Sunday, October 15, 2017

Village of the Damned (1960)

I'm drawing a complete blank in remembering when I first heard of this film. I can remember seeing a trailer for what I think was the Hammer movie, These Are the Damned, also known as simply The Damned, on Turner Classic Movies in October of 1998 (although it's unrelated, it still deals with monstrous children), but I can't, for the life of me, remember when I first heard of Village of the Damned. I don't remember reading about it in any of the books on science fiction and monster movies that I found at my elementary school and public libraries (probably because the word "damned" is in the title), and it's possible that I did read up on it in the books in my high schools library, but the earliest memory I have of seeing and hearing the title was in The History of Sci-Fi and Horror, a documentary hosted by Butch Patrick that I got on VHS as a birthday present in 2001. I'm pretty sure that the first time I saw any clips from it was when it was featured on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments, and by that point, I also knew of John Carpenter's remake (as well as its less than stellar reputation but that's a story for another day), which I saw the DVD of in various video stores, but, regardless of when I actually became aware of it, I wouldn't see it until I was in my 20's. While it wasn't a movie that was near the top of my list of films I really wanted to see at one point, the story of evil children from a possible alien origin, which I had read about in The Horror Movie Survival Guide, sounded interesting, especially the details of their conception and how it came about. I saw it for the first time in either early 2011 or 2012, when I bought the double-feature DVD of both it and its sequel, Children of the Damned; upon watching it, I thought it was a nice, neat little movie. I don't know if I would call it a major classic, as I don't find it to be anything earth-shattering, and there are many other sci-fi/horror movies made around this time that I like more, but it's still very well-made and has a considerable amount going for it, mainly in how it manages to be quite creepy at points, especially during the beginning.

At his home in the quaint, English village of Midwich, Prof. Gordon Zellaby makes a call to his brother-in-law, Maj. Alan Bernard of the British army, when he suddenly falls over faint in mid-sentence... and it's not just him. Every single person in the village, along with all pets and livestock, have passed out in the same, inexplicable manner. Unable to establish contact with the village, Bernard races there, only to see for himself that any living creature that passes through a certain point near Midwich passes out and telephones his commanding officer on what's happening. Soon, the military seals off the town and, using caged canaries, find the exact point where the state of unconsciousness hits. Even more unusual, the boundaries are so uniform that any unconscious person or animal revives once they're pulled back past the spot and gas masks are no protection against it, either. And then, all of the citizens and animals in Midwich awaken after having been out for four hours, and no reason for the blackout is ever found. Two months later, Zellaby's wife, Anthea, tells him that she's pregnant, an admission that both flusters and overjoys her husband. However, he learns that every single woman of child-bearing age, including one in her teens, in the village is expecting and the pregnancies all seem to stem from the day of the blackout. As the months pass, Midwich's local doctor, Dr. Willers, discovers that the fetuses are developing more rapidly than they should be, and when the babies are born, all at the same time, they're heavier than normal and have strange, unsettling eyes. The children also develop abnormally fast, reaching the level of 18-month olds at only four months, and by the time he's a year old, Zellaby's son, David, is able to spell his name and solve a complicated, Chinese puzzle box. In addition, there appears to be a psychic link between them: when one learns something, they all do. As they get older, the children often travel together and display frightening mental powers, including mind-reading and the ability to control others to do their will. At a London conference discussing them Zellaby, who sees studying them as a means to help mankind, convinces the officials to allow him to personally teach them as a way of doing so. As people begin to die horrific deaths after encounters with the children, however, Zellaby soon comes to realize what everyone else already knew: they're a malevolent force, one that's determined to survive, and thrive, through any means necessary.

