Monday, October 16, 2017

Children of the Damned (1964)

While my memory of when I first learned of Village of the Damned is hazy, I'm fairly confident that the first time I heard of this film was on that VHS documentary, The History of Sci-Fi and Horror, which I've mentioned many times before. It skimmed over it and did little more than acknowledge its existence and its tie to the more well-known 1960 film but, regardless, because of it, I did know that there was a sequel to Village of the Damned, which I'm sure most people are unaware of due to how obscure this film is. And like the first film, I never saw it until I was in my 20's when I picked up the double-feature DVD of both films from Warner Bros., and since I did enjoy Village, I was quite curious about it. When I did watch it, my feelings on it were pretty mixed, as I didn't think it was as creepy or as intriguing as Village and, as a result, I haven't watched it as much. In fact, I think my first time re-watching it for this review was only the third time I ever had seen it, and I say "first time" because I was planning on writing this immediately following my review of Village but, I was so unfamiliar with it and was so tired when I watched it, that a lot of it went over my head and was in danger of falling asleep. So, I decided instead to do reviews for Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds and The Haunting, both of which you'll see in the next couple of days, and then come back to Children of the Damned, which ended up working out in its own way since I'm doing these reviews more or less in chronological order and this film came out the year after both of them. It's a good thing I did that, too, because in the second, more prepared and alert viewing of the film for the blog, I was able to get a lot more out of the movie and make a much tighter review than I would have before. Plus, I was also able to appreciate the movie itself more, whereas last time, I was convinced that this movie was a complete bore. It still isn't the most exciting movie, nor, like I said, is it as chilling as its predecessor, and I wouldn't call it classic by any means, as it's quite a mixed bag, but it is a well-made, fairly intelligent science fiction film that takes a different spin on the basic concept introduced in the original film and the book it all stems from (although, as we'll see, how successful it ultimately is on that score is debatable).

Paul Looran is an exceptionally brilliant young boy who's come to the attention of British child psychologist Tom Llewellyn and his friend, geneticist David Neville. Interested in uncovering everything they can about him, the two scientists visit his mother, Diana, at her London apartment but she's unwilling to cooperate with them and tell them of Paul's father. After she forces them to leave, Diana, who despises Paul and threatens to help them in discovering what he is, walks into a traffic tunnel and is caught up in a horrible accident that lands her in the hospital. There, she tells the scientists that she gave birth to Paul but she never had intercourse with any man, raving that he isn't human and that he can kill without having to touch his victims. The scientists go to the apartment and find that Paul is in the care of his aunt, Susan Eliot, who brings him to their laboratory the next day. As they ponder the reason behind his unprecedented intellect, they're informed that there are five other children from various countries around the world who are the same age as Paul and are just as intellectually developed; also like Paul, all of the children have hysterical mothers and no sign of a father. Since one of the children is already at the Indian embassy in London, the scientists arrange for the other four to be flown in which, despite some potential diplomatic problems, succeeds and when they're all given the same test as Paul, it's revealed that they were able to complete it in exactly the same short amount of time. However, the British government becomes wary of the children and the effect the knowledge of their existence could have on the tense political situation the world is now in, and they send agent Colin Webster, a colleague of Neville's, to try to take Paul to a more secure location to prevent any of the foreign nations from scooping him up. Sensing danger, Paul uses his mental powers to create a distraction so he can escape into the city, joined one-by-one by the other children, who leave their embassies, and they take refuge inside a rundown church. Susan, who's often used as a pawn by her nephew, is brought to the church as well to be a mediator between them and the government officials and scientists. As the question of what to do about the children rages on, tensions between the various countries leads to conflict, as they try to get ahold of them in order to use their intellect to advance their own military might, with disastrous results. But, as the children, who also have a telepathic hive mind, use their powers to kill only when they feel threatened, the question of which party is the real villain in this scenario comes up.

