This just in: "Twelve Towheaded Tots Terrify Tiny Town!" Judge George Hatch reports.
Our reviews of John Carpenter: Master Of Fear Collection (published September 18th, 2009) and Village of the Damned (1995) (Blu-ray) Collector's Edition (published March 22nd, 2016) are also available.
"There are no signs of physical, biological, or psychological changes. They have an unknown hair group and very strange—I would say arresting—eyes. Until we know the cause, we shan't know what to expect."—Gordon Zellaby
Village of the Damned was such an unexpected success in 1960, MGM attempted a follow-up, Children of the Damned, four years later. Although the latter film has its proponents, its heavy-handed, drastically altered premise was a disappointment that proved disastrous for most audiences.
Facts of the Case
Children are born with mental capabilities beyond human comprehension. They can share their thoughts and combine their powers to wreak havoc on anyone who stands in the way of their goals.
"Beware the Stare!"—tagline
For several hours, the small village of Midwich is cut off from the rest of the world. No one within a five-mile radius can enter without collapsing under some mysterious force, and when a surveillance plane flies too low, it crashes after the pilot passes out. A few weeks later, all women of childbearing age find themselves pregnant with rapidly growing embryos, and soon give premature birth to 12 nearly identical blond children.
Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders, All About Eve) and his wife, Anthea (Barbara Shelley, Ghost Story), are astounded by the intelligence of their son, David (Martin Stephens, The Innocents), and his apparent ability to read their minds. When Zellaby teaches David how to open a complex Chinese puzzle box, he discovers that the 12 children instinctively share their knowledge. "They are one mind to the 12th power, and they may be the answer to war, disease, human want, and misery." Zellaby decides to study them as a group because he doesn't want to "throw away that potential."
Once he gains their confidence, Zellaby asks the children what they plan to do with their powers. His son tells him, "It would be better if you didn't ask such questions, Father." Zellaby is quickly caught between his scientific investigation and the angry townspeople who want to destroy these "outsiders" whom they consider a threat to their existence. The children are capable of mentally influencing anyone to commit hideous acts of self-destruction, such as suicide by shotgun. Their faces remain impassive, but their eyes take on an eerie glow as they focus their combined psychic abilities on their enemies.
Village of the Damned was a low-budget MGM-sponsored British import that turned into an international box-office hit in 1960. Based on the novel by John Wyndham, The Midwich Cuckoos, Stirling Silliphant's screenplay is a paradigm of intelligence and economy while remaining faithful to the source material. Both he and Wyndham expanded the "evil kid" premise beyond Rhoda Penmark in Mervyn LeRoy's The Bad Seed, and combined it with the fear and hysteria of a Communist takeover, the same subtly rendered subtext in Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, both filmed in 1956. .
In his excellent scene-specific commentary, Steve Haberman points out that only a title change was required, one that would have more audience appeal. He explains the meaning behind Wyndham's original title, and informs us that Wyndham successfully adopted H. G. Wells's formula for science fiction: "Introduce one fantasy element into a realistic setting, then develop the impact and implications of that element to its horrific conclusion." I suggest you read two of Wyndham's earlier novels, The Chrysalids and Day of the Triffids to see how their themes and premises are combined in Village of the Damned.
Wolf Rilla's taut direction makes Village of the Damned a nail-biting 77 minutes of tension and terror, and the acting, down to the smallest villager, is flawless. At this point in time, George Sanders's career was on the downslide, but he was always looking for an intelligent script, and he was impressed by the Village screenplay. He accepted it as one of his last leading man roles, taking the part seriously and playing it straight in a standout performance. Barbara Shelley was dubbed "The Leading Lady of British Horror," and her performance as Anthea, a mother who desperately wants her son's love, is heartbreaking. Martin Stephens is a superb child actor with surprisingly adult composure. His cold and callous indifference toward his mother is offset by the cunning attention he pays to his father, whom he plans to use as a tool. "We want to learn from you. Haberman notes that Stephens re-dubbed his own voice for a more distant and "alienated" effect.
Thoughtful, well-acted and genuinely scary, Village of the Damned is a 1960s classic.
"Beware the Eyes that Paralyze!"—tagline
In his commentary, screenwriter John Briley claims that "in addition to being a science-fiction thriller, Children of the Damned is a moral fable about the use of brains by the two superpowers during the Cold War." Maybe so, but I found it a weak semi-sequel to Village of the Damned when I first saw it as a kid in 1964. Now, having watched it again from a reviewer's perspective, it still pales by comparison.