Wolf Rilla, on the left, directing Bachelor of Hearts
Village of the Damned is, by far, the most well-known film of Wolf Rilla, an obscure, German-born director who started out as a writer and producer for the BBC before branching off into film in the early 50's, making low-budget, independent films like Noose for a Lady, Glad Tidings (which he also did the music for), and Roadhouse Girl. He received good notices for his 1955 film, Navy Heroes, and his biggest success before this film was the 1958 comedy, Bachelor of Hearts. As for Village of the Damned, he not only directed the film but also had a hand in writing the screenplay, which was adapted from a book by John Wyndham called, The Midwich Cuckoos. He continued directing for another fifteen years after Village of the Damned, notably directing his actor father, Walter Rilla, along with George Sanders, in the 1963 movie, Cairo, and doing episodes of Zero One and The Avengers. After directing a 1975 comedy called Bedtime with Rosie, Rilla retired from filmmaking and, with his wife, bought and ran a hotel/restaurant in France. In John Carpenter's remake of this film, Rilla was credited with having contributed to the original screenplay that formed the basis for the new film, and even visited the set. He died in 2005 at the age of 85.

While the film has quite a big cast, there are only a few characters who can safely be called the leads, chief among them George Sanders as Prof. Gordon Zellaby. Some may find his performance to be rather stuffy and old-fashioned, particularly when compared to Christopher Reeve's more relatable one in the remake, but I think Sanders, who was a great actor anyway, carries himself pretty well. For most of the movie, he does act as a curious scientist and is so blinded by his fascination with the children that he doesn't entirely grasp the danger they pose, but there are moments where he acts as an ordinary, down-to-Earth person, such as at the beginning when he's bewildered and concerned over the sudden blackout and what the long-term effects may be, and his being simultaneously overjoyed and flustered when his wife tells him that she's pregnant. When he learns that every woman of child-bearing age is pregnant and that it all stems from the day of the blackout, he does find it strange, as he does when he sees that his wife's fetus, like all the others, is developing very rapidly, but he's sure that there's nothing for her to worry about. He knows that there's something strange about his newborn son when he sees his strange eyes and it's confirmed for him when he learns of his and the others' unusual physical traits, their rapid mental and physical development, and the mental powers they possess. Instead of being frightened by the children, as everyone else is, Zellaby is more fascinated than anything else and feels that they're neither good nor evil, but simply need to have morals instilled within like all kids. He goes into denial about them causing deaths amongst the village's other children, writing them off as accidents, and, feeling that they are possibly of some inhuman origin, feels that their intelligence could lead humanity to a better future. That's when he offers to get through to and study them by personally teaching them for a year. But, as more people die grisly deaths after coming into contact with the children, Zellaby finally understands how dangerous they are, blaming himself for the deaths, and decides they must be stopped before they destroy Midwich and expand beyond it, which his son, David, tells him they intend to do. Since they would see an attack coming a mile away due to their ability to read minds, Zellaby comes up with a plan to destroy them that they won't be able to sense but will also involve sacrificing himself. After saying goodbye to his beloved wife as she heads to London with her brother, whom Zellaby asks to look after her, he hides a bomb in his briefcase and, when he arrives at the school, thinks of an image of a brick wall to keep the children from realizing what he's doing until it's too late for them to escape.

As Zellaby's wife, Anthea, the lovely Barbara Shelley is one of the characters who puts a human face on the overall situation in the village, as we see her personally deal with carrying and then raising one of the evil children. Like her husband, she's initially ecstatic at being pregnant, but when she learns that this isn't an ordinary pregnancy, she becomes frightened of the idea of what could be growing inside her and, moreover, whose child it is. When she gives birth to a healthy, baby boy, Anthea's fears are alleviated... and then, the next time we see her, she's stuck her hand in a pot of boiling water after giving baby David some milk that was too hot for him, which we later deduce was the result of her being put under her son's control. As David grows, Anthea tries to be a good mother to him, but the combination of his and the others' unknown origin, his cold and detached demeanor for someone so young, and the deaths that they cause, some of which she witnesses despite their attempts to make her look away and forget, make her grow more and more afraid of them. She's so afraid of them that she doesn't like the idea of Zellaby being alone with them and isn't happy with his decision to stay behind in Midwich while she and her brother, Alan, head for London. When Alan tells her of Zellaby's remark about him looking after her, Anthea knows that something's wrong and she drives back to Midwich to try to stop him, only to arrive at the school as soon as the bomb blows it up, killing both him and the children. She understands why he had to do it but she's still absolutely heartbroken by it.

