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Village of the Damned (1960)

by Glenn Erickson Jul 10, 2018

 

Inquiring minds want to know — why you’re thinking about a BRICK WALL. John Wyndham’s diabolically clever alien invasion fantasy is taken straight from nature: children fathered by who-knows-what are found to possess a hive mentality and brain-powers that we puny Earthlings cannot oppose. Is it simply Us against Them, or was this perhaps a paranoid image of anti-social, dangerous 1950s teens? The CineSavant review is a full essay this time.


Village of the Damned
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1960 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 77 min. / Street Date July 31, 2018 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: George Sanders, Barbara Shelley, Martin Stephens, Michael Gwynn,
Laurence Naismith.
Cinematography: Geoffrey Faithfull
Film Editor: Gordon Hales
Special Effects: Tom Howard
Original Music: Ron Goodwin
Written by Stirling Silliphant, Wolf Rilla, Ronald Kinnoch from the novel The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham
Produced by Ronald Kinnoch
Directed by
Wolf Rilla

 

These are the eyes that HYPNOTIZE!

The alien invaders of pulp Sci-fi are forever searching for human females for mating purposes. Even Susan Sontag made a point of this in her famous essay The Imagination of Disaster, discussing the social relevance of catastrophic fantasies like Toho’s The Mysterians. Author John Wyndham was a master of sci-fi stories that that were essentially British. His imagined disasters came complete with wide social effects, like the plague of man-eating plants in his The Day of the Triffids. Almost as popular as that best-seller, Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos is probably Wyndham’s best book. His 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. They say that ‘Life will find a way,’ but it’s an unethical jungle out there.

The 1960 MGM thriller Village of the Damned is a fairly faithful telling of the first two-thirds of this story. A mysterious unexplainable blackout surrounds the hamlet of Midwich. All those that enter fall unconscious. The Army uses canary cages on long poles to chart the region of the effect, and determines that Midwich is covered by an invisible dome. The effect disappears as mysteriously as it arrived, and things begin to go back to normal — until a few weeks later when the town’s entire population of fecund females turns up pregnant. The children develop more quickly than normal and when born continue to grow at an accelerated (or faster!) rate. Local researcher Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders) studies the twelve ‘different ones’ starting with his own son David (Martin Stephens). The children all look the same. When old enough they dress the same, and band together against the other village kids, like a gang.

The Hive and the Mighty

Things become sinister when the children are discovered to possess a communal intelligence, a ‘hive mind.’ What one knows, they all know. Then Gordon realizes that they can read our thoughts. When they concentrate, they can telepathically force their will on humans, controlling others’ actions by remote control. A baby strikes out against his own mother, compelling her to harm herself. A near-miss car accident spells bad luck for the driver when the Midwich children focus their minds in retribution. A vengeful man with a shotgun doesn’t realize that the children can force him to turn that gun on himself. As they come into their full powers, the violent incidents become more malicious.

Wyndham’s control and dignity kept his book from running into censor trouble, as the Midwich Cuckoos echos the superstitious/obscene Alraune concept in a science fiction setting. Instead of a blasphemous artificial insemination, Cuckoos’ inter-species pregnancies resemble a pointedly non- Immaculate Conception. Since even normal pregnancies in movies made Church authorities uncomfortable, this story’s vision of females raped by men from outer space would surely have been considered unadulterated blasphemy. We’re told that MGM had cold feet when various censor and distributor entities judged the film to be in unsavory bad taste. Daily Variety agreed; its reviewer ‘Rich.’ wasn’t amused:

“George Sanders’ name is not enough to sell this rather tired and sick film… the question must cross any (ticket) buyer’s mind why moppets (should) be used in such an unpleasant pic?”

 

Even more disturbing, this film’s malign aliens are ordinary-looking children. The sordid thriller The Bad Seed rationalized the actions of its murderous moppet in Alraune-like terms, through the obsolete notion of ‘inherited evil.’ Village of the Damned’s blonde-mopped mob of ‘little devils’ that wantonly kill people was not only shocking, it was contrary to acceptable public taste. Was Wyndham inspired by the rise of youth violence on the streets?

