Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Village of the Damned (1960) * * *

(first lines)
Prof. Gordon Zellaby: (on telephone) Good morning. Uh, would you get me Major Bernard at his Whitehall number? Thank you.

As the movie opens, there are cosy English scenes of sheep grazing and Professor Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders) standing by a fireside, but the mood very quickly changes. During a telephone conversation, he passes out in mid-sentence. All of the inhabitants and animals of the village of Midwich suddenly fall unconscious, and anyone entering the village also loses consciousness. The military arrives and establishes a cordon. When the pilot of an observation aircraft goes below 5,000 feet, he loses consciousness and the plane crashes. A five mile exclusion zone around the village is established for all aircraft. The military send in a man wearing a biological isolation suit, but he too falls unconscious and is pulled back by a safety rope. He awakens and reports a cold sensation just before passing out. At that very moment, the villagers regain consciousness, seeming otherwise unaffected. The incident is referred to as a "time-out", and no cause is determined.

A few months later, all women and girls of childbearing age who were in the affected area are discovered to be pregnant, sparking many accusations of infidelity and premarital sex. The accusations fade as the extraordinary nature of the pregnancies is discovered. All of the women give birth on the same day, and the doctor doing the bulk of the deliveries reports on the unusual appearance of the children, who all have pale blond, almost white flaxen hair, penetrating golden eyes and unusual finger nails. As they grow, and develop at impossible speed, it becomes clear that they also have a powerful telepathic bond with one another. They can tell each other anything that they see from great distances. As one learns something, so do the others. Anyone who looks at them sideways meets with a violent accident. Soon they begin to exert a sinister control over the other villagers. Professor Zellaby's wife Anthea (Barbara Shelley) is scolded by her child David (Martin Stephens), and a motorist who is deemed a threat winds up driving into a wall. The initial joy felt by Anthea soon turns to fear as she wonders just what sort of baby she has given birth to, though she still retains the love of a mother for her child. The suspense builds as it becomes obvious what a threat the children are becoming.

Three years later village Professor Zellaby, whose son David is one of the children, is initially positive about them. With government agreement, he attempts to teach the children while hoping to learn from them, and the children are all placed in a separate building where they will learn and live. While the children continue to exert their will, Profesor Zellaby, who is connected to the military via his brother-in-law Michael Gwynn (Alan Bernard), attends a meeting with British Intelligence to discuss the children. There he learns that Midwich was not the only place affected, and followup investigations had revealed similar phenomena in other areas of the world. In a township in northern Australia, thirty infants were born in one day but all died within 10 hours of birth. Ten children were born in an Inuit community in Canada. Fair-haired children born to their kind violated their taboos, and all of them were killed. Zellaby learns that the Soviet government has used an atomic cannon to destroy a village in Irkutsk, Russia containing the mutant children. Everyone was killed, but the children survived and are being educated to the highest possible level by the state.

Although only three years old, the kids are physically the equivalent of children four times their age. Their behavior has become increasingly unusual. They dress impeccably, always walk as a group, speak in a very adult way, are very well-behaved--but they show no conscience or love and demonstrate a coldness to others. All of this causes most of the villagers to fear and be repulsed by them.

David Zellaby: 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. You have to be taught to leave us alone.

They begin to exhibit the power to read minds, or to force people to do things against their will. The latter is accompanied by an alien glow in the children's eyes. There have been a number of villagers' deaths since they were born, many of which were unusual, such as the drowning of an expert child swimmer, and some believe that the children are responsible. This is later confirmed when they are shown making a man crash his car into a wall, killing him and then forcing his suspicious brother to shoot himself.

Professor Zellaby compares the children's resistance to reasoning with a brick wall, and uses this idea as self-protection after the children's evil nature becomes explicit to him. He takes a hidden time-bomb to what he expects to be a session with the children, and tries to block their awareness of the bomb by visualizing the brick wall. David scans his father's mind--showing an emotion (astonishment) for the first time: "You're not thinking of atomic energy, you're thinking of ... a brick wall!" The children exert force to try to break down Zellaby's mental wall to learn what he is hiding from them. They discover his actions just a moment before the bomb detonates.

In the final shot the glowing eyes of the children appear against the background of the burning building, then move out of view.

(last lines)
Prof. Gordon Zellaby: A brick wall... a brick wall... I must think of a brick wall... a brick wall... I must think of a brick wall... a brick wall... brick wall... I must think of a brick wall... It's almost half past eight... brick wall... only a few seconds more... brick wall... brick wall... brick wall... nearly over... a brick wall...

This moody and gripping sci-fi classic is about possessed children with telekinetic powers. Midwich's mysterious children fascinate with their glowing eyes and creepy Hitler Youth-like presence. It's a fairly faithful adaptation of John Wyndham's 1957 novel "The Midwich Cuckoos", and the film is refreshing in these days of computer-generated visual effects. Director Wolf Rilla creates unease the old-fashioned way: through atmosphere and character development. The opening sequence, in which the military attempts to figure out the extent of the Midwich epidemic, is especially unsettling. This film sags in the middle, but several interesting and provocative ideas are explored, all of them still relevant today. Foremost is the question of how societies should react to "aliens" in their midst, especially ones who are more intellectually advanced. The children are basically humans who find themselves living among Neanderthals and must struggle to survive in an atmosphere of hostility.