John Briley
Truth be told, this isn't really a sequel to Village of the Damned, as it doesn't follow up on the ending to that film and, in fact, no mention of those events is ever made. When MGM commissioned a sequel to Village, since that movie did quite well when it was released in 1960, screenwriter John Briley (who would go on to write the screenplay for Gandhi) instead decided to create a different take on the original book by John Wyndham, The Midwich Cuckoos, one that opened up the scope of the story a little bit and really played into the tense political climate of the day. It plays much like a feature-length episode of The Twilight Zone in that regard. In the director's chair is Anton M. Leader, a Boston-born television director who made his feature debut here after having directed episodes of numerous shows like The Adventures of Jim Bowie, Perry Mason, Leave It to Beaver, and, fittingly enough, The Twilight Zone. But it apparently turned out to not be much of a profitable debut, as Leader made only one other feature, a 1970 comedy-western called Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County; otherwise, he spent the rest of his career in television, directing episodes of shows as varied as Rawhide, Lost in Space, Gilligan's Island, I Spy, Get Smart, Star Trek, Ironside, and Hawaii Five-O, just to name a few. His directing credit according to IMDB was a 1976 episode of Movin' On, after which he seemed to have retired and died in 1988 at the age of 74.

A problem that I had with this movie before was, while the cast is made up of fine actors, there's no one here with the caliber of George Sanders in the first film and, as a result, I had trouble finding someone to grab onto, including the two leads. Re-watching the film, though, I do think Ian Hendry and Alan Badel do commendable jobs in their respective roles of Tom Llewellyn and David Neville (particularly the latter, as he has more of a charming, witty personality about him), and it's interesting how both of them arrive at very different conclusions about the children by the end of the movie. They both start out being absolutely fascinated by Paul's amazing intellect and are intent on researching his background, writing off his mother's claims that he isn't human as being that of hysteria. Their interest is sparked even further when they learn of five other children in the world who are exactly like Paul and they get them flown in so they can be tested as well. Even after the children escape to the rundown church where they stay for virtually the entire duration of the film's remainder, both scientists are of the same opinion that the government should leave them alone and that the nations should make a joint effort to educate them, but that starts to change when the children are forced to defend themselves with lethal force and especially after one of their blood cells is shown to absorb a normal human blood cell, which Neville sees as a sign that they're a superior species that could pose a threat to mankind in general if they're allowed to flourish. He comes to the conclusion that the nations must come together to try to eradicate them, while Llewellyn feels that their abilities could be of a huge benefit to mankind, if everyone would stop forcing them to defend themselves with violence. To that end, he goes to them and implores them to stop killing and to return to their respective embassies to prove that they mean no harm. When they do later that night, he stops Neville from trying to warn the authorities, going as far as to physically attack him to keep him in the apartment, saying that they deserve a chance. Even after the children cause murder and chaos at their respective embassies, Llewellyn is still on their side, trying to make the others understand that they don't know what went on in the embassies and that the children could've again been forced to defend themselves. It turns out, he's right, but his pleas fall on deaf ears, which include Neville, and despite his best efforts, he's unable to stop the children from being gunned down at the end of the movie.

One character who sees the children as nothing but a potential threat to world security from the start is Colin Webster (Alfred Burke), a government agent and acquaintance of David Neville's who, it turns out, has been keeping tabs on the scientists during the time they've been studying the children. Realizing what might happen should any of the foreign powers realize the advantage their respective children's intellect and mental abilities could give them, Webster attempts to have Paul taken from his London apartment to some place more secure in order to keep one of the foreign embassies from taking him as well, an act that gives Paul and the other children the opportunity to escape and hole up in the rundown church. Being somebody who's very cynical about the current state of the world, responding to Llewellyn's question of what he'd do if all of the countries got along and had a full-on love affair with the statement, "Oh, I shouldn't worry too much. You know how love affairs go," (he should know, since it's heavily implied that he's been quite a skirt-chaser in his past), he's the first one to decide that, in order to alleviate the situation, the children should all be destroyed. Webster aids the government in keeping close watch and guard over the church and shows that he's willing to use deadly force against the children by downing one who's operating a crippling sonic machine in order to defend themselves from foreign agents who break into the church to try to kidnap them. This act, in addition to the discovery that's made about the children's cellular structure when a blood cell from one of them is combined with a sample taken from Webster himself, further heightens the tension and the sense of urgency about them, and when Llewellyn convinces the children to go back to their respective embassies, Webster is present when the officials try to make Paul tell them how he and the others made that sonic device. When it becomes clear that he isn't going to cooperate, and remembering Neville's assessment of them as a dangerous, superior species (as well as realizing that he's reading their minds), Webster and the other two men attempt to kill Paul, forcing him to use his mind powers for protection and make them kill each other, adding fuel to the fire for the film's ending.