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 broken in this instance be miscegenation or bestiality? The children look as if the alien half of their chromosomes is dominant, with an alien consciousness prevailing in whatever life form they mate with.

The children are very aware of their ‘other-ness.’ They have identical blonde hair, calm rounded faces, dark eyes. They wear identical black raincoats with the cool fashion conformity that has become a given in neo- Sci-fi. I’ve often wondered if the blonde ‘Midwich’ wigs were hand-me downs previously worn by the Eloi in George Pal/MGM’s The Time Machine, or vice-versa.

 

Three years later when the Beatles came along and millions of kids started growing their hair long, establishment backlash reacted much the same as the confused adults in Midwich. The Beatles brought forth editorials about ‘losing control of youth’ to some malign anti-social purpose that threatened families and churches. With our un-formed social consciences, we ’60s kids on some level also identified with the Mr. Spock-like cool emotions and the purposeful uniformity of the Midwich Mob … it’s a revolution, man. Everything’s going to change. Wyndham revisited this idea of ‘different’ youth with political notions in his book The Chrysalids.

The Midwich children’s communal instinct and communal mind evoke fears of Communism and enforced conformity engendered by top Science Fiction like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Their super-intelligence is a byproduct of the hive mind; as George Sanders’ Zellaby puts it, they’re “one mind to the power of twelve.” Their twelve consciousnesses are really one, much like the composite alien beings in Quatermass 2. Zellaby’s ‘son’ David is only half-human. His other dominant half follows a loyalty to his own kind far stronger than his affection for his mother.

Much like H.G. Wells’ giant children in his The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth, the Midwich Cuckoos consider themselves a different species altogether. Once threatened, they are dangerous competitors with humankind. Food of the Gods ends with a war beginning between humans and giants, and Wyndham’s book goes a lot farther than does the movie in showing the military quarantine of Midwich. Both books examine the natural law that living things will fight to survive and prevail over opposing species, and that this applies to people as well, whatever their moral illusions. Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg’s happy-speak motto ‘Life will find a way’ can be more accurately interpreted as ‘Dog Eat Dog.’

 

“Beware the Stare that Bewitches! Beware the Stare that will Paralyze the Will of the World!”

The notoriety of Village of the Damned spread when we heard about its then- unique visual gimmicks. When delivering the babies Dr. Willers notes that they all have the same ‘strange eyes,’ without further comment. Later on, when the toddlers are learning to use their telepathic powers, glowing irises are superimposed over their eyes. The effect is unnerving, instantly changing a baby into a demon. The necessity of freezing the frame for these shots results in beautiful static visuals. Groups of staring children are arrayed in disturbing compositions that become chilling tableaux. Remember children’s stare-down games, to see who flinches first? Rigid staring is hypnotic in itself — perhaps we believe that a staring face is seeing our hidden thoughts, or perhaps it becomes a reflection of feared madness, chaos. I think that Ingmar Bergman exploited this ‘dare stare’ phenomenon for certain oneiric shots in his art film Persona.

“You’re thinking … of a brick wall.”

To illustrate another invisible psychological event Village of the Damned adapts silent-movie expressionist imagery — or is it a cinematic variation on a cartoon thought balloon? The crumbling of Gordon Zellaby’s defensive mental wall under the bombardment of the children’s telepathic assault is depicted directly, superimposing an image of a literal brick wall breaking down. This ‘visual simile’ technique mostly disappeared with sound pictures. Gordon is putting up a mental firewall by concentrating on the exact image we see. The little mind-reader David Zellaby sees the same image, and the crumbling of the wall represents the children’s mental onslaught. The visual conceit renders an invisible process in physical terms.

A much less successful visual is the film’s final shot, in which disembodied eyes appear to survive the fire. The spook-ride gag may scare small children, but it doesn’t fit well with what’s gone before, unless we’re all going to be haunted by alien ghosts. I’m thinking that it was a last-minute inspiration to leave the audience shivering. The music cue is pretty effective.

Also striking is the film’s heightened level of sadism. The children are soon killing whenever they feel threatened. The disconnect in 1960 came via the contradictory images of ‘innocent’ children dispassionately committing grotesque murders. They force adults to be witnesses as well. The normalizing of emotionless slaughter would soon become a common factor in ‘cool’ 1960s thrillers and spy pictures, with their hit men and assassins.

