by Mel Valentin
John Carpenter's "Village of the Damned," a remake of the English science fiction/horror film directed by Wolf Rilla (itself based on John Wyndham's "The Midwich Cuckoos"), has little to recommend it, even to diehard Carpenter fans. As remakes of relatively well known, "classic" genre films go, "Village of the Damned" is unnecessary, made by a director on the downside of a well-respected career, and given Carpenter's flat direction, suspense-free from start to finish. The storylines are nearly identical, with Carpenter substituting modestly scaled action set pieces, a higher body count, and graphic violence missing from the black-and-white original. "Village of the Damned" is one science fiction/horror film where graphic violence adds nothing to the mix. In fact, the violence seems more like a desperate ploy to bring in a few more dollars at the box office (it didn’t work).John Carpenter's Village of the Damned follows the original closely, at least in the opening scenes, first establishing the village of Midwich (here transplanted from England to the Northern California coast) and its residents, including the local doctor and protagonist, Dr. Alan Chaffee (Christopher Reeve), his wife, Barbara (Karen Kahn), a real estate broker, Jill McGowan (Linda Kozlowski), the local principal, her husband, Frank (Michael Paré), Reverend George (Mark Hamill), his wife Sarah, (Pippa Pearthree), Ben Blum (Peter Jason), Callie Blum (Constance Forslund), and several other residents. The characters are mostly stock, with their backstories or backgrounds remaining unexposed before their lives are transformed, mostly for the worse, by an inexplicable, seemingly innocuous, event.
"Only worth seeing in comparison to the original."
Like the novel and the original film, an odorless gas (if that's why it is) descends on the town, sending the men, women, children, and livestock, into a sleep-like state. Chaffee, away on business, returns to discover that the state and federal governments have quarantined Midwich. Dr. Susan Verner (Kirstie Alley), a government scientist, leads the federal response to the crisis. Within minutes of Chaffee's return, Midwich reawakens from its dreamless sleep. The men are unaffected, but the women of childbearing age have become simultaneously pregnant. Dr. Verner, for reasons that remain unexplained (at least at first), offers the women free pre-natal care and a $3,000 dollar monthly stipend for every woman who gives birth and raises the child as her own.
The children, all born with blonde, silk-thin, hair, grow at a rapid rate, and soon enough, begin to exhibit extraordinary powers, including the power to bend anyone to their will. The children can also read minds and share thoughts with one another, allowing them to develop a group or communal mind. Are the children the next step in humanity's evolution or an insidious alien invasion? Despite this development, Chaffee's "daughter," Mara (Lindsey Haun), becomes the ostensible leader of the children. The other children show no individuality, with the exception of David (Thomas Dekker), Jill's son. David is the only child not to have a partner (his died at birth), leaving him the odd child out. Jill's affection for David (she treats him as her son, despite doubts about his origin), also lead him to question his identity.
It's in these two developments, switching the gender of the leader from male to female, and allowing one of the alien children a hint of individuality (based on emotion) that Carpenter's remake strays significantly from the novel or the original film. Assuming a level of authorship for Village of the Damned that suggests Carpenter's involvement with the development of the screenplay (written by David Himmelstein with uncredited rewrites by Steven Siebert and Larry Sulkis), Carpenter's film privileges emotion over intellect and suggests that emotion, compassion, and empathy lie at the core of being human. Making the antagonist female, instead of male as in the original, has less significance, although the change seems to suggest a kind of cruel, biological imperative that will only allow one female in the Chafee household.
Carpenter's film makes a third departure from Wyndham's novel or the 1960 film in splitting Chaffee's personality into two characters, the compassionate, village doctor who places a premium on serving the local community, and the government scientist, who places scientific knowledge (and intellect) above concerns about what the aliens can and have done (despite an ever increasing body count, Verner barely sees past her own egocentric interests through to the very real dangers the alien children possess, until it's too late). The government conspiracy angle also plays on popular fears about runaway, unaccountable government agencies and officials (ideas first present in 70s paranoid conspiracy thrillers and effectively updated in the 90s on The X-Files).
Of course, it's not a John Carpenter film without multiple scenes involving mutilation and gory deaths. While Carpenter makes sure to include a handful of reaction shots, the preceding scenes are constructed haphazardly. With minimal character development, Village of the Damned marks time through the periodic deaths of the secondary characters, with several of them dumbly confronting the alien children with their suspicions or desire to do the children harm. The children react unsympathetically to these threats, with their eyes glowing (from green to red) to signal their malevolent intentions. Late in the film, the not-so-bright authorities decide to take on the children in a frontal attack, with predictable results. The glowing eyes are the primary special effect used in Village of the Damned, as it was in the black-and-white original. Alas, it simply worked better in the unadorned original film. Here, Carpenter opts for fairly risible effects that completely undermine whatever menace he hoped the alien children would create for audiences.
Village of the Damned's weaknesses don't end there, however. Carpenter and his screenwriter added a character, a minister, absent from the original. It's an addition that adds little (and Mark Hamill's overacting doesn't help) and what it does add, some biblical thumping about abominations and creation (e.g., the "made in the image of God" quote gets a workout) are both poorly written and poorly integrated into the film. The addition of the minister seems to have been primarily cosmetic, as another means of distinguishing the remake from the original. Carpenter should have erred on the side of caution and simply deleted this particular subplot (it would have helped the pacing too).Whether Carpenter's uninspired direction or the pedestrian screenplay should be blamed, "Village of the Damned" isn't likely to be considered a "classic" in the same way the original now enjoys or even the "cult" status among Carpenter's fans, but seen within the context of his career or in reference and comparison to the 1960 version, it's far more worthwhile than it otherwise would have been. Everyone else, however, should proceed with caution or low expectations.
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originally posted: 10/31/05 09:26:16