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Film Review: Village Of The Damned (1960)

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“The scene is the English village of Midwich. The scientist Gordon Zellaby is having a telephone conversation. Mid-sentence he passes out. At the same moment, every single person and animal in town has passed out just as suddenly; some unknown force has put all the inhabitants of Midwich to sleep. When the army gets involved, they find this force has precise boundaries. One soldier, after being lassoed around the waist, walks past the boundary, loses consciousness and immediately revives when his fellows pull him out of the infected area. A few hours later, this strange force disappears and everyone wakes up. The mystery remains unsolved for weeks, but it has a sequel. All Midwich women of childbearing age are unaccountably pregnant. And the glowing-eyed children they have will prove to be worse than what they could have feared.” (courtesy IMDB)

After a decade of spectacular (and spectacularly bad) genre films, a down-to-earth science fiction film was made in England by Wolf Rilla. Called Village Of The Damned (1960), it was based on the novel The Midwich Cuckoos by the British author John Wyndham and concerned the small English village of Midwich, which is mysteriously cut-off from the outside world for several hours by an electromagnetic field. When the field disappears the military quickly move in. They find that all the inhabitants are unharmed but can’t remember anything that happened. Then twelve of the village women inexplicably become pregnant, including the wife of the protagonist Doctor Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders). Each of the women gives birth to an apparently normal child, but it’s soon apparent that these children are anything but ordinary. As they grow up at a phenomenally fast rate they demonstrate above-average intelligence and uncanny telepathic powers.

By the time they reach the equivalent age of ten years it is clear that all twelve of them – six boys, six girls – have the same ‘father’ as all possess the same striking features: Blonde hair, high foreheads and large piercing eyes. They have also formed themselves into a tight, exclusive group that will have nothing to do with the other village children. As Doctor Zellaby discovers, the group is actually a gestalt – the children are telepathically linked and together form an ‘over-mind’ that is vastly superior to, and more powerful than, any human mind. By now Doctor Zellaby has worked out the truth – that the children represent an alien invasion, but an invasion with a difference. Aliens from some far-off world have invaded Earth by proxy – by the use of an electronic beam they have fertilised the Earth women by long-distance manipulation, inserting their genetic information into the human eggs via the ‘radio beam’.

Zellaby is unable to discover whether the children represent an attempted alien take-over of the world or an attempt by a dying civilisation to ensure the survival of its race, at least genetically. At first he is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, but he soon recognises that the children are a threat to the human race purely because of the over-mind’s strong survival instinct – something that is made clear when a number of villagers who have displayed aggression towards the children are willed by them into committing suicide. Sooner or later, reasons Zellaby, the children and the human race will clash on a major scale, and if the over-mind reaches maturity by the time this happens, the human race will be the loser. So, in a supreme gesture, he packs a briefcase full of explosives, attaches a timing device to it and goes into the children’s classroom. They suspect something is wrong, but by the time they break down his mental defenses (represented on screen by a tumbling brick wall) it is too late.

The Village Of The Damned succeeds mainly because of its unsensational, low-key approach to its subject (a factor sorely missing from John Carpenter’s 1995 remake). The horror is given extra impact by being so carefully understated, and also because of the eeriness of the children themselves. Credit for this must go to director Wolf Rilla and his makeup man Eric Aylott, who created much of their subtly weird appearance by means of special wigs that suggested slightly bigger foreheads than normal children have. In prints of the film released outside England the children’s eyes glowed whenever they used their powers, but the English version of the film was shown without this extra detail, presumably because of pressure by the censors. Other assets of the film is its excellent screenplay by Stirling Siliphant, Wolf Rilla and George Barclay, and above-average cast including George Sanders, Barbara Shelley, Laurence Naismith, and Peter Vaughan. Martin Stephens, who plays the leader of the children, would give another spooky performance the following year in The Innocents (1961).

The film proved to be a financial success and led to a sequel entitled Children Of The Damned (1963), though this time the director was Anton M. Leader and the screenplay was by John Briley. It was more of a remake than a sequel in that the story was similar: A group of women give birth to children with strange powers, and once again it is discovered that aliens ‘out there’ are responsible. But the theme is less satisfactorily handled than in the Rilla film. Children Of The Damned is more concerned with the activities of two UNESCO scientific investigators (Alan Badel and Ian Hendry) as they work their slow way to the unsurprising conclusion. The children are no longer ‘unknown quantities’ but benign entities who wish to be left in peace. The film ends with a confrontation between the children and the military in an old ruined church. Just as it seems they have convinced the authorities that they represent no real threat, the children are accidentally fired upon and killed.

And it’s with that cheerful thought in mind that I ask you to please join me next week when I have another opportunity to make your stomach turn and your flesh crawl with another lusting, slashing, ripping, flesh-hungry, blood-mad massacre from the back side of…Horror News! Toodles!

Village Of The Damned (1960)

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