by Mel Valentin
Released in 1960 (and directed by Wolf Rilla), "Village of the Damned," the first adaptation of John Wyndham’s speculative fiction novel, "The Midwich Cuckoos" (Wyndham preferred to describe his novels as “logical fantasies”), is the rare science-fiction/horror film that, despite minimal special effects (or action scenes), remains highly watchable more than four decades after its release. In contrast, the 1995 remake directed by genre specialist John Carpenter has little to recommend it, besides passable special effects and gore. Due to a modest budget and the more cerebral source material (typical of British science fiction), "Village of the Damned" depends on character, plot, conflict, and performance for its entertainment value. Casual science-fiction fans, however, may find "Village of the Damned’s" casual, deliberate pace and unanswered questions difficult to overlook.In Village of the Damned, a quaint, rural village in England, Midwich, falls prey to a mysterious, odorless, invisible gas that sends all of the village’s inhabitants into prolonged, dreamless sleep. During the blackout (also called a “timeout” or “dayout”), all the women of childbearing age become pregnant. For some, like the protagonist Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders) and his wife, Anthea (Barbara Shelley), the news of her pregnancy brings happiness (he’s considerably older than she is, and her pregnancy seems to catch them by surprise). For others in the village, the news of pregnancy has an opposite effect, raising the specter of infidelity or premarital intercourse (and, therefore, social ostracism). The men, of course, take to giving their wives and daughters glowering looks and wasting precious hours, silently, at the local pub.
"Old school sci-fi that fully deserves its 'classic' status."
The pregnancies are far from “normal.” The fetuses grow at an accelerated rate, the children are born almost simultaneously, and when born, share certain physical characteristics, including blond hair and, when perplexed, glowing eyes. Once out of the womb, the children continue to grow quickly, all the while exhibiting vast intellectual gifts (and later, mental telepathy and mind control) minus emotional development. Their collective behavior indicates, as one character puts it, a “mass mind” (i.e., a hive mind which places communal interests and survival over individual self-interest). Even then, the children seem to speak through David (Martin Stephens), Gordon’s ostensible “son.” Not surprisingly, even as the children’s biological mothers display maternal feelings toward their alien offspring, the other villagers react with fear, dread, anger, and a rising hysteria.
Not everyone, however, reacts negatively toward the children. Gordon, a college professor, takes a detached, scientific interest in the children and their rapid development (despite obvious doubts about David’s parentage). Gordon is the perfect example of the Enlightenment, placing his faith in material progress and scientific rationalism, thus creating a second layer or level of conflict, between scientific inquiry and self- or group-preservation (as advocated by the military and the Home Office). Given the time period, there’s little doubt about the children’s malevolent intentions, their plans for taking over their village (and later, the world), nor in Gordon’s eventual response to the threat posed by the children (hint, a brick wall is involved).
Besides the premise, which translates subconscious fears about communism and its anti-individualist ethos into science-fiction metaphor (thus making Village of the Damned an important film from a cultural and historical perspective) or which hints uncomfortably at Hitler's (mythic) super-race, Village of the Damned succeeds due to a compelling storyline, sympathetic characters, and an unsettling dread intimately tied to children-as-villains. Children are usually perceived (and presented) as untainted innocents. Here, the alien children have infiltrated and subverted the nuclear family, making their whims and desires paramount (their "parents" and human siblings are powerless to contradict or oppose them). The discomfort elicited by the children can, in part, be traced to the directions given the child actors by director Wolf Rilla. Rilla instructed his young actors to remain still when on screen. It’s a subtle, almost imperceptible change in expected behavior that viewers are likely to perceive on a subconscious level.Of course, the one major special effect, the alien children’s glowing eyes is especially noteworthy, as is the central performance by Martin Stephens (equally preternatural and creepy in "The Innocents") as the leader/spokesman for the alien children. Stephens is perfectly cast as the calculating, forceful leader (due, in large part, to his line deliveries). As Gordon Zellaby, George Sanders gives an against-the-grain, understated, controlled performance, befitting a character guided more by intellect than emotion.
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originally posted: 07/25/05 07:29:08