|Village of the Damned / Children of the Damned (1960)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 10 August 2004|
In the 1950s, British science fiction writer John Beynon Harris ceased using his own name, adopting “John Wyndham,” and changed his style. And became the most significant British SF writer of the 1950s, with titles such as Day of the Triffids, Out of the Deeps, The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos. The latter was sold to the movies even before Wyndham had finished writing it—pages were sent to MGM in Hollywood as he finished them.
Screenwriter Sterling Silliphant turned the novel into a script for a movie intended to star Ronald Colman. But MGM got cold feet, the fad for science fiction movies was claimed by exploitation-minded distributors, and Colman died.
Some years later, evidently hoping to recoup some of the money they’d spent on developing the project, MGM turned the material over to their British branch with orders to produce an economical version. Director Wolf Rilla and producer Ronald Kinnoch (using the nom de plume of George Barclay) reshaped the script quickly, hired a cast, and went into production on a modestly-budgeted venture, now called “Village of the Damned.” (Cuckoos are birds that lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, allowing their larger and demanding chicks to simply take over from their “siblings.” There are no cuckoos—under that name—in North America.)
The result was one of the best British science fiction films ever made. Cool, precise and tense, “Village of the Damned” is a virtual model for ventures on this level, marred only by a hesitancy regarding the origin of the mysterious children at the center of the story. George Sanders has the most outstanding role of the last part of his career, and delivers a sincere, realistic performance, far removed from his standard turn as a charming cad. It’s easily the best movie of director Wolf Rilla.
On a quiet morning in the perfectly ordinary English village of Midwich, suddenly every living thing falls asleep: people at work, people at leisure in their homes, the wealthy, like Gordon Zellaby (Sanders) and his much younger wife Anthea (Barbara Shelley), the ordinary, even dogs and birds. This soon draws the attention of the authorities as Anthea’s brother Alan Bernard (Michael Gwynn), on his way to visit them, discovers this. It isn’t gas, it isn’t radioactive, it’s an invisible dome-shaped region of sleep, centered on Midwich.
In a few hours, however, the region simply vanishes and everyone wakes up, a little stiff perhaps, but evidently none the worse for what happened to them. None the worse, that is, until a few months later when it turns out that every woman of child-bearing age in Midwich is pregnant, including Anthea. Even women who haven’t had sex with their husbands in a while, even virgins (though the word isn’t used). And the embryos develop rapidly.
Since Anthea is one of the pregnant, Gordon is drawn deeply into the mystery. The children are all born over a couple of days, and all have silken blonde hair, unusual fingernails and strange eyes. Gordon serves on a government committee which reveals that this same thing has happened to small settlements in various places around the globe.
The movie is too cagey in not precisely revealing the origin of the children. Wyndham was more bold in the novel: the “day outs” were caused by barely-glimpsed alien spacecraft, and the fathers of the children—all of them—are not of this world. Hence, cuckoos. This is hinted at in the movie, but there are other elements that suggest the supernatural, including the badly misjudged final shot.
The movie is understated throughout, even reticent, mostly to its advantage, but this backing away from a final explanation is mildly irritating. The irritation is more than offset by the intelligent, sober approach, involving top-notch performances and crisp, witty dialogue. This is one of the smartest science fiction movies of its period.
The children are well-handled; they’re very grave, they make no gestures, they dress alike, and share a group memory, cleverly demonstrated by a Chinese box puzzle. They do not bond with their parents, or with the (rarely glimpsed) normal children of Midwich. Zellaby is sure that they could be a great advantage, but others aren’t so sure.
There’s the matter of their eyes, for one thing. When they concentrate on a person, the Children’s eyes glow and they seize control, forcing any behavior they wish, up to and including suicide. They feel no allegiance to the Earth or its inhabitants. Not even David (Martin Stephens), the boy Gordon wants to acknowledge as his son, but knows that’s not the truth. The ironic potential of an older man married to a younger woman twines through the film like a melancholy ribbon.
Martin Stephens, who plays David, is dubbed by what sounds like an older woman, but its superbly done, and most viewers won’t notice (or care). He had a brief vogue as a child star, being outstanding in the great “The Innocents,” but later his parts were insignificant, and he left acting, apparently to become an architect. His clean, professional performance here is uncanny—he really does suggest a huge, amoral intelligence is alive behind his dark eyes.
The eyes were one of the elements that sold “Village of the Damned” in 1960—much to the surprise of MGM, which was more or less dumping the film, it was a major success. It garnered rave reviews even from the toughest critics, and all over the world people lined up to see it. (The movie was even remade by John Carpenter in 1995, unfortunately very badly.)
The movie was successful enough to generate “Children of the Damned” a few years later. Oddly, despite the claim in its own credits, “Children” is definitely not a sequel to “Village.” That is, no plot elements or characters continue from one movie to another, and the origin of the children is very different. In this case, women scattered around the world—India, Britain, the U.S., China, etc., six in all—have given birth to ordinary-looking but unusually grave children. And all of them are phenomenally brilliant.
The children are brought to London, where they soon unite, hiding out in a ruined church. (The religious symbolism of the story is a bit heavy-handed.) These children have the same mind-controlling power of the alien offspring in “Village,” but they use it only in self-defense—for these children are not evil.
The lead actor duties are divided between warm-hearted Ian Hendry and the colder, more pragmatic Alan Badel, while the leader of the children is solemn Clive Powell. Barbara Ferris is the woman in the story, but her role is minimal and thankless.
“Children” is more urban, a bit more melodramatic than “Village,” less inventive, less intelligent. But though it’s not a sequel, it is a worthy successor to “Village,” and this two-movie (but one disc) set issued by Warners is very welcome.
Unfortunately, in both cases, the extras are unsatisfactory. There are the usual trailer and choice of languages, dubbed or subtitled, but there are also two droning, uninteresting commentary tracks. That for “Village” is provided by Steve Haberman, an occasional screenwriter. He has some interesting information about the origins of the project, but that occupies only about ten minutes; the rest is filled with bland observations and interjections. For “Children,” at least they got the actual writer of the film, John Briley—but he’s no more interesting than Haberman. He’s had a busy career as a screenwriter, often working on epics—few of which, other than “Gandhi,” are notable. You don’t have to be an outstanding filmmaker to provide a commentary track, but you need to focus on the film at hand. Briley, who’s in his 90s, chatters on and on about encounters with celebrities like Zero Mostel, rarely saying anything useful about the movie we’re watching.
Still, this is an excellent DVD purchase, priced reasonably, including two films many collectors have been eager to acquire. After all, you don’t really have to listen to the commentaries….