Paul's mother and aunt in and of themselves represent the two viewpoints the scientists and officials develop towards them. His mother, Diana Looran (Sheila Allen), is absolutely terrified of him and despises him with every fiber of her being, yelling at him that she should have killed him the first time she let him nurse from her. While she was unwilling to cooperate with Llewellyn and Neville when they arrived at her apartment, no doubt out of fear since Paul was there at the time, she also makes it clear to him that she will help them in getting rid of him, a threat that prompts her son to take action against her, controlling her mind and making her walk into a tunnel full of traffic, which lands her in intensive care at the hospital. There, she tries to warn the scientists about what Paul is, claiming that she gave birth to him despite never having had sex with any man and that he can hurt people without even touching them, but her claims are initially written off as hysterical raving. Paul's aunt, Susan Eliot (Barbara Ferris), is much more sympathetic towards him, apparently having not been that close to her sister (although she did get a feeling that something was wrong with when the "accident" happened), as well as to the children at large, although their abilities do frighten her to an extent. Unfortunately for her, Paul and the others tend to take control of her and use her as a tool, with her nephew using her as a means to keep Colin Webster from taking him away by having her call Llewellyn and Neville over and later as a way for them to speak to the officials, as well as to help them survive during their stay in the church. She tries to make the children understand that they have nothing to fear from those in power and that not everyone kills when they're afraid but it does little to change the small amount of confidence they have in the outside world and, when things continue to go wrong, she sticks up for them, explaining that they're the ones who've been frightened. Like Llewellyn, she tries to stop the children from being destroyed by the government but it ultimately proves futile.

As should be obvious, most of the English characters in high power see the children as a threat to mankind, either because of their potential to spread and eventually overthrow it as the dominant species of the planet or because of what would happen if foreign powers managed to get their hands on them, and nobody is more convinced of this than Harib (Harold Goldblatt), a representative of UNESCO. He's the one who brings the existence of the other children's existence to Llewellyn and Neville's attention, arranges for them to be brought to London, and asks the scientists to give them the same tests they did Paul. Like Neville and most of those around them, he grows to view the children as a danger that must be eradicated. When Neville suggests, after studying the structure of the children's blood cells, that the nations must unite in a means to destroy them, Harib decides to see if he can get them to come to such an agreement, given the evidence they have. And when Llewellyn pleads with him to reconsider, that the children may be a great gift to mankind, Harib says, "One country has already tried to get them. Somebody else is bound to try again. It is more than five children I am thinking about it; it is millions." By the end of the movie, when mass murder has occurred at the embassies, Harib is present when the British sets up operation near the church to destroy them, and while he's initially reluctant to listen to Llewellyn when he again tries to plead with him, telling him that he suggested to them that they go to their embassies, he does relent and decide, along with some foreign representatives, to let the children explain themselves. This leads to the children saying that they feel they must be destroyed and Harib, like others, gets caught up in the crossfire when the order to kill them is accidentally given. Another scientist who works with Neville, Prof. Gruber (Martin Miller), doesn't have a lot of screentime but, regardless, he makes the most significant discovery about the children when he takes the sample of their blood for further analysis. He finds that, instead of being of another species, the children are actually human... advanced by a million years. Still, this revelation does little to change the minds of Neville, who says that man is ape evolved over millions of years and they need protection similarly evolved man, and the others, leading into the ending.

