Director: Wolf Rilla
Cast: George Sanders, Barbara Shelley, Michael Gwynn
Screenplay: Stirling Silliphant, Wolf Rilla, Ronald Kinnoch
77 mins. Not Rated.
As I’ve developed into a somewhat-functioning adult in my 20s, as a man now just peeking into his 30s, I’ve begun to understand the fear of children, the fear of parenting, and the relationship between a person and his or her offspring. The miracle of life is often touted as a beautiful thing, and I do believe that, but a part of me has started to learn of the fears and horrors that can accompany or supersede that beauty. I’m talking about Richard Donner’s The Omen, David Cronenberg’s The Brood, Joseph Ruben’s The Good Son, and of course, the Wolf Rilla’s Village of the Damned. Some of these films are about the horrors of birth, some are about the idea of children, some are about the children themselves. Village of the Damned seems to encompass the entirety. I’ve never read The Midwich Cuckoos, upon which the film is based, and until recently, I’d only seen the John Carpenter remake, so I felt it necessary to shock my system with the original, and see if it holds up.
On a seemingly normal day, the entire British village of Midwich fell asleep at the exact same time, humans and animals, and any living breathing thing that gets close to the village’s entrance. As the military arrives, they learn that gas masks do not protect, nor do flyovers. Then, a few hours later, everyone awakens, seemingly unharmed. As time goes on, the females of Midwich discover a disturbing truth: they are all pregnant. The villagers soon learn that these are not normal pregnancies, nor are the offspring, by any extent, normal either. They begin to exhibit strange powers and exert their dominance over their “parents.” Professor Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders, All About Eve, Rebecca), who lives in Midwich with his wife Anthea (Barbara Shelley, Quatermass and the Pit, Maigret) is “father” to one of the special children. Zellaby begins to uncover horrifying details about the children, their powers, and their plans, and it may be up to him to stop them.
Of course, religious groups opposing the film for its bastardization of virgin birth would cause this film to not be made in the USA, as MGM got cold feet. When the film version eventually did come around, it was directed and co-written by Wolf Rilla (Strange Affection, Roadhouse Girl). Rilla tried to give the film a cold, documentary style, never convincing us to feel one way or another, and just letting the drama play out onscreen. This stylistic choice works wonders on a story with this many layers. It’s a preposterous story, a shocking What-If? tale, but it’s given to the audience with less of a forced believability and more of a questioning, thoughtful ethics scenario, at least until the supernatural kicks into overdrive. Once the film finds its climax, there are very few ways to think and more of a perversion of the greater good at play.
There’s something about the performance of Sanders as Zellaby that worked well for me. He plays Zellaby rather coldly, reserved, a man who doesn’t give much of himself away. Perhaps it’s because that’s the way we are introduced to him before this whole mass sleep situation begins that makes his more emotionless character arc work. When you pair it with Christopher Reeve in Carpenter’s remake (and I do not mean to compare the two, but merely to showcase the difference), you see that Reeves played our hero more emotional, more traditionally caring, whereas Sanders tends to give Zellaby a few feet from the situation. Neither is wrong, and each seems to work quite well for what is being attempted on a storytelling level. Zellaby’s is a professor’s mind, a learned one, and for this narrative, that worked for me.
The cinematography and editing never too too fantastical outside of the incredible idea of the mental brick wall, not new to storytelling by this time (writers have been utilizing a mental construction of the symbolic building of the mind for quite some time), but the way it is introduced and used throughout the latter half of the narrative is effective because it surprised me. With the cold, calculating way the film is “realistically” fed to us, this character device works very well, giving way to one of the more unnerving sequences in horror.
Village of the Damned is a damn fine movie, pun very much intended. I enjoyed a lot of elements of this classic sci-fi/horror tale. This is one worth catching at some point in your horror journey, and it’s a great entry point for horror because most of the horror is referenced but not aggressively shown. It’s not flashy, but it stays with you. It’s only true flaw is that it focuses a lot on the men in the room and not the female experience of having your body changed by supernatural forces. There are so many disgusting ethical roads to take from the perspective of the females of Midwich (something that the remake does better). Seriously, this is a situation where both the original film and its remake are worth seeking out.
-Kyle A. Goethe