Anthea's brother, Maj. Alan Bernard (Michael Gwynn), is the first to realize that something's wrong when he loses contact with his brother-in-law in the middle of a phone conversation and drives to the village when he and the operator are unable to get back in touch with them. He comes across the strange phenomenon of people and animals passing out after crossing a certain boundary and calls in the military to investigate what's going on. Bernard is as baffled as everyone else by not only the phenomenon itself but how well-defined and clear the boundaries of it are, meaning that it can't be gas or anything of that nature. He and the others witness a tragedy when a military pilot surveying the town flies in too low and loses consciousness, crashing his plane in some trees. Once everybody wakes up and things return to normal, Bernard and his peers, along with Zellaby, try to find the cause for the blackout but are never able to. Bernard is not seen again until his nephew, David, is a year old and sees firsthand how developed the kid is at such a young age when Zellaby gives him a Chinese puzzle box and solves it easily. He also witnesses the apparent psychic link between the children when another child learns to solve the box without needing to be shown, as well as the mental control that they can take over others. When they've grown into very developed, and sinister, three-year olds, Bernard is the one amongst the main three who agree with the villagers that they're evil, saying, "People, especially children, aren't measured by their IQ. What's important about them is whether they're good or bad, and these children are bad," and feels that Zellaby is too detached from the situation because of his intellectual interest, especially in his own son, to understand that. It's not long, though, before Zellaby comes to realize that the children are deadly when he, along with Bernard and Anthea, are present at one of the deaths (unable to do anything because of the children using their power to keep them at bay), and it's a good thing too, because Bernard is soon told that another colony in Russia has been nuked out of existence and he warns Zellaby that it means something must be done. He also witnesses a village mob's disastrous attempt at killing the children and when he makes the mistake of confronting them about it, they use their combined powers to nearly break his mind, sending him into a catatonic state. Bernard slowly recovers, although he's in no condition to drive when he and Anthea head to London, and thinks nothing of Zellaby telling him to look after her, seeing it as a figure of speech. The movie ends with him and Anthea learning that wasn't the case, as they drive back to Midwich in time to see the school blow up.

Aside from the children, who we'll talk about presently, most of the many other characters are only incidental and aren't very important to the overall story; some of them, however, are worth mentioning for one reason or another. Midwich's local doctor, Dr. Willers (Laurence Naismith), is, like Zellaby, a very scientific and smart man but he's at a complete loss to explain the strange events that take place and spends the entire film bewildered and alarmed as the situation escalates, offering comfort to others, such as one woman who is bewildered about being pregnant despite having never been with a man, in any way he can and treating the shock that the children inflict upon Alan Bernard. General Leighton (John Phillips), Bernard's commanding officer, is one of the first to hear of the strange phenomenon in Midwich and, once it's all over, entrusts Zellaby with keeping an eye on the townspeople in case any aftereffects of the blackout occur while, at the same time, keeping it all quiet and away from the press (to this end, he doesn't allow the villagers to be hospitalized because of the attention it would attract). Later on, he informs Zellaby, Bernard, and others at the government conference in London that there have been similar events in various countries around the world and that presently, there's only one other colony of fully-developed children in the Soviet Union. Like Bernard and the villagers, Leighton is convinced that the children are a danger given the deaths that have occurred in their presence and suggests imprisoning them. While he feels Zellaby's scientific interest in the children, especially since one is his son, has clouded his judgement, he does, however, decide to meet him halfway and allow them to live in a schoolhouse where Zellaby will teach them for a year in an attempt to get through to them, which we hear he later comes to regret. The last time we hear of him, he meets with the officials to decide what's to be done.

Much like Dr. Willers, Midwich's local vicar (Bernard Archard) tries to comfort all of the women who have come to him with their alarming stories about suddenly being pregnant but he's ultimately forced to break his vow of silence and confidentiality to tell Willers and Zellaby of them. Like them, he finds the situation both bizarre and troubling, and is especially disturbed by the fact that one of the women who came to him is a mere teenager. Finally, I have to mention Sir Edgar Hargraves, who's present in only the London conference scene but is memorable solely because of the actor who plays him, Richard Vernon, who appeared in numerous films and television shows throughout his long career (I often recognize him from appearing in one scene in Goldfinger) and yet, I always remember him because of his typical stuffy British voice and those little bits of hair on his otherwise bald head, which I can never stop staring at.