The cosy English setting and black and white photography make the film seem old fashioned in many ways, but also add to the reality and unsettling atmosphere. There is a naivety that permits the use of a small cast. George Sanders, for example, plays a professor whose expertise is accepted on just about anything scientific, and Michael Gwynn as Zellaby's army Major brother-in-law has a direct line to the top men in the War Office. As for the children's strange powers, the only special effects are their glowing eyes. But all of this only improves the film by making the viewer concentrate on plot and character. It's down to Earth, realistic, and has a quality that makes it utterly believable. The cast are fairly low key with the exception of the two leads. Barbara Shelley is excellent and George Sanders has a smooth, dignified style that makes him convincing leader of men. Effects are practically non-existent and the creators wisely go for off screen terrors which only heighten the fear factor. It features a great opening, some talky scenes and an ending that is a bit anticlimactic.

The film was originally an American picture when pre-production began in 1957. Ronald Colman was contracted for the leading role, but MGM shelved the project, deeming it inflammatory and controversial because of the sinister depiction of virgin birth. The film was shot on location in the village of Letchmore Heath, near Watford, approximately 12 miles north of London. Local buildings such as The Three Horseshoes Pub and Aldenham School, were used during filming. The blond wigs that the children wore were padded to give the impression that they had abnormally large heads. Children were lit in such a way as to cause the iris and pupils of their eyes to merge into a large black disc against the whites of their eyes in order to give them an eerie look, achieved by creating animated overlays of a white iris. Alternative UK prints without the "glowing eyes" effects exist, and according to Peter Preidel who played one of the children in the film the initial UK release in June 1960 had no glowing eyes. They were added for the American release in December 1960. The Guardian newspaper claimed in an article in 2003 that the British censors precluded the use of glowing eye effects in the initial UK release for being too horrific.

The cast also includes: Laurence Naismith (Doctor Willers), Richard Warner (Harrington), Jenny Laird (Mrs. Harrington), Sarah Long (Evelyn Harrington), Thomas Heathcote (James Pawle), Charlotte Mitchell (Janet Pawle), Pamela Buck (Milly Hughes), Rosamund Greenwood (Miss Ogle), Susan Richards (Mrs. Plumpton), Bernard Archard (Vicar), Peter Vaughan (P.C. Gobby), John Phillips (General Leighton), Richard Vernon (Sir Edgar Hargraves), John Stuart (Professor Smith), Keith Pyott (Dr. Carlisle), Alexander Archdale (The Coroner), Sheila Robins (Nurse), Tom Bowman (Pilot), Anthony Harrison (Lieutenant), Diane Aubrey (W.R.A.C. secretary), Gerald Paris (Sapper), and Bruno (The Dog). The Children are played by: June Cowell, John Kelly, Carlo Cura, Lesley Scoble, Mark Milleham, Roger Malik, Elizabeth Munden, Teri Scoble, Peter Preidel, Peter Taylor, Howard Knight, Brian Smith, Janice Howley, Paul Norman, Robert Marks, John Bush, and Billy Lawrence. Ron Goodwin composed the original music. Stirling Silliphant, Wolf Rilla, and Ronald Kinnoch (as George Barclay) wrote the screenplay from John Wyndham's novel "The Midwich Cuckoos". Wolf Rilla directed.

The sequel CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED followed in 1963. It's a poor follow-up that tries to blend 1960's kitchen sink drama with a new generation of alien children, but fails to advance any of the ideas from the original and produces few new ideas of its own. Moving the location from the countryside to a London school for the gifted, professor Dr. David Neville (Alan Badel) assembles high I.Q. moppets from around the world for an intellectual experiment that goes horribly awry. The sequel has its merits but it lacks the visceral and unsettling terror associated with the original. It's nice to see Alan Badel and Ian Hendry in starring roles, but this is not a highpoint of either of their careers. Unlike VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, which draws the viewer in virtually from the opening scene, CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED is tedious, unoriginal, and ultimately boring. The sequel finds six children who appear normal in all respects are actually radically evolved superior human beings with acute psychic powers. When a psychologist attempts to find out where they came from, they escape and hide in a church as the inferior human race revolts against them. CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED is morally and politically ambitious, exploring the notion that humans are perhaps far worse than the cuckoos in their midst. Unfortunately it's also very dull, with no real involvement or forward momentum, and it exists in a vacuum--the events in the first film are never even acknowledged. While the sequel suffers in comparison to the original it's still worth seeing.

John Carpenter's 1995 remake of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED is lifeless, predictable and hardly worth watching. Christopher Reeve, Kirstie Alley and Mark Hamill are good actors, but are disappointing in this film. It's more explicit and violent than the original, but the children are laughable and the movie lacks atmosphere and a sense of horror, despite depictions of a man falling asleep on a barbecue grill and a woman eviscerating herself with a scalpel while under the children's psychic control. The children are much more alien than in the original film and become more alien in appearance as they use their powers at greater intensity. Also, a conspiracy theory permeates the plot. It is implied that the American government is willing to allow the children to grow to adulthood regardless of how many murders the children commit. However, one character states that the other colonies of children have been destroyed and that Midwich is scheduled to be next, which implies that the government is not willing to allow the children to grow up.

A double-feature DVD from Warner Home Video is available with VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED and CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED. It offers anamorphic widescreen versions of both films, and each film also includes its original theatrical trailer and a feature commentary. Video quality is remarkably clean, with a very solid and beautifully rendered gray scale, deep blacks and excellent contrast levels. Fine details are fully realized. There is a total lack of edge effects and other digital anomalies for an exceptionally smooth visual presentation. The audio is mono but with a considerable punch to it. For VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED there is a thoughtful and thorough audio commentary by author Steve Haberman. For CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED we get a fairly thorough commentary by the sequel's screenwriter John Briley.

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