 

The bulk of the movie plays on a much more mundane level, with good and bad effects. The slow buildup to the ‘time out’ in Midwich is excellent, as are Gordon Zellaby’s early behavior experiments with Midwich’s growing batch of mystery moppets. Elsewhere it bogs down a little. We readily believe that the socially disruptive pregnancies would cause all kinds of domestic and community problems. Unable to discuss clinical details (are the pregnant virgins physically intact?) the movie’s dramatics fall back on conservative husband-wife conflicts.

This story is a real gut-punch to English motherhood. The women of Midwich are the ones to suffer the direct effects of this alien invasion, but Village downplays their plight. We mostly feel their anguish through male characters. When the pregnancy hysteria is afoot, we merely hear Laurence Naismith’s town Doctor Willers reporting about attempted suicides; when seeing his ’embarrassed’ female patients, he’s unable to look them in the face. Like any good Sci-fi scientist, Sanders is unemotional and somewhat sexless. His relationship with his much younger wife does not seem particularly physical. The men of the village aren’t much help either. When the going gets tough they abandon their spouses and find solace in ale ‘n’ quail bonding at the pub.

 

Poor Anthea Zellaby (Hammer queen Barbara Shelley) gets very little respect from this story. Her husband is a wet noodle and her mystery child rejects her unequivocally. The name Anthea suggests that Gordon considers her just another rose in his garden. Her ‘feminine intuition’ bears comparison to the aliens’ telepathic powers, but the screenwriters don’t make the connection. 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. It’s the only fully-expressed female trauma in the picture: Shelley flails violently and her excellent mime tells us that she’s harming herself against her own will. 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) came when the women of Midwich queue up at an aid station to be told that they are all pregnant. Just as we realize that that every Jill in town has the same problem, the movie cuts directly to Zellaby’s large German Shepherd. Gee, is the dog preggers too? Are there going to be little puppies running around with blonde wigs between their ears?

Gordon Zellaby’s mind isn’t on Anthea, but on trying to see the larger picture of the Midwich event. What do the kids want? The film keeps hinting that the children are aware of their status as spearheads for invasion. Like smug little spies, they stay mum in school when Zellaby questions them about the possibility of life on other planets: “It would be better if you didn’t ask these questions. We want to learn from you.” The kids are firmly established as tight-lipped conspirators, in a Them versus Us conflict. There’s no question that the malevolent little brainiacs need to be exterminated. The only question is, how?

 

In the film’s unofficial sequel-remake, the Children of the Damned are pacifist martyrs goaded and persecuted by evil militarist adults. It’s implied that they are genetic mutations, not the seed of rapists from space. The show is a loaded lecture selling the message that ‘War is not healthy for children and other living things.’ The second film has much more in common with Joseph Losey’s twin ‘subversive’ ruminations on children in our warring culture, the odd fantasy The Boy with Green Hair and the apocalyptic Sci-fi tale These Are the Damned.

John Wyndham’s book presents more than one possibility for the genesis of The Children, just as the origin of his Triffids is never fully determined. Disc commentator Steve Haberman points out that in the book, aerial photos include a sighting of what might be a flying saucer in the town square during the Blackout. That suggests that space aliens landed and physically assaulted the women of Midwich. I strongly remember that the book also held the idea that the women might have been impregnated by ‘radio waves’ from outer space. The authorities in the film discuss this as well: “Do you imply that these children may be the result of impulses directed towards us from somewhere in the universe?” This brings us right back to the delicate question of whether or not the pregnant virgins of Midwich are still virgins. Unlike the book, the screenwriters give us scenes with women inside Midwich during the Blackout — and no saucers or aliens are present. So I’m sticking with the intergalactic ‘pregnancy waves’ theory.

Both the book and the movie tell us that simultaneous alien colonies have been attempted, in other parts of the world. Like the Boll Weevil lookin’ for a home, these aliens are simply spreading their seed around the galaxy, starting new colonies and outposts that do not know their origin. Every species of animal and race of man does this to the full limit of its capability. Scared kids watching Damned are likely freaked out about those staring eyes, so that’s what we see at the fade-out.