In my opinion, the most effective section of Village of the Damned is the first fifteen to twenty minutes, as it plays so well on the fear of the unknown. I like how there's absolutely no warning whatsoever: one minute, Prof. Gordon Zellaby is calling his brother-in-law to talk about his coming down for a visit, and the next, he inexplicably keels over and falls unconscious on the floor. As Alan Bernard tries to get back in touch with him, we see that he's not the only victim: every single person in the village of Midwich has fallen victim to the same bizarre phenomenon. We're treated to an eerie, music-less montage of what's happened, with people lying on the village streets, inside their homes and places of work (leading to shots of running faucets overflowing, irons burning clothes, and a phonograph slowly dying), vehicles having crashed into the sides of buildings when the drivers lost consciousness, and one guy who passed out on his tractor while plowing a field. The opening credits then roll on a close-up of the town clock tower, showing us that it's 10:50 in the morning, and the only sound is that of the clock chiming. We're then shown Bernard driving to Midwich and coming across the scene, experiencing the phenomenon for himself when he and Gobby (Peter Vaughan), a local police officer who's searching for a bus that's disappeared, discover that it's run into a ditch near the town and when Gobby goes to investigate, he passes out like the villagers. This alarms Bernard enough to contact General Leighton, leading into the military isolated the village, using the cover of a training exercise to keep the press from catching wind and starting a panic.

Equally as frightening as the suddenness of its appearance is how well-defined it is. When the military block the village off, they discover the exact boundary where the unconsciousness begins and also learn, through the use of canaries with their cages attached to long poles, that anything affected regains consciousness as soon as it's retrieved from behind the line. Given this, as well as how a gas mask offered no protection for one volunteer soldier, who had to be pulled back by a rope when he walked past the line, it's obviously not a chemical, and its height is also very specific, as a pilot of a military plane learns the hard way when he goes below 500 feet to get a better look at the village and then passes out, leading to his plane crashing. And then, just as suddenly as it happened, the phenomenon disappears after having cut Midwich off from the rest of the world for four hours. Other than waking up with an odd feeling of cold and numbness, nobody in the village appears to have been harmed, although Zellaby is initially concerned about any aftereffects, which don't reveal themselves until a couple of months down the road. Finally, you have the scary notion that the officials have no clue what happened or what caused it, and despite their investigation, can find no evidence that'll lead them to an explanation. Again, the fear of the unknown is alive and well here.

I also find it unsettling that, during the hours that everyone was out cold, something (God knows what it was) impregnated all of Midwich's child-bearing women and within a couple of months, they're all expecting. Besides that, we also get to see the effect that this revelation has on both the women and the village at large: Anthea Zellaby is initially thrilled but becomes afraid once she learns of how abnormally the pregnancy is progressing, making her fear what exactly is growing inside her; a local woman named Milly Hughes (Pamela Buck) is so horrified by the news that she's pregnant that she goes into denial over Dr. Willers' diagnosis and when he confirms to her that it's the truth, she reveals that she's never had any sexual relations; and in the Pawle household, James (Thomas Heathcote), believes that his wife's, Janet (Charlotte Mitchell), pregnancy means that she cheated on him, as he's been away at sea for a year, and his accusations prompt her to attempt suicide. As I've said, you see how prominent citizens like Zellaby, Willers, and the vicar are absolutely baffled and alarmed by what's happening, that all of the pregnancies stem from the day of the blackout, and that there's nothing logical to explain it. The unnatural, accelerated development of the pregnancies only adds to the fear that grips this small village (the fact that it was filmed in the actual village of Letchmore Heath near London, rather than on a backlot, gives it an extra touch of intimate realism), and when all of the women go into labor on the same night, most of the men are down at the local pub, drinking away their fear and anger, with one commenting that he hopes none of them live. He has good reason to wish that, as when they are born, Willers notes something unsettling about them, and Zellaby's dog, Bruno, growls at baby David, both warnings of the real terror that's just been unleashed upon Midwich.

