January 28, 2009

Village of the Damned (1960)

One of the most important British science fiction writers of the 50s was without a doubt John Wyndham, whom in a relatively short period between the years of 1951 and 1957, conceived four novels that are now British classics of the genre: "The Day of the Triffids", "The Kraken Wakes", "The Chrysalids", and "The Midwich Cuckoos". The last one of them, 1957's "The Midwich Cuckoos", had a very interesting concept as its major theme: an attack to humanity using one of the elements that a society values the most, its children. Thanks to this original idea and to Wyndham's accessible writing style, the novel became quite popular, securing a movie deal with an American studio the very same year of its publishing. Sadly, the project was considered controversial and shelved, but fortunately, three years later the project was resurrected by the British branch of MGM and with German director Wolf Rilla at the helm and actor George Sanders in the lead role, the year of 1960 saw the novel "The Midwich Cuckoos" became the movie "Village of the Damned".

The movie starts in the British village of Midwich, when suddenly all of its inhabitants, including the animals, fall unconscious by no apparent reason. Also, anyone entering the perimeter around the village loses consciousness as well. The military arrives to investigate the bizarre event, but nothing concrete is concluded. Moments later, the villagers awake, apparently unaffected. However, two months later it is discovered that all women and girls of childbearing age are pregnant. Naturally, this prompts a series of accusations between the villagers, but the real mystery begins when the children are born: all women give birth on the same day and all the children have the same unusual appearance (pale blond hair, almost white). But that's not the only thing strange about them, as they also grow at an unusually fast rate, have a telepathic bond between them, and the most terrifying thing, they possess the ability to read and control minds. To Gordon (George Sanders), "father" of one of the children, it becomes clear that they have an evil purpose in their collective mind.

Adapted to the screen by the prolific writer Stirling Silliphant (as well as by the film's director, Wolf Rilla, and the producer, Ronald Kinnoch), "Village of the Damned" is a relatively faithful adaptation of Wyndham's novel, respecting every major event with one major, and enormously important difference: while in the novel the Children eventually look like teenagers (when they are nine years old), in the film the action takes place when they still look like small children, making the plot's idea of subverted youth to have a more lasting and powerful impact. By keeping the Children's origin a mystery, the writers achieve a greater atmosphere of suspense and horror, as the unnatural force behind the events of the "time-out" achieves by this way the level of major threat to the balance of society. Something remarkable about the screenplay is that, like the novel, the storyline is cleverly devised to make one feel uncomfortable with the whole concept of the film, increasing the paranoia and repulsion caused by having a human child to not be entirely human.

Director Wolf Rilla makes a terrific job in keeping in tone with the atmosphere of discomfort and paranoia that the story has, as his conception of the film has more to do with the elements of horror and suspense than with those of science fiction. With the camera of experienced cinematographer Geoffrey Faithful, Rilla conceives a moody, highly atmospheric tone for the film that highlights the fears and suspicions of the small British village. Shot on black and white, the movie simply oozes atmosphere. Apparently aware that the power of the film was on the intelligent mix of science fiction and horror the screenplay has, Rilla lets the story flow nicely, focusing instead on creating the proper atmosphere for the mystery and suspense that form the backbone of this clever horror tale. While the budget was noticeably limited, it's really amazing what the filmmakers achieved with so little, and proves that director Wolf Rilla made the right choice when he decided to focus on the atmosphere, the acting and the storyline.

The acting is definitely another of the film's highlights, as it's what ultimately takes the film from being another tale of horror and science fiction to a whole new level. As Gordon, George Sanders is effective in his restrained but realistic portrayal of an ordinary man facing the extraordinary. Far from being the typical scientist or military hero of science fiction, Gordon basically represents the common man, which helps to bring the horror closer to home (this is a trademark of Wyndham's work). Sanders is very natural and believable in his performance. However, the real star of the film is without a doubt Martin Stephens, who plays David, Gordon's "son" and apparent spokesperson of the Children's collective mind. Cold and emotionless, Stephens' performance is remarkable as he truly becomes a menacing figure with his serious, adult manner of speech and threatening lack of heart. His performance is even more amazing when one compares it to the very different character he would play (again in an astonishing fashion) the following year in "The Innocents".

The rest of the cast is for the most part effective in their roles, and while at times some cast-members may seem stiff or wooden, it all goes almost unnoticed as the real weight of the film rests on the terrific performances of George Sanders and Martin Stephens. Certainly, the film's disturbing premise had a lot to do with the movie's enduring popularity, but as written above, another key factor in the film's success is definitely the fact that the characters are common people. After years of having "the right people" as heroes (meaning, the qualified professional to solve a certain problem), sci-fi was discovering the value of the everyman as main character, which always has been a key element in horror stories since the beginning. With this I'm not saying that previous sci-fi horror was not worthy of recognition (classic films like 1954's "Them!" are testament of that), but that "Village of the Damned" has more in common with horror than with classic science fiction. The ambiguity of its ending, emphasizing the mystery regarding the origin and fate of the Children, is further proof of this.

Like Hitchcock's "Psycho" and Powell's "Peeping Tom", Wolf Rilla's "Village of the Damned" seems to inaugurate a new era for horror. While obviously with a subject on a completely different tone than those two (movies focused on serial killers), "Village of the Damned" shares their focus on the realistic emotions of the characters and their humanity. Granted, this may not be anything really new for a horror film, but on the science fiction level, it was refreshing. Even when director Wolf Rilla never made anything else as outstanding as "Village of the Damned" (neither before it nor after it), his work behind the camera in this film is worthy of recognition, as in one single movie he managed to create an unforgettable, truly iconic, tale of horror. And that's more than what many horror directors can say.



cinemarchaeologist said...
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cinemarchaeologist said...

VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED was a hell of a movie, coming in at the tail-end of an era that produced a lot of great sci-fi work. I haven't read the book, but if it had the children as teenagers, it was definitely a better idea to keep them as children. They're quite creepy, the atmosphere unsettling. I'd also recommend the sequel, CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED. Not as good as the original, by any means, but good.

"The Dig"