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This pair of early 1960s chillers share good reputations and can certainly be classed as movies trying to overcome science fiction's stigma as drive-in drivel. Made outside the American market and based on a popular book by a reputable writer, the first film about inhuman children fathered by creatures from outer space is an superior thriller in the British mold. The atmosphere is realistic and the fantastic elements are presented in a logical manner.
Both have dated somewhat but their original impact isn't difficult to explain. The first film was considered shocking on two counts: it portrays a virgin birth from outer space, and features "innocent" children as demonic villains.
These are the eyes that HYPNOTIZE!
Village of the Damned was adapted from The Midwich Cuckoos, one of John Wyndham's best books. It was almost as popular as his groundbreaking The Day of the Triffids, the story about deadly walking plants that now seems a progenitor of the post-apocalyptic subgenre. Wyndham's narrative logic is impeccable. Weird scientific mysteries are followed by further impossibilities that overturn everything dear to the English heart: Order, propriety, civilization itself. Instead of meteor showers and deadly flora, this time it's an unexplainable "Sleeping Beauty" blackout of a town followed by the simultaneous pregnancy of every woman capable of bearing children. Cuckoos are birds that lay their eggs in the nests of another species so that other mothers can be tricked into raising them. "Life will find a way," but it's an unethical jungle out there.
Wyndham's control and dignity kept his book from running into censor trouble, as the Midwich Cuckoos echoed the notorious Alraune concept in a science fiction setting. 1 Church authorities were uncomfortable with normal pregnancy in movies, and the perverse ideas here (called "sick" by Rich. in Daily Variety) conjure visions of females raped by men from outer space. 2Even more commercially daring was making ordinary-looking children the alien menace. The play The Bad Seed had to explain its murderous moppet away in Alraune-like terms (the obsolete notion of "inherited evil") to present a killer child on the screen. Village of the Damned's blonde-mopped mob of "little devils" wantonly killing people was not only shocking, it was contrary to acceptable public taste. 3
Juvenile delinquency as a modern problem emerged in the middle of WW2 in both the U.S. and the U.K.. Unsupervised adolescents got into trouble and formed unauthorized associations outside of the family ... to wit, gangs. The kids in Village of the Damned are a little mob of pre-Droog, pre X-Men mutant freaks. Their fathers are not human (would the taboo there be miscegenation or reverse-bestiality?) and they look as if half of their chromosomes are some alien blueprint designed to implant a dominant alien consciousness in whatever life form they encounter -- identical blonde hair, calm rounded faces, dark eyes. They even wear identical black raincoats with the cool fashion conformity that has become a given in neo-Sci fi. They have a communal instinct and a communal mind, evoking fears of Communism and enforced conformity engendered by top Science Fiction like Invasion of the Body Snatchers . Their super-intelligence is a byproduct of a communal mind; as George Sanders' Zellaby puts it, they're "one mind to the power of twelve." Instead of single consciousnesses, they're really one, much like the composite alien beings in Quatermass 2. Zellaby's "son" David is only half-human. His other dominant half bears a loyalty to his own kind far stronger than his affection for his mother.
Much like the giant children in H.G. Wells' Food of the Gods, the Midwich Cuckoos consider themselves a different species altogether. Once threatened, they are dangerous competitors with humankind. Food of the Gods ends with open war beginning between humans and giants, and Wyndham's book goes a lot farther than the movie in showing the military quarantine of Midwich. In both books, the idea seems to be that anything that lives will fight to survive and prevail over opposing species -- "life will find a way" is really a variant of Dog Eat Dog. 4
The remarkably calm beginning firmly establishes the coming of the weird children. The film's one unique visual gimmick was to superimpose glowing-irises over the eyes of the children as they use their telepathic powers to control humans. The necessity of freezing the frame results in beautiful static visuals with the staring children arranged in disturbing compositions ... visuals echoed in Ingmar Bergman's Persona. 5
Village of the Damned employs silent-movie expressionist imagery to illustrate invisible psychological events, such as the crumbling of Gordon Zellaby's defensive mental wall under the bombardment of the alien mind-probes. There are also hints of terrifying sadism in the killings. The children dispassionately force adults to be witnesses as they force a man to crash his car, and his brother to blow his own head off. The morbid slaughter committed by emotionless zombies has a stylized appeal that would soon be transferred to movie hit men (Lee Marvin in The Killers) and then become a cliché.
