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Village of the Damned

****
1960

‘…raw nightmare fuel in its believable depiction of normality collapsing…’

I had a fondly remembered interview with director Duncan Jones, who called while I was driving across the border between Scotland and England one icy January night. I pulled to the side of the road when he called, and we started talking about classic sci-fi movies we’d seen on BBC1 in their Wednesday evening time-slot decades ago. Them! The Day The Earth Stood Still, Silent Running, The Incredible Shrinking Man; we were able to work out the TX almost to the day when we’d seen them. One of the most memorable was Wolf Rilla’s utterly chilling adaptation of John Wyndham’s novel The Midwitch Cuckoos; the black and white photography might put off thrill-seekers, but this is one of the most seminal sci-fi horror movies of all time, from soup to nuts.

Alien Stealth Sex Reproductions might be a more accurate title, but it wouldn’t capture the clinical coldness of the project. George Sanders is the central character, Dr Zellaby, the local doctor of the sleepy Midwitch community. Their pastoral reveries are broken when aliens separate the villagers from the outside world for a few hours. Months later, then are ten pregnancies, and the men in charge are understandably concerned. An identical event has happened to Eskimos, who have swiftly and methodically killed the children born while a Russian event led to the use of a nuclear weapon on a tiny community. But the Brits aren’t going to let anyone tell them what to do with their kids, so the cuckoos grow up into a blond-haired, Aryan gang, whose eyes glow white when they take revenge on anyone they imagine has potential to harm them. The aliens are here, with a hive-mind that makes them potentially a threat; show one kid a trick, and all of them have the same knowledge to burn…

Wyndham had big ideas, but Village of the Damned grounds them with skill by being extremely matter of fact; we hear about deaths, suicides and gruesome events, but rarely see them. Zellaby might seem like a dull lead, but his wife (the late Barbara Shelley, who died this week) is amongst those pregnant, and his initial delight turns to horror, but also a strange admiration that leads him to befriend the children. Their ambiguity provides an edge here; they children are threatening, but do not act violently; that said, their powers are enough to give their human adversaries the heebie-jeebies. Zellaby’s incredibly slow years-long investigation can only end in tragedy, and that event comes as part of a brisk decline of civilised norms that few will survive.

While I’m a fan of John Carpenter, his remake didn’t hit their dizzy, sobering heights offered here. Village of the Damned is an austere, calm, strikingly measured film about interaction with aliens, and one which deliberately fudges who the good and bad guys might be; a sequel made clearer the relative innocence of the children. Whether the aliens are bad or good is up for debate; what helps is that the film is raw nightmare fuel in its believable depiction of normality collapsing.

A cheap and cheerful £1.99 on UK Prime right now.

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  1. One of my mom’s all time favorite movies. I was fortunate to have seen it at a young age. Holds up very well for the time that it was made and how they were able to imply so many mature themes.

    • Thanks for this; while it may be old-fashioned, I totally agree that it holds up really well, and like many Brit sci-fi movies, has some big ideas that make it a cut above…

      • Totally, it’s a model of brisk, almost documentary attitudes, which makes it all the more chilling.

  2. Stellar review of a peculiar movie. I’ve wondered if it’s not a crazy quilt blanket of a film that combines a 15 minute version of Sleeping Beauty, Alien (with award going to make up artists), and Conspiracy Theory with Rosemary’s Babies, Demon Seed, and The Omen? In 2017, there was even a real town in upstate NY called Village of the Damned because of a # of horrible deaths. Carpenter’s version of the film seemed to be more about parental angst and a child’s willfulness. The sci fi notion of human surrogates and gifted kids remains a very scary notion. Thanks!

  3. Saw this as a kid, that bit where they knock down Zellaby’s mental brick wall at the end was scary biscuits. I wanted to have the glowing eyes and make people do stuff after though.

  4. That ambiguity you mention is a big reason why I think it still works. It’s complicated. Lewis was pretty direct about the basic incompatibility of our two species. In the movies though there’s more a message of intolerance.

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