 

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 problem of uneven mates was retained for John Carpenter’s dreary Village of the Damned remake. The boy-girl mismatch is also an issue among the innocent children in Losey’s These are the Damned. The solution is a Strangelove-like polygamy, I suppose.

Village of the Damned was competently filmed on the same village location seen in The Dirty Dozen and Hammer Films’ Die! Die! My Darling!  It’s the tiny village with the little race track-like rail around a triangular common. Wolf Rilla’s direction is inspired in the opening Blackout sequence. A Victrola winding down suggests the town going to sleep quite nicely. It brings backs memories of the besieged English hamlet in Alberto Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well?   Everything directly associated with the children is also carefully directed, with many subjective moving camera shots.

George Sanders clearly was interested in the intelligent story, for he plays his role straight. Fantasy familiars Michael Gwynne and Laurence Naismith also lend solid credibility to the frequent bouts of exposition. As noted above, Barbara Shelley is the acting standout, but her role seems minimized.

The child actors playing the kids are extremely effective — they are by turns terrifying and nightmarish. Although they number twelve we often see just six or seven, directed to be calm-faced but alert, like mannequins or classic statuary. Menacing facial expressions do slip through, spoiling the alien vibe with recognizable human egos.

 

The film’s star performance is little Martin Stephens, who gives David Zellaby an intelligent poise far beyond his years. He also suggests David’s ‘human side’ suppressed by his dominant alien personality. His farewell to his mother seems almost a parody of a normal kid refusing to be emotional. But David also seems very human just after a killing, when he betrays a hint of a proud smile.

I once corresponded with actor Martin Stephens, who now lives in Portugal. He claimed that he wasn’t dubbed, and a large part of the film’s eerie charge is conveyed by the cautious calculation in his voice. Stephens would be even more precocious — and creepy — in the next year’s The Innocents.

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 impressed 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!


 

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Village of the Damned is the expected flawless encoding of this Sci-fi classic. The picture has always looked fine on every film and video format; if you saw it flat on TV long ago, the widescreen framing helps greatly with the overall effect. The cinematography goes in for what in 1960 passed as a neutral documentary look, until those creepy sequences with the static framing and stylized compositions. But just the sight of the blonde children walking like a little pack of Droogs can be quite unnerving.

(the image at right is by artist Jay Stephens— thanks to Gorn Captain for the link)

The music works in some places and not in others, pushing ‘sweet countryside’ moods and those rather silly marches that indicate that Midwich’s male cuckolds are on the move. A fairly predictable sustained musical effect appears whenever the kids engage their superhuman telepathic powers. Oddly, the signature audio effect is not heard in the inquest scene, when the children interfere telepathically with Anthea’s testimony, ‘clouding her mind.’ But it is heard even when the newborn David Zellaby is in his crib — it disturbs Gordon’s dog. Gordon then stares into David’s basinette, as if David were Rosemary’s Baby.

The Blu-ray edition includes a trailer (which adds a ‘The’  to the title) 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. Did MGM perhaps option Wyndham’s 1957 book in galley form?

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, where a mutant Messiah is born when a woman is impregnated by aliens. Cohen clearly delights in upsetting church apple carts whenever 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; maybe some alien DNA is what’s needed around here.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson



Village of the Damned
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 7, 2018
(5771vill)

*Note from helpful correspondent Sergio Angelini, 7.12.18: Dear Glenn, really enjoyed your review of the Blu-ray release of the original version of Village of the Damned, one of my favourite British films of the 1960s. I noticed you refer to the story of the ‘British cut’of the film, without the glowing eyes effect, as being apocryphal. I can confirm that the British cut doesn’t have the effect – I saw it a couple of years ago on 35mm projected at the National Film Theatre here in London. The effect is very curious as you get these long static shots of the children staring with nothing happening. Incidentally, I assume in most cases the effects were not actual freeze frames but rather production stills shot on the set, possibly made with a medium format size neg using a Hasselblad, and then the eye effect was animated / rotoscoped by Tom Howard. All the very best, Sergio.

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.