Like a lot of horror and science fiction movies made in Britain around this time, Children of the Damned, if nothing else, is well-made on a technical level. The cinematography by Davis Boulton, who'd just shot The Haunting at this time, is very nice, with the black-and-white looking beautiful and full of rich contrasts, especially in the darkly lit scenes, just as it had been on Robert Wise's haunted house movie. What's more, you can tell that they had a little bit more money than on Village of the Damned, as they were able to open up the scope of the story a tad more. Most of that is thematically, in regards to the children being from various countries across the world and the nations plotting to get their hands on them, but, despite the action mostly being confined to the interiors of a rundown church, the story is set in the city of London rather than a tiny, isolated village, and there are some nice shots of the streets and alleys in the scenes after the children escape from the authorities. And as for the church, while the children's staying there for the duration of the story keeps it feeling rather confined, the large interiors of it are much bigger than anything seen in the previous film and, while it's never exactly creepy or atmospheric, its rundown nature is a nice touch and it is shot well. However, this larger scope is one of the areas where I feel the movie falls short of its predecessor, as you don't have the feeling of intense isolation that you did before, with the palpable notion of a simple community of people having to contend with something otherworldly and threatening in their midst.

Speaking of the children, they're quite a bit different from the alien kids that terrorized Midwich and threatened the security of the world. Instead of looking the same, with striking platinum blonde hair, they look like ordinary kids and each of them are of different nationalities. That's another thing: rather than being members of colonies of such children that were all born at the same time in various parts of the world, each of them is a single, unusual aberration that popped up for no apparent reason in their respective countries. That leads into the most notable difference: their origin. While it is speculated that they're not human when their blood cells are examined, Prof. Gruber, after more careful analysis of the cells, discovers that they are indeed human but that they're advanced by a million years (a revelation that proves that this isn't really a sequel to Village of the Damned). That said, exactly how they came about is unknown, as they were born in a manner similar to the children in the first film, with the mothers having given birth despite having had no sexual intimacy beforehand. Some theories are put forth, such as David Neville suggesting early on that Paul is a human example of a freak, once in a blue moon mutation that produces an offspring much more developed than it should be, given the parents (although, this theory is dispensed with when it's learned that there are five other children in the world who are just like him, as Neville feels it's genetically impossible), and when they're watching the interaction between a normal human blood cell and one of the children's, Colin Webster suggests that such an assimilation could have taken place in the mothers' wombs, but nothing concrete is ever given.

These differences aside, the children's unique abilities are virtually identical to those in the first film: they're extremely intelligent, they prefer to be together as one group, they're of a hive mind in that what one knows, they all know, and have strong mental powers, able to read minds, communicate with each other through telepathy, and can take control of the minds of others. When they employ that latter ability, their eyes do sometimes glow, although not as often as in Village of the Damned and that's a good thing because, when they use it to defend themselves against two cops who are sent inside the church after them, it's painfully obvious that what you're looking at is a couple of still images of them with glowing eyes matted onto them (the same approach was used in the first film but more effectively). And while they truly only use that ability when they're forced to defend themselves, they're still able to wreak havoc with it, as Paul forces his mother to walk into a tunnel full of traffic, which lands her in the hospital; he causes a cop to drive into the back of a parked car in order to create a distraction so he can escape custody; they force the aforementioned two cops to shoot each other, with one falling from the church's second level and landing on some sharp spires down below; and when Paul returns to the British embassy and the officials try to make him reveal how they put together a powerful sonic machine, he makes them kill each other when it becomes apparent that they mean to kill him. Speaking of which, they spend the better part of one day in the church assembling some sort of device out of the church's organ, and when several foreign agents break in to abduct some of them, they activate it, creating a very loud, supersonic sound that appears to kill the men but instead, according to what's said when their bodies are examined, apparently put them in a catatonic state that's worse than death.

Another callback to the original film is that the children don't really have personalities and are more of a singular entity composed of a group. They always have the same blank expressions on their faces, showing very little emotion, and of the six of them, only three actually speak and even then, you can count the number of lines each of them has on one hand. As a result, aside from being the de facto leader and the one who brings the children together, Paul (Clive Powell), the child who the scientists initially focus on and who remains the one the officials look to when negotiating with them, is quite different from David Zellaby in the first film. You don't even hear him speak for the first time until quite a while into the movie, when he orders Susan to stay in her room during a raid on the church, and even then, he barely says anything, but regardless, you can tell that there's an understanding intelligence behind his eyes whenever he's staring at someone, as he appears to be studying them and knows whether or not they're telling the truth. He's the one who appears confused when Llewellyn tells him that they must not kill people, responding, in regards to the government officials and agents they've come up against, "But they kill," and when asked what their purpose of being is, he simply says that they don't know (although, he and the others do come to a conclusion at the end). And he's absolutely insistent on keeping Susan, the one adult he truly feels comfortable around, in the church, mainly to use her as either a mediator or a way for them to communicate and interact with those on the outside.