Wyndham had his share of weak female characters, such as the Triffids' porn-star/adventuress/Earth Mother heroine. Village downplays the story's seemingly essential female element. The women of Midwich suffer in medium shot here and there, but we mostly feel their anguish through male characters. When the pregnancy hysteria is running riot, we merely hear the town doctor reporting attempted suicides. Whereas we do get a few first-person anxieties via Gordon's wife Anthea (Hammer queen Barbara Shelley), most events are experienced through George Sanders' cool-headed sensibility. Sanders emotional relationship with his much younger wife is much more verbal than it is physical. The name Anthea suggests that Gordon's wife is another rose in his garden.
Poor Anthea Zellaby doesn't get much respect. Her husband is a wet noodle and her mystery child rejects her unequivocally. Then hubby goes and sacrifices himself without so much as consulting her first. So much for English motherhood. The most powerful shock cut in the film is to the sight of Anthea plunging her arm into scalding water, accompanied by a James Bernard-like musical explosion. Shelley flails violently; it's one of the few "female" traumas in the film. When the going gets tough the men abandon their spouses and go to the pub to find solace in ale and male bonding, all to some incongruous Ron Goodwin marching music. The equally uptight Hammer films didn't exploit the full range of female power either.
An unintentional laugh (at least when I saw the film for the first time in 1970) comes when the women of Midwich queue up at an aid station to be told that they are all pregnant. Just as the idea that every Jill in town has the same problem, there's an abrupt cut to Zellaby's large German Shepherd dog. Gee, is the dog preggers too? Are there going to be little puppies running around with blonde wigs between their ears?
The film keeps hinting that the Midwich children are aware of their status as spearheads for invasion, a fave theme of low-budget Sci Fi show for which full-scale alien invasions were out of reach, budget-wise. Zellaby's brainy kindergarten class avoids his probing questions about life on other planets, and the kids are soon a sealed-off conspiracy of the Them against Us variety. There's no question about the necessity of exterminating these little brainiacs. The only question is, How?
In the book it's less clear what's going on. The Midwich children and the other attempted alien colonies around the world are less an invasion than the voluntad imperativa of another life form... manifest destiny... Kudzu. Like the Boll Weevil lookin' for a home, these aliens are simply spreading their seed around the galaxy, starting new colonies and outposts that not necessarily know their origin. Every species of animal and race of man does this to the full limit of its capability. Wyndham's book maintains the ambiguity, whereas the movie falls back on the invasion idea, adding hints of "demonic evil" from human superstition: the disembodied eyes that appear to survive the fire. 6
Village of the Damned was competently filmed on the same village location seen in The Dirty Dozen and Hammer films like Die! Die! My Darling! It's the tiny village with the little race track-like rail around a triangular common. George Sanders clearly was interested in the intelligent story, for he plays it straight. Fantasy familiars Michael Gwynne and Laurence Naismith also lend solid credibility to the story. The standout is little Martin Stephens, who give David Zellaby an intelligent poise far beyond his years. He'd be even more precocious -- and creepy -- the next year in The Innocents. A large part of the film's eerie charge is conveyed by the precocious calculation in Stephen's voice.
Savant was too young to see Village of the Damned when new and was prevented from doing so by a mother who picked up on the same "sick" elements noted in the Variety review. But I did a lot of staring at the poster (I remember it played the day after Butterfield 8 at the Air Base Theater) and was traumatized by one viewing of a TV spot. For years afterwards I had scary nightmares featuring, of all things, the TV spot's image of people waking up and climbing out of a disabled bus!
Warner's DVD of Village of the Damned is a beauty. The film has always been in good condition and this enhanced transfer only improves it. The edition includes a trailer and a good commentary from author Steve Haberman. He brings up several of the points mentioned above. Haberman's insights about the apocryphal English cut of the film are fascinating, as is his discussion of how the "blasphemy" issue stalled the movie's production for three years.
