Tuesday, November 29, 2016

CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED

Anton M. Leader, 1964
Starring: Ian Hendry, Alan Badel, Barbara Ferris

A psychologist, Tom (Ian Hendry), and a scientist, David (Alan Badel), are working together on a study examining childhood development. They are fascinated when they come across the case of a young boy, Paul (Clive Powell), with remarkable mental powers and a very strange personality. They track down his mother (Sheila Allen), who ultimately reveals that the child forces her to do things, perhaps telepathically, and that she can’t stand to be around him because she was a virgin when he was conceived. Though they are reluctant to believe her story, they soon realize there are five other children from across the globe — countries like China, India, and the Soviet Union — who exhibit similar powers and soon run away from their respective embassies and gather together in an abandoned church in London. As government officials and British Intelligence close in, Tom and David attempt to prevent ultimate destruction.

This sequel to Village of the Damned is less of a direct follow up and more a film that happens to be set in the same universe. There are the requisite parallels, namely the fact that the children were all the result of virgin births from human mothers, they have a superior intellect, share knowledge, and are apparently telepathic. Where they different from the children in the first film is that, for starters, they don’t look alike: instead they represent a range of nationalities. They also seem to be more human than alien — some cockamamie explanation about blended DNA is given — and here they are clearly meant to be sympathetic. It’s actually the film’s saving grace; they recognize that they have no place on the earth and, once their true natures are revealed, will drive humans to desperate acts of fear-based violence despite their efforts to remain in obscurity.

This is also more overtly a Cold War-themed film, though its League of Nations approach to the second half of the plot hasn’t aged particularly well. It’s amusing to think of this set up in comparison to the last fifty years of cinema and television; somehow the British military (and intelligence service) have spearheaded a mission to kidnap or destroy the children that involves a number of embassies and diplomats, but is basically run by two scientists who just barge on the scene and do whatever they want (especially Ian Hendry’s Tom, though he’s known for this sort of arrogant kind of character, so either I’m just used to seeing him in a role like this or it really is plausible). There is an effectively moment when orders become confused and the different British regiments are basically firing on themselves, but overall it feels a bit ridiculous.

There are some eerie Quatermass and the Pit-like moments — particularly a scene where a child is killed and later raised from the dead — but overall the film beats you over the head with its anti-war/anti-nuclear terror message. The instances of the children forcing adults to become violent are a bit more ridiculous in this second film and I think someone was asleep at the wheel with those sequences, though part of the problem is that they don’t really seem to fit in with the film’s underlying thesis that the children aren’t inherently violent or dangerous, but will protect themselves when necessary. There is, however, a grisly sequence when British officials (it seems like a mix of military and intelligence) arrive to kidnap the children — who are newly arrived at the abandoned church — and they force the men to brutally murder each other.

Despite effective sequences like that one, there is a lot that patently doesn’t make any sense. Where Village of the Damned introduced some interesting religious themes, only to throw them away by the second half, Children of the Damned does something similar with its central location of the abandoned church; the children use parts of the structure to build an insane mega-weapon to defend themselves. If they’re so smart, surely they could have constructed something a little simpler and more innocuous? When the government officials realize they could use the children’s device — and the children themselves — as powerful weapons, they change their tune and immediately roll out every excuse from patriotism to common sense to try to get the scientists to convince the children to come on board. And while the first film has an admittedly downbeat ending, this one attempts to be more tragic in tone and winds up being a bit too sentimental and moralistic for my taste. Mild spoilers: the film more or less ends with someone postulating that the children are not alien at all, but advanced humans who have arrived before their time.


I don’t know that I can really recommend Children of the Damned, though it is an interesting film and it’s worth tracking down if you like atomic horror, British sci-fi, or weird children’s movies. It’s available on DVD as a double feature with Village of the Damned. Though I do have to admit that Losey’s These are the Damned is still my favorite “evil alien/atomic children” film — and perhaps you should make a triple feature out of these three — but hey, it’s Joseph Losey. Nothing against Village of the Damned’s director, Wolf Rilla, or Anton M. Leader, but come on now. Joseph Losey.

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.)

