Village of the Damned (1960)

APRIL 11, 2016


Since it was bought at a Big Lots, which I only go to on Black Friday, I would put it in November of 2012 that I picked up Village of the Damned and its sequel on a cheap double feature disc, for the sole purpose of watching it for Horror Movie A Day before the site ended a few months later. And tonight, in April of 2016, over three years after the site ended, I finally opened it and watched it, for no other reason than to strengthen my defense of John Carpenter's unfairly maligned remake, which hits blu-ray today from Scream Factory (you can read my thoughts on that one at BMD). Since JC's film has always been kind of raked over the coals (even by the filmmaker himself), I figured the original had to be a minor masterpiece, at least within the sub-genre, so imagine my surprise to discover that it's... pretty good?

I mean, it's a perfectly enjoyable movie and all, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't think Carpenter's improved on it a little, or, at the very least, certainly didn't do to it what Rupert Wainwright did to him a decade later. I prefer the 1995 version's completely robotic, in-sync army of children to this film's slightly less tight-knit group, and since Carpenter's film was in color (which existed at the time this one was made, so it's a legit point of comparison) his choice to have the children appear in "black and white" (with their bleached hair and ugly gray attire) set them apart in a way this film doesn't quite convey as well. Also, despite Carpenter's penchant for cynicism, his film is actually warmer and more humane, with more of the townsfolk in their element before the blackout that spawns the pregnancies - in this one, it occurs in the first two minutes (!), after we've only met a single character.

But seeing his film first (I don't usually watch the remakes first, but come on - I was 15 when Carpenter's came out!) gave me appreciation for both in a weird way, as it was fun realizing how he had "remixed" certain elements of the film while retaining some of its iconography, however random. Like, he reprised the idea of a character who was overseas when his wife got pregnant (and thus clearly isn't the father) and both films even have that character looking distressed as someone attempts to take their picture, but in Carpenter's film he's the one that accidentally almost runs one of the kids over and is mind-controlled to his fiery vehicular death as a result. Here, it's that character's brother, and then he tries to take his revenge by shooting them, only for the children to force him to use the gun on himself - the way Mark Hamill's unrelated character is offed in the 1995 version. If you're a fan who can keep an open mind with remakes (i.e. not get angry at the slightest deviations), it must have been fun to see Carpenter sticking to the material but changing the specifics to keep it fresh for them.

One thing I wasn't expecting here was the heavy military presence. Nearly all of the primary characters are in or very connected to the local military, which is another way to say that there aren't nearly as many female characters here - odd considering that it's about a bunch of recently born babies (most of the moms we only see once, in fact). Not that a film focusing on how the men deal with their "children" being so off wouldn't be intriguing and possibly even more interesting (at least for dads in the audience), but this isn't that movie - they talk a lot about the other colonies, perform their tests, etc., but don't really seem like "dads" in the slightest (in fact, like the moms, we barely see many of them anyway). Hero George Sanders says something to the effect of "I know it's her child... but I don't know that it's MINE" (which his wife overhears; harsh, dude), but that and the guy who thinks his wife two-timed him are pretty much the extent of the film's exploration of paternal psychology. There's a five minute scene of Sanders showing his brother-in-law how the kids share a brain, by letting one solve a puzzle box and then giving it to the other kids (who can now solve it instantly), but only 10 seconds about how conflicted they are as parents.

But: 'splosions! In addition to the car wreck, Michael Gwynn (the aforementioned brother-in-law) basically kills some poor pilot by telling him to fly into the infected area and "just pull back up if you feel strange", which of course the guy can't do since it knocks him out instantly and he steers his plane directly into the ground. And the ending is pretty much identical, with the hero bringing a bomb into the school and using the image of a brick wall to keep the children from knowing what he's up to. The movie is only 77 minutes, so considering its age it's kind of relatively action-packed once you add in the other dangerous moments spurned on by the evil kids. However, as with Carpenter's, there's a lot more going on that we never really see, including the other areas where a bunch of babies were born simultaneously, various "accidents" around town, etc. I tweeted earlier that I think this story (meaning the original novel by John Wyndham) would be well-suited for a season-long mini-series, which would allow us to see those other areas (think Game of Thrones' multi-national production with characters who never have/presumably will share scenes) and flesh out some of the elements that the two movies didn't have time for, i.e. what parents must go through when they realize that their child is an evil alien. In both versions this gets skipped over, basically; there's a flash forward to the point where the parents are already kind of resigned to their fate, leaving that middle part up to our imagination. Given the differences in cultures, it would be interesting to see a variety of nations dealing with this problem (i.e. cultures where the fathers don't play any real part in a child's birth/raising anyway) as long as it stayed within the confines of those small infected areas.

Because that low-key approach is key to the film's success, ultimately. There isn't much of an attempt to find out the hows and whys, no one goes into outer space or whatever to find the aliens that sent these children down, or anything like that - it's a fantastical concept with a very (occasionally TOO) narrow focus, not unlike the recent 10 Cloverfield Lane. I mean, yeah, I want to see the other colonies, but only for the smaller, more personal differences they might offer - I have no interest in ever seeing the children wiping out humanity (or, god help us, a goddamn prequel about the aliens coming up with this plan in the first place), or even other genre type settings at all. I just want to see the look on the dad's face when he's rocking what he thinks is his baby to sleep only to realize it has glowing eyes - and how that affects his baby-rocking routine the following evening. Maybe it's just my hyperactive dad gene talking, but to me that's kind of a fascinating thing to explore, and for years I assumed Carpenter's film had trimmed some of that stuff down in favor of more horror-y set-pieces (like Buck Flower's death, a sequence with no counterpart in the original). I'm actually kinda stunned that if anything, his had more of it.

The disc has Children of the Damned as well; I ASSUME it won't take me over three years to get to that one but with me who really knows. I have been told that it actually does explore the other colonies a bit (my friend Jared described it as "United Nations of the Damned") so that's certainly intriguing enough to keep it in mind. As for Village itself, I enjoyed it, but again, the frequent jabs at Carpenter's version had me thinking he had somehow desecrated a classic - the irony is that the original is the equivalent of his, in that it's a pretty good movie that could be better.

What say you?


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