Tuesday, November 22, 2016

VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960)

Wolf Rilla, 1960
Starring: George Sanders, Barbara Shelley, Martin Stephens

One afternoon, something happens in the town of Midwich: all of its inhabitants fall into a coma for several hours, an event that just happens to come to the attention of the military, because local scientist Professor Zellaby (George Sanders) was in the middle of an important telephone call. After a few hours, the citizens all wake up and the mystery remains unsolved. But several months later, it becomes clear that many of the town’s female population are pregnant — including young women who claim they are virgins and older, married women whose husbands have been away and protest they aren’t guilty of infidelity — and the babies develop at an unusually accelerated rate. The children are uncannily alike, all with blonde hair, overly large heads, and hypnotic eyes, and seem to have a telepathic link. Professor Zellaby, father to one of these children, becomes fascinated with them, though the government because convinced that they pose a dangerous threat…

Based on John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos — a title I much prefer — Village of the Damned has a lot going for it, particularly in the context of ‘50s and ‘60s British horror, which is generally schlocky at best. It’s not quite on the level of something like Hammer’s The Abominable Snowman or The Quatermass Xperiment, but it’s leagues beyond The Devil Girl from Mars, The Gamma People, or The Trollenberg Terror. It did remind me a bit of Hammer’s slightly later These are the Damned (1963), which I prefer simply because that film is just so insane (and stars Oliver Reed), Village of the Damned remains compelling viewing. The film’s opening, in particular, has aged extremely well and is still effective and chilling. If you don’t know the full plot details (or are hazy on them), it seems for at least a few minutes like the entire community of Midwich has dropped to the ground, stone dead. Though Sanders’ Professor Zellaby is briefly introduced, he’s not the protagonist during this opening and his fate seems unclear. Things are made even bleaker when an army pilot attempts to fly over Midwich airspace — it’s as if the town is surrounded by some sort of consciousness-proof though invisible bubble — and the reality of the situation dawns on the horrified onlookers.

I do really enjoy Village of the Damned and at this point, I think it’s regarded as a ‘60s genre classic so widely, that it isn’t really worth getting into why it’s so beloved; you should see for yourself. As a George Sanders fanatic, he’s the real reason I enjoy the film and if you’re unfamiliar with his work, stop for a minute, dust yourself off after crawling out from under that massive rock, and check out the wide range of classics he’s appeared in — titles as far ranging as Rebecca, All About Eve, Foreign Correspondent, The Jungle Book, and A Shot in the Dark (plus he’s the original Mr. Freeze) — as well as genre films like The Picture of Dorian Gray, Psychomania, and Doomwatch. He’s one of my favorite actors and deservedly so. He’s marvelous.

His film-stealing turn here as Zellaby provides some interesting depth; as a science-obsessed rationalist, in a way he makes the children sympathetic. It is clear that he feels no love for his “son” David, but rather a consuming curiosity. Their relationship almost accidentally becomes the focal point of the film, as Hammer regular Barbara Shelley’s role as David’s mother, Anthea, is given very little screen time, even though her role as a woman who knows there is something wrong with her child and, in a tragic touch, just wants him to love her anyway. And this is actually my primary complaint about the film. Many of the issues raised early on, or hinted at, are never resolved or even fully explored during the running time. The religious themes are underused, aside from an eerie key sequence where the town priest (Bernard Archard) admits that he is deeply disturbed by the pregnancies and believes the women may have become that way through supernatural means. It is really this issue of perverted virgin birth and the ensuing “messiahs” they deliver that should have been the focal point. There is a devastating series of short scenes early on where the women learn about their pregnancies, often with horror, and it would have been interesting to see this subtext of unresolved trauma develop throughout the film.

Because, I have to admit, I hate these goddamn children. I know you’re supposed to fear them — or at least be repulsed, or possibly even fascinated — but I just flat out hate them. In general I have a hard time liking child characters in films (Bob in Possession is an important counter example), probably because filmmakers seem to often play to this general assumption that the audience inherently likes children, feels protective of them, or at least finds them adorable. No. It doesn’t help that Martin Stephens, who costars as David, was also Miles in the far superior and more disturbing The Innocents. The film seems unsure about what to do with him. Are we supposed to feel sympathy for him, somewhere deep down? I could be off base, but that’s how it seemed to me and — despite the wonderfully downbeat resolution that I will not spoil — the somewhat shifting portrayal of David is uneasy at best.


Village of the Damned was supposed to be produced by MGM in America, but it was apparently put on hold because of protests over the mild, if controversial religious themes and it was eventually made in England thanks to the efforts of George Sanders. In the film’s universe, other places in the world suffer the same fate as Midwich and, even though it is essentially a horror film about aliens, director Rilla makes effective use of the subtle Cold War theme. This is essentially a film about the nature of power, as the children struggle to live apart and are at their most violent and dangerous when the adults try to strip that power away — driving them to some pretty nasty acts, including a scene where they force someone to commit vehicular suicide, among other things. Flawed but still compelling, the film really shines in its most quiet, unobtrusive moments, when Zellaby and David edge around each other, trying to make one another out. The script certainly benefits from the fact that David and the other children don’t take Zellaby for granted, but regard him as not only a potential equal, but as a viable threat. Even though the effects don’t really hold up (those goddamn glowing eyes), it comes recommended. Pick it up on DVD as a double feature with Children of the Damned. (And we’re just going to pretend that the John Carpenter remake doesn’t exist.)

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