Monday, November 7, 2016

BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING

Otto Preminger, 1965
Starring: Carol Lynley, Keir Dullea, Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward

The young Ann (Carol Lynley) has recently arrived in London to live with her brother Steven (Keir Dullea). On her daughter Bunny’s first day of school, she’s harried after a day of preparing their new home, but when she arrives in the afternoon to retrieve the girl, Bunny is nowhere to be found. Apparently she never made her way to her classroom and no one has seen her. An assured detective, Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier), attempts to unravel the mystery of the child’s disappearance, but quickly realizes no one outside of Ann or her brother has seen Bunny and there is no evidence of her existence at all. Otto Preminger, an Austrian √©migr√© who escaped a war-torn Europe for the US like so many other prominent directors, actors, artists, and writers during the ‘30s and ‘40s, is one of those names that deserves more attention and while I have yet to see all of his films, he’s become one of my favorites of the years. Certainly titles like his seminal film noir Laura (1944) and courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder (1959) are considered classics, but he frequently pushed the boundaries of Hollywood censorship when he tackled themes like infidelity (nearly all his films feature a love triangle), homosexuality, drug use, and rape. Many of his films are concerned with a man’s perverse obsession with a woman; in addition to Laura, this figures into Fallen Angel (1945), Whirlpool (1949), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), and of course Bunny Lake is Missing. My favorite of all his films, the majestically bleak Angel Face (1952), turns this on its head and features a pathological woman who is obsessed with a man, resulting in one of the most nihilist — yet still oddly romantic — entries in all of film noir.

My favorite of Preminger’s films fall under the loose thriller umbrella, which is certainly where Bunny Lake is Missing belongs. And it is one of those thrillers that subverts the standard murder mystery trope; instead of operating on the premise that someone has been murdered and a killer must be located (before killing again), the film focuses on a character who is missing and follows a protagonist who is soon confronted with the possibility that no one except for them knows for certain that this character is real. Films like Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Terence Fisher’s So Long at the Fair (1950) fall under this umbrella and are all, in one way or another, based on an old urban legend that has turned up in fiction, film, and television over the years (I first encountered it as a child in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark).

On one hand, I find this premise really annoying; it’s just seems so improbable that not a single person would have witnessed the existence of the missing character — Hitchcock deals with this particularly well in The Lady Vanishes — but there is something about it that’s frightening in a primal way. What makes this (admittedly tiny) subgenre so effective is that the real crux of the film is not really whether the missing person will be located or who is responsible for their disappearance, but whether or not the protagonist is sane or insane. Preminger handles this particularly well in Bunny Lake is Missing and in that sense it ties into films about characters descending into madness and would fit in well with some of the similar thrillers made by directors like Hitchcock, Polanski, and De Palma.

But where Bunny Lake is Missing is so brilliant is in its use of a series of truly demented characters who surround Ann and the case of her daughter’s disappearance. Even the English band The Zombies make an appearance and while I love them, it’s a bit out of place to hear their songs pop up on the radio or to see them performing on television within the film. I don’t want to give all these character tidbits away, but one particularly delightful example features Martita Hunt (of one of my favorite British films of all time, David Lean’s Great Expectations) as a retired headmistress who lives in an attic room playing back recordings of children’s nightmares that she’s collected over the years. I could not make this up if I tried. But the oozing, decadent cherry on the cake is undoubtedly Noel Coward as Ann’s invasive landlord who works as an announcer for the BBC. At one point he brandishes a whip and claims to own the Marquis de Sade’s skull — all while clutching an enfeebled chihuahua named Samantha on his arm — and he tries to seduce Ann with his “melodious voice,” telling her that she should “sample the wine” before so hastily attempting to return it to the cellar. It’s maybe the greatest thing I’ve ever seen and I demand to know why there wasn’t a spin off film starring his character. It’s one of the great injustices of this world and by god, if I have to write that script myself, one day I will.

Last but not least is Keir Dullea — who will always and forever creep me out whenever I see him on screen, probably thanks to Black Christmas, or maybe just the fact that he looks like he’s plotting everyone’s death in some horrific way regardless of the role he’s in — as Ann’s brother, though I don’t want to spoil the surprise where he’s concerned. Needless to say, one of the film’s themes is among my favorites — incest — and in this way it ties in neatly with a handful of British horror films from the period that dealt with perverse family relationships and demented male protagonists stuck halfway between pathological violence and arrested development.

Of course no one can compete with a weary-looking (and apparently quite ill at the time) Laurence Olivier, despite the fact that he delivers a subtle, understated performance and is clearly not trying to steal the film from the other actors. He’s not really an eccentric figure, but is the calm, steady center of the film around which all of them — including Ann — swirl as the narrative moves increasingly into madness. Apparently it’s notably different from the source novel, by Merriam Modell, but wouldn’t be a Preminger film without his distinctive use of suspense, madness, gender conflicts, and good old fashioned human perversion.
And while Bunny Lake is Missing is one of Preminger’s more ignored films and received mixed critical reviews, I really love it. As with many of his best works, it looks absolutely beautiful, has a wonderful score (jazzy, but also vaguely threatening, from Paul Glass), and a title sequence from Saul Bass that is glorious (as is basically all of Bass’s work). Pick it up on Blu-ray, though I demand to know when someone will release a special edition box set of Preminger’s thrillers.