Although the film is often described as being of the "alien invader" subgenre, the truth is that a specific origin for the children is never given. One of the theories proposed at the London conference is that they are the product of energy impulses projected at the Earth from somewhere in deep space by an unknown intelligence, which Zellaby agrees with, although he admits that it's just a theory (the children do freeze up when they're asked about the possibility of alien life, so that could be a hint right there); another is that they're the end result of a sudden but natural jump in human evolution, although they challenge the scientist who proposes this with the notion that it doesn't explain the blackout and it's dropped. Whatever they are, they're not isolated in their conception; General Leighton reveals in the conference that there were similar blackouts and mass pregnancies in other places like Australia, an Eskimo community near the North Pole, and two in Russia, but all of those babies died for various reasons and there's now only one other thriving colony in northwest Russia. You later learn that this colony, along with the entire village, is destroyed by a nuclear bomb because their children were developing to the point where they were taking over. This act makes the Midwich children determined to survive and create new colonies throughout the world.

For the most part, the children look like ordinary humans, but there are unusual things about their biology, some which are obvious and others that are only visible upon close examination. The most notable part of their look is their white hair, which, according to the characters' descriptions, is actually a platinum blonde, and when a strand of little David's hair is examined by Dr. Willers and Zellaby, they note that one end is flat and the other arced, sort of like the head of certain pins, and their fingernails seem to cover only a bit of the ends of their fingers (we're never shown this). Their intelligence is off the charts, even when they're only a year old, as David is able to spell his name out with blocks and solve a complicated Chinese puzzle box to get the chocolate hidden inside one of its compartments. The "hive mind" that comes to characterize their behavior when they're older is also beginning to develop at this young state in their lives, as the others are able to figure out how to solve the puzzle box without being shown once David does so. Speaking of which, their most frightening mental ability of all, the power to take control of other people's minds and force them into doing whatever they wish, is very strong even when they're only a year old, as seen when David forces his mother to stick her hand into a pot of boiling water when she accidentally gives him milk that's too hot and when the one kid takes control of his brother to give him back the puzzle box when he takes it. This power is signified by their famous glowing eyes, a pretty eerie effect (especially when you see it used when they're just babies) that was created simply by matting a negative image of their eyes over them. Most significantly, though, these scenes make it clear that, even as babies, the children are bad news and not to be trifled with.

The reason I didn't talk about the children in the section on the characters is that they're more of a sinister force that's present in the town, often walking together and dressing in the same formal but bland clothes, which is probably meant to signify their lack of individuality. The only one of them who's something of a character is David (Martin Stephens) but that's really only because, aside from a girl named Nancy, he's the only one whose name we know and also because he talks the most, whereas the others don't say anything, save for a girl who only says one line. Aside from his intelligence, he has no true personality, as he talks in a very cold, detached manner that's startling to hear coming from a kid who should be only three years old. He's polite enough most of the time but, like the others, he has no use for the normal village children or for his mother, whose affections he calmly rejects and who he has no trouble separating from when the children are isolated to the schoolhouse. While he assures Mrs. Plumpton at the market that she has nothing to fear from them, you can often hear a threat behind what he says, notably in the scene where Zellaby asks him what they plan to do with their ever-developing powers and he dissuades him from asking any more such questions in the future, saying that they're meant to be learning from him. His and the others' ability to read minds makes it even creepier, as it means that you can't hide anything from them other than what's in the back of your mind, since they haven't yet developed enough to penetrate that far in. David also makes it clear at one point that they have no intention of trying to live peacefully with humanity, which we could already deduce from the way we see them use their powers.