The story basically follows the same plotline, but the frightening charisma and powers of the original 12 blond children are totally lost. In Children of the Damned we have six ethnic kids from around the world, England, Russia, America, China, India and Nigeria, so the unifying "alien" image is missing. Late in the film, a scientist claims, "They may not be unearthly at all, but mankind itself—advanced one million years." So much for an invasion from outer space; now we're into time traveling.
Doctors Tom Lewellin (Ian Hendry, Get Carter) and David Neville (Alan Badel, The Day of the Jackal) assume the George Sanders role as scientists who want to study the children and determine their potential. The Midwich villagers are replaced by international politicians and high-ranking military men who want to take control of the strategic edge these children may provide—without "sharing" their knowledge with other countries. Barbara Shelley's role is taken over by Barbara Ferris (The Krays) as Susan Eliot, whom the children turn into their zombified servant and communicant with the outside world. The film even ends on the same explosive note.
Hendry and Badel give earnest performances, but television director Anton Leader can't find form or function in Briley's reworked screenplay. John Briley did go on to earn an Oscar for Gandhi in 1983, but none of that talent is evident in Children of the Damned. Briley's tedious and repetitious commentary is more of an audio autobiography, and he rarely touches on the film itself. He cites the background of the "formidable stars" in the film, and brags about how author John Wyndham thought his screenplay was so original that Briley should have sole credit for it. I'll accept his word for that, but Wyndham also could have said, "Please remove my name from the credits. Your script is too heavy-handed and totally distorts my concept of the children."
The Warner Home Video transfers for both Village of the Damned and Children of the Damned are near pristine with sharp contrast and deep solid blacks. The Dolby Digital Mono is better than expected, and Ron (Frenzy) Goodwin's creepy score for Village is nicely enhanced. Both films are packed onto a one-sided disc, along with the original trailers.
Steve Haberman's commentary for Village is one of the best I've listened to. You can hear the genuine enthusiasm in his voice as he singles out assorted scenes characterization, and the logic of plot twists. He also tosses in a few intriguing oddball items. Silliphant's screenplay, for instance, was written almost simultaneously with Wyndham's novel in 1957 as microfilmed pages were sent to him on a regular schedule. The final script, however, was shelved for three years because of several controversial elements. The most critical complaint came from studio executives who felt that "the film was anti-Catholic, because the alien impregnation of single women paralleled the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth of Jesus." I have no doubt that the Catholic Legion of Decency was behind this ploy and twisted the arms of Production Code officials.
On the other hand, John Briley's commentary for Children is something of a chore to listen to. It's all "Me!" as he rambles on about being a military American stationed in England, and how he wrote U.S.O.-type stage shows that toured other bases. He touches on refining his script with a blacklisted producer, U.S. and Russian relations, and how he feels he should have earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. He tries to explain the implied homosexual relationship between flatmates, Lewellin and Neville, but it comes at the wrong time. Had Briley been more in tune with the film, it would have been better timed when the two men exit separate bedrooms to answer the phone.
Village of the Damned was a film that appealed to both younger and older audiences. As Haberman points out, "Children were not only frightened by the aliens, but sort of wanted to be like them. One of the fantasies of youth is having power and influence over other people, and taking revenge on them." The reverse may be true of adults who pondered about having such a perfectly abnormal child who may one day turn against them for reasons unknown. In the 1970s, The Exorcist, The Omen, and a host of other films elaborated on that premise, and tapped into religious fears at the same time.
Children of the Damned may have fared better with adults who saw a parallel with the tense international situations that grew more threatening by the day. But it was a disappointment for us kids, and we called it Children of the Darned.
I'm going to give this double-bill a Not Guilty judgment because Village of the Damned and Steve Haberman's commentary are worth the price of admission. You can look for a "moral fable about the Cold War" in Children of the Damned, but I found the film a mere overhaul of its predecessor without the suspense and memorable images.
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Scales of Justice, Village Of The Damned
Perp Profile, Village Of The Damned
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Village Of The Damned
• Commentary by Author Steve Haberman
Scales of Justice, Children Of The Damned
Perp Profile, Children Of The Damned
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Children Of The Damned
• Commentary by Screenwriter John Briley
Review content copyright © 2005 George Hatch; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.