Is the film "sick" and blasphemous? Larry Cohen would go right to the heart of the virgin birth idea in his '70s film God Told Me To. In that one a mutant Messiah is born when a woman is impregnated by aliens. Cohen clearly delights in upsetting church apple carts when the opportunity arises. Both his film and Wolf Rilla's imply by extrapolation that Jesus could have been the son of an alien being. Frankly, the Christian concepts of mercy and pacifism sometimes do seem alien to the core human character.
These are the eyes that PARALYZE!
I've never shared the frequently heard opinion that Children of the Damned is superior to Village; to me it is an okay pacifist parable with a dull edge and too much sermonizing. My idea of a superior alternative is the bleak Big Brother terror of H.L. Lawrence's The Children of Light, filmed by Joseph Losey as These are the Damned. It packs a political wallop by comparing the crimes of a criminal motorcycle gang to those of a secret government-military "gang" playing doomsday games with eerie radioactive children.
Children of the Damned is Sci-Fi lite. It ignores the thoughtful, slightly pessimistic ambivalence of John Wyndham in favor of pacifist rhetoric. Everything in the movie is an argument for the innocence of the children versus the evil of the militaristic Cold Warriors in the world governments that persecute them.
John Briley has a gift for smooth dialogue and brisk pacing. His liberal reworking of the original Cuckoos idea changes the alien-fathered genetic mutations into homegrown prodigies described breathlessly as "mankind advanced a million years," Philip K. Dick-like anomalies exhibiting powers that all of mankind will develop in the future. It's similar to the basis of Marvel's X-Men. Briley makes them an international cross-section of beautiful kids, all in London but all unrelated in origin. One mother (Sheila Allen) convinces us that hers was a virgin birth. Even the supposedly open-minded scientist heroes scoff at that one.
Like the star children in Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End the group connects telepathically but finds itself in a hostile nest, tangled up in the same competitive suspicion that greeted the curious Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still. The political authorities expect to be able to control a few brainy children the same way they control their own brain trust scientists, with condescending paternalism. Just as the boffins are expected to build bombs and keep their pacifist mouths shut, the various governments want these kids separated and working on weapons systems back home.
Then the politicos find out that the children have the power of telepathic communication. Their reaction is as strong and final as the Peiping Communists pulling the plug on the Internet in China: if communication is to be controlled, free communicators need to be killed. There's nothing wrong with writer Briley's logic but his political argument is too cut & dried. These Are the Damned is a gauntlet of protest against the Establishment, that was curiously shelved for two years in England and four years in America. By comparison Children of the Damned is a Little Golden Book of weepy platitudes.
In his commentary author Briley lets us know that the relationship between the two scientist partners is not intended to be homosexual. That seems naive, as Ian Hendry and Alan Badel are a completely domestic pair, even to the point of their eventual split on the controversy of what to do with the children. The emotions between them play like a lovers' tiff. What did Briley expect people to think when he made them adult roommates without female interests?
Briley is consistent, however. The corrupt adults are at odds over every issue raised while the children remain in calm accord with one another. And that's where the film goes wrong. The kids don't have personalities, not even an aggregate one. Village used a chilling malevolence to hold their group together but what motivates these Children seems to be the need to be a screenwriter's symbol.
That's why Children of the Damned doesn't send this viewer as much as does the first (itself far from perfect) film. Director Leader was almost exclusively employed in television but does rather well here. The tension is kept up even though the violent scenes are rather silly and un-ambitious. Briley and Leader work an anti-nuke message into the ending by illustrating how an innocent fumble can result in the sending of an erroneous attack command. Sure, when dissenters and meddling scientists are rampaging through headquarters, anything can happen.
The acting is all highly professional, with earnest players bringing out every emotional irony in the screenplay. Ian Hendry is a favorite who would figure in small roles in several genre efforts to come (Repulsion, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun) and Alan Badel takes a break from playing ethnic villains. This time around none of the children, even the young actor playing lead kid Paul, are really standouts.
By itself the film plays as an okay pacifist parable, but MGM marketed it as a continuation of the original idea. The trailer and print ads promise an escalation of action on the military level, ignoring the pacifist theme, as if the children were even more diabolical than those of the first film.