The main driving force behind the children is an instinct to survive and they will lash out at anyone, young or old, who runs afoul of them in any way, intentionally or not. Given what we saw them do as babies, these kids who throw a ball at them, hitting one in the head, are lucky they escaped with their lives, which can't be said about some other kids who, according to what General Leighton said at the meaning, came into contact with them offscreen. We see firsthand just how unforgiving they are when a man comes close to accidentally running over one of the girls. When he gets out of the car to see if she's alright, she and the other children use their power to make him get back into it and drive straight into a wall, killing him in the ensuing crash. They also make sure that Anthea, who witnessed the incident, is unable to testify to that effect an inquest by using their power to apparently either wipe her memory or keep her from speaking right there in court. The victim's brother fares no better, as he tries to ambush them with a shotgun but, despite Zellaby's attempts to talk him down and make him leave, the children, sensing what he's thinking, forces him to shoot himself, while one of the boys uses his power to keep Zellaby, Anthea, and Alan Bernard from doing anything until it's too late. The most disastrous attempt to deal with the children comes when a group of men at the pub decide to form a mob and burn down the schoolhouse. When they arrive, David, sensing them, steps outside to confront them and stops the torch-carrying men dead in their tracks with his stare, forcing the one out in front to set himself on fire. David does eventually release them from his control and they try to help the immolated man as best as they can but it's clear that there's no hope for him. Bernard is driving into town when he witnesses this and makes the mistake of going into the schoolhouse to confront the children, where David reveals that they know what happened to the Russian colony and adds that any attack on them will not succeed, simply because they must survive. That's when they used their combined power to nearly break his mind, with David pounding the warning, "Leave us alone," into him as they do so.

After that, David shows up at the Zellaby household and makes a startling announcement: he and each of the others will soon become powerful enough to establish other colonies (exactly how they can is never said) and they now plan to disperse in order to do just that. He tells his father that they want him to make arrangements to help them in their dispersal, as he's the one human that they feel some trust towards, with David saying at one point that he has the intellect to reach their level, if only he weren't held back by his emotions. At the same time, though, David warns his father not to try anything, since they'll see it coming a mile away, and that more people will suffer if there's any interference. Knowing this, and that military action would be useless since, as he himself mentions, the children would make the troops shoot each other (John Carpenter would take this idea and what was said of the situation in the Russian village to heart when he did his remake), Zellaby comes up with the plan to blow the children up with a bomb hidden in a briefcase. Having compared his inability to reach them with his lessons akin to talking to a brick wall, he decides to use that mental image to keep the children from reading his mind and learning of the bomb. When he arrives at the schoolhouse, instead of telling them of the arrangements he's made for them as they expect, he instead begins teaching them like normal but they can sense his nervousness and know that something's up. They attempt to read his mind, only to be faced with the brick wall, leading into the scene that was featured on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments, where Zellaby desperately tries to keep his image of the brick wall intact, while the children gradually cause it to crumble. At the last minute, they break through and see the image of the bomb, but it's too late for them to do anything, as it then goes off and they're all killed instantly. As the film comes to a close, you see visions of disembodied eyes and impressions of noses floating away before the ending credits roll; whether they're just meant to be metaphorical constructs or are really there, possibly representing the inhuman forces within the children floating away, is left unanswered.

The weakest aspect of Village of the Damned in my opinion is the music score, composed by Ron Goodwin. Goodwin did numerous scores in his career, working most notably on war movies (although he also did the music for Frenzy, Alfred Hitchcock's penultimate film in 1972), but this was one of his first and, as such, it's pretty typical and forgettable. The only pieces that I remember is the drumming, march-like piece that you hear a couple of times, most significantly over the ending credits, and the eerie, ethereal bits you hear whenever the children use their powers, but other than that, I remember the music mostly as just kind of there, and it's used sparingly as well, so that doesn't help in its memorability either.

Village of the Damned is not a movie I'm absolutely crazy about but, that said, I can say that it is a well-done one. It has a lot of good ingredients, like a great cast who give good performances all-around, an interesting and eerie story, some genuinely creepy moments, a realistic feeling of personable intimacy in the depiction of the villagers coming to grips with what's happening, and, most significantly, the fear of the unknown hangs over it throughout, especially during the first act, and save for the music score being rather forgettable, I don't have many qualms with it. It's not a movie that I watch that often and there are others of this ilk that I enjoy more but, for what it is, it's good.

No comments:

Post a Comment