VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED
The kids are creepy, and the bad news is that every family has to have one. The kids wear odd padded blonde wigs and have eyes that are pure black. And that is when they are being pleasant. When the children lose their tempers, the black eyes glow like light bulbs and the humans around them either self-destruct or crumple. Village Of The Damned appeared in 1960. The informed view is that the 60s decade did not begin in Britain until 1963. That particular decade needed to be defined by the Profumo scandal, the music of the Beatles and the contraceptive pill. Village Of The Damned may have been made in 1960 but its British preoccupations belong to the previous decade. It is a film that was made by people who witnessed the brutality and mass carnage of the Second World War. Cinema audiences shared the same memories.
On its release the movie was praised by critics. Before then the standard of post-war British horror cinema had been poor. Night Of The Demon, which was made in 1957, was one of the exceptions. Village Of The Damned mixes science fiction and mild horror whereas Night Of The Demon is concerned with black magic. The two films, though, have common characteristics. The cinematography is in sharp black and white, the exposition is methodical, the characters are restrained and have much phlegm, Britain is settled, and evil and good manners are compatible.
The film is memorable but not a classic. In Village Of The Damned the dialogue is functional rather than inspired, and although there is characterisation it exists to support the narrative. The actors are professional but do not relish their roles. George Sanders is the local professor, and Barbara Shelley is his wife. The early domestic scenes of a loving couple are necessary to what follows but both actors are uncomfortable in these initial encounters. Shelley recovers when she becomes the anxious mother but Sanders never convinces as a serious intellectual.
The structure of the narrative, though, is splendid and it compensates for any limits in characterisation. The film has three parts. The first part reveals the mysterious opening incident when everyone in the village faints for a couple of hours. In the middle of the film mysterious pregnancies affect all the fertile women in the village including a distraught virgin and a woman whose husband has been absent from the village for over a year. Finally, the children appear and cause unease.
The original novel by John Wyndham was called The Midwich Cuckoos. This is a brilliant title but it was rejected by film producers concerned about profit. Midwich is the name of the fictional village affected by the odd incident. The name suggests a quandary. These people are obliged to live in the middle of what? In fifties Britain modernism coexisted alongside mediaeval tradition, especially in rural life. What would disappear and what would emerge no one knew. Every age experiences a clumsy mix of present, past and future but the fifties were exceptional. War had unleashed technological potential, and modernity required approval. The rise in living standards were welcomed but anxiety about the future was heightened. In a still conservative society these misgivings had to be kept secret. Cuckoos are the birds whose calls every child is taught to recognise. Cuckoos arrive and promise a changing world and sunshine. Warm weather may be pleasant but it ignores the individual tragedy and losers that always follow change.
In Village Of The Damned the children, the Midwich cuckoos, are different, and there will be tragedy. The undiplomatic village doctor is disturbed by the strange eyes of the babies. The children experience rapid growth and demonstrate superior intelligence. Although he realises the children have come from another planet George Sanders, the professor, finds the difference encouraging. The professor is tempted by the idea that his child, or the child that is living in his home, will be cleverer than Einstein.
Village Of The Damned has warnings about progress but it is never hysterical. The references to the communist world are non-judgemental. It exists as another imperfect social system where the powerful are obliged to make the same difficult decisions about the future. The doubts about what the world will become are universal. Nobody is triumphant in Village Of The Damned. No free market or communist ideology is quoted. Decisions about the future, as the scene with the Home Secretary demonstrates, require thought and the ability to think of the consequences for all. Minimising damage is more important than victory.
The subsequent confrontational protest about what the modern world had become appeared in the sequel Children Of The Damned. By then the contraceptive pill had been supplemented with marijuana and gloomy hippies had arrived. In Children Of The Damned the alien children are viewed sympathetically. Non-stoned and puritanical adults kill them.
Village Of The Damned is not as simple-minded as its unworthy successor. The villagers are not brutish but neither do they endear. From the moment when the villagers faint there are doubts about human status. Fifteen years earlier these humans participated in a worldwide conflict but one whiff of invisible dust from outer space and they are quashed in a moment. At the beginning of the film we see them either collapsed on their machines or at the side of the road. The humans are no different from the sleeping animals. If the horror of the Second World War has persuaded everyone to be peaceful, these uncomprehending creatures will now have to continue without the comfort of conflict or a noble cause. Resistance provides the hope of survival, and, unable to practise resistance, human beings have no substance and cease to exist. And resistance is more than military combat. Conversation and routine also qualify as organised resistance. It is how we cope with what we avoid acknowledging, our isolation and the destructive nature of time. At the end of the film the villagers prevail but it has demanded more than organised resistance. Sometimes survival requires people in the group, community or nation to be sacrificed. The best of them in Midwich is obliged to sacrifice himself. At that point in the film, when the humans have triumphed, the audience relaxes but the moment that follows is peculiar. Glowing eyes appear in the flames and wreckage. This may have deliberate meaning or be mere tongue in cheek whimsy by a designer. Either way the image is disturbing. Only human beings, and probably the dimmest of them, think they understand what will happen next.
The British in this film are defined by resistance rather than ambition. The beauty of Barbara Shelley is important. Her presence somehow represents a whole decade. She is beautiful but ordinary. She has suburban grace rather than charisma and was a woman born to welcome the new comfortable homes. Her clean facial features and neat figure flatter G Plan furniture. The military are a commanding presence in the film but they represent the need for security rather than a desire to conquer. Experienced in organising resistance the Army shapes society more than is realised. The decisions about future security, the next steps, are made by Army men and not the police.
The doubts about human status are confirmed when redundant men watch the women they know be used as incubating machines. The men seek solace in the village pub but it provides neither conversation nor solace. These are the gloomiest pub scenes in any film. The protest from the village men is inevitable but ineffectual and embarrassing. These humans are deluded about their worth and potential.
Misconceived human status has implications for human entitlement. The alien children have one priority, and that is to survive. Like the Nazi supremacists that were defeated, they think they have superior status and entitlement. The conviction the aliens have in their superiority is destructive but humans also have a need to survive and they too have a sense of entitlement. It is this sense that has been sharpened and refined by the capabilities acquired in the destruction that happened in the Second World War. The presence of the military throughout the film confirms modern social ambition. The communities and societies that existed will now also belong to the State. ‘This isn’t a police state yet,’ says a military man, except he pauses before he adds the word yet. The Second World War required communities that had to unite as a nation but the legacy of that unity is the State, and the options for the modern powerful State are troubling.
Hysteria was taboo in Britain in 1960 but the ‘yet’ was what made everybody anxious. Perhaps it was that anxiety which helps explain the headstrong irresponsibility that began in 1963. Of course, we have made progress since those primitive times, just look at the large phones and small British cars in the film. Today it is different. In 2016 we are anxious not just about the future but each other. UKIP and many of the people who voted to leave the EU hope for a society that resembles fifties Britain. Some of them imagine independent communities and yearn for the self-effacement and lack of pretension that existed then. The military culture and control and the self-censored doubt are ignored. The rest of us, those who are more critical of Britain and its past, are also anxious. We wonder about the eyes that we saw at the end of the film.
Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is now available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the other books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.