Warner's Children of the Damned is an equally fine enhanced transfer with a trailer in good shape as an extra. The commentary this time is by the film's screenwriter John Briley, who later wrote The Medusa Touch, Gandhi and Cry Freedom! Briley spends at least half of his time explaining contrasting the American blacklist with political conditions in England, where Communists were treated with more tolerance. But he says almost nothing about his own experience as an American who worked almost exclusively in England.
This single-disc double feature is another example of Warner DVD's growing responsiveness to fan desires. Putting commentaries on older genre pictures has previously been something for indie labels and MGM Midnite Movie offerings. The choices for commentators are good -- soliciting the involvement of the screenwriter of a film like Children of the Damned usually isn't given high priority at the studios. This is a great disc that Science Fiction fans will appreciate.
A single disc holds both titles; as with some older Universal double bills, after finishing the first I had to restart my machine to watch the second.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Children of the Damned rates:
Packaging: Keep case
1. Alraune was a turn-of-the-century novel about a scientist who "grows" a human female from the semen of a hanged man, thereby creating an artificial woman without a soul. The blasphemous idea creats the perfect villainess -- a wicked female who destroys men as she would pull the wings from a fly. The misogynous concept can be traced through the 'evil' temptresses Lulu and Pandora's Box to the false Maria of Metropolis. and several film versions. Along with Frankenstein, Alraune is generally responsible for the idea that any man-made creature is soul-less and therefore Evil with a capital E. The seductive man-killer heroines in Pandora's Box and The Blue Angel aren't fantastic in origin, but the principal question in both films is whether they are innocent catalysts or inherently Evil.
2. Aliens are forever searching for human females for mating purposes (The Mysterians) but in Village of the Damned there's no chase, just the Blessed Event. Disc commentator Steve Haberman says that the book alludes to a rumored spaceship sighting, which suggests that space aliens landed and physically assaulted the women of Midwich. I strongly remember that the book held the idea that the women were impregnated by "radio waves" from outer space. The idea of a universally compatible DNA beam makes a lot more sense than imagining an alien race physically compatible with homo sapiens. In any case, are the virgins of Midwich still virgins? (More 'inappropriate' thoughts.) As in The Day of the Triffids, Wyndham keeps their origins purposely unclear. The reason the Triffids have spread all over the globe in the book is strongly suggested to have a Cold War origin, but Wyndham keeps it as a rumor.
3. The concept of children as perverse demons was revisited again and again in things like Rosemary's Baby and its commercial derivative The Omen. There is a pointed Spanish horror film called Who Can Kill a Child? where the moppets of a sunny island band together to murder their parents. There the reason remains as unexplained, as the attacks in The Birds. The Innocents literalizes the James story The Turn of the Screw, turning its children (they've witnessed adult sexual cruelty) into wanton sadists. Village of the Damned's Martin Stephens returns as the precociously nasty kid, along with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie's wonderful Pamela Franklin. Thematically, killer children feed back to the knowledge that in an age of riches and leisure, children are more neglected than ever. As Charles Manson said, "Your own kids will come at you with knives."
4. When the Beatles came along three years later and millions of kids started growing their hair long, Establishment backlash criticized the Fab Four for fashions that emphasized group conformity. We '60s kids identified this with precedents in our own experience, like the "cool" uniformity of the kids in Village of the Damned. I've also often wondered if the identical blonde wigs worn by the Eloi in George Pal/MGM's The Time Machine of the same year were hand-me downs from Village of the Damned.
5. The effect of these staring tableaux is chilling. I've experienced the same effect with several similarly surreal shots in, of all places, the Ziegfeld "meat parade" scene in the musical Funny Girl. For those who think I'm nuts, I'm referring to the intro with the showgirls on the stage risers immediately preceding the scene where Streisand does her 'pregnant' gag number -- The Beautiful Reflection of My Love's Affection. Take a look.
6. In the book, I believe one of the Cuckoos is killed somehow, leaving Zellaby's little colony with an odd number of boys and girls. This presents a problem of mates that becomes an issue in John Carpenter's dreary Village of the Damned remake. It's one of the film's many links with Joseph Losey's These are the Damned, also about deadly children (in this case man-made victims of atomic testing, borne to pregnant women who have been irradiated). The children innocently ask how they all can have romantic storybook love mates when they grow up, with an uneven number of girls and boys. The answer is a Strangelove-like polygamy, I suppose.