After Paul, the most notable of the children is Mi Ling (Lee Yoke-Moon), the Chinese girl, in that she's the first one to speak, confirming to Susan the telepathic bond between them when she reveals her knowledge of an accident that happened to Paul when he was younger that she couldn't possibly know of, and speaks the most, usually to Susan. She's also the one who shows that the children expect violence whenever someone shows fear towards them, in that she takes a knife away from Susan when the two of them are cutting up bread left for food. Rashid (Mahdu Mathen), the Indian child, is also significant in that he's apparently killed during the chaos that breaks out when the children use their supersonic device as a defense against the agents, getting gunned down by Colin Webster while operating it, and it becomes something of a turning point in the story, as it severely affects the other children and, as Llewellyn warns them, has shown the officials that they can be killed. But then, at the end, Rashid joins the other children in their confrontation with the officials outside the church, weak and needing assistance from some others, but still alive. How he's alive once again and whether or not he really was dead is never explained, making the ending lose a bit of its power from the implication that the children can come back from the dead. There isn't much to say about Nina (Roberta Rex), the pig-tailed Soviet girl, other than her distrusting father initially tries to hide her presence from Llewellyn and Neville, only relenting when they mention how intelligent she's believed to be, and there's even less to say about Aga Nagolo (Gerald Delsol), other than he only has one line when Neville asks the children to demonstrate their telepathy to the foreign representatives. The same could also be said about Mark (Frank Summerscale), the American boy, but he is a bit more significant in that he has complete control over his dog and uses him as a guard and weapon against those who threaten him. The dog is killed early on when two officers enter the church, which affects Mark and incurs the children's wrath.

Where Children of the Damned differs the most from Village is that the children are put in a more sympathetic light. Instead of being portrayed as a terrifying, inhuman force that must be destroyed before it takes over the world, they're gradually shown to be creatures who use their abilities only when they feel threatened and are forced to defend themselves, like when Paul uses his mental powers against his mother when she's spewing fear and hatred towards him, saying that she's going to help the officials in hunting him, or when he feels uncomfortable about Colin Webster showing up at his apartment, saying that he intends to take her and Susan to a safe place, and creates distractions in order to escape. As intelligent and powerful as they are, they're still children who've been affected by the interactions they've had with those around them during their short lifetime, to the point where they sense danger whenever someone shows fear towards them, like when Mi Ling takes away the knife Susan has at one point, and when the conflicts between them and the adults become more forceful and intense, they feel that have no alternative but to defend themselves in lethal ways. This is also leads into their confusion about morals, as Paul doesn't understand why they mustn't kill when those they've come into conflict with kill all the time, including Rashid, whose "death" it's obvious has affected them and whose body they refuse to bury, apparently not understanding the concept of burial, despite Susan's attempt to explain it. Llewellyn tries to explain to him that it's wrong to kill and the terror they've inspired with the machine that they built to defend themselves. He stumbles when trying to explain that there's a difference between that and the horrible machines man builds and instead warns them of the growing plot to kill them. Taking his suggestion to go back to their embassies and show that they mean no harm to heart, the children do so, only to learn of the officials' desire to know how to create such a machine for themselves and almost die when they become afraid and try to kill them when they won't tell, forcing them to once again defend themselves. By the end of the movie, when the military traps them in the church, preparing to destroy them, the children accept their fate, walking outside and lowering their defenses. Paul tells Harib that they are there to be destroyed and that they've chosen their way, which can be read as them having decided from everything they've been through that it's impossible for them coexist with ordinary people.

