed sexuality. Which is not at all related to children, just to clear up confusion about what kind of movie we're dealing with.
This seemingly random sci-fi entry into the Hammer catalog bears some similarities with their horror/sci-fi mash-ups like the excellent Quatermass series. Though The Damned feels like it's made up of pages from ten different genre-themed scripts that were spliced together with someone to roughly fill in the gaps, it's actually based on H.L. Lawrence's 1960 novel The Children of Light. Despite the number of oddities and non-sequiturs going on, it's weirdly compelling and often succeeds despite itself. Of course it was (surprisingly) helmed by none other than Joseph Losey, then on exile in England after the disastrous Hollywood blacklist enforced by the House Un-American Activities Committee and Joseph McCarthy. Losey wound up making the majority of his films in England and though his name isn’t quite A-list, he’s a director you don’t want to pass up. Films like The Prowler (the film noir effort, not the slasher movie), The Servant, Mr. Klein, and others will be of interest for any genre cinema or cult movie fans.
Overall, The Damned fits loosely in the creepy children sub-genre. While a film like Village of the Damned (1960) might spring to mind as a likely influence, this has far more in common with David Cronenberg’s The Brood in the sense that it is a deeply weird film, and one that I could imagine Cronenberg himself remaking. There’s certainly something Ballardian at work and, perhaps curiously, J.G. Ballard had just began writing novels at this time: the apocalyptic disaster tale Wind From Nowhere (1961) and the post-apocalyptic sci-fi story The Drowned World (1962). The sense of inevitable, impending violence — and sexual terror — in The Damned is reminiscent of later Ballard novels like High Rise and Crash, while The Damned also captures the sense of a world being completely out of whack.
Some of The Damned’s characters could easily fit into a Ballard novel and seem unlikely protagonists (or antagonists) for an early ‘60s sci-fi film with themes of atomic terror. For starters, Oliver Reed’s character, King, would seem completely ridiculous if anyone else had been cast. Reed’s raving, violent, and incestuous gang leader becomes the film’s most interesting character, even as his actions become more and more improbable. Apparently the final version of the script toned down a lot of the more blatant incestuous references in the novel. Reed would find himself in a similar role several times in British horror, including in Hammer suspense film Paranoiac, made the same year, and the Lovecraftian The Shuttered Room (1967). Reed’s introduction — sitting in an idyllic square with his leather jacket wearing mates — is fittingly accompanied by an inane pop song with the lyrics, “Black leather, black leather, smash, smash, smash.”
To make matters even weirder, a side character — the Swedish sculptor Freya (played by Viveca Lindfors of Bell From Hell and Exorcist III), who is the mistress of an important scientist — develops a surprisingly weighty presence, as does her very weird art. The sculptures were apparently created by decorated real-life artist Elisabeth Frink, herself quite Ballardian. She belonged to the “Geometry of Fear” school and made eerie-looking sculptures of men and animals that do much to enhance The Damned’s cold, unforgiving, and loveless atmosphere. Of course this is also exemplified by the children themselves. Unlike the monsters of Village of the Damned, they are lonely and isolated. SPOILERS: They learn everything from a TV set in their classroom and are unable to receive any human affection or even contact without bestowing radiation sickness and ultimately death on their would-be guardians.
Subversive and often surreal, The Damned comes highly recommended, but will probably baffle a lot of viewers. If you enjoy unusual atomic horror or the novels of J.G. Ballard, or you’re just an Oliver Reed fanatic like me, this is definitely the film for you. The Damned is not available on a region 1 single disc as a stand alone film, though it has been fortunately restored to the original 96-minute print. It is included in the "Icons of Suspense" Collection from Hammer, along with Stop Me Before I Kill!, Cash on Demand, The Snorkel, Maniac, and Never Take Candy from a Stranger. There's also a region 2 DVD from Sony if you’re reading this from across the pond, with some utterly absurd cover art that makes it look like a low budget zombie film.