Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Village of the Damned, The (1960)

With intelligence, articulation, a lot of faith in the viewer’s suspension of disbelief and with great regard for our enjoyment, Hollywood at one time made terrific horror films.  Monster pictures in the 30s, suspenseful noirs in the 40s, and science fiction in the 50s; the industry has a great tradition that has given way to mindless violence and gore.  What is easiest and above all cheapest now passes for entertainment.  The Village of the Damned is the kind of film that Hollywood has forgotten.

For five hours, the quaint English community of Midwich inexplicably falls asleep.  Months later, the Midwich women all give birth to normal looking blonde children with striking eyes.  They develop much faster than normal children, and their stare causes strange reactions from adults.  George Sanders plays Gordon Zellaby, father of one of these children.  He is one of the first to link the blackout to the great amount of pregnancies, some of them apparently unexplainable, and Gordon develops a great scientific interest in these children.  They seem to be able to read people’s thoughts and have a great instinct for survival.  Before long, they alienate the townsfolk, and when the efforts of their survival result in death, the town is desperate to take action but powerless of affect it.

What struck me immediately was the mood the film creates.  Due credit to director Wolf Rilla: without a note of music, we see the people of Midwich collapse.  The fluid camera acts as our guide, and what is created is a sad visual poem.  Then the clock strikes, and continues to strike throughout the main titles. 

There is such a sense of dread and uncertainty as to the nature of these children, probably because the material is so closely related to real life.  Women could probably give a fairer viewpoint, but the idea of being impregnated with another thing’s child is very creepy.  It speaks to issues like rape or in vitro fertilization.  In fact the two issues are combined.  Is it possible to love this foreign child inside of you?  I would very much like to hear some responses to this scenario.  I don’t have one; it’s not that I can’t sympathize with being pregnant.  I just don’t know how I would react if there was the possibility that the life growing inside of me wasn’t my own.  Maybe no one can.  We’ve heard of mistakes with in vitro where the wrong sperm is inserted.  I find it odd that the film can look ahead and consider topical contemporary issues.  But that, in a more general sense, is the function of science fiction.  It isn’t spaceships shooting at each other.  The genre is a parallel of everyday life.

The writing is in a superb Hollywood tradition.  Tight story construction never allows the material to sag.  The dialogue is at a high level of intelligence, and the characters pause and consider their options.  No one is eager to make the wrong choice, and this thoughtfulness is refreshing in a sci-fi horror flick.  This is not to say that the film is heavy and depressing.  It’s very enjoyable.  It is suspenseful and campy and really has an unsettling effect.  The one fantastic element is introduced into an environment similar to our own.  Scientists and military officials gather to hear all possibilities of the phenomenon.  The film never makes it exactly clear what has happened or who or what these children are.  One scientist suggests evolution; Sanders’ character believes it is the transference of energy, possibly from outer space.  Any explanation would be ludicrous but the characters know that; they know there is no accounting for the sleeping state the village found itself in.  The film realizes that the unknown is scariest.

To contrast horror of the past and present, in the film the children manipulate a man into shooting himself in the face with a shotgun.  We’ve, for some abnormal reason, seen many shotguns to the face in movies.  In a modern film, the impact of the scene would rely on seeing the buckshot disintegrate the man’s face.  Such a visual can only repulse, and any talentless hack can nauseate an audience.  In The Village of the Damned the mood of the film heightens the tension; cross-cutting between the bystanders’ horrified faces and the threatening eyes of the children, with the objective shots of the man with the shotgun guiding the narrative.  He slowly places the gun under his chin, and we see his finger find the trigger.  It is pulled.  We see only the cold faces of the children, and then the human reaction.  It brings a true feeling of sadness and loss that further contributes to the atmosphere of the film.

George Sanders is one of the great character actors.  He is probably best remembered for his Oscar winning role in All About Eve, but lovers of classic films will recognize him in everything from Hitchcock’s Rebecca to Hangover Square.  I found reviewing his credits on the Internet Movie Database immensely enjoyable.  He’s like an old friend to us movie buffs, always willing to give his best and steal the show.  His role in Rebecca is immortal proof of that.  Here he is the lead.  I’m often impressed with so called supporting actors who land a leading role.  Their personality can carry a film, but, as is the case with The Village of the Damned, so much of what was special from a Sanders performance is missing.  He has to play the straight man guiding us through the picture, and his asides and wit are rushed here if they are present at all.  I have nothing to complain about though.  I love looking at George Sanders on the screen but he has had meatier roles in other films.  This speaks more to the way films used to be written than to Sander’s talents.  Leading roles today take on too much baggage, probably in proportion to the salary of the star.  The more money they get the longer they stay on screen—‘let’s get our money’s worth’ is most likely the idea.  Writers could before create wonderful parts to anchor the leads, and this allowed actors to create a niche to showcase their work.

The one complaint I have is a trend popular in many low-budget film and TV work of the era.  When a character is thinking something and the tension of the scene depends on this thought, and even though the audience has been told what the character has to remember, instead of relying on the visual of the actor struggling, a voiceover is tacked on to remind us.  I find this distracts from the drama.  We’re intelligent enough to recall the character’s thought from the previous scene.  In the film’s defense, if this is the only problem I could find then the film is a terrific success.

And so it is.  Every now and then (mostly now) I crave a great little horror film.  We have so few that actually work.  The Village of the Damned is a refreshingly taut and fun film.  Great science fiction, rivaling The Twilight Zone, and terrific storytelling create an aura of inescapable fear for a small town with everything to lose.

Village of the Damned, The (1960)
Director: Wolf Rilla
Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Stars: George Sanders, Barbara Shelley and Martin Stephens
In English
Runtime: 77 minutes

The Village of the Damned is available on a double feature DVD.  Visit Amazon:

IMDB link:

No comments:

Post a Comment