For me, what really keeps the film from reaching the level of its predecessor is that it's rather heavy-handed in its political and social commentary. The air of paranoia present during this period of time was there in Village of the Damned but it was more subtext and the movie was still, at its heart, a creepy little sci-fi/horror flick; Children, however, brings the notion of the Cold War right to the forefront, with all of the distrust the nations have towards each other, particularly in the case of the Soviet Union, whose ambassador is initially reluctant to let Llewellyn and Neville see his daughter, and how they begin plotting to get their hands on the children and use their abilities to shift the balance of world power in their favor. It's used to further paint the children in a more sympathetic light, as gifted but confused beings who the world nations see as nothing more than tools, and the same goes for the other piece of commentary here: that mankind fears the unusual and that the only reaction we have to anything we don't understand is to destroy it. Because of their constantly being forced to defend themselves by lethal means and the discovery of the unusual structure of the blood cells, which Neville initially interprets as meaning that they're not human at all, most of the officials decide that the children must all be destroyed before they're sexually mature enough to have offspring, as Neville fears whose grandchildren would eventually inherit the world. Both of these bits of commentary come to a head during the latter part of the third act, where the children return to their embassies, only to be forced to defend themselves when the ambassadors and other officials try to get them to cooperate for their own ends and then, when they not only don't but also read their minds and sense their true intentions, attempt to kill them, leading the military to trap them in the church in order to kill them. The children, having decided to allow themselves to be killed, come outside and hold each other's hands, lowering their defenses and, by being a group of different nationalities who've come together without conflict amongst themselves, are shown as being much more humane than the rest of mankind. The military almost abort the attack, when an officer at HQ accidentally knocks loose a screwdriver that rolls down the desk and hits the button that gives the command. Confusion then breaks out, as the troops open fire on the children and the men standing in front of them, while the commander tries to stop the attack but either can't be heard because of the noise or his orders cause conflict amongst the soldiers. By the time it's over, the children are shown to be buried in the rubble of the church, which was dynamited, and the last shot is on the screwdriver, the implication being how such a simple human tool led to such destruction and tragedy.

I don't mind a little social or political commentary in my science fiction and horror movies (I wouldn't be such a huge fan of The Twilight Zone if I didn't), especially since those genres are excellent canvasses to use for it when you don't want to make a straight drama. But, the thing is, I prefer it to be done subtly and not be beaten over my head. Sometimes, there's no way to do it other than to be heavy-handed about it, especially when it comes to movies made during this period, and it can still work in those instances, but here, it didn't really grab me. Again, given how tense things had become in the world when it was released in 1964, I'm guessing the filmmakers felt that they had to be overt with what they were trying to get across but I feel it does little more than bog the movie down and, by the time it's over, it hasn't had any impact on me at all. I'm just like, "I get it: things sucked around this time and humans tend to suck as a race." In addition, while I can appreciate the different take John Briley went for in regards to the children when writing the screenplay and I thought it was done in a fair manner, making them more sympathetic automatically means that this movie doesn't have the eerie, chill-factor that the first one did, which is a letdown.

The only person involved with Village of the Damned who returned for this film was composer Ron Goodwin and, as was the case before, his score is one of the movie's least memorable aspects. It's very forgettable and generic, with nothing about it standing out, except maybe the music for the opening titles, which is a bunch separate pieces that build to a sudden climax before going right into the next one, with each one corresponding to the image behind the titles: a still of Paul on a street corner that zooms in tighter and tighter on his face. But, aside from that, it serves as a testament to how Goodwin didn't seem to be that good when it came to scoring science fiction and horror films, which is undoubtedly why there aren't too many on his filmography.

This is one of my more sparse reviews and I apologize for it; it's just that Children of the Damned is a movie that doesn't have a lot of layers to it. While not a bad movie by any means, it is something of a mixed bag. On the plus side, it is a technically well-made film, with adequate direction by Anton M. Leader, good-looking black-and-white cinematography, and nice shots of the streets of London and the interiors of the abandoned church, actors who, while not given the deepest characters to work with, do their jobs suitably well, it's certainly not without intelligent conversation and discussion, and the different spin that it takes on the source material is an interesting one. However, the story tends to get bogged by the political and social commentary the filmmakers are trying to go for, the movie doesn't have the eerie vibe that the original had because of its slightly broadened scope and its decision to make the children more sympathetic, the music score is nothing to write home about, and, in the end, it doesn't leave that much of an emotional impact, especially considering what it was trying to accomplish. I can perfectly understand why it's not as well-known as Village of the Damned, despite being as accessible nowadays because of the DVD, and I can truly only recommend it to fans of that movie who are curious and those who enjoy checking out obscure, little known films.

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